“Ride a cock-horse
to Banbury Cross,
To see a fine lady upon a white horse;
Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
And she shall have music wherever she goes.”
This nursery rhyme which has been a favourite with children across the world dates from about 1760.The “Fine” lady is a member of the Fiennes family, ancestors of Lord Saye and Sele from nearby Broughton Castle. However the town of Banbury is much older.
In 2002, the remains of an Iron Age settlement dating back to 200BC were unearthed. The site contained almost 150 items, including pottery and grinding stones, and it is thought that the occupants would have comprised a large family unit with their lives based on agriculture.
At the end of the 5th century, the Saxons built Banbury on the west bank of the River Cherwell and opposite it on the other bank Grimsbury was built.
Banbury stands at the junction of two ancient roads, Salt Way which starts in Droitwich in Worcestershire and used for the carriage of salt to London and Banbury Lane which starts near Northampton and passes through Banbury High Street and on towards the Fosse Way at Stow-on-the-Wold.
In 913AD a band of Danes travelled along Banbury Lane from their settlement in Northampton and marauded across north Oxfordshire. They were great traders who established market towns and this is reflected in Banbury’s Market Place with its triangular shape being typical of their style.
Banbury Castle built in 1135AD and was on the north side of the Market Place, where Castle Quay shopping precinct is now located and over the centuries it was extended.
However being a Royalist stronghold it suffered greatly during the English Civil War. After surviving a siege during the winter of 1644-45 it was repaired and refortified but a second siege in 1646 caused much damage and after 3 months a surrender was negotiated on good terms.
In 1648 demolition of the castle was commenced with the reclaimed materials being used to repair buildings damaged during the fighting. A painting from the period shows two towers rising above houses to the north of Market Place but there is nothing there today.
During the Reformation Banbury had three crosses, the High Cross, the Bread Cross on the corner of High St and Butchers Row and the White Cross on the corner of West Bar St and Beargarden Rd which were all destroyed in 1600 in a backlash against the Puritanism of many of the locals.
Today the only cross in the town is Banbury Cross, referred to in the famous nursery rhyme, which is at the intersection of the roads to Oxford, Warwick, Shipston-on-Stour and the High Street. It was erected in 1859 to commemorate the marriage of Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter Victoria Adelaide Mary Louisa to Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia in the previous year. It is 52feet 6inches high and is topped by a neo-Gothic gilt cross.
Close by, the parish church of St Mary’s with it’s distinctive dome was built between1793 and 1827 to replace a church which was destroyed by fire in 1792.
Statues of King Edward VII, King George V and Queen Victoria were erected in 1914, in celebration of the coronation of King George V in 1911.
There are several old coaching inns in Parsons Street in the old town namely, Ye Olde Auctioneer previously called The New Flyer and then The Flying Horse. Just along from it is Ye Olde Reindeer Inn, having large heavy, wooden doors inscribed with “Anno Din 1570 ” leading through to the yard in the rear.
The entrance to the Unicorn, the town’s leading tavern throughout the reign of King Charles II, is under the archway and past the gateway bearing the date 1648.
The town is famous for Banbury cakes, which are still available in a number of bakeries and restaurants. These are delicious, flat pastries with spicy, currant fillings and have been made since 1586 to secret recipes. For centuries the townspeople traded in wool, first referred to in 1268, ale, cakes and cheese which was made from the 15th to the 18th centuries.
The town has undergone many changes since the opening of the M40 motorway and the building of the Castle Quay shopping precinct alongside the canal. In April 2005 Princess Anne unveiled the large bronze statue of the Fyne Lady upon a White Horse referred to in the nursery rhyme. It is on the corner of West Bar and South Bar, just adjacent to the present Banbury Cross.
A walk around the old town centre will take you back to much of the charm and character of years gone by.