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Around Abingdon: Radley

Radley Hall has been mentioned in a previous blogpost, as the residence of Sir George Bowyer. Radley is of interest in its own right, and its history is closely connected with that of Abingdon.

Radley is an old settlement. The village goes back to Saxon times, and the name was recorded as Radelea or Radclege in the 12th century. People have been living in the area for much longer, though, as you can see from the photos.

A Beaker burial from the Bronze Age, excavated at Radley

The manor of Radley belonged to Abingdon Abbey, although the exact date of the grant is not known. “Manor” is used here not for a big house but in the legal sense, meaning an administrative area comprising a lord’s mansion (or hall) plus the surrounding estates, including any villages or farms on that land, over which the lord had jurisdiction. In this case the lord would be the abbot of Abingdon. The abbot also held the manor of Barton, which in some documents appears coupled with Radley so as to give the impression that “Barton and Radley” was a single unit. However, manorial courts were held at Radley before the dissolution of the Abbey, so it must have been its own unit independent from Barton.

Aerial photograph of the landscape around Radley, with crop marks indicating ancient ring ditches

Radley Park is also ancient, and in former times it was large, with extensive woodlands. Tracing the ownership of the park reveals the complicated granting and re-granting of land in the Middle Ages. Like the manor of Radley (and indeed probably as part of it), the park was owned by the Abbey, but already in in 1260s the abbot seems to have granted custody of the park to someone else. According to the Victoria County History of Berkshire, in 1371 it was in the possession of a William Radley, who granted custody of the park to Thomas Golafre and his wife, for life. In 1387 however, the king intervened and gave custody of the park (and some other gifts) to someone called John Middleton. This grant from the king was disputed by Thomas Hanney and others, all parsons of neighbouring churches, “to whom William Radley had granted the reversion”. This means that on the death of Thomas Golafre and his wife, the park reverted to William Radley, who had intended for it to go immediately to Thomas Hanney and his colleagues. The parsons seem to have been successful in the dispute, as the County History states “the patents were annulled, and in the next year Thomas Hanney alienated the ‘bailiwick’ in mortmain to the Abbot of Abingdon”. This is more legal jargon: alienation means the transfer of property from one party to another, in this case Thomas Hanney to the abbot. “Alienation in mortmain” means that the property is granted not to a person, but a corporation, often a religious house. The property is then deemed to be held by a “dead hand” (French: main mort), because it is not held by a person. Interestingly, alienation in mortmain was forbidden by law in 1279, because if a tenant alienated the land to, say, a monastery, it was to the disadvantage of the feudal lord. In this case however, it seems that the lord would have been the Abbey anyway, since it held the manor of Radley. After 1279, the Crown could allow exceptions to the ban on alienation in mortmain, which it seems to have done in this case.

I have included this little excursion here to share my astonishment and amusement that the authors of the County History, which to all intents and purposes is a book aimed at a general audience, nevertheless expect the reader to have a good grounding in common law, since all these legal terms are used without explanation.

The park had apparently already shrunk to its present size by the 18th century, as a source from that time calls it “small and mean”.

Thomas Seymour, First Baron of Sudeley, who for a short time enjoyed ownership of Radley (painting by Nicolas Denizot in the Royal Maritime Museum Collection)

In 1538 Abingdon Abbey was dissolved, and all its possessions fell to the Crown, including the manor of Radley. It remained that way until 1547, when the king granted the Abbey lands (again including Radley) to Thomas Seymour, First Baron of Sudeley and Lord Admiral. Thomas Seymour is one of the more colourful Tudor characters, and in 1549 he was attainted, that is convicted of treason, and executed. One consequence of a bill of attainder is that the property of the convicted person does not go to his heirs, but is forfeit to the Crown. This was the case with the Abbey lands. The manor of Radley was then given by Edward VI to his sister Elizabeth. Ten years later, Elizabeth was queen herself, and sold Radley to George Stonhouse. He took up residence there and built himself a mansion, but only traces of this survive today. It was George Stonhouse who in 1570 began the dispute over fishing rights with William Blacknall, which led to the creation of the “Monks Map”, which is on display at the museum.

Radley Hall, the house which can be seen today, was built by Sir John Stonhouse in 1721-1727. It is three stories high, built of red brick with limestone dressings. Sir John had three unmarried sons, John, William and James, who each inherited the estate in turn. James left the manor to his niece, Lady Penelope Rivers. After her death, her cousin George Bowyer became the owner – he is the Admiral Bowyer who has featured on this blog previously. His heir, his eldest son George, got into financial difficulties over various unsuccessful ventures, including the attempt to mine for coal on one of his other estates, Bayworth. The family had to sell some paintings and furniture, and in 1819 Bowyer leased Radley Hall to Benjamin Kent from Abingdon, who housed his non-conformist school there. The school failed after 25 years, but in 1847 Radley Hall was rented out again, to the founders of Radley College. This school was more successful than the first, and when the first lease was up after 21 years, it was renewed to run until 1910. However, in 1889 the college was in a position to purchase the buildings and the park, and it owns them to this day.

Today Radley College is an independent boarding school for boys, and it incorporates Radley Hall, which it now calls the Mansion. Radley Hall is a Grade II listed building.

If you would like to see Radley village and Radley Hall for yourself, you can follow in the footsteps of Museum Assistant Shirley Buckle, who went on a pleasant walk there last summer, as she describes below:

One of my favourite walks since Lockdown is walking to the village of Radley and Radley College.It takes me about one and a half hours and it is just over three and a half miles to walk there and back.

I start my walk from Twelve Acre Drive walking along the footpath up to the Radley Road Roundabout then turn into the public footpath onto Peachcroft Farm towards the village.  Recently it has been very quiet with very few cars passing by but I see several walkers and cyclists along the way.  Everyone says hello from a safe distance of course!

I keep to the footpath passing the Bowyers Pub and Radley Railway Station, the Allotments and the village Shop.  Further on I pass the local Primary School and St James the Great Church.  As I pass the Church I notice a very old post box on the opposite side of the road.  It is built into an old Barn which has been converted into houses.  VR is inscribed on the post box – lovely to see after all these years that it is still there and in use.

Radley Station in the early 20th century. Radley is now the railway station closest to Abingdon.

I cross over the main road to the College.  I then walk through the grounds on the pathway and head towards the Golf course, pond and the magnificent trees – some of the trees are very old – one in particular is called the Radley Oak and is over 300 years old.  It is such an unusual shape and has lots of knots and branches sticking out in all directions.  Along the way I see many wild flowers, different species of birds and squirrels.  I continue along the avenue of trees walking up the hill towards the gate then carry on past fields where horses are grazing.  I carry on till I get to the end of the path and arrive at the top of Lodge Hill.  I then turn left keeping to the footpath near the main road till I get to Peachcroft roundabout, I turn left again at Twelve Acre Drive and make my way home. A very enjoyable walk completed.

Elin Bornemann and Shirley Buckle


Legal information from J.H. Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History (Butterworths 1990, third edition)

The Victoria County History of Berkshire is accessible online. You can find Radley here:

Featured image: Radley depicted on the Monks Map, on display at Abingdon Museum


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