Willoughby sits on land once part of the sea bed millions of years ago. During the Ice Age water was trapped to form a vast lake, known as Lake Harrison. Ice sheets gouged out the valley, breached the Lake’s banks, and left the mounds and ridges that we see today. Underground there are pockets of gravel and sand from the ancient sea bed and layers of clay have created aquifers, some holding mineral/chemical infused water.
The oldest known record referring to the Parish is the Domesday Book completed in 1086 which details five small manors. In 2012 a geophysical survey revealed evidence of a Romano-British settlement adjacent to Onley evidencing earlier occupation.
Domesday and later records spell the village’s name in various ways ranging from Wilbi, Wylbi, to Wylughby. The origin is thought to be Willow Farm (‘bi’ being Norse for farm), perhaps the result of Viking raiders settling here.
In 1100 Henry I granted land in Willoughby to Wygan Algason, a Gascon, who had supported him. Eventually Wygan’s family died out leaving its estate in Willoughby to the Hospital of St. John without the East Gate, Oxford.
The Hospital became the principal land owner in the parish. In 1248 King Henry III granted a charter for a weekly market and annual two day fair at Whitsun. 1285 saw a successful approach to the King’s justices for recognition as Lord of the Manor. In 1458 the Hospital’s estate was transferred to Magdalen College, Oxford. The College also had the right to nominate the parish priest (often fellows of the College). The College developed its estate until it was sold to tenants in the 1950s.
In 1437 John and Margaret Hayward established a charity for the village with land in the village and surrounding areas. The charity rented out its land for farming and allotments. Today the remaining assets are vested in two village charities.
Until 1760 agriculture was conducted on the open field system. The resulting distinct ridge and furrow profile is still evident in many fields - that remaining is a nationally important heritage asset. Enclosure took place in 1760 establishing a field pattern very similar to that today - some of the smaller fields have been merged into larger ones.
After enclosure the majority of the land was given over to pasture. There were at least two mills, one a windmill and the other a water mill on the Leam.
The discovery of sulphureted water in a new well in the 19th century led to two Spas in the parish, one was sited where Willoughby House is today and the other adjacent to the Four Crosses. The owner of the Four Crosses had the water tested, which was found by the Royal Institution to be similar to Harrogate’s. Sadly neither enterprise was a success.
The A45 follows a long established route from London to Holyhead providing Willoughby with good communications. Ogilby’s 1675 map of the route describes the section to Dunchurch as ‘bad way’ because it was difficult for horse drawn coaches – tarmacadam didn’t arrive until 1911.
The Oxford canal was opened in 1790 hence the wharf and inn where Longdown Lane crosses. The last major development was the arrival of the Great Central Railway in 1898 many families in the village had members working on the railway which closed in 1956.
In the 18th and 19th century the village was a busy place with, at one point, four inns, school, wheelwright/carpenter, smithy, post office, baker, butcher, and grocers. The farms employed a good number of residents.
As the 20th century progressed employment and services were found elsewhere resulting in few living and working in the village today.
There are few old buildings remaining in the village as most would have been timber framed cob cottages that have been lost or condemned over time. The Church and Vale House in Lower Street are the oldest survivors.
The site of a moated farmstead, dated to the 1400s, in Moor Lane is designated an ancient monument by English Heritage.