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  • Writer's pictureAlex Beeton, PhD

A Brief History of Carfax Tower in Oxford

What is Carfax Tower?

Carfax Tower is a sturdy medieval belltower that was once part of a 12th-century church.

Carfax Tower

Carfax Tower History

As you stand before the beautiful Carfax Tower, all that remains of the 12th-century church of St Martin of Tours, try to imagine a medieval mob of townspeople hunting scholars around the neighbouring streets. Such was the scene in central Oxford 1355. Where now students, townspeople and tourists mill about, hurrying to lectures or else to one of the many shops and cafés on Cornmarket, St Aldate’s, the High Street and Queen Street, nearly 700 years ago students ran for their lives. And the cause of the so-called St Scholastica’s Day Riot? Bad wine.

The confrontation began just opposite the tower where Queen and High Street meet Cornmarket and St Aldate’s, at the Swindlestock Tavern, currently the site of the Santander Bank. And it’s this conglomeration of medieval streets that explains the etymology of the name ‘Carfax’. The immediate precursor to this word was the French carrefour, like the modern supermarket chain; the original ancestor was the Latin quadrifurcus – both of which mean ‘crossroads’.

The tower was supposed to be a place of peace and holiness. The Church of St Martin of Tours was for centuries the city church of Oxford. No ordinary parish church, from the 12th to the late 19th century it was the place where the Mayor and Corporation of Oxford attended to their spiritual devotions. For sadly banal reasons, the tower is all that remains of the ancient church. At the end of the 19th century, it was demolished to ease congestion in the streets. The tower and a few overlooked tombstones are all that now remain of this important part of Oxford’s history.

However, as the mention of bloodthirsty townspeople reminds us, the tower’s history was not always so mundane. On the day of the riot, a disturbance began when two students complained to an innkeeper about the quality of his cellar. When the discussion turned sour (like the wine), the publican gave them what the famous city historian Anthony Wood referred to as ‘stubborn and saucy language’. For his trouble, he had the offending drink thrown in his face.

Then events took a darker turn. As the tavern’s customers hurried to support one side or the other, the argument turned into a brawl, the brawl into a riot. Soon the entire town was engulfed in the upheaval. The bells of Carfax Tower rang out to summon the townspeople and the bells of the University Church to summon the students. For three days, violence raged and the students came off much the worse. Dozens were killed and university buildings were raided. And it wasn’t just the townspeople the students had to contend with: reinforcements came in from the countryside to join the battle against them, crying: ‘Havoc! Havoc! Smyt fast, give gode knocks!’

The tower today is a world away from such scenes of violence and mayhem. You can climb its 99 steps and enjoy spectacular views of Oxford. Indeed, city regulations stipulate that no building in the centre can be built higher than this one. Whether enjoying the views from the top or looking up at the tower from ground level, you can appreciate this monument to nearly 1,000 years of Oxonian history.

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