Holywell Gallows

1876 map showing site of gallows

The 1876 map of Oxford (above) shows the site of the Holywell Gallows, which were just outside the wall of the old town at the crossroads where Longwall Street and Church Street (now named St Cross Road) ran south to north, and Holywell Street and Benseval Street ran west to east. (Benseval or Beauseval Street had (long been absorbed into the grove of Magdalen College by the time this map was published). The bastion to the right of them in the wall of Magdalen College is called the Gallows Bastion. In medieval times there was a spring called Crowell at the point where Longwall and Holywell Street met. Anthony Wood in his City of Oxford wrote:

In the midst of these four wayes and particularly on the place where the turrell in Magdalen College wall is which looks up Halywell Street, or at least near it, stood a fair cross of stone, and neare it a pillory and stocks, <and> gallows.

In 1279 Bevis de Clare (also known as Bogo de Clare), who was the Rector of St Peter-in-the-East Church, claimed gallows here and showed that his predecessors enjoyed the same liberty.

J. E. Thorold Rogers in Oxford City Documents 1268–1665 wrote as follows about section 70 of the Eyre of the year 1285, which relates to Holywell Gallows:

The jury next present the fact, that two bailiffs of Bogo de Clare had erected a gallows in the lordship of Holywell within the last ten years, and had hanged two criminals, a man and a woman thereon, the man it seems for horsestealing, the offence of the woman not being stated, When the manor came into the hands of Merton College, the same right of executing offenders, probably those who were caught red-hand in theft, was claimed and exercised. Bogo de Clare is summoned to the court with his bailiffs. He claims that the parsons of Holywell had possessed these liberties time out of mind, and prays enquiry. A jury is impanelled with certain knights elected for this purpose, who allege on oath that the liberties claimed have always belonged to the parson.

In 1377 Merton College, now the Lord of the Manor of Holywell, established its right to Holywell Gallows, and the Warden & Fellows of that college thereafter had the right of hanging offenders there after their trial.

The gallows are shown on Agas's map of 1578. Herbert Hurst wrote as follows in 1899 in his essay entitled “Oxford Topography” (a companion volume to Agas's map and other old plans of Oxford), pp. 136–7, about objects that attract observation here at the intersection of Holywell, Longwall, and St Cross Road:

(1) The pillory. About 1270, Johanna de Burgh gives a rent from a house in the east of Holywell between the way which goes to Holywell mill and the garden of St. John [the Hospital of St John, later absorbed into Magdalen College] which was once William's of the pillory, situated in the said street near the stone cross near to Crowell in the parish of St Cross

(2) The little tower, a square bastion like those already referred to which were on each side of East Gate in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries

(3) The gallows, put up by Merton, the lords of the manor, that people might be warned to behave themselves when they entered a new lordship. This gallows figures in the history of the University, for we read that when its members were ordered to take off their hats at St. Mary's service they upheld their privileges, and vowed they would

'Be off to All Hallows
Or the Church by the gallows,'

which would be either St. Peter's or St. Cross. The same edifying structure received the name of Gownsman's Gallows about a hundred and twenty years ago, as we learn from Archdeacon Hare's Story of my life (i.448), where Dr. Routh, the President of Magdalen, exclaims: 'What, Sir, do you tell me, Sir, that you never heard of Gownsman's Gallows? Why, I tell you, Sir, that I have seen two undergraduates hanged on Gownsman's Gallows in Holywell — hanged, Sir, for highway robbery.'

(4) Their place must have been taken, before 1800, by a milder instrument of the law's vengeance, a pair of stocks, as is shown by a drawing of Naties' in 1804, and by one of about 1820 in Fletcher's copy of Gutch. The gallows shows very plainly in Agas, and it will be noticed that he puts Holywell as the name for Crowell. While the present neighbourhood is occupying our attention, it is as well to note the omission of the alure to the west wall of Magdalen Grove — 'gardaines' as our map calls it.

Routh was born in 1755 and came up to Oxford in 1770. It is possible that this story of his having seen two undergraduates hanged at the “Gownsmen’s Gallows” in the late eighteenth century is a myth.

The gallows may have survived until the eighteenth century, although they are not shown on Loggan's map of 1675.

For more information on the gallows, see under COURTS in this section of the Victoria County History of Oxfordshire, Vol. 4, Oxford City: Outlying parts of the Liberty

Below: The “Gallows Bastion”, an embattled tower in the late fifteenth-century Grade II* castellated stone wall of Magdalen College:

The City Gallows were at Greenditch (now part of St Margaret's Road), well outside the northern city wall.

Four Roman Catholics hanged at Holywell Gallows in 1589

Plaque on wall of No. 100

On 5 July 1589 four Roman Catholics who were living in Oxford – George Nichols, Richard Yaxley, Thomas Belson, and Humphrey Pritchard – were executed here at the Holywell Gallows for their faith after being arrested at the Catherine Wheel Inn in Magdalen Street.

In 2008 a plaque remembering them (right) was erected nearby on 100 Holywell Street.


Below: 100 Holywell Street, showing this plaque in contextSite of gallows


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© Stephanie Jenkins

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