Bicester in 1835
BICESTER, BISETTER, BIRCESTER, or BURCHESTER, a neat market-town of Oxfordshire, 54 miles N.W. by W. from London, and 13 miles N.E. by N. from Oxford, on the road from Oxford to Buckingham, upon a small rivulet that enters the Charwell at Islip. Some think the name of this town is derived from the Bura, which rises in the neighbourhood ; but others suppose, with Plot, that it comes from Bernwood Forest. upon the edge of which it was anciently seated. Bishop Kennet says that it was originally a walled town, though no traces of the wall now exist, and that it was built somewhere about A.D. 640 by Birinus, bishop of Caer Dor. or Dorchester, in Oxfordshire. The place was called Caer Birin from its founder, ‘and this one thing is worth the observing,’ remarks Kennet, ‘that wheresoever the Britains built a walled town, they gave it the name, first or last, of the word caer which is derived of the Hebrew kir, and signifieth in the one and the other language, a wall ; and wheresoever the English coming in found the word caer in the name of any town, they translated it by the word chester, or cester, which was the same to them as caer to the old Britains.’ By such a process, according to Kennet, the name Caer Birin became Birincestre, and then by contraction Bircester, and ultimately Bicester, as at present. These, however are not the only forms which have been given to the name ; and a confirmation of its connexion with Birinus is derived from the fact that his name has undergone changes analogous to those in the initial syllables of the town’s name. There certainly seems to have been here in the time of Birinus a frontier garrison of the West Saxons against the Mercians, and it is likely that it might have assumed his name because it was built by his advice and assistance out of the ruins of Alchester and Chesterton, or because a church was built and endowed by him. Alchester, probably a contraction of Ald (old) chester, was a city of a square form, divided by four streets, and appears to have been one of the garrisoned places constructed by Plautius to secure the newly-acquired country after his early triumphs over the Britons. The name ‘Alchester’ is still retained for the site on which it stood, and some faint traces of it may be discovered about a mile and a half to the south-west of Bicester ; for, although the soil has long been under cultivation, Roman coins and fragments of building have occasionally been discovered in excavating.
The parish of Bicester is divided into two districts or townships, called King’s End and Market End. The old town of Birincester, which is believed to have been destroyed by the Danes, stood on the west part or King’s End; the other portion was formerly called Bury End, but received its present name from the weekly market which was granted in the 19th of Henry VI. This replaced or superseded a weekly market and an annual fair, which had been granted at a previous period (1 Rich. II.) to the village of Bigenhall, which then occupied the site of the present King’s End of the town. In the reign of Henry II (1182), Gilbert Basset, baron of Hedingdon, founded at Bicester a religious house for a prior and eleven canons of the order of St. Augustine. It was dedicated to St. Eadburg; and was valued at the Dissolution at £147, 2 shillings, 10 pence, according to Dugdale. The name of the saint to whom it was dedicated is still preserved in St. Edburg’s Well in the vicinity. This well was reputed holy until the Reformation, after which it became choked up through long neglect ; but in the dry summer of 1666, the head of the spring was opened and cleansed, when a sudden and great supply of water gushed forth. There was a neat and much-frequented walk leading to it from the priory and town. This was called, in a record of Edward I, ‘Seynt Edburg, hes grene way,’ and Via Sanctae Edburge, and is now denominated St. Edburg’s Walk. There were at least seven English saints of this name ; this one was St. Edburg of Aylesbury.
The author of the History of Allchester, near Burchester, which was written in 1622, and forms an appendix to Bishop Kennet’s book, speaks thus of Bicester as it was then :-
‘It is at this day a very good market for all manner of cattle, and well supplied with all kinds of trades. Yet in Bister I can observe nothing memorable but a fair church for the setting forth of God’s glory, and the ruins of an old abbey, now the house of Sir Richard Blunt.’ This ‘fair church’ is a neat and commodious building, erected about the year 1400 on the site of a former structure. It has a lofty square tower, contains several fine monuments and old sculptures, and has accommodation for 1200 persons. The living is a discharged vicarage in the diocese of Oxford, of the annual value of £231. The town itself is neatly built, consisting chiefly of houses of medium size and appearance. It contained 2,868 inhabitants in 1831, of whom 1,477 were females. The town is noted for its excellent ale. Females find occupation in making bone lace. It also derives considerable benefit from the proximity of the Oxford canal ; but its prosperity now, as formerly, chiefly arises from its well-attended markets and cattle-fairs. The market day is on Friday, and the fairs are held on Easter-Friday, first Friday in June, August 5th, Friday after Old Michaelmas, and the two following Fridays, and the third Friday in December.
There is a charity-school, in which thirty poor boys are clothed and educated. It is supported by subscriptions, assisted by the dividends on £1,000 stock, given in 1811 by Mr. Walker in pursuance of his father’s intention ; out of this, however, £14 is annually given to assist Sunday schools. A school for girls has just been founded (1835), which is supported by subscriptions. The school-room, built on purpose, is capable of containing sixty girls, the number intended to be educated therein