This historic market centre is one of the fastest growing towns in Oxfordshire. Development has been favoured by its proximity to junction 9 of the M40 motorway linking it to London, Birmingham and Banbury. It has good road links to Oxford, Kidlington, Brackley, Buckingham, Aylesbury and Witney, as well as rail service, consisting of two railway stations; Bicester North and Bicester Town.
Bicester has a history going back to Saxon times. The name Bicester, which has been in use since the mid 17th century, derives from earlier forms including Berncestre, Burencestre, Burcester, Biciter and Bissiter (the John Speed map of 1610 shows four alternative spellings and Miss G. H. Dannatt found forty-five variants in wills of the 17th and 18th centuries). Theories advanced for the meaning of the name include "of Beorna" (a personal name), the "Fort of the Warriors" or literally from Latin Bi-cester to mean "The two forts". The ruins of the Roman settlement of Alchester are southwest of the town and remains of an Augustinian priory founded between 1182 and 1885 survive in the town centre.
The West Saxons established a settlement in the 6th century at a nodal point of a series of ancient routes. A north-south Roman road, known as the Stratton (Audley) Road, from Dorchester to Towcester, passed through King’s End. Akeman Street, an east-west Roman road from Cirencester to St Albans lies south, next to the Roman fortress and town at Alchester.
St Edburg's Church in Bicester was founded as a minster perhaps in the mid 7th century after St Birinus converted Cynegils King of the West Saxons after their meeting near Blewbury. The site was just east of the old Roman road between Dorchester and Towcester that passed through the former Roman town at Alchester. The earliest church was probably a timber structure serving the inhabitants of the growing Saxon settlements on each side of the River Bure, and as a mission centre for the surrounding countryside. Archaeological excavations at Procter’s Yard identified the ecclesiastical enclosure boundary, and a large cemetery of Saxon graves suggesting a much larger churchyard has been excavated on the site of the Catholic Church car park almost opposite St Edburg's.
The first documentary reference is the Domesday Book of 1086 which records it as Berencestra, its two manors of Bicester and Wretchwick being held by Robert D'Oyly who built Oxford Castle. The town became established as twin settlements on opposite banks of the River Bure, a tributary of the Ray, Cherwell and ultimately the River Thames.
By the end of the 13th century Bicester was the centre of a deanery of 33 churches. It is unclear when St Edburg's Church was rebuilt in stone, but the 12th century church seems to have had an aisleless cruciform plan. Earliest surviving material includes parts of the nave north wall including parts of an originally external zigzag string course, the north and south transepts and the external clasping buttresses of the chancel. The triangular-headed opening at the end of the north wall of the nave was probably an external door of the early church. Three great round-headed Norman arches at the end of the nave mark the position of a 13th-century tower.
The Augustinian Priory was founded by Gilbert Bassett around 1183 and endowed with land and buildings around the town and in other parishes including and the quarry at Kirtlington, at Wretchwick (now called), at Stratton Audley, and on Gravenhill and Arncott. It also held the mill at Clifton and had farms let to tenants at Deddington, Grimsbury, Waddesdon and Fringford. Although these holdings were extensive and close to the market at Bicester, they appear to have been poorly managed and did not produce much income for the priory.
The priory appropriated the church in the early 13th century. The church was enlarged by a south aisle, and arches were formed in the nave and south transept walls linking the new aisle to the main body of the church.
A further extension was made in the 14th century when the north aisle was built. The arched openings in the north wall of the nave are supported on thick octagonal columns. The Perpendicular Gothic north chapel (now vestry) is of a similar date, on the east wall are two windows. The chapel originally had an upper chamber used later for the vicars’ grammar school, accessed from an external staircase which forms part of the north eastern buttress.
In the 15th century the upper walls of the nave were raised to form a clerestory with square-headed Perpendicular Gothic windows. The earlier central tower and its nave arch was taken down and the nave roof rebuilt (the present roof is a copy of 1803). The columns of the north arcade were undercut making them appear very slim and the capitals top heavy. In the east bay of the nave, there is carved decoration probably forming part of a canopied tomb originally set between the columns. The west tower was built in three stages, each stage marked by a horizontal string course running round the outside. The construction would have taken several years to complete. The battlements and crockets on the top of the tower were replaced in the mid 19th century.
The priory church was built around 1200, and enlarged around 1300 in association with the construction of the Purbeck marble tomb of St Eadburh. This may have been the gift of the priory’s patron Henry de Lacy, 3rd Earl of Lincoln. The walled rectangular enclosure of the priory lay just south of the church. The gatehouse was on the site of ‘Chapter and Verse’ Guesthouse in Church Lane. The library, dovecote and houses in Old Place Yard lie within the central precinct. St Edburg’s House is built partly over the site of the large priory church. This was linked by a cloister to a quadrangle containing the refectory, kitchens, dormitory and prior’s lodging. The priory farm buildings lay in the area of the present church hall, and these had direct access along Piggy Lane to land in what is now the King’s End estate.
Early charters promoted Bicester's development as a trading centre, with a market and fair established by the mid 13th century. By this time two further manors are mentioned, Bury End and Nuns Place, later known as Market End and King's End respectively.
The Lord of the Manor of Market End was the Earl of Derby who in 1597 sold a 9,999-year lease to 31 principal tenants. This in effect gave the manorial rights to the leaseholders, ‘purchased for the benefit of those inhabitants or others who might hereafter obtain parts of the demesne’. The leaseholders elected a bailiff to receive the profits from the bailiwick, mainly from the administration of the market and distribute them to the shareholders. From the bailiff’s title the arrangement became known as the Bailiwick of Bicester Market End. By 1752 all of the original leases were in the hands of ten men, who leased the bailiwick control of the market to two local tradesmen.
A fire in 1724 had destroyed the buildings on the eastern side of Water Lane. A Nonconformist congregation was able to acquire a site that had formerly been the tail of a long plot occupied at the other end by the King’s Arms. Their chapel built in 1728 was ‘surrounded by a burying ground and ornamented with trees. At the southern and downstream end of Water Lane, there were problems of pollution from animal dung from livery stables on the edge of town associated with the London traffic.
King’s End had a substantially lower population and none of the commercial bustle found on the other side of the Bure. The manorial lords, the Cokers, lived in the manor house from 1584. The house had been rebuilt in the early 18th century remodelled in the 1780s. The park was enlarged surrounded by a wall after 1753 when a range of buildings on the north side of King’s End Green were demolished by Coker. A westward enlargement of the park also extinguished the road that followed the line of the Roman road. This partly overlapped a pre-1753 close belonging to Coker. The effect of the enlargement of the park was to divert traffic at the Fox Inn through King’s End, across the causeway to Market Square and Sheep Street before returning to the Roman road north of Crockwell.
The two townships of King's End and Market End evolved distinct spatial characteristics. Inns, shops and high status houses clustered around the triangular market place as commercial activity was increasingly concentrated in Market End. The bailiwick lessees promoted a much less regulated market than that found in boroughs elsewhere. Away from the market, Sheep Street was considered ‘very respectable’ but its northern end at Crockwell was inhabited by the poorest inhabitants in low quality, subdivided and overcrowded buildings.
By 1800, the causeway had dense development forming continuous frontages on both sides. The partially buried watercourses provided a convenient drainage opportunity, and many houses had privies discharging directly into the channels. Downstream, the Bure ran parallel with Water Lane, then the main road out of town towards London. Terraces of cottages were built backing onto the stream, and here too these took advantage of the stream for sewage disposal, with privies cantilevered out from houses over the watercourse. Town houses took their water from wells dug into the substrate which became increasingly polluted by leaching of waste through the alluvial bed of the Bure.
Until the early 19th century the road from the market place to King's End ran through a ford of the Bure stream and on to the narrow embanked road across the boggy valley. The causeway became the focus for development from the late 18th century as rubbish and debris was dumped on each side of the road to form building platforms, minor channels of the braded stream were encased and culverted as construction proceeded.