Burford

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Burford (/ˈbɜrfərd/) is a small town on the River Windrush in the Cotswold hills in west Oxfordshire, England, about 18 miles (29 km) west of Oxford, 22 miles (35 km) southeast of Cheltenham and only 2 miles (3.2 km) from the Gloucestershire boundary. The toponym derives from the Old English words burh meaning fortified town or hilltown and ford meaning ford (crossing).

Almost the whole town is a Conservation Area.

The history of the town began in the middle Saxon period with the founding of a village near the site of the modern priory building. This settlement continued in use until just after the Norman conquest when the new town of Burford was built. On the site of the old village a hospital was founded which remained open until the Dissolution of the Monasteries by King Henry VIII. The modern priory building was constructed some 40 years later around 1580.

In 1649, the church was used as a prison (during the Civil War),when the New Model Army Banbury mutineers were held there. Some of the 340 prisoners left carvings and graffiti, which can still be found in the church.

Between the 14th century and the 17th century Burford was important for its wool.The Tolsey, midway along Burford’s High Street, was once the centre of the local wool trade, and is now a museum.

The town centre features some houses from the 15th century. Its most notable building, however, is the Anglican parish church of Saint John the Baptist, which is known for its merchants’ guild chapel, memorial to Henry VIII’s barber-surgeon, Edmund Harman, featuring South American Indians and Kempe stained glass. The parish church is located at Ordnance Survey six-figure grid reference SP253124.

Burford has twice had a bell-foundry: one run by the Neale family in the 17th century and the other run by the Bond family in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Henry Neale was a bell-founder between 1627 and 1641 and also had a foundry at Somerford Keynes in Gloucestershire. Edward Neale had joined him as a bell-founder at Burford by 1635 and continued the business until 1685. Numerous Neale bells remain in use, including at St Britius, Brize Norton, St Mary’s, Buscot, St James the Great, Fulbrook and SS Peter and Paul, Steeple Aston. A few Neale bells that are no longer rung are displayed in Burford parish church.

Henry Bond had a bell-foundry at Westcot from 1851 to 1861. He then moved it to Burford where he continued until 1905. He was then succeeded by Thomas Bond, who continued bell-founding at Burford until 1947. Bond bells still in use include four of the ring of six at St John the Evangelist, Taynton, one and a Sanctus bell at St Nicholas, Chadlington and one at St Peter’s, Whatcote in Warwickshire.

For many years before the 7th century there had been strife between the Celtic Church and the Roman Catholic Church over the question “When should Easter Day be kept?” The Britons adhered to the rule laid at the Council of Arles in AD 314, that Easter Day should be the 14th day of the Paschal moon, even if the moon were on a Sunday. The Roman Church had decided that when the 14th day of the Paschal moon was a Sunday, Easter Day should be the Sunday after; Computus.

Various Synods were held in different parts of the kingdom with the object of settling this controversy, and one was held for this object at Burford in AD 685. The fact of the Synod being held at Burford suggests that the Britons in some numbers had settled in the town and neighbourhood.This Synod was attended by Æthelred, King of Mercia, and his nephew Berthwald (who had been granted the southern part of his uncle’s kingdom); Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury; Bosel, Bishop of Worcester; Seaxwulf, Bishop of Lichfield; Aldhelm, Abbot of Malmesbury; and many others.

Aldhelm was ordered at this conference to write a book against the error of the Britons in the observance of Easter. At this Synod Berthwald gave 40 cassatesof land to Aldhelm who afterwards became Bishop of Shereborne. According to Spelman, the notes of the Synod were published in AD 705.

Malmesbury and other chroniclers record a battle between the West Saxons and Mercians at Burford in AD 752. In the end Æthelhum, the Mercian standard-bearer who carried the flag with a golden dragon on it, was killed by the lance of his Saxon rival. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records “A.D 752. This year Cuthred, king of the West Saxons, in the 12th year of his reign, fought at Burford, against Æthelbald king of the Mercians, and put him to flight.” The historian William Camden (1551–1623) wrote

“…in Saxon Beorgford [i.e. Burford], where Cuthred, king of the West Saxons, then tributary to the Mercians, not being able to endure any longer the cruelty and base exactions of King Æthelbald, met him in the open field with an army and beat him, taking his standard, which was a portraiture of a golden dragon.”[9]

The origin of the golden dragon standard is attributed to that of Uther Pendragon, the father of King Arthur of whom Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote:

[Uther Pendragon] “…ordered two dragons to be fashioned in gold, in the likeness of the one which he had seen in the ray which shone from that star. As soon as the Dragons had been completed this with the most marvellous craftsmanship — he made a present of one of them to the congregation of the cathedral church of the see of Winchester. The second one he kept for himself, so that he could carry it around to his wars.”

In the late 16th or early 17th century the people of Burford still celebrated the anniversary of the battle. Camden wrote: “There has been a custom in the town of making a great dragon yearly, and carrying it up and down the streets in great jollity on midsummer eve”. The field traditionally claimed to be that of the battle is still called Battle Edge.

On 21 November 1814a large freestone sarcophagus was discovered near Battle Edge 3 feet (0.91 m) below ground, weighing 16 long hundredweights (1,800 lb; 810 kg) with the feet pointing almost due south. The interior is 6 feet (1.8 m) long and 2 feet 2 inches (0.66 m) wide.It was found to contain the remains of a human body, with portions of a leather cuirass studded with metal nails. The skeleton was found in near perfect state due to the exclusion of air from the sarcophagus.The coffin is now preserved in Burford churchyard, near the west gate.

Whose fame is in that dark green tomb? Four stones with their heads of moss stand there. They mark the narrow house of death. Some chief of fame is here! Raise the songs of old! Awake their memory in the tomb. — Ossian

Burford is twinned with Potenza Picena, Italy.

In April 2009 Burford was ranked sixth in Forbes Magazine‘s list of “Europe’s Most Idyllic Places To Live”.

Burford is the main setting for Cynthia Harnett’s historical novel for children, The Wool-Pack.

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