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Eynsham's history

Here is a very brief history of Eynsham. If you want to know more about anything which is in blue and underlined, click on it.

Click here for a list of books and pamphlets about Eynsham - includes a brief note on what's in them, and their readability !

Eynsham is an ancient settlement - indeed (like lots of other villages) it's supposed to be one of the oldest villages in England.

Before the humans there were huge mammoths. In the gravel pits just south of Eynsham a large number of mammoth bones have been dug up over the past 10 years.

very old causeway
A causeway made of pebbles and stones was discovered recently near Eynsham by the A40 gravel pits. It probably dates from about 4,000 years ago - so it's one of the very earliest human constructions in Britain that survives.

It's been inhabited since very early days; probably because it's built on a bit of land about 20 ft higher than the Thames floodplain, but close to the lowest point on the river where it was possible to ford pigs across the river (Swinford, where the present bridge is = swine ford).
It's mentioned in the annal for the year 571 AD in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

In this year Cuthwolf fought the Britons at Bedcanford and captured four villages, Limbury, Aylesbury, Benson, and Eynsham; and in the same year he passed away.

the abbey
In the Middle Ages, there was a huge abbey (see map). It was started in 1005. The first Abbot was Aelfric, a famous scholar. But the monks fled to Stow when the Normans came in 1066, and the abbey was destroyed. They returned to rebuild it nearly 40 years later (1109). The abbey became famous all over the south; it is supposed to have been bigger than Oxford (= ox ford) in the days before the university. There is an Abbey Heritage Walk round Eynsham, with illustrations of the Abbey as it may have looked from various viewpoints.


Eynsham was given a licence for a Sunday market in about 1150 by King Stephen. A few yeas later Henry II confirmed it and also gave a licence for two fairs - at Pentecost, and August 15th. Fairs and markets were very important in mediaeval times - towns without them were nothing.

the New Lands
In the 1200s the abbot decided to move the market which had grown up outside the abbey to new lands about 1/2-mile away from the abbey; thus Newland Street. He hoped to attract rich merchants to Eynsham, and thus make money. But they never came. The Court House, which is probably the oldest building in the village was built in it; it’s now part of the White Hart. Click here for a virtual tour of Newland Street.

the dissolution of the abbey
But the abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538. The remains stood for 100 years or so, but eventually the stone was used to build other houses; many houses in Eynsham are built of abbey stone, or at least have some in their walls (see pictures). The floor tiles were used for road-mending, but patterns taken from them have been used on kneelers in St Leonard's church. The Abbey Walk takes you round various viewpoints of the abbey, with illustrations at each.

Eynsham’s first school
In 1701 John Bartholomew set up a fund to pay for a schoolteacher, and the Bartholomew Room in the square was built to house the school; it was paid for by a collection from the villagers.

the Swinford toll-bridge
In 1636 some Welsh Sheriffs were drowned in the ford at Swinford, and in 1764 John Wesley (who preached his first sermon in South Leigh church a few miles away) was nearly drowned. But more important than all the drownings and near drownings, was the fact that George III got wet while crossing. So the Earl of Abingdon decided to build a bridge. In gratitude, the King gave him the tolls, tax-free, for ever. More on the tollbridge.

Eynsham has been the site of several riots - in 1296 several Oxford students were killed in the Pentecost Riots. And in 1344 a conflict between rival abbots brought 1,500 armed men to the abbey gates. There were more riots (over Enclosure) in 1615, and again in 1696.

The village has twice been nearly wiped out by fire, which accounts for the relatively few thatched cottages.

the railway
The railway lasted 100 years. it was opened in 1861 and closed in 1962. It ran west from Oxford, through Eynsham, to Witney and Fairford.

Eynsham used to be on the main road from London to Fishguard (and thus to Ireland). But in the late 1930s, the A40 was re-routed to the north of the village. In the 1970s the village by-passes were built.

the village
Eynsham didn't change much in size between the Middle Ages and the Twentieth Century. The main expansion has been since the '50s. It is now about 5,000 people. For more on the present village, see Quick Visit.

For a map of Eynsham shops in 1900, click here.

Eynsham’s name
Eynsham is pronounced "Ensham". The spelling was changed by the Post Office in the 19th century, as it was constantly getting confused with Evesham. The origin of the name is a bit uncertain; 'ham' means meadow - and the 'En" may - or may not - be a contraction of somebody's name. Click here for details of a surprising tea-towel with 47 spellings of Eynsham's name on it, produced as part of the Abbey Millennium celebrations in 2005.

Abbey stones in Eynsham house walls.
Henry Taunt was a photographer who worked around Oxford 1860 and 1922 - click here to see some of his photos.
If you're interested in historic buildings, Images of England has photos and technical details of 58 of the listed buildings in Eynsham on their site. Eynsham starts at the bottom of the first page.

Further material on Eynsham's history is available from the Eynsham History Group - which publishes The Eynsham Record containing articles on the history of Eynsham.

Historical sites nearby

Dylan Thomas at South Leigh - the author stayed for 2 years in a village 3 miles from Eynsham

John Wesley at South Leigh - the founder of Methodism preached his first sermon there

Winston Churchill at Blenheim - he was born at Blenheim, 5 miles from Eynsham, and buried nearby

William Morris at Kelmscott, the house he decorated about 10 miles west of Eynsham. His wife was Jane Burden, a familiar name in Eynsham

Alexander Pope, the Eighteenth Century poet, at Stanton Harcourt

Mediaeval church murals at South Leigh

The Oxfordshire Museum, Woodstock - interesting displays about the local area, plus excellent Internet-linked computers - all free.