History

Forget the notion that Bicester is a sleepy, uninteresting Oxfordshire town! The heritage and history of the town stretches back many centuries. National and local events have played a part in shaping the town’s history and forming the community that we know today.

Although the name Bicester sounds as if it has Roman origins the first evidence of human occupation was left by nomadic hunters who set up temporary camps as they followed migrating herds of animals across a forested landscape in the Bure Park area. Favourable conditions enabled Bronze Age and Iron Age farmers establish settlements in the area.

The Roman invasion of 43AD saw an important fort established a mile to the south of the town at Alchester. Vespasian, a future Roman Emperor, was based there. The fort became one of the two civilian towns to develop in Oxfordshire. When the Romans left nearly four hundred years later Alchester began a gradual decline. Eventually the residents of the town moved to the present site of Bicester where conditions were drier and more favourable.

Bicester has Saxon origins. The name Bicester evolved from the title of a local Saxon warlord ‘Boerna’ and ‘ceaster’ meaning ‘fort of the warriors’. Saxon skeletons were recently unearthed during the construction of the Catholic Church’s Jean Paul II Centre. Excavations at the Saxon Court Housing Complex, adjoining Chapel Street, revealed part of the original Saxon town. The Danes were believed to have destroyed the town during a raid in 912 AD.

In 1086 the Domesday Book recorded Bicester as having about two hundred residents. A Priory was established in the town, in addition to the parish church, a hundred years later dedicated to St Edburg. A unique reliquary that might contain the bones of St Edburg was recently discovered during an archaeological dig at the site of the former Priory. The expansion of the Priory sparked growth in the town as did the granting of a Market Charter in 1377. The population of the town had trebled by Tudor times.

The dissolution of the Priory in 1536 was a set back to the development of the town. Both King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I are recorded as having visited the town. Religious dissent in 1549 spawned an unsuccessful rebellion in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire and Richard Whyttington, a weaver from Deddington, was executed in the Market Square for his part in the uprising. It is quite possible that building materials from the demolition of the Priory was used to build many of the older properties that can be seen in the town centre today.

The English Civil War in the 1640s was not kind to the town. There were local skirmishes in the area and the town changed hands between the opposing forces of the Cavaliers and Roundheads several times. Oliver Cromwell is known to have lodged in Bicester during one of his campaigns.

The relative peaceful conditions of the Georgian period witnessed an agricultural revolution in the area. The medieval open fields were replaced by the enclosed field pattern that we know today.

The area prospered for the rich landlords although many poorer residents were less fortunate as they lost land holdings as a result of the changes.  Construction of the Oxford Canal in the late 1700s enabled building materials and coal to be brought to the area and agricultural produce to be sent to new markets. Land communication improved with the introduction of the toll road system and a number of coaching inns were established in the town.

During the Victorian era the town displayed wide contrasts between wealthy and poor areas. Diseases such as cholera and smallpox took their toll of human life. Bicester gained a favourable reputation for its markets and the Bicester Hunt was well regarded, attracting the gentry from London during the hunting season. The railway, linking Oxford and Cambridge, passed through the town and enabled residents travel as never before. The population of the town numbered approximately three thousand. Bicester developed its character as an Oxfordshire market town. Many institutions were established at this time such as schools, a police station and courthouse.

The town survived the trauma of the First World War. A Red Cross Hospital was established at what is now Hometree House. The airfield at Bicester was constructed. Many were to sacrifice their lives on the battlefields of the conflict.

The Second World War did much to change the town in the 1940s. Over four thousand evacuees were billeted in the town at one time or another. RAF Bicester expanded and became an important training base for aircrew. The Ordnance Depot established on the outskirts of the town stockpiled many of the supplies used during the D Day landings in Europe in 1944. The town’s links with the military were enhanced and continued throughout the Cold War period and on to the present day. A large American airbase was active at RAF Upper Heyford.

Bicester began to grow considerably from 1960 onwards. The population of the town today is in excess of thirty thousand. Good communications and central position in the country encouraged residential development. The town centre changed as did the character of the area. The arrival of Bicester Village encouraged international visitors to shop at the retail outlet. The redevelopment of the town centre and the eco status granted to the community continue to shape the present history of locality.

Who ever said ‘Nothing ever happens in Bicester!’