'The Church of St Peter of Oxford holds of Robert d'Oilly 2 hides in Haliwelle.' Thus, with an entry in Domesday Book, begins the history of Holywell Manor. Domesday says too that the land was quit of geld and that 23 men lived thereon, each with a small garden. This mention of 'hortuli' is possibly the earliest reference in English history to market gardening. No geld was paid because the Manor was part of the glebe; its church, the chapel of St. Cross (now Holywell Church), being a chapel of ease of the mother church of St. Peter's-in-the-East.

In 1266 Henry III granted the advowson of St. Peter's-in-the-East, with all the chapels, rents, and lands appurtenant, to Merton College, which Walter de Merton, till lately the King's Chancellor, had recently founded at Maldon, for the maintenance of eight of his 'nephews' at the University of Oxford., came into actual possession of the Manor upon the death of the Rector of St. Peter's, Bogo de Clare, in 1294. The boundaries of the Manor are described in a contemporary account as running 'from the gate, commonly called Smythgate directly to the spot called Rome in Beau Mont: thence directly to the Cherwell and along the meadows to the garden of the Hospital of St. John without the eastern gate and along the wall of the garden as far as Crowell and to the walls of the town'. Smythgate was the gatr in the North Wall of the city, where Cat Street and New College Lane meet1. The 'spot called Rome' was on or about the site of the present Engineering Laboratory at the junction of Parks Road, Norham Gardens, and Banbury Road.


The Hospital of St. John was later absorbed into Magdalen College. Crowell was a pond situated at the point where Holywell merges into Long Wall Street. The city wall ran then, as it still does, some number of yards to the south of Holywell Street and there were no houses along its north side until after 1660, when the city fortifications having fallen into ruin, the ditch which had protected them was filled up, and a line of houses, several of which still remain, was built on the site. Thus the boundaries of Holywell Manor lay without those of the city, but skirting them to the south. What are now Parks Road and Norham Gardens bounded it on the west and north-west as far as the Cherwell. It thus included the southern and original part of the University Parks, the meadow to the south of Mesopotamia, the Master's Field, and the playing fields of Merton and New Colleges. The Manor House itself, which doubtless goes back to the eleventh century, can be definitely traced from the reign of Edward I, when a new grange or farmstead was built on to it.

Around the Church and the Manor House there grew up a village, and the ground occupied by the present vicarage, cemetery, and lawn tennis courts was the village green, probably with a pillory and stocks on it. The gallows were near Crowell at the east end of Holywell Street. The Manor House, or court house (Aula de Merton), was the centre of a more than manorial jurisdiction, which embraced the right of prove wills and in particular the use of a 'gallows'. Bogo de Clare, for instance, is known to have hanged a thief called Bensington, and another case of hanging - also for theft - has been found in the Court Roll for 1337. The 'liberties' of Holywell were jealously maintained against constant legal claims on the part of the town. In 1315 the Master and Scholars of Merton successfully pleaded that the Manor owed neither suit nor geld as it lay wholly without the liberties of the town and suburb. Lawsuits with the town, some of them disastrous for the College, took place intermittently until the end of the seventeenth century.


The existing Manor House dates from the sixteenth century. The original indenture for 'a farme place to be bilded at Holiwell, according to a plate drawonne for the same' survives and is dated May 1516. The builders were Richard Gyles of Winchester and Thomas Phelypp of Oxford, 'fremasons', and their price was £29, the College finding all the material. There was to be a hall and a parlour. The walls were to be 28 feet in height, 3 feet thick on the ground floor and 2 feet 6 inches on the first floor. These measurements, as well as the details of the windows and chimneys, seem to tally with those of the present Manor House, which includes some later, and perhaps too some earlier work. It is an odd fact that the indenure only speaks of two floors, as there is to-day a very comfortable third (attic) storey, the flooring of which, as well as the windows, seems to be original.

The land of the Manor was farmed directly by the College under a bailiff, but the Manor House, at least as early as the fifteenth century, was leased by the College, and from about 1500 it is possible to make a fairly complete list of the tenants. In 1467 it was leased for thirty years to Thomas Bartelett, variously described as a butcher and as Fellow of the College and Principal of Corner Hall. In 1501 it was leased on the same terms and for the same period to William Clare, also a butcher and one of the bailiffs of the city. Upon the death of Clare his widow married Edward Napier, a Fellow of All Souls, son of James Napier of Sweire in Dorset. Edward Napier, whose family was descended from the Napiers of Merchiston, married a second wife Anne, sister of Cardinal Peto; and she, upon Napier's death, married in 1558 Philip Huckle, Fellow of Merton. Huckle leased the Manor House from the College, and is said by Mrs Bryan Stapleton (on what grounds I do not know) to have built the present building. The sons of Edward Napier by his second wife succeeded Huckle as tenants of Holywell Manor, which was continuously inhabited by the Napiers until 1671, when it passed to a certain Francis Harding, of St John's College, physician and 'an excellent poet' so says Wood.

The Napiers, most of whom were buried in Holywell Church, were a Roman Catholic family, and during their tenancy the manor was a well-known refuge for their persecuted fellow Catholics2. George Napier, the martyr, one of the sons of Edward, was born in the Manor House and became a Fellow of Corpus. Later he went abroad and becoming a secular priest returned to England, where he 'lived as a Seminary priest among his relations, sometimes in Holywell near Oxford and sometimes in the country near adjoining'. At length he was captured, convicted of treason, and hanged at Oxford (1610), 'lamented by many that such rigour should be shewn on an innocent and harmless person.' The name of Napier is preserved by the little bridge over Holywell mill stream (or New College Cut), at the bottom of Manor Road, which is still known as Napper's Bridge.

Francis Harding, the physician, was also a Catholic, and after his death the Catholic tradition at Holywell was continued be the new lessee Thomas Kymber. He and William Joyner, once a Fellow of Magdealen and an eminent Catholic, were friends of Thomas Hearne. Hearne often visited Mr Joyner at Holywell Manor House, always, he tells us, 'after dinner, it being his desire I should come at that time because of his going to bed always at four o'clock in the evening and rising at four in the morning'. He would talk very pleasantly and have a pint of ale by himself and a very hard crust'.

The history of the Manor in the eighteenth century is obscure, but it clearly came upon evil days. In 1750 it is said to have been used as a workhouse, while in 1761 the College register states that 'the NE. corner of the dwelling house being ruinous and useless the Rev. Jennings may take it down' and the material of the house be employed in restoring the Great Barn'3. Again, in 1765, £12 10s. was remitted to Mr Jennings out of £300 for the renewal of lease, 'being the first after the improvement of the Cold Bath'. This is the first mention of the Cold Bath and it is to be feared that it is identical with the Holy Well, or one of them, also fallen upon evil days.

The Holy Well has been assigned at various dates to as many as four difficult sites. Of these two lie in the present garden of the Manor, the one immediately to the north of Holywell Church, the other eighty yards to the east of the Manor House, sometimes called Jenny Newton's well. A third site is beyond Napper's Bridge, 100 yards to the north-east of the Manor; while a fourth would identify the Holy Well with Crowell, the pond at the junction of Holywell and Long Wall. It is not possible to decide between these. Hearne, who favours the first site, says; 'The well at St Cross was much frequented and brought a vast quantity of money to the place. This well is on the north side of the Church in the garden that belongs to the Manor House and is quite different from another well more eastwards which is now frequented by some people and the water of it reckoned good for the eyes and some other sores; but this well is of very little standing in respect of the other and ought not to be confounded with it.'


The present lessees accept Hearne's identification and add that the well is dedicated to SS. Winifred and Margaret. An account in their possession of the history of the Manor says of the well that: 'After being covered up and lost for three centuries it was reopened in March 1897, while some alterations were being made in the chapel attached to the manor house.' A tubular well stone was found which the architect, Mr. C. C. Rolfe, pronounced to be Anglo-Saxon work. In a letter addressed to the Warden of Merton he writes, 'this small circular well was situated against the large rectangular well which came to light a few years ago on its north side.' It was perhaps this 'rectangular well' which in 1767 was described as the 'Cold Bath'.

By 1828 the Manor House is found from a contemporary valuation to be divided into three tenements. This document mentions for the first time the cock pit, and we hear again of the Cold Bath. 'The Manor House in three tenements, stone built and slated, containing a 2 cellars, 6 rooms on the ground floor and 12 bed rooms, cold bath and dressing rooms, cock pit, outhouses, yard, etc.' In 1842 it was reported that three tenements were in a very indifferent state of repair and that 'the old cock pit was in ruins and totally useless'. The same year the cock pit was taken down and a 'large, double, lofty east shed' built on the site. By this time, too, the northernmost of the three tenements had become a public house, with a skittle alley and a garden, and was called the 'Robin Hood'. The Robin Hood was given up, it is not known exactly when, and the list of private lessees ends as it began with a butcher, a John Pinfold. His lease expired in 1862 when 'a community of Anglican Sissters from Clewer made a home there, and devoted themselves to the work of reformation and charity'. Recent building operations in the neighbourhood have made Holywell Manor unsuitable for the Clewer Sisters. Their lease will terminate in 1930 and they have acquired at Littlemore a site which will give more scope for their good work.

1. Merton records, ed. P. S. Allen and H. W. Garrod, No. Xb.
2. See Mr Bryan Stapleton, Catholic Missions in Oxfordshire, pp. 211-21.
3. The original walls of the Great Barn are incorporated in the row of cottages opposite the Manor House.