The parish church of St Michael at the North Gate in Oxford has many historical bragging points: the oldest building in Oxford (the tower of 1040), some of the oldest stained glass windows in England, and the door from the prison where Thomas Cranmer was held before his martyrdom. Over the centuries it has been visited by such notables as Charles I and John Wesley.
History of St. Michael at the North Gate
St. Michael's Church was built c.1000-50 in a late Anglo-Saxon style. It is mentioned in the Domesday Book, conducted by the Normans in 1086. The church tower, the only part that survives from this date, served as part of the defensive wall at the North Gate, which was demolished in 1771 to make room for a road.
Over the gate and adjoining the tower was the Bocardo prison, where Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer were held in the 1550s before being executed in Broad Street (see Martyrs' Memorial).
The church was rebuilt and a chancel was added in the 13th century. The window of the Lady Chapel was added in the 15th century. A few decades after the imprisonment of Cranmer, William Shakespeare stood by the 14th-century font as the godparent to the child of a Cornmarket innkeeper.
During the Civil War, Oxford took the side of the Royalists and Royalist soldiers were billeted in St. Michael's. It was around this time that King Charles I visited the church. In 1726, John Wesley (then a fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford) preached the Michaelmas sermon. The pulpit he used is still in use today.
The north transept was rebuilt in 1833 by John Plowman. The interior was restored in 1853-4 by G.E. Street, but most of this was destroyed in a disastrous fire in 1953. The church was quickly restored in 1954.
What to See at St. Michael at the North Gate
The original use of St. Michael's tower as a defensive structure is evident in its rough appearance. It is made of a stone called coral rag, which is tough and resistant to weathering but cannot be decoratively carved or even cut into neat blocks.
The only details on the tower are two levels of windows or bell openings near the top, each of which has two openings divided by baluster-like columns of dressed limestone. This feature can also be seen on the contemporary churches of Barton-on-Humber (Lincolnshire) and Earls Barton (Northants).
The tower can be climbed for a small admission fee. In this author's opinion, it is the best tower to climb in Oxford - the stairs are not too strenuous, there is almost never a queue for tickets, and it is roomy at the top. (St Mary's is taller and more central, but very cramped up top.) Along the way, you'll pass the original door of the Bocardo prison.
Housed in a small room on the way up to the tower is the church treasury, which includes: the Bocardo Box in which prisoners collected alms; some of the oldest churchwardens' accounts in the country (dating back to 1404; the page on display is from 1437); a charter of 1612 bearing the seal of King James I; and a late 11th or early 12th-century Sheela-na-gig.
The 13th-century chancel has lancet windows of the same date (with later glass), two to the south and three to the east. The chancel arch is probably a little later and ended the rebuilding process. West of the north aisle is a blocked arch indicating a now-disappeared annex. The north chapel is Decorated Gothic.
Above the altar are four medallions which are the oldest pieces of stained glass in Oxford, dating from 1290. (The fully intact windows of Merton College Chapel are only slightly later) The medallions depict St Nicholas, St Edmund of Abingdon, the Virgin and Child, and St Michael. The design is of a very high quality and bears some resemblance to the Merton windows.
The Lady Chapel in the north aisle has an early 15th-century window - three tracery lights have two Seraphim and part of an Annunciation with a Crucifixion on a lily.
The chancel screen incorporates panels from the dado of the 15th-century rood screen. The sedilia are Perpendicular Gothic, with a 14th-century arch into the north chapel.
The pulpit dates from the 15th century and was used by John Wesley to deliver a sermon in 1726. The reredos in the north chapel is believed to be original Decorated Gothic, but the middle recess has an odd shape. Its statuettes are from 1942.
The 14th-century font, at which William Shakespeare became godfather to the son of a local innkeeper, was brought here from All Saints' Church on the High Street.
Quick Facts on St. Michael at the North Gate
|Names:||Church of St Michael · St. Michael at the North Gate|
|Categories:||churches; parish churches; historical sites; Grade I listed buildings|
|Dates:||c. 1040-13th C|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||51.753755° N, 1.258460° W|
|Phone:||+ 44 (0) 1865 240 940|
|Lodging:||View hotels near St. Michael at the North Gate|
- Personal visits (2005-07).
- Nikolaus Pevsner and Jennifer Sherwood, The Buildings of England: Oxfordshire (Yale University Press, 2002), 89, 294-95.
- Geoffrey Tyack, Blue Guide Oxford and Cambridge, 6th ed. (2004), 105.
- Geoffrey Tyack, Oxford: An Architectural Guide, 3-5.
- Pamphlet provided by the church.
Map of St. Michael at the North Gate, Oxford
Below is a location map and aerial view of St. Michael at the North Gate. 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.