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The History of Oakham

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Oakham is the county town of the small English county of Rutland. The
town grew up in the shadow of the Norman castle, of which now only the
banqueting hall survives. The castle was built by Walkelin de Ferrers,
a Norman lord, between 1180 and 1190. The hall is the oldest surviving
English castle hall, although Oakham castle was more of a fortified
manor house than a castle when it was built. Prior to Norman
occupation, it is thought that the Saxons inhabited the area and that
Oakham comes from the name of a Saxon lord called Occa. The castle
remained without a fully encircling wall until the 13th century. The
walls inside the old hall are decorated with over 200 horseshoes, left
by visiting dignitaries and royalty. This strange custom originated
because the lord who built the castle, Walkelin de Ferrers, was King
William’s farrier - or the man who looked after William the
Conquerer’s horses! One of the horseshoes adorning the wall is said to
have come from the horse of Queen Elizabeth I.

A church was built by the Normans at the same time as the hall, but
none of this now survives. In its place is the magnificent All Saints
Church which dominates the town. On the top of the spire is Cock Peter
which is an ancient weathervane that is reputed to be one of the
oldest on England. It is supposed to have shown soldiers on route to
the battle of Agincourt in 1415 the direction of the wind. Most of the
current building dates to the 13th and 14th centuries and the church
boasts four treasures that include the Oakham Bible, handwritten on
vellum, that predates even the Magna Carta of 1215. Another notable
ancient building is the Buttercross, an octagonal structure with
high-pitched stone-slated roof supported by a massive central stone
pier and by eight upright timber posts on stone bases. Built in the
16th or 17th century the cross lends a wonderful old-world feel to
Oakham, especially as the ancient five-hole stocks still displayed in
the market square! There were once four market crosses in Oakham. A
gallows stood at Mount Pleasant, while the pillory stood opposite the
Crown Hotel at the end of Market Place.

Oakham School,1584 by Archdeacon Robert Johnson, is an important part
of the town. The old school buildings provide a historic backdrop to
the old market square. Robert Johnson was a wealthy man, he received
four separate church incomes and he used this wealth to endow both
Oakham and Uppingham with free grammar schools. This endowment was
confirmed by Royal Charter granted by Queen Elizabeth I. Although it
would seem like an obvious choice to send a child to be schooled for
free, in practice very few families would have been able to spare the
child. Poorer families needed their offspring to work at home or to
earn money, so in practice only the wealthier families were able to
make the best use of Johnson’s generosity. The school is now a fully
independent private school. In 2005 it was found guilty of running a
price-fixing cartel along with 50 other independent schools in order
to protect the level of school fees against the downward forces of
competition. The school started admitting girls in 1971.

Oakham declined during the last three centuries and is now a rather
sleepy country market town. The lack of growth has meant that much of
the ancient fabric of the town has remained untouched by the
development, or institutionalised vandalism, that destroyed so much of
the historical fabric of many English towns during the 1960’s and
1970s.

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