Social Character & Life of the Community –
The Middle Ages
Village Society was stratified from an early date by Personal Status, Wealth, & Landholding, but the character and extent of social differences changed over time. In 1086 7 Villani had the largest Holdings, and were the Senior Unfree Tenants; 4 Bordars had smaller Holdings, and 4 Slaves or Servi worked the Demesne in return for Board & Lodging. There may already have been some resident Freemen, but if so they are not recorded. By the early 13thC there were at least 9 Free Tenants including the Rector, though not all of them lived in the Village, and some (like Ascelin of Pyrton) were substantial men with land in several Parishes. Six ½–Yardlanders, the successors of the Domesday Villani, owed heavy Labour Services, but in good years perhaps enjoyed a modest prosperity. There were also a number of Cottagers, who were Poor but had fewer obligations. Their small Tenements were created probably in the 12th or early 13thC, and were mainly on the Northside of the Street, opposite the Villein Farmsteads, Manor House, Church & Rectory House, and on the Southern & Western edges of the Settlement. The Estate Workers or Famuli, whose 1st members may have been heirs of the Domesday Servi, lived apparently as a separate Household within the Manor House Complex.
The Street upon which the Merton College fronts is called to-day Merton Street. In the Survey of 1772, it has the humbler title of Merton Lane. On the map of 1750 it appears as King Street, the strip at the East End of it, leading into High Street, figuring as Coach & Horses Lane. But in the time of Walter de Merton, and indeed half a century and more before he founded his College, it was called St John Street (vicus sancti Iohannis), taking its name from the old Church of St John Baptist, which stood a little South of the present Church or Chapel. For some four centuries after the College was founded it continued to be called after the Collegiate Church, its name sometimes corrupted to Jones Street or Jones Lane. The beginning of the College was a plot of land, bought by Walter de Merton, 11th January 1266, from the Abbot of Reading, extending Southward from the street almost to the City Wall; it is described as a plot of ground, formerly built upon, lying on the West side of the Church. Cuxham had been a Residence for the Chenduits before the Manor passed to Merton
Changes in the mid to later 13thC reflected the strengthening position of the Chenduits & Merton College as Manorial Lords. Most of the Free Tenants were bought out and their Lands added to the Demesne or converted to Villein Holdings. In 1279 there were only 3 Free Tenants and by 1297 just 2: the Green Family and the Prior of Wallingford’s Miller at Cuxham Mill. By contrast, the number of ½-Yardlanders rose from 6 to 13 between 1276 & 1293, and Cottagers, too, probably increased in number: 13 were recorded in 1279 and others may have included unrecorded Subtenants of the Greens, who were by this time the wealthiest people in the Village. In 1295 Robert Green was assessed on goods worth £4 13s 4d compared with a Village norm of c.30–40s., and he and his son John built up an Estate of small Holdings scattered across 8 Parishes. John’s son, another John, was a Bailiff of Sir John Stonor in the 1340s. The Villeins’ individual circumstances changed frequently, but the Heycroft Family (who lived North of the Rectory House) and the Reeves Robert Benet & Robert Oldman were notably well off, and individuals from all 3 Families acquired Free Land outside Cuxham in 1315. Only one Cottager, Simon Gardiner, was ever prosperous enough to be Taxed (in 1304).
Leading Villeins dominated Manorial Offices, and doubtless influenced Agricultural decision-making. They were also employers of Labour, giving them a degree of power over their neighbours. Like other ½–Yardlanders they lived in Timber-framed houses with 2 or more rooms & separate Barns, but their Houses often had additional Chambers or Outbuildings. Even so, there was no great gulf between the Village’s richer & poorer Tenant Farmers. In 1349 Robert Oldman owned better clothes & furnishings than fellow Villager Thomas Aumoner, but both men’s wealth was tied up mainly in Agricultural Equipment & Produce. Even the poorest had some advantages: the Cottagers possibly lived in smaller houses, but the Lord contributed to Repairs, and while the Famuli had little income or autonomy they were at least sure of being fed. There were also occasional examples of upward mobility: in the early 1290s, for instance, 5 Cottagers took on newly created ½-Yardlands, and in the early 14thC some Demesne Servants obtained Cottages & Land. Robert Oldman was himself a younger son of a Villein and acquired his ½-yardland through marriage, while the younger son of the Prior of Wallingford’s Miller became a Professional Local Clerk, bringing him independence and a good livelihood.
Some families were long-established before the Black Death, although outsiders also moved in. Villein Holdings were passed down by hereditary succession, while most Cottage Tenements were held for terms of lives, reinforcing Social Stability. Merton College remained keen to maximise its Rents, but Tenants were given help in hard times through remittances of Rent or Loans of Grain, and Lord-Tenant relations seem generally to have been good, despite tensions in 1327–9 over the Services owed by some Cottagers. Villagers had regular contact with inhabitants of surrounding Settlements & Market Towns, and the leading Free Tenants & Villeins had wider networks, the latter travelling far afield on the Lord’s Business. Nevertheless, the Parish Church and the Festivities of the Agricultural year probably provided the chief focus for Social Activity, and surnames drawn from topographical features within the Village suggest strong associations at a very local level. The Greens took their name apparently from Lower Green in the North-West of the Village, where they seem to have lived, while Richard Bovechurch lived on rising ground above the Church. Robert in le Hume’s house stood on a bend (or ‘turn’) in the Road.
The period after 1350 was one of considerable discontinuity. In the decade after the Black Death there was a rapid turnover of Tenants and Famuli, and though Tenants stayed longer thereafter only one Family recorded in 1466 (the Parsons) was still present in 1504. The Greens were amongst those who moved away in the 15thC, apparently to Henley, and in 1415 their holding was bought by William Walden of Shirburn, whose descendants the Halls remained in the Parish in the 16thC. The reduced Population was probably increasingly dominated by a few leading figures, notably the Demesne Farmer, the Rector, and (in the later 15thC) members of the Parson Family, while men such as Walden expressed their social standing through fine possessions (including Silverware), and by Investment in the Ritual Furnishings of the Parish Church. Social tensions possibly increased as the interests of Major Tenants and small Copyholders & Labourers diverged, but the Court Rolls contain few indications of the ongoing disputes or violence found in some other places during this period. An exception is the case of the early 16thC Rector William Ireland, who seems to have been an unusually divisive character.
For much of this period, Village life was dominated by the Gregory Family (Merton College’s Demesne Lessees & Rent Collectors since 1479) and by the Rectors, who were often Resident. The Rectors maintained close relations with Merton, holding Land from the College, advising on the Leasing of the Demesne, and assisting with valuations. This link between Landowner & Parson doubtless helped to reinforce the Authority of both, and possibly allowed William Ireland to remain in Post in the early 16thC despite the accusations levelled against him, which led to a Royal Judicial Investigation in 1511. Rectors often enjoyed close relations with the Gregorys, with whom they were neighbours and approximate social equals, and like their Medieval Predecessors, they maintained links with fellow Clergymen in Watlington and nearby Parishes. There were also occasional neighbourly quarrels, however, such as the 18thC disputes over flooding of the Rectory House & Grounds by the Manor Fishponds.
John Gregory (d.1506) is commemorated with his Family by a Brass in the Church and came apparently from the North of England. His descendants lived mainly in Cuxham, obtaining several properties in Oxfordshire and elsewhere through purchase, lease, & marriage. Edmund Gregory (d.1583) was Taxed in 1543 on goods worth £10 – not a very large sum, but double that of the next highest Taxpayer William Wagge and 5 to 10 times more than most Villagers. By the 17thC, when the Family secured a Coat of Arms, some of its members were notably well off, amongst them Roger Gregory (d.1663), a brother of the Demesne Lessee Edmund (who lived latterly in Britwell Salome). Roger’s bequests included £705 in cash (£10 of which went to the Poor), as well as Cuxham Mill and Land in Buscot. The Family was ruined in the late 17thC by the extravagance of Edmund’s son Edmund, a University friend of the Antiquary Anthony Wood. Edmund married a 15-year-old Cholsey heiress in 1657 and was high Sheriff in 1680, but Debt forced him to sell almost all his Property in 1683. Later Demesne Lessees were mostly non-Resident, though their Subtenants still numbered among the Parish’s leading Farmers, of whom there were just 4 in 1738. Two of them, Joseph Stevens & Thomas Jackson, were between them Churchwardens for much of the 18thC.
Probate evidence suggests that the other Villagers, of whom most were small-scale Customary Tenants & Labourers, had most frequent contact with inhabitants of Watlington and of neighbouring Parishes such as Brightwell Baldwin, Britwell Salome, Chalgrove, & Easington. More distant connections were not uncommon, but probably less regular. Some Families in the 16th to 18thCs stayed for several generations, amongst them the Broadways, Crookes & Fritwells, but otherwise the Parish Registers suggest a regular turnover of population, particularly among the Poor. Some local traditions survived into the 18thC, including a Feast associated with the Holy Cross, but discontinuity is suggested by changes to most Field Names.
At the beginning of the 19thC Cuxham’s small population comprised mostly small-scale Farmers and Agricultural Labourers. The Occupiers of Manor Farm were by far the biggest Farmers and employed the largest number of Workers, though in 1830 the Holding was temporarily divided up. Most of the Population came from Oxfordshire, and several large Labouring Families were closely related. By the 2nd half of the century a more significant minority of adult Inhabitants came from outside the County, including Manor Farm Tenants such as Joshua Smith (Warwickshire), Robert Palmer (Norfolk), and William Moffatt (Lincolnshire). The number of people in non-Agricultural employment also increased slightly, including Servants from Brightwell Park who were housed for some years in Brightwell Villas (erected 1874).
By the early 20thC there was a handful of Residents living on Private means, but the Population remained socially mixed, and in the 2nd half of the century many inhabitants commuted to Oxford and other local Towns. Social activities in such a small Village were limited: the Cuxham & Easington Women’s Institute (formed in 1947) was suspended 20 years later, and in the early 1970s children had little to amuse them, although a Youth Club had recently been set up and there was a Discotheque and Film Club in Watlington. Property prices rose greatly thereafter, and by 2001 almost 60% of working residents were Managers or Professionals. A Mother & Toddler Group set up in 1975 closed in 2005, but in 2012 the Village Hall (the Old School), which had been extended in the 1960s-70s and re-roofed c.2000, was well used, and a Cricket Club was based on Land belonging to Manor Farm.