Christ Church Cathedral is the smallest cathedral in England and the seat of the Bishop of Oxford. It is unique in serving not only as a cathedral but as the chapel of Christ Church College.
History of Christ Church Cathedral
What is today Christ Church Cathedral began as a Saxon monastic church founded in the 8th century by Frideswide (c.650-735), the patron saint of Oxford. Frideswide was a Saxon princess who committed herself to chastity and became a nun, fleeing the marital advances of King Algar of Mercia. Nothing remains of her original church, but a Saxon cemetery was recently discovered beneath the cloister.
The present church was constructed between 1160 and 1200 by Augustinian monks and called the Priory Church of St. Frideswide. In 1180 the relics of Frideswide were transferred to the new church, which attracted pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. One pilgrim was Catherine of Aragon, wife of King Henry VIII, who came to pray for a son in 1518.
In 1525, at the height of his power, Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, Lord Chancellor of England and Archbishop of York, suppressed the St Frideswide's Priory and founded "Cardinal College" on its lands. He planned the establishment on a magnificent scale, but fell from grace in 1529 before the college was completed. In 1531 the college was itself suppressed, and refounded in 1532 as "King Henry VIII's College" by Henry VIII, to whom Wolsey's property had escheated.
Then in 1546 the king, who had broken from the Church of Rome and acquired great wealth through the dissolution of the monasteries in England, refounded the college as Christ Church College. As part of the re-organization of the Church of England, the former priory church became the cathedral of the recently created diocese of Oxford.
It was in the cloister of Christ Church Cathedral in 1556 that Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was publicly "degraded" - his vestments were stripped and his head was shaved. He was imprisoned at St Michael's at the North Gate and later burned at the stake in Broad Street (see Martyrs' Memorial).
From 1642 to 1646, during the Civil War, King Charles I had his headquarters at Christ Church and regularly attended the cathedral. The Great Quadrangle was used to keep stray and plundered cattle; hay to feed the cattle was stored in the loft above the chancel vault in the cathedral. Several monuments of Royalists who fought alongside Charles can be seen in the cathedral's Lucy Chapel.
What to See at Christ Church Cathedral
The exterior of the cathedral is difficult to see, since it is now surrounded by college buildings. The best general view can be had from across the meadow to the east of the cathedral. The tower is one of the oldest in England, dating from the 12th century (Norman lower part) and early 13th century (Early English spire). It can best be seen from the cloisters.
The nave, chancel, and transepts are Late Norman from the mid-12th century, characterized by large, heavy pillars. The lovely marble floor and choir stalls date from Gilbert Scott's restoration of 1870-76.
The beautiful chancel ceiling was added c.1500 by William Orchard. Its intricate starlike patterns create an image of heaven and 12 pendants hang gracefully from it. It is very similar in style to the celebrated ceiling of the Divinity School in the Bodleian Library.
The Lady Chapel was added to the north side of the chancel in the mid-12th century in an Early English style. Lady Chapels were almost always placed to the east, but the canons could not do this because of the nearby city wall. The Latin Chapel was added further north in the early 14th century to house the tomb of St. Frideswide.
The oldest monument in the cathedral is the Shrine of St. Frideswide in the Latin Chapel north of the chancel. The arches along the top are decorated with faces peeping out from behind foliage and more faces decorate the base. Built in 1289, the shrine once contained the holy relics of Frideswide and was visited by countless medieval pilgrims.
The shrine was destroyed in 1538, along with most other saints' shrines in Britain, as part of the Reformation. Fragments were discovered in the college in the 1870s and more were uncovered in the cloister in 1985. The shrine was fully reconstructed as accurately as possible beginning in 2002, an effort that earned an Oxford Preservation Trust award in 2005.
Next to the Shrine is what is thought to be a watching chamber, from which a careful eye could be kept on the gold and jewels that enriched the shrine. The lower part is an altar-tomb made of stone with a stone canopy; the upper part is made of wood. It dates from around 1500.
Behind the shrine is the Victorian St. Frideswide Window, created by Edward Burne-Jones in 1858. The top panel shows a ship of souls carrying Frideswide to heaven and the flower-shaped windows below that show the Tree of Knowledge (left) and the Tree of Life (right). The remaining 16 panels depict scenes from the saint's life, as follows:
Children and adults alike may enjoy picking out the following interesting details in the St Frideswide Window: ducks and sunflowers in panel 8; sleeping pigs in panel 9; a sign post showing Oxford and Binsey in panel 12; and a toilet in panel 16. The last detail obviously reflects the Victorian date of the window and not Frideswide's time!
On the left near the entrance is the Jonah Window, designed by Abraham van Linge in the 1630s. Only the figure of Jonah is made of stained glass; the rest consists of painted glass that show the city of Ninevah in minute detail.
The oldest stained glass window in the cathedral is the Becket Window, found in the Lucy Chapel on the south side. It dates from 1320 and is a rare surviving portrayal of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in his cathedral by order of the king in 1170.
At the Reformation, King Henry VIII ordered all images of Becket to be destroyed. This one was saved by replacing Becket's face with clear glass, the restored version of which is the only part that is not original.
The Chapel of Remembrance south of the chancel is home to the St. Catherine Window, created by Burne-Jones in 1878. The face of St. Catherine of Alexandria, in the center, is a portrait of Edith Liddell, whose sister was the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland.
Christ Church Cathedral is filled with various tombs, monuments and memorials. Of special interest is Tomb of Lady Elizabeth Montacute (d.1354), next to the Shrine of St Frideswide. Lady Montacute sponsored the construction of the chapel in which she lies and also donated the land that is now Christ Church Meadow.
Lady Montacute's tomb is topped with her effigy, which rests on cushions held by two angels and has a dog at her feet. The sides of the tomb are carved with portraits of her ten children; one of these is Bishop Simon of Ely (1337‑45).
The short ends of the tomb have quatrefoils with the Virgin and Child, Mary Magdalene (or maybe Frideswide) and the Four Evangelists. All the figures lost their faces at the Reformation. An adjacent ceiling vault, below which the tomb was originally placed, bears traces of painted angel wings.
At the east end of the north aisle, not far from Lady Montacute, is the striking Bell Altar (2000). Created to mark the millenium, the modern creation is made of simple black-painted wood. It is dedicated to Bishop George Bell, who among other things opposed the bombing of Germany in WWII.
The Chapel of Remembrance, on the south side of the chancel, contains memorials for the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, and a memorial bust of Edward Pusey, one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement and Regius Professor of Hebrew and Canon of Christ Church 1828-82.
At the foot of the pulpit, a stone was placed in 2003 to mark the tercentenary of the birth of John Wesley, founder of Methodism. Both John and his brother, the hymnwriter Charles, were undergraduates at Christ Church in the 1720s and were ordained in the cathedral as priests in the Church of England.
The Perpendicular Gothic cloister (c.1500) is small but highly attractive, made of light golden stone. It contains a variety of memorials, coats of arms and figurative carvings and leads to the justifiably famous Great Hall, where scenes in the Harry Potter movies were filmed. The portal to the chapter house is 12th-century Norman and richly carved with zigzag molding.
The chapter house (now the Chapter House Shop and Treasury) dates from the early 13th century and is contemporary with the chapter houses at Lincoln, Salisbury and Chester cathedrals. The Early English rib vault is decorated with painted medallions of saints and angels (much faded) and intricately carved roof bosses. There are fine stained glass windows in the back.
Quick Facts on Christ Church Cathedral
|Names:||Cathedral Church · Christ Church Cathedral|
|Categories:||cathedrals; academic chapels; Grade I listed buildings|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||51.750090° N, 1.254737° W|
|Address:||St Aldates Street|
|Hours:||Mon-Sat 9am-4:30pm, Sun 1-4:30pm|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Christ Church Cathedral|
- Personal visits (April 5, 2006; May 1, 2007; and others).
- "A Brief Tour of the Cathedral" (information sheet provided at entrance).
- "The St Frideswide Window" (information sheet provided near the window).
- Geoffrey Tyack, Blue Guide Oxford and Cambridge, 6th ed. (London: A&C Black, 2004), 71-75.
- "Information for Visitors" - Christ Church Cathedral Website
- "Christ Church, Oxford" - Richard John King, King's Handbook to the Cathedrals of England (1862) (online)
- Photos of Christ Church Cathedral - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Christ Church Cathedral
Below is a location map and aerial view of Christ Church Cathedral. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.