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St Martin’s Church at Carfax

The City Church of Oxford stood here from the eleventh century to 1896


The City Church of St Martin, where the Mayor and Corporation of Oxford worshipped, was situated in a prominent position at Carfax right at the centre of the city, just a stone’s throw from the early Guildhall and the later Town Hall in St Aldate’s. It was usually known as Carfax Church. It appears to have been a private church when it was granted to Abingdon Abbey in 1032 by King Cnut or Canute, but soon became the town church. The advowson passed to the Crown after the dissolution.

Carfax Church in 2004

The first known church on this site survived for about eight centuries, but the fate of the second was sealed by the Carfax Improvement Scheme of the 1890s, and it only existed for 74 years.

The thirteenth-century tower to the west of the earlier church (right) had been retained when the second church was built at the beginning of the 1820s, and the last Rector of St Martin's, the Revd Carteret Fletcher, fought to save it again when the council proposed to remove the church in the 1890s. He was successful, and the Oxford Corporation Act of 1890 that allowed the demolition of the church provided that the Corporation should retain on the site the tower and its bells. Fletcher wrote afterwards:

   “For while antiquarian literature is read by
    comparatively a very few, it is by monuments
    like Carfax tower that the past history of their
    city speaks to all citizens.”

The tower was restored by the architect T. G. Jackson, who added a stair-turret and buttresses to allow the structure to stand alone.

A stone plaque dating from 1899 inside the tower reads:

   “Carfax clock was restored and illuminated, the
    ancient quarter boys were replaced, the chimes
    were added, and the Gateway of Saint Martin
    was erected by the munificence of George Bandell
    Higgins of Burcot, Esquire, a native and freeman
    of this city. MDCCCXCIX”
.

The replacement quarter boys of 1899 are now themselves in the Museum of Oxford, and the ones that today strike every quarter of an hour only date from the 1960s. A new electric clock was installed in 1938.

The new Gateway of St Martin (more information below) was also duly created to link the tower to the new shop on the corner (now the HSBC Bank), and there is a sculpture of the saint at the top. The gate originally led into the part of the churchyard retained as a garden.


The first St Martin’s Church (eleventh century–1820)

The first St Martin’s (or Carfax) Church was built in the early eleventh century, although the part that survived until 1820 was probably mostly the work of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It became the town church in medieval times, and by the reign of Henry II was probably used for council meetings. It was centrally situated centrally at Carfax,

St Martin's Church in 1822 Print of the medieval St Martin's Church drawn & engraved by J. & H. Storer and reproduced by kind permission
of Roger Gilboy. The print is dated 1822, but the original drawing must have been made by 1820

The above print shows that medieval church did not encroach on Carfax to the same extent as the later one. Until 1747 the Penniless Bench stood here on this east side of the church, facing Cornmarket.

Up until 1848, the inhabitants of St Martin's (Carfax) parish were all buried either inside this church or in its churchyard to the north. The churchyard was closed to all new burials that year, and henceforth parishioners were buried in the St Martin's section of the newly opened Holywell Cemetery.

The surviving parish registers of this church date from 1562, and can be seen at the Oxfordshire History Centre. William Shakespeare (who used to stay with John Davenant and his wife at the Crown Tavern on the opposite side of Cornmarket) acted as godfather to William Davenant (the future poet laureate) when he was baptised at this church on 3 March 1605/6.

In 1818 this medieval church was declared unsafe by four different builders, and in 1820 it was demolished except for its thirteenth-century west tower.


The second St Martin’s Church (1822–1896)

St Martin’s Church at CarfaxThe second St Martin's Church in 1836, when it was 14 years old. The medieval tower that still exists
at Carfax was incorporated into the new church, but its height hides most of it

The foundation stone of the replacement St Martin’s Church (above) was laid by Herbert Parsons, Mayor of Oxford, on 23 October 1820, and the church was opened for its first service on Sunday 16 June 1822. It was said to be modelled on Gloucester Cathedral.

The map below, dating from 1876, shows the old tower to the left of the church, and the grave yard to the north.

St Martin's in 1876

In 1886 the advowson passed from the Crown to Keble College, which immediately exchanged it with the Bishop of Oxford for that of St Barnabas' Church, Oxford.

W. E. Sherwood reminisces here about the 1822 church as it was in the later nineteenth century:

It was the City Church, and so contained the Corporation pew on the south side, but opposite this was, strangely enough, a Ladies’ Corporation pew. Not, mind, that Oxford City was then so ahead of the times as to dream of having ladies as aldermen or councillors, but because, I fancy, it was the fashion in those days for husband and wife to worship together. Of course, the cynical said it was because the City Fathers liked to have their wives under their own eyes, but this no doubt was a libel.

However, there they were; the Corporation pew and the ladies’ pew facing each other, and between them, close up to the altar rails, and quite blotting out the east end, was a fine old ‘three decker’; the clerk below, the reader on the main deck, and the preacher up aloft…. In front of the clerk’s seat sat on benches round a stove four old City Almsmen, clad in handsome gowns and wearing brightly-polished sliver badges, two of which are now in the Committee Room of the Town Hall…. The sermons were preached by the four City lecturers in turn, of whom the Rector was as a rule one….

This second St Martin's Church, built in 1822, only survived for 74 years. The photograph below by Henry Taunt must have been taken shortly before it was demolished in 1896 as part of a road-widening scheme.

St Martin’s Church


The end of the City Church of St Martin

The Oxford Corporation Act of 1890 marked the end of almost 900 years of worship on this site. It stated that the removal of this church and the throwing of part of its site and of the churchyard into the street would be a great public improvement, and enacted that the Rector and Churchwardens of St Martin, with the consent of the Bishop and Archdeacon, should sell the church to Oxford Corporation. This sale duly took place under an agreement of 6 July 1891, the Corporation paying £2,100 for the church with its churchyard, and the Act stipulated that this money should be used to rearrange All Saints' Church for the accommodation of the parishioners of St Martin's and the members of the Council.

The Act came into force on 15 April 1895, when the Vicar of All Saints', the Revd J. O. Johnston, was instituted Vicar of Cuddesdon. the Rector of St Martin's since 1876, the Revd Carteret J. H. Fletcher, should then have become Rector of the united Church of St Martin and All Saints, but resigned immediately. He wrote a history of St Martin's: its introductory words make his feelings about the loss of the church at Carfax clear: “The Street Improver’s besom of destruction having just swept from the face of Oxford its oldest parish church, in which the Mayor and Corporation for more than three centuries regularly attended public worship…”.

The last service at St Martin's was on 15 March 1896, and the church was demolished shortly afterwards. The endowment of the city lectureships was henceforth applied for educational and charitable purposes.

Plaque Plaque put up in the base of the tower in 1899

Font from St Martin's Church

The stone from St Martin's Church was bought by Windlesham House School and used to build their chapel.

The organ was sold to Cowley Church for £150, and the communion table was given to the workhouse.

The church plate, font, and muniments were moved to the new City Church of All Saints' (which was henceforth known as St Martin's and All Saints' Church)

The fourteenth-century font (right), which is carved with eight figures of bishops and saints, was moved from St Martin’s to All Saints, and is now at St Michael-at-the-Northgate Church.

All monuments, tablets, and tombstones were re-erected either in the church or churchyard of All Saints, including the Davenant memorial.

The bones remains of people who had been buried in the churchyard were removed to the St Martin's section of Holywell Cemetery.


The Gateway of St Martin

Bronze of St Martin

St Martin and the beggar

The church was named after St Martin of Tours, who was a soldier in the Roman army stationed in Gaul. As he was approaching the gates of the city of Amiens on horseback, it is recorded that he met a half-naked beggar and cut his military cloak in half to share it with him.

When the above gateway was built to connect the ancient tower to the new shop on the north-west corner of Carfax (now the HSBC Bank), a bronze sculpture at the top showing St Martin slicing his cloak (above and right) was placed at its apex.

Originally this gate led into a small grassy area of the churchyard that had remained undisturbed, and although there is a café there now, some flat stones covering vaulted graves can be seen under the tables, including that of the former Mayor William Henry Butler, who was buried as late as 1865 because his family had an existing vault.


Because it was the City Church, many Mayors of Oxford were buried here, including:

Richard Carey (d. 1349)

Edward Woodward (d. 1497)

William Fleming (d. c.1550)

Richard Whittington (d. 1578)

William Noble (d. 1578)

Henry Dodwell (d. 1578)

Thomas Rowe (d. 1599)

Walter Payne (d. 1619)

John Davenant (d. 1622)

William Wright I (d. 1635)

John Dewe (d. 1639/40)

Thomas Cooper (d. 1640)

William Chillingworth (d. 1645)

Martin Wright (d. 1664)

William Cornish (d. 1679)

William Morrell (d. 1679)

William Bayly (d. 1683)

Roger Griffin (d. 1690)

William Wright II (d. 1693)

John Halifax (d.1735)

John Austin (d. 1775)

John Treacher I (d. 1780)

William Henry Butler (d.1865)


See also:

The second city church (All Saints)

The third (and present) city church (St Michael-at-the-Northgate)

C. H. J. Fletcher, Carfax Church, Oxford (Blackwell, 1896)

©Stephanie Jenkins

Last updated: 24 November, 2019

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