In Roman times, the Britons were described by Claudius as a brave and vigorous race. They lived in strongholds often in thick woods, surrounded by mounds or ditches. Inside these earthworks, they built their round thatched huts to live in and collected their cattle for safety. They were great hunters and used large dogs, somewhat resembling a deerhound for this purpose. Nadbury Camp on Edgehill, the nearest earthwork of this kind to Oxhill, was one of the entrenchments of the Dobuni Tribe.
The Saxons lived in villages surrounded by a mark or boundary. The centre of the village was called a “moot” green and around it clustered the houses, the whole defenced by a dyke or fence, often strengthened by a ditch. Saxon fields were divided into strips by borders of grass called “baulks”. These strips were redistributed every year, the tillage in each field changing annually in regular course of rotation, with wheat, barley or oats, and certain sections remaining fallow in their turn. The class structure mainly consisted of three categories - gentlemen, peasants and slaves. The clothing for all classes was mainly of wool, but linen was occasionally used, and later became fairly common.
The Normans were the first to use stone for building. In their gigantic National Census, the Domesday Book in 1086, land was taxed in hides, each hide being approximately 200 acres. The King granted land to the overlord for a “knight's fee” which in theory meant that the income from such a piece of land would be sufficient to keep a knight fed and sufficiently well equipped to bear arms in the King's service. It was then usual for the overlord to let the land to a tenant or tenants. Agriculture and smithying were the principal occupations in Warwickshire in Norman times, and the total population of the County did not number more than 30, 000.
The Saxon administration of justice largely remained unaltered, being dealt with by a village “moot” with a King's Officer, and a hundred “moot” with a "Shire-reeve” or Sheriff.
Warwick was, of course, the most important town in the county, but next to this were Brailes and Tysoe. Kineton and Wellesbourne too were small towns of importance since they had both a market and a court.
Death swept through the county in 1348 in the form of a type of bubonic plague fostered by dirt and lack of sanitation. This was most fatal in the valley of the Avon. In 1369 the county suffered a further severe outbreak and a smaller one in 1375. This resulted in landowners being left without tenants, and tenants without overlords, smaller villages often being wiped out completely. Serfs and labourers filed the collars from their necks and seized their freedom, often to wander far afield begging and stealing. Crops remained ungathered, and land remained unplanted, so to add to the heavy toll exacted by the plague, came death from starvation.
Many villages still continued to suffer from “the death” in Tudor times. This was the heyday of the wool trade, and a great deal of land was enclosed for sheep farming, resulting in many depopulated villages. By the end of the 15th century a large number of South Warwickshire villages had disappeared almost without trace. In this part of the county villages tended to cluster around the manor house and the Church. The cottages were mostly built of wood smeared with clay, and consisted of one large room on the ground floor with a loft above for sleeping accommodation. Rushes were strewn on the floor which was often slightly lowered to enable the door to open more easily. There was usually a loom for weaving wool already spun on a distaff. The glove making trade in Warwickshire was booming. The roads in Tudor England were very bad, and horse-drawn vehicles thus infrequently used, pack horses with panniers being more useful. The roads were still infested with mercenaries left over from the Wars of the Roses, and travel was thus hazardous. Most of the remote rural villages relied almost entirely on pedlars for news.
At the beginning of the year 1700 it was estimated that more than a quarter of England was bare heath, waste and swamp. Game was so plentiful that preservation, as practised later, was unnecessary. Horses were relatively few, but cattle numbered about one to each member of the rural population.
To a traveller approaching any village, the surroundings would have presented a vastly different picture to that which we know so well today. He would first have seen woodland where commoners had the right to cut wood, then there would have been the village “waste” or rough common. Villages were usually established somewhere near a stream or river and near this would be found meadow lands or “ings” where hay was grown and cattle grazed. Above this would have been big open ploughlands - there were no hedges then - where the village grew its crops.
The usual system of agriculture in unenclosed villages was decided by twelve jurymen chosen annually at the Vestry Meeting, or the Court Leet. Oxhill did, in fact, have a Court Leet but very few of its records are still extant. A few notes still remain in the Shirley papers in the County Record Office, but these in the main consist of fines on various inhabitants of Oxhill - William Townsend, Richard Townsend, Samuel Kilby and others - for not appearing to do “suit and service” to the Lord of the Manor. These are all 17th century records, but as the Lordship of the Manor of Oxhill appears to have been almost constantly in dispute, it would then appear to have been connected directly with the Shirley family.
The twelve jurors were very strict about their agricultural policy. This seems to have been very necessary, since the parish had to be more or less self-supporting. Rules were stringent. Sheep must not be pastured on cow pasture, although those who held less than a “yard land” (approx. 35 acres) could rent a cow pasture on the common, usually for 10/-. Nothing at all could be let to an “out of towne” person.
No one could turn pigs into the common fields from the end of harvest until wheat sowing was begun. All animals must bear their owner’s mark, and branding could only be done on Lady Day, Shear Day and All Saints. Regarding the arable fields, no one could mow any furrows in the wheat fields until after Lammas day: neither could anyone then plough any furrows, greenward or hades until the jury agreed. There were heavy penalties for driving a wagon or cart over land belonging to someone else, fines varying from 20/- down to 6d. The village would almost certainly have owned one or two ploughs of a heavy cumbersome wooden type. All ploughing was carried on at the same time on strips of land so narrow it was impossible to turn the plough. Cross ploughing or harrowing was, therefore, impracticable.
Hay harvest was not highly regarded, but the corn harvest was the crowning work of the year. Extra labour was required at this time, and discharged soldiers were often used as casual labour. Sons and daughters away from home always returned to help with the harvest, and in many school log books, the long August break is always referred to as “harvest holidays”. To get the harvest in was a lengthy process, and often the last sheaf was not cut until All Hallows Eve. There was a superstition in this part of the county that the man who cut the last sheaf would have ill luck throughout the following year. After cutting the corn, the stubble was left about a foot high, and the cattle turned out to graze on it.