Woodstock's old manor ©Blenheim Palace
Woodstock's lost royal palace
By Simon Pipe
King Henry I kept leopards and porcupines here, and the future Elizabeth I was a prisoner in the lodge. Now, only a stone pillar near the Glyme Valley Way marks the site of a building graced by centuries of rulers.
Blenheim Palace and its lake provide one of the greatest man-made spectacles in England, and a dramatic climax to BBC Oxford's own walking trail, the Glyme Valley Way.
But thousands visit this World Heritage Site every year without ever finding out about the long-forgotten royal palace that once stood just across the valley from the grand building of today.
It was partly the story of that lost haunt of kings that inspired BBC Oxford and Oxfordshire's Countryside Service to create our trail between Chipping Norton and Woodstock.
The Glyme Valley Way was established as part of the Oxfordshire 2007 celebrations, marking the one thousand years that have passed since Oxfordshire came into existence... around the time when Woodstock was becoming a royal retreat.
Anglo Saxons and Normans
Legend has it that Alfred the Great held court at Woodstock, but there is no proof of this. He was born at Wantage and spent much of his time in the area.
A plinth marks the Woodstock palace site
But it is known beyond doubt that Ethelred the Unready (978-1016) gathered prominent Saxons here for a Witan - or high council - and issued a decree for the peace of the nation. No date of that order is recorded, though it was probably issued before 1008.
There is speculation that the Norman king Henry I (1100-1135) built his hunting lodge on the site of an earlier Saxon building, but history provides no evidence.
In 1129, Henry had seven miles of wall built to create the first enclosed park - where he kept lions and camels... and England's first porcupine.
Henry also had a palace in Oxford called Beaumont - opposite the later site of the Ashmolean Museum - but it was Woodstock that was the "favourite seat of his retirement and privacy."
King Henry II turned his grandfather's hunting lodge into a palace and kept his lover, the "fair Rosamund" de Clifford, in apartments nearby.
Various stories tell how the queen had Rosamund murdered when she discovered her hideaway, but there is no way of knowing the truth.
Unlike the palace, part of Rosamund's hideaway can still be seen. The pool known as Fair Rosamund's Well is by the Blenheim Loop of our walking trail, overlooking the lake to the west of Vanbrugh's bridge. It is said to be fed by a spring that never stops flowing.
Henry II spent much time at Woodstock, holding important councils and once hosting a royal wedding there.
It was at Woodstock that he had his first clash with Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury who was later murdered in his cathedral by men loyal to the king.
Richard the Lionheart stayed too; and his brother and successor King John I - born at Beaumont Palace in Oxford and later to become the villain of the Robin Hood legends - was a regular visitor, coming six times in one year and dropping by just after signing Magna Carta.
Henry III was devoted to Woodstock. He added a chapel but also made the buildings more secure after surviving an assassination attempt there in 1238.
In 1256, the estate saw one of its grandest occasions when Henry entertained Alexander III, King of Scots. There were so many guests they had to sleep in tents.
Blenheim's old palace isn't on the map.
Two of Edward I's children were born at the royal manor. And Edward III brought his court to Woodstock for three months in 1330, when his son, Edward of Woodstock, was born. A great tournament was held at Woodstock a few years later to celebrate the birth of another son, Thomas.
All the later medieval kings frequented Woodstock.
John, Earl of Pembroke, was killed in a jousting accident while a Christmas guest at the palace, in 1389.
The Tudors - and the prisoner Princess
Henry VII ordered major rebuilding work at Woodstock and his son, Henry VIII, came for occasional roistering during the first two decades of his reign.
But in the mid-16th Century, Woodstock became more than a place of sport and festivity.
It happened because one Thomas Wyatt led a protestant uprising to try to prevent the Queen Mary I marrying Philip of Spain, which would firmly re-establish Roman Catholicism in England. The plan was to depose Mary and put her protestant sister, Princess Elizabeth, on the throne.
Elizabeth knew nothing of the plot, which failed - but she was imprisoned as a precaution, first in the Tower of London and then in the lodge at Woodstock.
The "palace" itself was barely habitable by this time. A survey of 1551 said that "the mansion... for many years past hath been decayed."
Elizabeth's journey to Woodstock took four days and she was cheered by the common people all along the route.
She was allowed to exercise in the grounds under close guard - which also protected her from possible assassins - but her health declined and she nursed dreads about her possible fate.
She scratched the following words on a window in Woodstock:
Woodstock's royal manor - another view
Much suspected by me,
It was Mary's Spanish consort, Philip, who slowly persuaded the queen to release her sister - realising that the only other heir to the throne was Mary Queen of Scots, who was an ally of Spain's enemy, France.
Elizabeth was allowed to leave Woodstock in April 1555 after nearly a year under house arrest.
She returned only four times, between 1566 and 1592.
The Stuarts and the Commonwealth
Elizabeth's successor, James I, enjoyed his sport and stayed at Woodstock in most years of his reign, fixing up a few rooms for himself in the ruinous mansion but leaving his court to sleep under canvas.
Charles I was also a regular visitor, even finding time to hunt in the royal forest during the Civil War, killing a brace of bucks.
At this time the manor house became a royalist garrison, but fell after a brief siege in 1646. Cromwellian forces took over the building but were frightened out by a poltergeist - a mischievous "ghost" that was actually a royalist soldier who wanted to scare them off.
The Civil War was the undoing of Woodstock's palace: it suffered war scars, materials were sold off while Cromwell ruled England, and hunting lost its popularity.
Charles II called briefly in 1663 and 1665, and James II two years later, but when William III visited in 1695, he had to stay at John Cary's townhouse.
Duchess of destruction
Woodstock ceased to be royal after John Churchill, Earl of Marlborough, won an audacious victory at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704 that transformed England's fortunes in Europe.
Sarah, first Duchess of Marlborough (© Images by k
Queen Anne made him Duke of Marlborough and gave him the Manor of Woodstock - including the ruins of the old palace. Parliament provided money to create a new palace, though the project got out of hand and there were great disputes about money.
When the Duke died with no male heir, an Act of Parliament allowed the line of descent to pass through his daughter, Henrietta, who effectively became the second Duke.
Sarah, the first Duchess, continued to direct building work after her husband's death, but fell out with just about everyone, including the Queen and her architect, Sir John Vanbrugh.
It is said that she feared Sir John would do up the old palace as a home for himself once the building of Blenheim was complete. He did fashion quarters in it while work was in progress.
It's said Sarah could not bear the idea of having Vanbrugh as a neighbour with only the narrow River Glyme between them (before the lake was created). However, it is just as likely she did not wish to have a large and tatty ruin immediately in front of the palace.
So in 1720, the Duchess had the palace ruins knocked down. Every stone was removed.
In 1961, a stone plinth was put up to mark the site of the old palace. It stands on raised ground surrounded by cedars of Lebanon, a short distance from the public footpath and Vanbrugh's great bridge (also built before the creation of the lake it now spans).
Most walkers stroll past, unaware they are treading where kings and queens once took their leisure.
(The images showing Woodstock manor, at the top of this page, and Sarah, first Duchess of Marlborough, have kindly been supplied by Blenheim Palace).
last updated: 23/10/07