Oxford History: City Wall


Pictorial tour of Oxford’s medieval wall

Just click the pointer at the top of each page to follow the two-mile wall right around the city

The city from the meadow to the south

The present surviving parts of Oxford’s medieval city wall date from the first half of the thirteenth century, when the older wall was overhauled and the remaining sections of rampart replaced by stone. Although it is commonly called the city wall, Oxford was in fact a town until the creation of the See of Oxford in 1542.

An area of approximately 115 acres was enclosed within the wall, which originally had an internal wall walk and at least 21 semi-circular bastions. Its circumference was approximately two miles.

All four main roads into Oxford entered through a gate and then led to Carfax (Quadrifurcus, a place where four roads meet). Tolls were collected at these gates.

Each of four main gates had its own church, dedicated to St Michael in both the north and south, and to St Peter in the both the east and west:

  • North Gate: Spanning Cornmarket just north of Ship Street
    (with St Michael-at-the-Northgate Church, which still survives: VCH)
  • South Gate: Spanning St Aldate’s
    (with St Michael-at-the-Southgate Church, demolished by Thomas Wolsey in to make way for Christ Church: VCH)
  • East Gate: Spanning the High Street, just to the east of Merton Street
    (with St Peter-in-the-East Church, which still survives: VCH)
  • West Gate at junction of present Castle and Paradise Streets
    (with St Peter-le-Bailey Church: rebuilt in 1728–40 and demolished for road widening in 1874: VCH)

Hence the Oxford rhyme:

At North-Gate and at South-Gate too
St Michael guards the way,
While o’er the East and o’er the West
St Peter holds his sway.

There were four other smaller gates:

  • Smith Gate: at the north end of the present Catte Street beside the former octagonal chapel
  • Turl Gate: a small postern gate spanning Turl Street
  • An unnamed gate in the south wall at the point where it turned south to enclose St Frideswide’s priory
  • Little Gate (or Little South Gate): spanning the north end of Littlegate Street.

Thus streets such as Magdalen Street, Long Wall Street, George Street, Holywell Street, and Broad Street that are now thought of as being in the city centre are sited outside the city wall, as well as central colleges such as Balliol, Magdalen, Trinity, Wadham, and St John’s; and most of the St Aldate’s and St Ebbe’s area (from Pembroke Street southwards) was not part of medieval Oxford.

All parts of the wall and its bastions are listed structures.

The wall is described is by the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England: see under (51) here

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© Stephanie Jenkins

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