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.

The gallows belonged to Holywell Manor, and in 1279 Bevis de Clare, the Rector of St Peter-in-the-East Church, claimed gallows here and showed that his predecessors enjoyed the same liberty. Merton College, the Lord of the Manor, established its right to them in 1377, and they survived until the late eighteenth century. J. Thorold Rogers wrote, “Here stood the gallows, on which the lords of the manor, the Warden and Fellows of Merton, had and exercised the right of hanging offenders after trial.”

Herbert Hurst wrote as follows in his essay entitled “Oxford Topography” (a companion volume to Agas's Map of 1578–88 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, but it is possible that this story of him having seen two undergraduates hanged at the “Gownsmen’s Gallows” in the late eighteenth century is a myth.

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

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:

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© Stephanie Jenkins

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