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Religious Buildings in Oxford (Self Guided), Oxford

Oxford is home to a great range of sites related to the history of English Christianity. Many churches, college chapels and prayer houses with tremendous architecture can be seen here. Take this self-guided tour to discover the most important religious building in Oxford.
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Religious Buildings in Oxford Map

Guide Name: Religious Buildings in Oxford
Guide Location: England » Oxford (See other walking tours in Oxford)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 5
Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.3 Km or 0.8 Miles
Author: Linda
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Christ Church Cathedral
  • Merton College Chapel
  • University Church of St. Mary the Virgin
  • St Michael At The Northgate Church
  • St Mary Magdalen's Church
Christ Church Cathedral

1) Christ Church Cathedral (must see)

Christ Church Cathedral holds the rather unique position of being both a college chapel and the cathedral of the Diocese of Oxford. Until the 20th century it was also the smallest cathedral in the United Kingdom.

Its history dates back to before the Norman Conquest when a shrine was built here in memory of St Frideswide, a much-persecuted 7th century priestess who seems to have spent most of her life guarding her chastity from the amorous attentions of King Algar, one of the kings of the Seven Kingdoms of Saxony.

By 1122 the cathedral was part of the St Frideswide Priory, but in 1520 the buildings and lands were confiscated by Cardinal Wolsey who wanted them to build Cardinal College. Five of the bays in the western part of the nave were demolished to build what is now Tom Quad, before Wolsey in his turn was ousted by King Henry VIII who had Christ Church College built on the foundations.

The rest of the cathedral was built in the Perpendicular, or English Gothic, style, with the five bays of the eastern part of the nave, the choir and the tower keeping the original Norman architecture.

The wonderful rose window is in the Botanical style of ten petals around the central glass. Other windows of note are the Becket Window dating back to 1320, which survived the Reformation and the Jonah Window, depicting the City of Nineveh, created in 1632.

The shrine of St Frideswide has been restored and it stands before a beautiful stained glass window with 16 panels that tell the story of her life. If you look closely at the 16th panel, you will see a water-closet, which certainly didn’t exist in the 8th century and is a give-away to the window’s Victorian creation.

The Cathedral Shop, where you can buy souvenirs, books and CD’s among other gift items, is housed in the 12th century Chapter House. While browsing the shelves, take a look at the vaulted ceiling, where you will see 13th century medallions depicting the Saints.
Sight description based on wikipedia
Merton College Chapel

2) Merton College Chapel

Of all the college chapels in Oxford University, the largest is Merton College Chapel and it is one of the best examples of Early English Period architecture.

The first chapel built for the college in 1266 wasn’t very sound and by 1288 through bad upkeep was almost in ruins. The new church was started in 1290, with the Choir and the huge East Window finished in 1294.

The Quire Walls have 7 pairs of stained-glass windows, 12 of which, including the Annunciation Scene and heraldic glass in the East Window were created in 1296. The other two windows date back to the 15th century and all of them survived the Reformation.

The Crossing and the South Transept were completed in the 14th century; the North Transept and the Great Tower were built in 1450. The Gothic roodscreen and the lectern, which was donated by John Martlock in 1504, were left untouched by King Henry VIII’s Suppression Acts.

In 1655 the roof of the South Transept collapsed and was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in 1671; the medieval bells were recast at the same time. In 1802 the College Brewery was installed in the Sacristy, but it was removed in 1886 when the chapel was restored and the monuments in the Sanctuary were removed to the Ante Chapel. The beautiful chamber organ, built by Thomas Parker in 1762 was left in place and was restored in 1999.

The chapel served for many years as the parish church of St John as well as the college chapel, which explains its size. There is a door leading onto North Street through which the parishioners entered and two doors opening onto Merton College.
University Church of St. Mary the Virgin

3) University Church of St. Mary the Virgin (must see)

The University Church of St Mary the Virgin is the largest parish church in Oxford. It stands on High Street and is surrounded by colleges, which is why it is so popular with the students and professors.

The 1st church was built on this site in 1086 and when the University was founded in the 13th century, it was considered the university’s first building. In 1320 a two storey building was built on to the north side of the chancel; the ground floor was the University’s Convocation House and today it is the Vault Café. The upper floor became the University’s 1st library with books donated by Thomas Cobham.

The church’s Baroque porch was designed by Nicholas Stone. The 13th century tower affords excellent views and is open to the public. The steeple is reputed to be the most beautiful in England.

In 1555 the Oxford Martyrs were tried and condemned in the church. You will notice that a section of the pillar opposite the pulpit is missing. This was cut out to support a small platform where the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer stood when he withdrew his recantation of his Protestant faith, before being taken out and burnt at the stake.

At the end of the 15th and the beginning of the 16th century’s most of the church was rebuilt in the Perpendicular style and only the tower and spire remain untouched, except for the 12 statues – 11 of which were replaced in 1894 by George Frampton.

Into the 17th century the church was used for Graduation ceremonies, until the church officials got fed up with the very un-Christian parties held there following graduation, and had the Sheldonian Theatre built to host the ceremonies.
St Michael At The Northgate Church

4) St Michael At The Northgate Church

While you are in Oxford you will certainly visit the Saxon Tower which is the oldest building in the city, but don’t stop there; the tower is attached to the lovely St Michael at the North Gate Church, and it would be a pity visit the tower without exploring the church.

The original church was in the Domesday Book, but today only the tower remains. A part of the church – the chancel, the eastern wall nearest the altar in the south aisle and the south door – date back to the early 13th century.

The stained glass in the East Window of the chancel was also created in the 13th century and is the oldest example in Oxford.

The Lady Chapel was built in the 14th century and the north aisle and the nave were constructed in the 15th century; the font was placed at the same time. The north aisle and the transept were rebuilt by John Plowman in 1883.The church was restored in 1953 after a fire destroyed a large part of it.

Since 1971 it has been the City Church of Oxford, which means that the Mayor and the Corporation of Oxford are expected to worship there. Once a month, the church hosts music recitals and jazz concerts.
St Mary Magdalen's Church

5) St Mary Magdalen's Church

The ground on which St Mary Magdalen’s Church stands has been a place of worship for over a thousand years, and you shouldn’t miss a visit to this beautiful church.

The 1st church was a wooden affair which was burnt down by the Vikings in around 1013. In 1074 Robert d’Oyly built a chapel with a single aisle to replace the ruins of the wooden church. The chapel was rebuilt and expanded in 1194 by Saint Hugh, the Bishop of Lincoln. In 1842 George Scott rebuilt the chancel and north aisle.

The interior is Victorian Gothic, softly lit by the sunlight streaming in through the stained glass windows. The lovely West Window depicts the city’s medieval history and was executed in 1898 by Elizabeth Wigram.

The altar dedicated to St Thomas Becket was designed by St Hugh. In 1294 an oratory dedicated to St Catherine was built in the north aisle. The Lady Chapel in the south aisle was built in 1320 by the Carmelites.

The beautifully ornate font was sculpted in 1350; the Holy Water stoup was placed in 1513, the same time that the tower was built. There is an alabaster memorial dedicated to William Pickering that dates back to 1640, next to the north door. The raredos behind the High Altar were executed in 1894. The church’s full peal of ten bells was installed in 2003.

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