Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross,
To see a Fyne lady ride on a white horse.
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
She shall have music wherever she goes.

The town of Banbury in Oxfordshire dates back much further than the nursery rhyme dedicated to it.

Until a few years ago the first signs of habitation in the area went back to a Roman villa at Wykham Park from the period around 250AD. However in 2002, during excavations for the building of an office development alongside Hennef Way, the remains of an Iron Age settlement dating back to 200BC were unearthed. The site contained almost 150 items, including pottery and grinding stones, and indications of buildings from the period. The foundation holes and markings show that the buildings were circular, and it is thought that the occupants would have comprised a large family unit with their lives based on agriculture.

However, it was the Saxons in the latter half of the 5th century who first developed Banbury by building to the west of the River Cherwell. On the opposite bank they built Grimsbury, later incorporated into Banbury.

Banbury stands at the junction of two ancient roads: Salt Way, still used as a bridle path to the west and south of the town, led from Droitwich, Worcestershire to London and the south east of England, its primary use being the transportation of salt; and Banbury Lane, which began near Northampton and fairly closely followed the modern 22-mile-long road before running through Banbury’s High Street and on towards the Fosse Way at Stow-on-the-Wold.

In the year 913AD a band of Danes, who had settled in Northampton, travelled along Banbury Lane and ravaged north Oxfordshire. The Danes were known to be great traders who established market towns. The outcome of their attacks is likely to have benefitted Banbury by aiding the development of the town centre. This is reflected in Banbury’s Market Place, its triangular shape being typical of the Danes.

Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln, built Banbury Castle in the year 1135AD. The castle stood on the north side of the Market Place, the site now occupied largely by the Castle Quay shopping precinct. Over the centuries the castle was extended and rebuilt. The English Civil War, however, saw the end of Banbury Castle, a Royalist stronghold. It survived a siege during the winter of 1644-45 surprisingly well, considering the walls were not particularly thick or deeply founded. Earth banks gave it some protection, and the moat and a canal basin thwarted underground entry. The castle was repaired and refortified but more serious damage was sustained the following winter. The second siege began on January 23rd 1646 and lasted until April 27th when surrender on generous terms was negotiated.

Following a petition to the House of Commons in 1648 the castle was largely, but not completely, demolished and the reclaimed materials were used to repair other buildings damaged during the fighting. A painting from the end of the 18th century shows two towers rising above houses to the north of Market Place but these days nothing can be seen of the castle.

The nursery rhyme, a favourite with children throughout the English-speaking world, was first seen in print in the year 1784, although it was known in its current form in at least 1760. The “Fyne” lady is generally thought to be a member of the Fiennes family, ancestors of Lord Saye and Sele who owns nearby Broughton Castle.

During the period of the Reformation Banbury had three crosses. The High Cross, otherwise known as the Market Cross, was situated in Cornhill, just off the Market Place. This was a focal point used for public proclamations. It had a flight of eight steps with a single shaft of carved stone 20 feet high on top, and was probably referred to as far back as 1478.

The Bread Cross was situated at the corner of High Street and Butchers Row. It was a large, covered cross, made of stone with a slate roof so that the butchers and bakers who had their market stalls there could keep dry in wet weather. This cross was associated with the distribution of bread to the poor each Good Friday. A cross on this site was first referred to in 1441.

The White Cross lay on the western boundary line of the old town borough, at what is now the corner of West Bar Street and Beargarden Road. It was first mentioned in 1554 but little is known about it.

In the late 16th century Banbury’s inhabitants were recorded as being “far gone in Puritanism”. Consequently the ruling clique of the council ordered that at least two of the town’s crosses, the High Cross and the Bread Cross, be destroyed.

Just after dawn on the morning of 26th July 1600 two masons began demolishing the High Cross, with a crowd of at least one hundred men looking on. When the spire fell to the ground Henry Shewell cried out jubilantly, “God be thanked, their god Dagon is fallen down to the ground.” The Bread Cross and the White Cross were destroyed in the same year. Information plaques have been erected near each of the sites.

Nowadays the only cross gracing Banbury lies at the intersection of four major roads – those to Oxford, Warwick, Shipston-on-Stour and the High Street, which leads to the shopping area and the old heart of the town. It was erected in 1859 to commemorate the marriage of Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter Victoria Adelaide Mary Louisa to Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia on 25th January 1858. It stands 52feet 6inches high to the top of its gilt cross and is of a neo-Gothic design. Originally six niches for statues were planned, but this was later reduced to three.

The town had to wait over fifty years, though, for statues of King Edward VII, King George V and Queen Victoria to be installed in 1914, in celebration of the coronation of King George V in 1911.

Near the current Banbury Cross stands the domed parish church of St. Mary’s, which was built between 1793 and 1827 to replace the previous church which burnt down in 1792.

The town centre holds several old coaching inns. Parsons Street houses The New Flyer with its Cotswold Stone and Herringbone brickwork. For many years The New Flyer was known as the Flying Horse and more recently as Ye Olde Auctioneer hostelry. Just a few yards along the road stands Ye Olde Reindeer Inn, with its heavy, wooden doors, leading through to the yard at the rear, bearing the inscription “Anno Din 1570”.

In Market Place, and near the site of the High Cross, stands the Unicorn Hotel. The original building included the impressive three-gabled and bay-windowed range now occupied by a building society. The entrance to the Unicorn, the town’s leading tavern throughout the reign of King Charles II, is under the archway and past the gateway bearing the date 1648.

The town is famous for Banbury cakes, which are still available in a number of bakeries and restaurants locally. These delicious, flat pastries with their spicy, currant fillings have been made in the area to secret recipes since 1586 or earlier.

For centuries the townspeople traded in wool, ale, cakes and cheese. Wool was first referred to in the year 1268, and cheese was manufactured from the 15th to the 18th centuries.

Over recent years the town has undergone many changes, not least since the opening of the M40 motorway and Castle Quay shopping precinct alongside the canal. In April 2005 Princess Anne unveiled a large bronze statue depicting the Fyne Lady upon a White Horse of the nursery rhyme. It stands on the corner of West Bar and South Bar, just yards from the present Banbury Cross.

Even a short walk around the town centre will reveal much of the charm and character of years gone by.

© Eunice Harradine – revised 2005