University Church of St Mary the Virgin

Address: 25 High Street, Oxford, OX1 4AH, United Kingdom
Telephone: 01865 279 113

- Free


So much history in one parish church.

St Mary's has one of the most elaborate spires in Oxford and an eccentric baroque porch with serpentine columns. In the early days of Oxford University, an Anglo-Saxon church standing on this spot was co-opted to be the first building of the university. From 1252 not only was St Mary's the seat of university government, it was used for lectures and the awarding of degrees.

In 1555 St Mary's was the site of the trial of the Oxford Martyrs. Stalls in the chancel still show the damage done to woodwork caused by the construction of an elevated trial stage. The Anglican bishops Latimer and Ridley, and Archbishop Cranmer were tried for heresy here and later burned to death outside the city walls. A stone cross set into the tarmac of Broad Street, between the Buttery and Balliol, marks the spot today.

By the 17th century the rowdy graduation ceremonies in St Mary’s led John Fell, Dean of Christ Church, to commission Sir Christopher Wren to build the Sheldonian Theatre as a new venue. No longer would St. Mary’s be defiled by "Dionysan revelry".

In 1828 John Henry Newman became vicar of St. Mary’s. Here he and John Keble began The Oxford Movement, an attempt to revive Catholic spirituality in the church and university. In 1843, Newman resigned from St Mary's in frustration, later joining the Roman Catholic Church.

The church contains a memorial to all those, Protestant and Catholic, who were killed during England’s long religious upheavals. It also has a fine view from its steeple. The south porch, with its unmistakable serpentine columns, recalls the Papal throne in St Peter’s Rome. The porch was built in 1637 and was designed by Nicholas Stone, master mason to Charles I, as a gift to Archbishop Laud, Chancellor of the University. The porch was cited as evidence of Laud's "Popish" tendency in his trial in 1645. Laud was later executed. The bullet holes in the statue above the porch were made by Oliver Cromwell's troops.

Value for money

Price advice

Free, but entry to the tower costs £3.

Expert tips

The Vaults and Garden Café is just to the left of the church's north entrance. This vaulted 14th-century structure was originally the university's convocation house. On sunny days it is possible to sit outside and enjoy the view of the Radcliffe Camera.

The view from the tower is well worth the £3 charge to ascend, but wait until the weather is clear – and buy one of the postcards that itemises exactly what you can see from the parapet on all four sides.

There is so much history associated with the university church that it's easy to miss the little plaques on the walls and set into the fall that record the minutiae of Oxford life down the centuries: "Near this Place lie the Remains of JAMES HUME Apothecary who died Dec: 3: 1766."

Recommended for

  • Culture vultures
  • Mature travellers
  • Education
  • Escaping the crowds
  • Relaxation
  • History
  • Design and architecture