By 'Country Estate', we mean a country house that had its own lands and grounds, designed primarily as a residential property..ce.
Oxfordshire's Country Estates
The great estates, which are scattered across Oxfordshire, constitute a fairly sizeable percentage of the rural land, almost 19% of the county. (By great estate, we mean a country house that had its own lands and grounds).
But the stories of land ownership are varied, the histories complex. The traditional image of an estate owned by the aristocracy for hundreds of years is a rather simplified and misleading view of the land ownership of great estates in Oxfordshire.
Ownership is varied and patterns of land ownership have been changing. Estate owners now range from members of the nobility to wealthy entrepreneurs or celebrities, and the uses to which they put the land is also varied.
Furthermore, many of these estates in their present form don’t date back to the parcelling up of land that happened after the Norman Conquest in 1066.
The great estates as we know them emerged piecemeal, as the result of multiple processes, and they are always being reshaped and remodelled. Though power and wealth often lie behind these processes, the constellation and meaning of these patterns of ownership have shifted with the times and contemporary contexts.
It’s not a surprise that there are lots of country estates in Oxfordshire. The rolling, green hills of the Cotswolds and the Chilterns, the good farming land, and the proximity to London have made it a favoured spot for rural retreats of the social and political elite. Its appeal attracted the British monarch: historically the crown had impressive estates in Oxfordshire, such as the medieval park of Watlington or Woodstock Palace. Today, over 19% of the county is still owned in the form of these large esates, although these are no longer in the hands of the monarchy.
The most well-known, and the largest estate, is Blenheim (just under 2% of the county), now a World Heritage Site. It’s the seat of the Duke of Marlborough, and the only house in England to be called a palace that is not occupied by a royal or a bishop. Blenheim was created out of a former royal deer park for John Churchill as a reward for military service in the War of Spanish Succession. Blenheim’s land holdings, as you might expect, include large formal and landscaped gardens (including the large artificial lake) created by Capability Brown, shooting grounds, and farming land. After Blenheim, the next largest estates are Compton Beauchamp, Buscot Park, Cornbury Park, and the Great Tew Estate, but there are tens more smaller estates dotted throughout Oxfordshire.
Blenheim fits the model of what we might expect as a country estate: a large, imposing house owned by aristocracy, with lands used as pleasure grounds, or for hunting and farming, although also open to the public, who can enjoy the Harry Potter tree or stories of Winston Churchill’s past. However, this traditional image is a rather simplified view of the great estates in Oxfordshire.
First, the ownership of these estates is varied, and the use and purpose of land equally so. Historically, many of the large houses would have been owned by members of the nobility. Blenheim still is, as are Cornbury Park which is home to Robin Cayzer, (Baron Rotherwick), and Broughton Castle, the seat of Baron Saye and Seele. This fits a pattern of inherited land ownership. Robin Cayzer, for example, grew up in another smaller, landed estate (at 125 acres), Bletchingdon Park, before acquiring Cornbury as part of his hereditary peerage.
But ownership patterns have been changing. The next largest estate in Oxfordshire after Blenheim is Compton Beauchamp, which exemplifies a more modern ownership type. It’s owned by Nils and Lillemor Penser, a Swedish couple: Nils is a financier and banker who has owned the estate since 1976. Another large estate, Great Tew, is owned by millionaire Nicholas Johnston and has been in his family since the 1960s. The desire for a country retreat amongst rich entrepreneurs, businessmen or celebrities has existed for a long time but the ability to turn this desire into reality has been increasing. Ennismore property group recently bought Eynsham Hall, and Jemima Khan bought Kiddington Hall in 2010. Owners have also come in from overseas - Glympton Park recently changed hands when Prince Bandar bin Sultan solid it to Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and his son - and some land in Oxfordshire is also administered by offshore companies registered in the Channel Isles. In addition to private ownership, some of the great estates are administered and owned by the National Trust, such as the estates at Buscot.
The new ownership is mirrored by varied and different land usage, with the companies that manage the estates now holding a range of types of property. Farming and outdoor pursuits remain a key element of land usage. At Great Tew, a proportion of the land is used for farming and racehorses, and the estate received £1.2 million in farming subsidies over two years in the early 2000s. At least two other estates are associated with equestrian activities: Glympton and Kirtlington both have stud farms and polo grounds. Large, landed estates have always catered to the business interests and pastimes of those who owned them, whether that was deer hunting or farming, so the addition of equestrianism is not so surprising. In addition to the more traditional country estate land holdings, a subsidiary of Blenheim Estates is Pye Homes, a development company, and the Great Tew estate owns quarries, linked to Johnston’s quarry group business. There are also more philanthropic ambitions in land use. Ditchley Park, owned by the Wills family, is home to both the Ditchley Foundation, which holds conferences to promote peaceful international relations, and the HDH Wills 1965 Charitable Trust, giving grants for environmental projects; the Lockinge Estate has its roots in creating an estate engaged in co-operative business and local welfare schemes. Many of the estates also have areas of scientific and natural interest, which they work to preserve. Cornbury contains one of the fragments of Wychwood Forrest, the ancient woodland which covered much of West Oxfordshire.
Another interesting fact about the great estates is that several are not actually that old in their present form, or not as old as we might think. Many don’t go back to 1066 and the Norman Conquest, or even to the later Middle Ages, although there were often manors or parcels of land that date back this far. The great estates as we know them emerged piece meal, as the result of multiple processes like land enclosures or the fashion for landscaped estates in the 18th and 19th centuries. Blenheim itself is a relatively new creation, the house dating to the early eighteenth century, and the Lockinge estate was formed via a series of large purchases in the 1850s. However, many estates like Blenheim or Cornbury did emerge from former royal lands that were sold off or gifted to loyal supporters. This helps explain the large block of lands that is now north of Oxford, formerly crown land and now a patchwork of different large estates. Other estates are also being broken up and reshaped, and this is a continuing, shifting process. Even where an estate is in the hands of the aristocracy, this does not necessarily designate an ancient, unbroken lineage. The title of Baron Rotherwick associated with Cornbury Park was only created in 1939 for a shipping magnate. So not every estate nor its chain of ownership dates back 100s of years.
Overall, the great estates which are scattered across Oxfordshire, constitute a fairly sizeable percentage of the rural land. But the stories of land ownership are varied, the histories complex. There is a pattern of way in which the wealth and power are intertwined with the history of the ownership of the estates. The constellation and meaning of these patterns, however, have shifted with the times and contemporary contexts, but we should not assume that the role and the proportion of these great estates in Oxfordshire have to be seen as fixed and eternal.
 Although the largest estates are shown here, not all the rest have been mapped as yet.
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