Oswestry / Croeswallt

Extract from Lewis's Topographical Dictionary of England, 1831.
Transcribed by Mel Lockie, © Copyright 2010
Lewis Topographical Dictionaries

OSWESTRY, a borough and market-town and parish, having separate jurisdiction, though locally in the hundred of Oswestry, county of SALOP, comprising the townships of Llanforda with Trefarclawdd, Pontregaer, and Lynymon; Maesbury with Morton and Crickheath; Middleton with Aston, Hisland, and Wooton; Weston with Sweeney, Treflach, and Trefonnen; and containing 7523 inhabitants of which number, 3910 are in the town of Oswestry, 17 miles (N.W.) from Shrewsbury, and 180 (N.W.) from London. This town is supposed to have been founded, in the fourth century, by the Britons, and having been given by Cunetha Wiedic, Prince of North Wales, to his son Ussa, in the sixth century, was named Maes Usswalt, and subsequently Maserfield. Its present appellation is a corruption of the Saxon Oswaldstre, Oswald's tree, or town, and originated in a battle fought here, August 5th, 642, between Oswald, the Christian King of Northumberland, and Penda, the Pagan King of Mercia, in which the former was slain; and the members of his body were severally affixed to three crosses, in token of conquest, and in derision of his religious tenets: on this account also the Welch called it Croes Oswald, which name they still retain. The esteem in which Oswald had been held by the monks led to his canonization; the scene of his death became hallowed, miraculous virtues were attributed to his relics, and a monastery was soon afterwards raised to his memory, from which institution this place received the appellation of Blanc minster, with other names of similar import. Oswestry continued in the possession of the Britons, and constituted a portion of the kingdom termed Powysland, until the year 777, when it was annexed to the kingdom of Mercia, by conquest, and an earthen mound, called Clawdd Offa, Offa's dyke, and vulgarly the Devil's ditch, was raised, as a line of demarcation between that kingdom and the principality of Wales. This dyke extends from the river Wye, along the counties of Hereford, Radnor, Montgomery, and Denbigh, and terminates near the Clwydian hills; near this town it crosses, the race-course on Cefn-y-bwch.

Parallel with it, but at unequal distances, is a similar rampart, called Watt's Dyke, or perhaps originally Watch Dyke, from the number of Watch forts on its course: the Welch call it Clawdd Wat, from Cadwalader, King of Wales. The formation of this work is of much earlier date, and is ascribed to the Britons, as a means of defence against Roman invasion: the intervening space was esteemed neutral ground, whereon the Britons, Danes, &c., were accustomed to meet for the purpose of traffic, without molestation. On the line of Watt's Dyke, about a mile northward of the town, is another work of the ancient Britons, denominated by their descendants Lys Ogran, or Ogyrvan, or Caer Ogran, Ogran's palace, or strong hold; and also Hen Dinas, old camp or city: its present name is Old Fort, or, by corruption, Old Port, and it is occasionally called Old Oswestry, there being a vulgar tradition that it was anciently the site of a town: it was a famous military post, being a lofty-natural eminence, of an oblong shape, and surrounded by a deep triple intrenchment on the summit and sides, the area comprising nearly sixteen acres, and the fortifications, which are covered with timber and brushwood, upwards of forty.

Oswestry is not mentioned in the Norman survey: according to Dugdale, it was given by the Conqueror to Alan, ancestor of the Fitz-Alans, Earls of Arundel, in which noble family the barony continued upwards of five hundred years; but another authority states that the Fitz-Alans became lords of it by marriage of one of the lords of Clun with Maud, widow of Madog ap Meredydd, who, on partition of Powysland by his father, succeeded to the division termed Powys Vadog, of which Oswestry formed part. This was Madog's chief residence, and, according to the Welch records, he built the castle about 1149, though the English historians mention it to have existed before the Conquest: it stood on an artificial mound on the north-west side of the town, but there are scarcely any remains. When Henry II. attempted to subjugate the principality, in the year 1164, he assembled his army and encamped here for a consider time, prior to the sanguinary conflict beneath Castell Crogen, now Chirk castle, the scene of which is yet marked by a heap of stones, called Adwyr Bedhan, or the Passage of the Graves. During the contest between John and the barons, about 1216, the castle was destroyed by fire, and, in 1233, the town experienced a similar fate from Llewellyn ap Jorwerth, Prince of Wales.

In 1277, Edward I., still meditating the subjugation of Wales, began to surround this town with walls, for the completion of which he imposed a murage tax upon the county for six years; they were about a mile in circumference, had four gates, and were flanked by a foss. Soon after the. dissolution of the parliament held at Shrewsbury, in which the Duke of Hereford, afterwards Henry IV., accused the Duke of Norfolk of treasonable expressions, those illustrious persons were cited to appear before the king, and the commissioners appointed by that parliament, in this town. During an insurrection of the Welch, under Owen Glyndwr, in 1400, Oswestry was again nearly destroyed by fire; and in 1403; that renowned leader, having caused himself to be proclaimed Prince of Wales, assembled a force of twelve thousand men here, with a view to join Lord Percy against the king; but this union was not effected; and, on the issue of that celebrated battle, Glyndwr retreated precipitately into Wales.

At the commencement of the parliamentary war, Oswestry was garrisoned in support of the royal, cause; but on June 22nd, 1644, the forces were compelled to surrender to a detachment of the parliamentary army, under the command of the Earl of Denbigh and General Mytton: an ineffectual attempt was made to retake the town, and a few years afterwards the castle was demolished. A great part of the town was destroyed by casual fires, which occurred in 1542, 1544, and 1567: the western suburb is yet called Pentre poedd, the burnt town. In 1559, the plague swept off more than five hundred of its inhabitants, on which occasion the market was removed to a place on the road to Welchpool, about half a mile distant, where is the base of an old cross, called Croes Willin, which is supposed to have been erected at the time; in 1585, a similar visitation took place, and during its continuance, the flannel market, for which Oswestry was then noted, was held at Knockin.

The town, situated on the road from London to Holyhead, occupies the declivity of a range of hills which skirt it on the western side, and commands an extensive view over the fertile plain of Salop: the streets are paved and lighted, under the provisions of an act obtained in 1810, gas having been introduced in 1825; the old buildings, of timber and brick, have been succeeded by respectable modern edifices, and the town, which has long since stretched beyond its ancient boundaries, is still progressively increasing in size, and improving in appearance. A neat theatre, in Willow-street, is occupied by a respectable company in the autumn; races are held annually in September; and accommodation for occasional assemblies is provided at the Wynnstay Arms.

The sale of Welch flannel and of cotton goods, which was formerly carried on to a great extent, was removed to Shrewsbury about 1625; at present the chief business of the town is in malting, and there is some trade in flannel. Coal abounds in the neighbourhood. The markets are on Wednesday and Saturday, the former being the principal. A fair on the eve, day, and morrow of St. Andrew was granted by Henry III.; fairs are also held on the third Wednesday in January, March 15th, May 12th, Wednesday before Midsummer-day, August 15th, Friday before September 29th, and December 10th. The first charter was granted to the inhabitants by William Fitz-Alan, their feudal lord, in the reign of Henry II., and the first royal charter by Richard II., confirmations having been received from subsequent sovereigns: the borough is now governed by the charter of Charles II., under which the corporate body consists of a mayor, high steward, twelve aldermen, and fifteen common council-men, assisted by a recorder, coroner, town clerk, murenger, and other officers. The mayor, recorder, and murenger, are elected by the aldermen and members of the common council; the high-steward and town clerk are appointed by the lord of the manor; the mayor for the preceding year acts as coroner.

Courts for the borough, and petty sessions for the hundred, are held here. The guildhall is a plain stone edifice, with a small turret, comprising apartments for holding quarter sessions and other public meetings, and a jury-room; it is private property, and forms one side of the square denominated Bailey-head: near it is the town clerk's office, a lofty edifice built with the stone which formerly belonged to the town gates; behind it is a small prison. The living is a discharged vicarage, in the archdeaconry and diocese of St. Asaph, rated in the king's books at £23. 15. T., and in the patronage of Lord Clive.

The church, dedicated to St. Oswald, was originally the conventual church of the ancient monastery, and was greatly damaged during the commotions of 1616 and 1644, at which latter period the tower was taken down by the royalists, lest, as it stood without the town walls, their opponents should annoy them from its summit. On the north side of the churchyard is a pleasant walk, shaded by a double row of lime trees, and terminated by an alcove. A chapel of ease was erected, in 1810, at Trefonnen, in this parish, by subscription, for the accommodation of the Welch inhabitants, the service being performed in the Welch language. There are places of worship for Baptists, Independents, and Wesleyan Methodists.

The free grammar school was founded, about the time of Henry IV., by Davy Holbecke, and endowed with land then worth £10; in 1776, the sum of £780 was raised by subscription, for the erection of a new school-room and a residence for the master; at the same time a field, called Cae Groes, from having contained the cross, or pole, on which the mangled remains of Oswald were exposed, was given to the school by Sir W.W. Wynn, Bart., having been regularly conveyed to it, by deed dated September 22nd, 1815, at a small rental, by the present baronet of that name; the premises then begun were completed by the present master, who also recovered about twenty-six acres of land for the institution, which had been considered lost. The annual rental arising from the original endowment is about £250: the master's salary, including the value of. the house, &c., is about £300 per annum, and he receives a considerable number of boarders; the school is free to all the sons of parishioners for instruction in English and classical literature. Thomas Bray, D.D., a learned divine, the principal promoter of the "Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts", and the founder of parochial and lending libraries, received the early part of his education at this school.

A National school for boys and girls is held in apartments above the town clerk's office and town hall, and is supported by voluntary contributions, the National Society having contributed £200 towards its establishment; here also schoolmasters are prepared for Wales. The house of industry, a spacious and handsome edifice of brick, about a mile from the town, was erected for the poor of this town and parish, and those of ten neighbouring parishes, with the township of Llwyntedman, in the parish-of Llanymynech, at the joint expense of the respective places, pursuant to an act passed in 1791. There is a society for ameliorating the condition of the poor.

A little westward from the town is Oswald's well, a small basin under an arch in the recess of a stone wall, with a crowned head of Oswald, near the spot where that monarch is supposed to have fallen; a chapel formerly stood near it. On the ancient walls which surrounded the town were several towers, and the entrance was through four gates, called respectively, New gate, Beatrice gate. Willow, or, more properly, Wallia gate, and Black gate, the last-named having been taken down in 1766, and the others in 1782. Oswestry confers the inferior title of baron on the Duke of Norfolk.

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