The Tower of London’s dry moat will be transformed into a 15th century medieval court gathered to welcome a new Queen, Margaret of Anjou, for the May bank holiday this long weekend. The world of 1445 is being reimagined in a series of festivities – under the banner of Go Medieval at the Tower – which will include sword-fighting knights, hands-on experiences for kids such as the chance to fire a real crossbow, the “scents, sights and sounds” of a medieval encampment, and the chance to witness trades such as armoury and coin-striking. As well as, of course, opportunities to meet King Henry VI and his 15-year-old queen, Margaret who, upon her coronation, was honoured with a lavish pageant from Westminster Abbey to the Tower in which she received extravagant gifts including a lion. Runs from 10am to 5pm from Saturday to Monday. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/. PICTURE: © Historic Royal Palaces.

Working Londoners from the past 500 years are the subject of an open air exhibition opening in Guildhall Yard on Saturday. Londoners: Portraits of a Working City, 1447 to 1980 features a range of photographs, prints and drawings – many displayed for the first time – from the London Metropolitan Archives. The exhibition – which includes images of Jack Black of Battersea, Queen Victoria’s rat-catcher, and Charles Rouse, believed to be the last nightwatchman in 19th century London as well as pictures of Savoy Hotel page boys, a brick dust seller, a farrier in 1980s Deptford and a 15th century Lord Mayor – complements The Londoners exhibition currently running at the LMA in Clerkenwell which features 50 portraits not included in the Guildhall display. The free outdoor exhibition can be seen into 23rd May – for more, see www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/thelondoners. The Clerkenwell display can be seen until 5th July – for more, follow this link.

The life of the butler will be up for examination at Apsley House, home of the Duke of Wellington, this long weekend in an event which will also see the duke’s Prussian Dinner Service laid out in all its glory. Butlers and Banquets will feature talks about the history of the service – commissioned by King Frederick William III of Prussia and presented as a gift to the 1st Duke of Wellington after his victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 – with younger visitors also having the chance to meet the butler of the house and find out what running a grand home like Apsley House was like as well as learning skills such as how to lay a table. Runs between 11am and 4pm from Saturday to Monday. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/apsley.

A new exhibition marking the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution opens at the British Library in King’s Cross on Friday. Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths tells how the revolution unfolded during the reign of the last tsar, exploring the growth of the revolutionary movements with a special focus on key figures such as Tsar Nicholas II and revolutionary leaders such as Vladimir Lenin. Among the items on display is a letter Lenin wrote in April, 1902, applying to become a reader at the British Museum Library which he signed with his pseudonym, Jacob Richter, to evade the tsarist police. Other items on display include a souvenir album of the Tsar’s coronation and wallpaper hand-painted by women factory workers propaganda along with posters, letters, photographs, banners, weapons, uniform items, recordings and films. Runs until 29th August. Admission charge applies. For more, follow this link.

Send all items for inclusion to exploringlondon@gmail.com.

2016 is fast approaching and to celebrate, we’re looking back at the 10 most popular posts we published in 2015. Today, we look at numbers seven, six and five…

Baynard's-Castle7. At number seven is a post we published in February as part of our ongoing Lost London series. In it we looked at the later history of the fortification known as Baynard’s Castle – Lost London – Baynard’s Castle (part 2)

6. Another in our series on London’s ‘battlefields’ – this one, published in November looks at the role the city played in Jack Cade’s rebellion during King Henry VI’s reign – 10 London ‘battlefields’ – 4. Jack Cade’s rebellion

5. Our fifth most popular post of 2015 was another in our series on gardens – 10 small, ‘secret’ and historic gardens in central London…5. Seething Lane Garden

We’ll look at numbers four and three tomorrow…

Hadley-HighstoneAn important battle during the late medieval Wars of the Roses, the Battle of Barnet was fought on 14th April, 1471, between the Yorkists, led by the deposed King Edward IV and Lancastrian forces loyal to the King Henry VI.

While we have looked briefly at the battle before as part of our A Moment in London’s History series (see here), we thought we’d take a more in-depth look.

Edward had been driven from the throne in October, 1470, after his alliance with the powerful Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, the “Kingmaker”, fell apart. With King Henry VI restored to the throne, Edward was exiled over the Channel.

By early 1471, Edward was ready to make his push for the throne again and in March he landed in Yorkshire in England’s north along with his brother-in-law, the Duke of Burgundy.

Heading south, Edward gathered more troops as he went, briefly pausing at Coventry where the Earl of Warwick refused to offer battle before pressing on to London, arriving unopposed on 12th April. There he was reunited with his wife Elizabeth Woodville and young son Edward (later Edward V) and the hapless King Henry VI was once again  taken into Yorkist custody.

The Earl of Warwick, who had been raising troops in the Midlands, moved with a 15,000-strong force to confront him and took up a position about a mile north of the village of Barnet, just north of the City, on 13th April.

Edward – who brought 10,000 to 12,000 troops to the fight and had his brothers, the erstwhile traitor George, Duke of Clarence, and the young Richard, Duke of Gloucester, by his side – arrived that same evening and took up a position just to the south of the Lancastrians. Unaware of the close proximity of the Yorkists (it’s not known whether this was by accident of design but Edward had instructed his men not to light fires and to keep silent), the Lancastrian artillery flew over their heads.

The battle was joined in earnest the following day – Easter Sunday – at around dawn. The Lancastrians were initially successful in driving back Edward’s forces on the right flank under the command of John de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, but thick fog is said to have been responsible for sowing confusion in the Lancastrian ranks, leading to allies attacking each other and the Lancastrian army eventually fell apart amid cries of treachery.

Warwick was killed in the battle as he attempted to reach his horse. His body was allowed to be displayed at St Paul’s before being buried in the family vault.

The exact site of the battle remains something of an unknown although it is thought to be located in Monken Hadley just to the north of Barnet itself (that is the area marked on the official English Heritage Register of Historic Battlefields).

A stone monument to the battle, the Hadley Highstone, was erected in the 18th century and in the 1800s was moved to its current location at the junction of Kitts End Road with the Great North Road in Monken Hadley and was originally thought to have marked the spot on which Warwick died. The Battlefields Trust is currently developing a project to pin down the location further.

The battle was a resounding victory of King Edward IV for while some suggest the numbers killed were said to be about the same on both sides – somewhere between 1,000 and 4,000, Warwick was removed, depriving the Lancastrians of a key ally and giving the Yorkists a significant edge in the ongoing conflict which saw Edward IV back on the throne for the next 14 years.

PICTURE: Nigel Cox/Wikipedia

For more on the Wars of the Roses, see Alison’s Weir’s book Lancaster And York: The Wars of the Roses.

London-StoneLittle is known of Jack Cade until the former soldier from Kent led an uprising against the rule of King Henry VI during the Hundred Years War with France. And London was a key site of fighting during the uprising.

Cade, who adopted the name John Mortimer and who some claimed to have been a relative of Richard, Duke of York, was said to have been a veteran of the war who led rebels protesting against the king’s rule amid the general state of disorder affecting England at the time which saw such abuses as lands being illegally seized and a lack of confidence in courts to rule fairly. There was also some discontent over the loss of lands of Normandy.

While many of the rebels were peasants, the rebellion – which rose in late May or early June, 1450 – was also supported by nobles and churchmen who were protesting what they saw as poor governance.

Led by Cade, who also attracted the title ‘Captain of Kent’, were camped on Blackheath in what is now the city’s south-east by mid-June and there apparently presented an embassy from the king with a list of grievances.

Thomas, Lord Scales – authorised by the king to raise troops, subsequently marched out to Blackheath but Cade and his rebels retreated into the forests of Kent and managed to lure the royal troops into an ambush.

Cade and the rebels returned to Blackheath while back in London the Royal soldiers turned mutinous, angered over the defeat. They were disbanded to protect the City and the king retired to Kenilworth Castle, effectively abandoning London to the rebels (despite the offer of the Lord Mayor and aldermen to resist the rebels).

Cade then marched on London itself, reaching Southwark on 2nd July (apparently using the now vanished White Hart Inn as his HQ). He forced his way over London Bridge the next day, cutting the drawbridge ropes personally with his sword to ensure it couldn’t be raised again

Such was the support the rebels had in London, that resistance was initially minimal. Following his entry to London, Cade struck the famous London Stone (pictured above – for more on it, see our earlier post here) with his sword, declaring “Mortimer” was now lord of the city.

While initially under tight control, Cade gradually lost control of many of his followers who turned to looting. Meanwhile, to head off an attack on the Tower of London – where Lord Scales had retreated – he handed over the hated Lord Treasurer, James Fiennes, Lord Saye, and his son-in-law William Crowmer, Under Sheriff of Kent (they had apparently been imprisoned in the Tower by the King for their own protection such as their unpopularity). Both were beheaded – Fiennes at Cheapside, Crowmer at Mile End – and their heads placed on poles on London Bridge.

The king’s supporters in the Tower had regrouped by early July and, with the rebels, while initially welcomed by many, now clearly having outstayed their welcome, they and city militias drove the rebels from the streets and had taken back the northern half of London Bridge (another bloody battle over the bridge) when William of Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester, arrived with promises of pardon for the rebels on behalf of the Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury, John Kemp.

His forced much reduced, Cade – a pardon in his pocket under Mortimer’s name only – moved back into Kent and continued to cause trouble. He was, however, captured by the new Sheriff of Kent, Alexander Iden, on 12th July, – one version says this took place near Heathfield in Sussex at a hamlet now known as Cade Street. In any event, Cade was mortally wounded during the struggle and died en route to London.

His corpse, however, completed the journey and Cade was hanged, drawn and quartered and his head placed atop a pole on London Bridge.

While the rebel ringleaders were later captured and killed, in the most part King Henry VI honoured the pardons he had granted.

The story of Cade’s rebellion features in William Shakespeare’s play, King Henry the Sixth.

CheapsideLocated at the junction of Cheapside and Poultry, the Great Conduit, also known as the Cheapside Standard, was a famous medieval public fountain.

The Great Conduit (the word conduit refers to column fountains fitted with ‘cocks’ or taps for dispensing the water) gave access to water piped using gravity four kilometres from the Tyburn into the City largely via lead pipes.

It was constructed by the City Corporation from the mid-13th century after King Henry III approved the project in 1237. It was rectangular-shaped timber building with an elevated lead tank inside from which the water was drawn.

It took the name ‘Great’ after further conduits were built further west in Cheapside in the 1390s. There were at least 15 conduits or standards scattered about the City by the time of the Great Fire in 1666.

It was rebuilt several times over its life, notably in the reign of King Henry VI, but after being severely damaged in the fire was deemed irreparable and orders were given for it to be taken down in 1669 (many houses by then had alternate water supplies, notably from the New River project). From the 1360s, management of the conduit was the responsibility of four wardens, maintaining the pipes and charging professional water carriers and tradesmen who required water by allowing free

The Cheapside Conduit was a notable landmark – some executions and other punishments were carried out here, speeches were made from here and the conduit building itself was used as a place for posting information. And to celebrate special occasions it was made to flow with wine – this took place in 1432 when King Henry VI marched through London after being crowned King of France, at the coronation of Queen Margaret in 1445 and at the wedding procession of King Henry VIII’s queen Anne Boleyn in 1533.

The substructure of the Great Conduit was rediscovered at the end of the 19th century and again in the 1990s. A plaque marking the location of the Great Conduit at the eastern end of Cheapside was unveiled in late 1994 by Thames Water and the Worshipful Company of Water Conservators. There’s also a memorial set into the pavement over the substructure.

In this, the final in our series looking at Shakespeare’s London, we take a quick look at some of the plethora of London locations mentioned by the Bard in his historical plays. Some we have already covered, but here are a few more…

Westminster-AbbeyWestminster Abbey (pictured): We’ve already talked about Poet’s Corner but Shakespeare himself makes mention of Westminster Abbey in his plays, notably in Henry VI, Part I, when it’s the scene of Henry V’s funeral. The Jerusalem Chamber, principal room of Cheyneygates, the medieval house of abbots of Westminster is mentioned in Henry IV, Part II.

The Houses of Parliament: True, the buildings have changed somewhat since Shakespeare’s day but the former Palace of Westminster is the site of scenes in numerous plays including Richard IIHenry IV, Part II and Henry VI, Part III are set. Among rooms mentioned is Westminster Hall which survives today from the original building.

The Tower of London: As one would expect, this prominent London landmark pops up in several of Shakespeare’s plays including Henry VI, Part I and Richard III where its plays a rather central role – among the events recorded in the latter play are the infamous drowning of Richard III’s elder brother George in a butt of Malmsey wine.

Ely House: The London residence of the bishops of Ely, this long gone building is mentioned in Richard II (for more on Ely House see our earlier posts on Ye Olde Mitre Tavern here and St Etheldreda’s Church here ).

The London Stone: Now at 111 Cannon Street, the London Stone originally was located at another location in Cannon Street and its here in Henry VI, Part II, that rebel Jack Cade stops to strike his sword upon the stone (for more on the London Stone, see our earlier post here).

Other London sites mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays include generic “London Streets” (mentioned in a number of plays), “Eastcheap, near the Boar’s Head Tavern” (Henry IV, Part II), the Temple Garden (Henry VI, Part I) and Blackheath (Henry VI, Part II).

It was exactly 543 years ago today that the Battle of Barnet – one of the key battles of the Wars of the Roses – was fought near what was then the small town of Barnet but is now an area on Greater London’s outer northern fringe.

Hadley-HighstoneKing Edward IV, returning from exile in Burgundy after he was ousted by the Lancastrians, led an estimated 10,000 Yorkists in an engagement with some 15,000 Lancastrians (who backed King Henry VI) under the command of Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick and known as the Kingmaker, who had previously supported the Yorkists (and before that the Lancastrians).

The forces met on 14th April, 1471, at around dawn but thick fog sewed confusion in the Lancastrian ranks with allies attacking each other and the army eventually fell apart amid cries of treachery. Warwick was killed in the battle as he attempted to flee.

The exact site of the battle remains something of an unknown although it is thought to span the community of Monken Hadley just to the north of Barnet itself (that is the area marked on the official English Heritage Register of Historic Battlefields).

A stone monument to the battle, the Hadley Highstone, was erected in the 18th century and in the 1800s was moved to its current location at the junction of Kitts End Road with the Great North Road in Monken Hadley and was originally thought to have marked the spot on which Warwick died. The Battlefields Trust is currently developing a project to pin down the location further.

The battle was important because, along with the following Battle of Tewkesbury during which the Lancastrian heir Edward was killed (and the murder of King Henry VI shortly after), it secured the throne for King Edward IV for the next 14 years.

PICTURE: Nigel Cox/Wikipedia

A recreation of King Henry VIII’s imperial crown, destroyed after the English Civil War, has gone on show in the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court Palace. Originally created for either King Henry VIII or his father, King Henry VII, the crown was worn at the coronations of Henry VIII’s children and possibly the king’s own as well as at Hampton Court Palace during major liturgical and court ceremonies. It was subsequently used by his successors down to King Charles I before being melted down by the Commonwealth Government in 1649 at the Tower of London. The replica crown, which is being displayed in the Royal Pew – allowing visitors access to the balcony in the chapel for the first time in seven years, is the result of detailed historical research by Dr Kent Rawlinson, curator at Hampton Court Palace, and was made by Crown Jeweller Harry Collins and his master craftsmen. Hand-crafted in silver gilt, it features 344 jewels including pearls and precious and semi-precious stones. Five enameled figures are set within five fleur-de-lis – the figures represent the Virgin and Child, St George and English kings believed to be St Edmund, St Edward the Confessor and King Henry VI (King Henry VIII had the latter three figures added to the crown to underline the political and religious authority of the Crown). For more on Hampton Court Palace, see www.hrp.org.uk/HamptonCourtPalace/PICTURE: HRP/Newsteam

Today marks 60 years since Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the throne, making her Britain’s second-longest serving monarch. While the celebrations are yet to kick off in earnest (the Diamond Jubilee weekend will be officially held over the 2nd to 5th June), we thought we’d take a quick look at the top 10 longest-serving monarchs who were crowned at Westminster Abbey in London:

1. Queen Victoria – 63 years (20th June, 1837-22nd January, 1901)

2. Queen Elizabeth II – 60 years (6th February, 1952-current)

3. King George III – 59 years (25th October, 1760-29th January, 1820)

4. King James I (VI of Scotland) – 57 years (24th July, 1567-27th March, 1625)

5. King Henry III – 56 years (18th October, 1216-16th November, 1272)

6. King Edward III – 50 years (25th January, 1327-21st June, 1377)

7. Queen Elizabeth I – 44 years (17th November, 1558-24th March, 1603)

8. King Henry VI – 38 years (31st August, 1422-4th March,1461, and, 31st October, 1470-11th April, 1471)

9. King Henry VIII – 37 years (22nd April, 1509-28th January, 1547)

10. King Henry I – 35 years (3rd August, 1100-1st December, 1135)

Opened to the public last week, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination – a landmark exhibition at the British Library – features a “treasure trove” of illuminated manuscripts collected by the kings and queens of England between the 9th and 16th century. Highlights include 16 illuminated manuscripts of King Edward IV, what the library calls the first “coherent collection” of royal books; the Psalter of King Henry VIII, A History of England by Matthew Paris, a 13th century monk, scholar and advisor to King Henry III; Thomas Hoccleve’s Regement of Princes – a early 15th century instruction book on how to be an effective ruler; a 14th century Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings; and, The Shrewsbury Book, created in Rouen in 1445 and presented to Margaret of Anjou on her marriage to King Henry VI by the renowned military commander John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury. An impressive series of public events featuring well known writers and historians – including Eamon Duffy, Michael Wood, and Andrew Marr –  is taking place alongside the exhibition. Runs until 13th March. An admission charge applies. For more, see www.bl.uk.

PICTURE: The Coronation of Henry III, Images of English Kings, from Edward the Confessor to Edward I, England, c. 1280-1300, Cotton Vitellius, A. xiii, f. 6 © British Library Board

• Leading 18th century landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown has been honored with a blue plaque at his former home in Hampton Court Palace. Brown, who designed more than 120 landscapes during his lifetime, lived at Wilderness House after King George III appointed him Chief Gardener at the palace – he lived there from 1764 until his death in 1783. Brown’s legacy can still be seen at country houses around England – including at Petworth House in West Sussex, Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, Chatsworth House in Derbyshire and Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. He had earned the name ‘Capability’ by the 1760s – apparently he often spoke of a property’s capabilities when speaking of it. English Heritage unveiled the plaque last week. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk.

A second blue plaque worth mentioning this week is that marking the former home of actor Richard Burton. Michael Sheen – currently playing Hamlet at the Young Vic – was among those who last week attended the unveiling on the plaque at the home Burton and his wife actress Sybil Williams lived in from 1949 to 1956, the period during which he rose to international fame. While living at the house 6 Lyndhurst Road in Hampstead, Burton was a member of the Old Vic theatre company – performing, to the acclaim of critics, roles including that of Hamlet, Othello, Coriolanus and Henry V – and in 1952 made his Hollywood debut with My Cousin Rachel. Other films he appeared in during the period include The Robe (1953), The Desert Rats (1953), and Alexander the Great (1956). Following the close of the Old Vic season in 1956, Burton moved to Switzerland and went on to even greater public fame following his role in the 1963 film Cleopatra alongside his then lover (and later wife) Elizabeth Taylor. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk.

• On Now: Grayson Perry – The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. This exhibition at the British Museum explores a range of themes connected with the ideas of craftsmanship and sacred journeys and includes 190 objects from the museum’s collection selected by the artist along with a works by Grayson himself, many of which will be on public view for the first time. They include everything from Polynesian fetishes to Buddhist votive offerings, a prehistoric hand axe to 20th century badges and a re-engraved coin from 1882 featuring a bust of Queen Victoria with a beard and boating hat. At the heart of the exhibition sits Grayson’s own work, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, a richly decorated cast-iron “coffin-ship”. Runs until 19th February. An admission charge applies. For more, visit www.britishmuseum.org.

The oldest of the royal parks, the 74 hectare (183 acre) Greenwich Park has been associated with royalty since at least the 15th century.

The area covered by the park had been occupied by the Romans (there are some remains of a building, possibly a temple, near Maze Hill Gate) and later the Danes, who raised protective earthworks here in the 11th century. After the Norman Conquest, it became a manor.

Its enclosure only happened in 1433 after the land came into the possession of Humphrey of Lancaster, Duke of Gloucester and brother of King Henry V. At the time regent to the young King Henry VI, Duke Humphrey also built a tower on the heights above the park – where the Royal Observatory now stands.

Following the duke’s death in 1447, the land was seized by Margaret of Anjou – wife of King Henry VI – and subsequently became known as the Manor of Placentia. King Henry VII later rebuilt the manor house, creating what was known as Greenwich Palace or the Palace of Placentia.

Not surprisingly, it was King Henry VIII, who, having been born at Greenwich Palace, introduced deer to the park. Indeed the park was to have strong associations with others in his family – the king married Catherine of Aragorn and Anne of Cleeves at Greenwich Palace, and his daughters, later Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I, were born there while his son, King Edward VI, died there in 1553 at the age of only 15. (There’s a tree in the park known as Queen Elizabeth’s Oak, which is said to be where she played as a child).

In 1613, King James I gave the palace and accompanying park – which he had enclosed with a high wall – to his wife, Queen Anne of Denmark, apparently as an apology after swearing at her in public when she accidentally shot one of his favorite dogs. Queen Anne subsequently commissioned Inigo Jones to design what is now known as the Queen’s House – for more on that, see our earlier post.

Following the Restoration, King Charles II ordered the palace rebuilt and while this work remained unfinished, the king did succeed in having the park remodelled – it is believed that Andre Le Notre, gardener to King Louis XIV of France, had a role in this.

The works included cutting a series of terraces into the slope – these were known as the Great Steps and lined with hawthorn hedges – as well as creating a formal avenue of chestnut trees (now known as Blackheath Avenue), and some woodlands. Work is currently taking place on restoring an orchard which dates from 1666 at the park.

King Charles II also commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to build the Royal Observatory that still stands on the hill overlooking the park – it stands on the site once occupied by the Duke Humphrey Tower (the Royal Observatory is home of the Prime Meridian – see our earlier post on the Royal Observatory for more).

King James II was the last monarch to use the palace and park – his daughter Queen Mary II donated the palace for use as a hospital for veteran sailors and the park was opened to the pensioners in the early 1700s. The hospital later become the Royal Naval College and the National Maritime Museum later moved onto the site (for more on this, see our earlier post).

As an aside, Royal Parks say the truncated shape of some of the trees in the park is apparently due to the fact that when anti-aircraft guns were positioned in the flower garden during World War II, the trees had to be trimmed to ensure a clear field of fire.

Facilities in the park today include a tea house, a children’s playground, sporting facilities such as tennis courts and, of course, the Wilderness Deer Park where you can see wildlife at large. Statues include that of Greenwich resident General James Wolfe, an instrumental figure in establishing British rule in Canada – it sits on the crest of the hill opposite the Royal Observatory looking down towards the Thames.

The park, which is part of the Greenwich World Heritage Site, is slated as a venue for next year’s Olympics – it will host equestrian events and the shooting and running events of the pentathlon.

WHERE: Greenwich Park (nearest DLR station is Cutty Sark – other nearby stations include Greenwich, Maze Hill and Blackheath); WHEN: 6am to at least 6pm (closing times vary depending on the month); COST: Free entry; WEBSITE: www.royalparks.gov.uk/Greenwich-Park.aspx

Daytripper – Oxford

September 16, 2011

The “city of dreaming spires”, Oxford is a delight for the student of historic architecture, boasting an impressive array of medieval and later, classically-inspired, buildings.

Only about an hour from London by train (leave from Paddington Station), Oxford was established as a town in the 9th century and rose to prominence during the medieval period as the location of a prestigious university, an institution which remains synonymous with the city today.

Major development followed the Norman Conquest the castle was constructed, the remains of which were included in a £40 million redevelopment several years ago of the area in which it stands and which now houses the Oxford Castle Unlocked exhibition which looks at some of the key figures in the castle’s past (you can also climb St George’s Tower for some great views over the city).

The university first appears in the 1100s and gradually expanded over the ensuing centuries gradually evolved to encompass the many medieval colleges which can still be seen there today.

Something of a hotbed of activity during the Reformation, Oxford saw the burning of three bishops – Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer at a site marked by a memorial in Magdalen Street. Constructed in the 1840s, it was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott who drew inspiration from the Eleanor Crosses King Edward I had erected in honor of his deceased wife, Eleanor of Castile, following her death in 1290.

Oxford was also the site of the headquarters of King Charles I during the English Civil War after the king was forced to leave London (the town eventually yielded to parliamentarian forces after a siege in 1646) and was later home to the court of King Charles II after he fled London during the Great Plague of 1665-66.

Canals arrived in the late 18th century and the railways followed. Industrialisation came – in particular, in the 20th century, in the form of a large car manufacturing plant at the suburb of Cowley – and with it an increasingly cosmopolitan population. But at its heart Oxford remains a student city and it’s the students that continue to provide the lively atmosphere in the city centre.

Look for Carfax Tower to get your bearings – formerly the tower of a 14th century church, this lies at the heart of the town and can be climbed for some great views over the surrounding streets. Some of the colleges are also open to the public (see noticeboards outside the colleges for times) – particularly worth visiting is Christ Church which dates from 1524 and, founded by Cardinal Wolsey, was initially known as Cardinal’s College. It features the Tom Tower, home of the bell Great Tom, which was designed by former student Sir Christopher Wren. The college, which is unique in that the college chapel is also a cathedral, is also home to the Christ Church Picture Gallery.

Other colleges of note include the beautiful Magdalen (pronounced Maudlin, it was founded in 1458 – alumni have included writers John Betjeman, CS Lewis and Oscar Wilde), All Souls (founded in 1438 with King Henry VI its co-founder), and Merton College (the oldest of Oxford’s colleges, it was founded in 1264 and is home to Mob Quadrangle, the oldest quadrangle in the university).

Other university buildings which are a must include the Radcliffe Camera – now the reading room of the Bodleian Library, this Baroque rotunda dates from 1748 and was built as a memorial to 18th century physician Dr John Radcliffe, the Sheldonian Theatre – another of Wren’s designs, it was built in the 1660s as the university’s principal assembly room, and St Mary the Virgin Church – the official church of the university, the present building partly dates from the 13th century and boasts terrific views from the tower.

Make sure you also take the time to wander through the water meadows along the River Cherwell (there are also punt rides) and walk along the River Thames, known as the Isis as it passes through Oxford. Keep an eye out also for the ‘Bridge of Sighs’, similar in design to the Venetian landmark, it spans New College Lane and joins two sections of Hertford College.

Other sites in Oxford include the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology. Considered of the UK’s best, the original Ashmolean was the first purpose built museum in England, opening in 1683. It now houses treasures include art and antiquities with the late ninth century Alfred Jewel, said to have been made for King Alfred the Great, among its prized objects. Other museums include the Pitt Rivers Museum which cares for the university’s collection of anthropology and world archaeology and includes exhibits brought back to Britain by explorer Captain James Cook.

Take the time also to wander through the covered market off high street which has some interesting shops selling everything from clothes to fresh food and flowers and gifts. Fans of Inspector Morse, meanwhile, may also enjoy seeing some of the sites of particular significance in the TV series – there’s an interactive online map here.

A vibrant city redolent with history, Oxford remains of England’s jewels. Perfect as a day-trip destination from London.