The University Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford is the parish church of Oxford University. Originally built in the 13th century, it has seen many historic sermons over the centuries. It is also notable for its unusual architecture and the fine views provided by its tower.
History of the University Church of St Mary
There has been a church on this site since Anglo-Saxon times, but the history of the current building begins in about the 13th century. The oldest part of the building remaining today is the tower, which was built in 1280 and decorated with spires and pinnacles in 1315-25.
The Adam de Brome Chapel was added in 1328, the chancel was rebuilt in 1453 and the nave was reconstructed in 1510.
The Virgin Porch on the south side was added in 1637, with a statue of the Virgin and Child over the door. This is an unusual post-Reformation addition and indeed was used against Archbishop Laud by his Puritan opponents in a 1641 trial.
A refurbishment in 1827 included the addition of the organ screen, the pulpit and a gallery for extra seating. The red-carpeted altar in the nave dates from the 1970s, when the emphasis of worship services moved from evensong to the Eucharist.
St. Mary's Church in Oxford has seen many important historical events and sermons over the centuries. In the 1550s, the Oxford Martyrs were put on trial and defended their Protestant beliefs from the pulpit of St. Mary's.
Here the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer recanted his previous recantation of Protestantism, denounced the Pope, and promised to thrust his right hand into the flames first since it had signed a document contrary to his true beliefs.
In the 1740s, John Wesley preached frequently at St. Mary's Church, as fellow of Lincoln College. He delivered his famous sermon "The Almost Christian" from here in 1741 and denounced the laxity of senior university members in 1744. After the latter sermon, he was not invited back. Wesley wrote, "I have preached, I suppose, 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."
In the early 1800s, the Oxford Movement, which sought to restore Catholic spirituality in England, was launched from the pulpit of St. Mary's. John Newman, fellow of Oriel College, entranced audiences from 1828 to 1843 as vicar of the church. A sermon preached by poetry professor John Keble on July 14, 1833 is considered to have launched the Oxford Movement or Tractarian Movement.
On June 8, 1942, Magdalen College fellow C.S. Lewis preached his famous wartime sermon "The Weight of Glory" from the pulpit of St. Mary's Church.
What to See at the University Church of St Mary
The oldest part of the building is also the most striking: the tower. It stands in an usual position on the south side of the church because there was no room for it on the west side. Originally built in 1280, the tower was decorated with spires and pinnacles in 1315-25 and is considered the best example of Decorated Gothic architecture in Oxford.
At each of the four corners is a pair of pinnacles, where statues of saints are sheltered under gables decorated with ball-flowers. Another pinnacle creeps up the spire behind each pair. New statues were installed in the spire in 1894; the originals can be seen in the cloisters of New College.
The tower can be climbed at the cost of 124 steps and £2.50, which is rewarded by a closer look at the tower details and magnificent views of Oxford. Note that the stairs are narrow and steep and there is not a lot of room at the top.
Beneath the tower on the south side (facing High Street) is the Virgin Porch (1637), featuring a statue of the Virgin and Child over the door. Bullet holes in the statue are courtesy of Cromwellian soldiers.
The oldest part of the interior is the Adam de Brome Chapel, added in 1328. Its namesake was the founder of Oriel College and Rector of St. Mary's Church.
The chancel was rebuilt in 1453 and is separated from the nave with an organ screen of 1827. Over the altar in the chancel is a painting of The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds by Francesco Bassano (1549-92).
Most of the stained glass windows date from the 19th century, with the exception of some medieval glass in the east window.
Quick Facts on the University Church of St Mary
|Names:||Church of St Mary the Virgin · St Mary's Church · St. Mary's University Church · University Church · University Church of St Mary · University Church of St Mary the Virgin|
|Categories:||churches; parish churches; academic buildings; Grade I listed buildings|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||51.752792° N, 1.253654° W|
|Hours:||Daily 9-5 (July and August 9-6)|
Closed to visitors on Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
|Lodging:||View hotels near the University Church of St Mary|
- Personal visits (2005-07)
- Geoffrey Tyack, Oxford: An Architectural Guide (Oxford University Press, 1998), 34-35.
- The University Church of St. Mary the Virgin - official website
Map of the University Church of St Mary, Oxford
Below is a location map and aerial view of the University Church of St Mary. 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.