Oxford, Oxfordshire

University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford

Unlike Cambridge where the University Church was almost seconded long after the University was established, St. Mary’s in Oxford has always been at the heart of the town and University – quite literally as it sits plumb square in the centre of the old walled City.

After Henry II banned English students from travelling to the University of Paris they set up their alternative university in Oxford around 1167, at that time no buildings existed for the University – so they adopted St. Mary’s Church and had lessons here. The church continued to be the parish church, but by the 13th Century it was the seat of the University’s government, academic disputation and the awarding of degrees.

During this period the Church grew in size and grandeur, buildings began to form around it and the University as we know it today started to take life. Around 1320 the Old Congregation House was built on the side of the church, this formed the first University Library.

By the mid-17th Century all University business was moved away from the Church as by that time the Colleges were spread far and wide across the City. However, this is still the official place where the University worships.

Aside from the University connections, St. Mary’s has also been at the heart of much of the rest of Oxford life. The three Anglican martyrs, Bishops Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer, were all tried at St. Mary’s in 1554 and 1555. Cranmer, at the age of 66, watched Latimer and Ridley burnt alive in October 1555 – Latimer having just delivered his famous line “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” For Cranmer, it was to be a short respite, in March the following year after torture had forced him to make recantations of his Protestancy he was brought to St. Mary’s Church to publicly recant and admit the supremacy of the Catholic Church.

For the Catholic regime the script did not go correctly. At the end of his long speech the man who had written the Book of Common Prayer suddenly deviated from his pre-approved wording. He denounced all his previous written recantations and ended his speech “…as for the Pope, I refuse him, as Christ's enemy, and Antichrist with all his false doctrine.” He was promptly dragged outside and burnt alive.

Almost two hundred years later St. Mary’s was once again to be the site of controversy, although this time no burning at the stake. John Wesley was a fellow of Lincoln College and often attended at St. Mary’s. He preached here often, and delivered his famed “Almost Christian” sermon in 1741 from the pulpit here. In 1744 he returned and denounced, from the pulpit, the laxity and cloth of the senior members of the University. He was never invited back.

Immediately afterwards he said, “I have preached, I suppose, for the last time in St. Mary’s. Be it so. I am now clear of the blood of these men. I have fully delivered my soul”.

Again, another hundred years down the line, a new movement was born at Oxford. Initially from the charismatic and, by all accounts, brilliant scholar John Newman who Matthew Arnold saw preach here and described in glowing report and then by John Keble who officially started the Oxford Movement which had a great influence over the Church of England that we know today. Newman would later convert to Roman Catholicism and rise to the rank of Cardinal.

Still today St. Mary’s is the heart of Oxford and you find yourself using it to navigate by. It is larger and more impressive than Christchurch Cathedral and although not as old as St. Michael’s, it is by far the most interesting church in the City.

Photo - Andrew J. Müller

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and Shaun Runham
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