University Church of St. Mary the Virgin—Oxford University

The history of Oxford University and the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin has been intertwined since the university began. In addition to serving as a house of worship, St. Mary the Virgin was the university’s first meeting place, lecture hall, and library.

Exams were held and degrees were awarded within the church’s walls. As more teachers and students joined the institution and the university outgrew the church building, new houses and colleges were built around St. Mary the Virgin.

A church has been located on this site since Anglo Saxon times, but nothing remains of that early structure. The oldest part of the existing church is the tower, which was built in 1280; its ornate spire was added between 1315 and 1325.

For a small fee and the aerobic workout that the 124-step climb provides, visitors who ascend the tower earn wonderful views of Oxford. Points of interest among the vistas include the nearby Radcliffe Square and Radcliffe Camera, Brasenose College, and All Souls’ College.

Radcliffe Camera, designed by James Gibbs who also designed St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London’s Trafalgar Square, was completed in 1749. The distinctive Oxford landmark was built to house a library donated, along with the funds for construction, by Queen’s physician Dr. John Radcliffe.

England witnessed Catholic and Protestant intolerance and fanaticism during the Tudor monarchies of King Henry VIII, who broke with Rome, and of his daughter Queen Mary I, who sought to reestablish Catholicism during her reign. By burning 300 people at the stake, the queen earned herself the nickname of “Bloody Mary.”

St. Mary the Virgin Church was the site of the trials of three prominent Protestant clergymen known as the Oxford Martyrs—Bishop Hugh Latimer, Bishop Nicholas Ridley, and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Charged with heresy, Latimer and Ridley were burnt in October 1555; Cranmer met the same death in March 1556. A cross in the road near Balliol College marks the site where they died.

A Martyrs’ Memorial to the three clergymen was errected nearby on St Giles in 1843 nearly 300 years after the events.

The sermons of religious dissenters would be heard in St. Mary the Virgin during later times of less religious violence, but not much more tolerance. In 1738, John Wesley, an Anglican minister and graduate of Oxfor’’s Christ Church College, stood behind a pulpit at St. Mary the Virgin and preached about his personal conversion experience. The Methodist movement that Wesley helped establish did not find a welcoming home in Oxford; he preached his last sermon at St. Mary the Virgin in 1744.

John Henry Newman became vicar of St. Mary the Virgin in 1828; his sermons were legendary. Newman was involved in the Oxford Movement, a group that sought to bring the Anglican Church back to religious orthodoxy. Newman converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845 and became a cardinal in 1879.

Be sure to visit our pages on Oxford and Christ Church College for more pictures and information.

by Katie Calvert