Shotover - The Origin of the Name

The Problem

A question I am often asked is "Why is Shotover called Shotover"? The only honest answer to this is "Nobody knows". However there have been a number of suggestions made, some less plausible than others! This page is my attempt to describe (and refute!) some of these and to offer my own thoughts on the subject. I leave it to you, the reader, to decide what you wish to believe.

A Green Castle?

It has been seriously suggested that "Shotover" is a corruption of the Norman French "Chateau Vert" because a green hunting lodge once stood on the hill. This is nonsense. There is no evidence of there ever having been such a green building on Shotover and in any case the name Shotover predates the Norman conquest.

A Famous Feat of Archery?

Another popular suggestion is that the name commemorates the efforts of an archer who was able to shoot his arrow clear over the top of the hill. The best horizontal range that might be achieved from a longbow is around 300 to 350 metres. If we ignore the foothills and assume a shot across the narrowest part of the hill, from The Ridings to a similar point on the opposite side of the hill, the linear distance covered is around 1.25km, before any extra effort is assumed to clear the summit. So here is another explanation that can be completely ruled out.

A Steep Hill?

The most frequently quoted explanation, often said to be the "true explanation" is that the name derives from the Old English "sceot ofer" meaning "steep hill". I have to confess that seeing this often in print, I was for some time, prepared to believe it. Doubts crept in when I took the trouble to look up the words "sceot" and "ofer" in available on-line dictionaries of Old English. Here one finds that "sceot" (or more usually "scot") translates as "shot". Whilst "ofer" translates as "over" or "above". So far from "sceot ofer" meaning "steep hill", it actually means "shot over" and we are back where we started!

A More Plausible Explanation

My belief is that all the above attempts at an explanation stem from a wrong assumption that "Shotover" describes a hill. Nowadays it is used in this way but historically a more accurate approach is to think of "Shotover Hill" as being a hill within a much larger area of land known as "Shotover". There is documentary evidence of this:

We know the name predates the Norman Conquest. In its Latinised form "Scotorne" it appears as a place description in The Domesday Book (1086). It comes in the section relating to the land held by the king and in translation states: "In Shotover, Stowood, Woodstock, Cornbury and Wychwood are the lordship forests of the King."

Note that at this time "forest" meant an area of land hunted over by the King and subject to "forest law", not necessarily an area covered by trees. Although the term "forest" and the associated forest law as a separate jurisdiction, was only introduced by the Normans, the concept of land used for royal hunts dates back well into the Saxon era.

So now we have Shotover as an area of land hunted over by the King and much larger than just the present Shotover Hill. It is known to have stretched all the way down to the river Cherwell, including Headington, St Clements and Marston. The earliest documented evidence of Shotover's extent is to be found in the Boarstall Cartulary Ref 1, which includes a description of a Perambulation of Shotover and Stowood Forest, dating from about 1298. We here show the boundary of Shotover as described in the perambulation, by a red outline, superimposed on a modern map. As you can see, Shotover Hill is a relatively small part of the whole, in the South East corner.

With this in mind, attempts to link the name to specific properties of Shotover Hill make no sense. You need simply think of it as land which was "shot over" by the King and no further explanation is required. Indeed the phrase is still in use, when we refer to people shooting over an estate, the only difference being that nowadays a shotgun has replaced a longbow as the weapon of choice.

Ref 1: The Boarstall Cartulary, Revd H.E. Salter (ed.):, Oxford Historical Society. Vol 88, 1930.
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