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  • Writer's pictureOscar Patton, MA

A Brief History of Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford

What is Christ Church Cathedral?

Christ Church Cathedral is a medieval church in Oxford that was founded over 800 years ago as a priory.

Christ Church Cathedral

Christ Church Cathedral History

Christ Church Cathedral started life as the church for a priory dedicated to St Frideswide, Oxford’s patron saint. It became a popular medieval pilgrimage destination until 1522, when it was surrendered to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, founder of Cardinal College, which eventually became Christ Church. After Wolsey’s own fall, King Henry VIII took over the college and its chapel, which the king elevated to cathedral status. Today, Christ Church remains Oxford’s cathedral, guarantor of its city status in the traditional sense. Christ Church is the smallest of England’s cathedrals, but unique in other ways: its Visitor, a position of authority to inspect and order changes to worship, is not the resident bishop but the monarch.

While the foundations and basic structure are late Norman, they were greatly elaborated in the Perpendicular style popular in the 15th and early 16th centuries, funded by Cardinal Wolsey and then Henry VIII. The interior of the cathedral was heavily redesigned by the 19th-century Gothic Revivalist architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott.

Inside the cathedral, you can find the reconstructed shrine to St Frideswide. The original shrine was built in the 13th century, but was destroyed in 1538 during the English Reformation, when devotion to saints was heavily criticised. Above the shrine is a stained-glass window designed by the famous 19th-century artist Edward Burne-Jones, a key figure among the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood and in the cultural life of 19th-century Oxford. Burne-Jones depicts the life of St Frideswide in the colours of medieval fantasy. Frideswide, as her life story goes, was born to the Anglo-Saxon king Didan. When her parents died, King Algar of Leicester hoped to marry her, despite her vow of celibacy. When he attempted to abduct her Frideswide fled to Oxford, where she was hidden by the townspeople. Searching for her Algar was struck blind, as the window dramatically narrates, by a bolt of lightning. Less loftily, you’ll also notice a flushing toilet in the bottom right corner of the window, included by Burne-Jones as an acknowledgement of the company which helped finance the window’s creation.

Since the 16th century, the cathedral has maintained a very strong choral tradition. John Taverner, the prominent Renaissance composer, was appointed as the cathedral’s first organist. The organist, as in many English cathedrals, was also director of the choir, with much of the organ playing during services delegated to the sub-organist or organ scholar.

Two chapels lie to each side of the High Altar. On the left is the Bell Altar, dedicated to the memory of Bishop George Bell. He was an Anglican priest who opposed the bombing of German civilians during the Second World War while actively assisting German resistance movements, attempting to secure official British support for Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s plan to assassinate Adolf Hitler. On the right is the Chapel of Remembrance, dedicated to Oxford’s servicemen and women of the early 20th century.

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