Oxford History: The High


University Church of St Mary the Virgin

St Mary the Virgin Church

The University Church is on the north side of the High, between St Mary's Passage to the west and Catte Street to the east. It is Grade I listed (List Entry No. 1047275).

By the thirteenth century the University was already making use of an earlier church on this site for meetings, examinations, and sessions of the Chancellor’s Court. In the early fourteenth century the University built the old Congregation House on the east side of the church tower for meetings of Congregation, and in the fifteenth century the church itself was largely rebuilt.

The porch on the south side with a statue of the Virgin and Child was added in the early seventeenth century: their heads were shot away by a parliamentary soldier in 1642, and restored in 1662.

By the eighteenth century, the University had built Convocation House for meetings of Convocation (all Masters of Arts on the books of the colleges) at the west end of the Divinity School and the Sheldonian Theatre for ceremonies, and the weekly University Sermon, which still takes place today, became the only regular institutional connection between the church and the University.

The Universal British Directory of 1791 describes the church thus:

The church of St. Mary, in which the public sermons of the university are preached on Sundays and holidays, is situate about the middle of the north side of the High-street. It was rebuilt in the reign of Henry VII as it appears at present. It consists of three aisles, with a spacious choir or chancel, which is separated from the nave by an organ, with its gallery, originally made by Father Smith, and since improved by Mr. John Byfield. The pulpit is place in the centre of the middle aisle. At the west end of the same aisle is situated the vice-chancellor’s throne, at the foot of which are seated the two proctors. The seats which descend on either side are appointed for the doctors and heads of houses, and those beneath for the young noblemen. The area consists of benches for the masters of arts. On the west end, with a return to the north and south, are galleries for the under graduates and bachelors of arts. The tower, with its spire, is a noble and beautiful fabric, one hundred and eighty feet in height, and richly ornamented with pinnacles, niches, and statues, which, as Plot informs us, were added by King, the first bishop of Oxford, in the reign of Henry VIII. It contains six remarkably large bells, by which the proper notice is given for scholastic exercises, convocations, and congregations. On the south side is a portal of more modern structure, erected by Dr. Morgan Owen, chaplain to Archbishop Laud, A.D. 1637. Over it is a statue of the Virgin, with an infant Christ holding a small crucifix; which last circumstance was formed into an article of impeachment against the archbishop by the Presbyterians, and urged as a corroborative proof of his attachment to popery. The choir, above-mentioned, was built by Walter Hart, bishop of Norwich, about A.D. 1462.

Below: Early twentieth-century postcard showing the barleycorn pillars:

St Mary the Virgin

Official website of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin

History of St Mary the Virgin Church in Victoria County History

©Stephanie Jenkins

Last updated: 30 June, 2018

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