Friends of the Eynsham Society and Eynsham Morris celebrated 800 years of ‘Newland’ at the Newlands Inn on Saturday 5 September 2015. Below, Eleanor Chance explains how Newland Street got its name.
800 years ago, in 1215, King John was on the throne of England, busy with the barons and Magna Carta. Here in Eynsham, the abbot of the great abbey which dominated the village in those days was thinking about making money. What we now know as Newland Street is the direct result of his plans.
What Abbot Adam decided to do was to lay out a new settlement in the fields to the north and east of the existing borough, ‘along the great street towards the bridge of Cassington’. The new plots stretched from the back of the houses in Mill Street along the road to Cassington as far as two closes called Chatterhold and Mortar Pits; they too may have been part of the original plan but were never divided into plots. Half way along the road, opposite the entrance to what is now Queen Street, a building already existed. It was referred to as the ‘antiqua tenura’ (ancient holding) and is now represented by Beech Court (known formerly as Newland House).
New towns like this were popular money-making schemes in the early 13th century and the abbot may well have been influenced by a similar venture carried out by the lord of the manor of Cogges two years earlier. That New Land, like the one in Eynsham failed to thrive, and today is only recalled by the name Newland still attached to the area along the old A40, just as you enter Witney from Eynsham. These new towns, simply referred to as ‘Nova Terra’, literally New Land, never got another name.
By turning our Newland (some 20 acres of arable) into urban plots the abbey stood to benefit from four times as much rent as they were getting for the land as arable. The plots were to be of a quarter acre or more each. Most plots were divided into a curtilage (enclosure) with a building on the street front and a close behind. Much as we see today. The width of Newland Street, which gives it its unique character, suggests that it was intended for a market place, but a market was something only the King could grant and there is no evidence of that ever having happened.
The new borough (for that is what it was, the tenants holding by burgage tenure, which was as near as you could get to freehold in the Middle Ages) had its own court. This was probably held in what is now the White Hart, the oldest surviving building in the village apart from the parish church. The tenants had the right to elect their own reeve or headman. In the early 14th century the officers elected were 2 bailiffs, an aletaster, and a tithingman. The court met on Mondays three or more times a year; court rolls (which survive from 1307 to the 20th century) show that it dealt with property transactions, nuisances, and hedge-breaking and other agricultural offences; the only trading offences related to beer-selling.
In 1366, perhaps because of falling rents, Newland was surveyed by a particularly obsessive abbot called Geoffrey, who measured the entire area meticulously down to the level of a barleycorn (approximately one-third of an inch!) Rents were revised but the new urban community failed to thrive, some plots never being built on and lying vacant for centuries. However, the manor of Newland continued as a legal entity into the 20th century, the last formal court being held in 1925.
A copy of the foundation charter still survives in a cartulary (book of charters) now in the archives of Christ Church, which comprises 151 numbered parchment leaves, bound in oak boards and covered with sheepskin. A translation of the Newland charter can be found in Bishop Gordon’s book on Eynsham Abbey.