Pull aside the Springtime foliage which will have grown over it, and there, on the corner of Beaumont Street opposite Worcester College, on a stone pillar beside the iron garden railings, you will find a plaque bearing this inscription:
NEAR TO THIS SITE
STOOD THE KING’S HOUSES
LATER KNOWN AS
KING RICHARD I
WAS BORN HERE IN 1157
AND KING JOHN IN 1167
Lionheart and Lackland! Two of our most notorious monarchs. Why here? The name of the street gives a clue. Beau-mont suggests a beautiful, gently rising hill, and to this day you can feel the land lifting as it leaves Hythe Bridge and makes for the centre of town.
Here, beyond the North Gate and within sight of the castle, we have to imagine a fine Norman palace – royal chambers, cloisters, two chapels, kitchens, stables, store-rooms – a residence fit for a king, his queen and their entourage. Henry II loved Oxford. He made it the base for his hunting forays into the venison-rich countryside (and his romantic forays to see Fair Rosamund Clifford). In the first years of his reign he granted the town, its merchants and citizens special privileges and exemptions, “liberties, customs, laws and immunities” under a Royal Charter which was to shape Oxford’s unique place in the nation’s history.
And it was here that two of his four sons were born – the greatest royal hero of medieval England and the baddest royal villain: one muscular, valorous, destined to die on Crusade where his mighty heart belonged; the other sly, devious, destined to lose the crown jewels in the Wash and to die of food poisoning.
Their memories live on; but nothing survives of the palace in which they were born – apart from the name. It was converted into a Carmelite friary in the fourteenth century, then unceremoniously dismantled two hundred years later following the Dissolution, its stones and rafters carted off to aggrandise colleges and, in due course, to line Beaumont Street, the avenue on which this modest and decidedly unregal plaque now stands.