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  • Writer's pictureOscar Patton, MA

A Brief History of St Michael at the North Gate

What is St Michael at the North Gate?

St Michael at the North Gate is an Anglo-Saxon church in central Oxford built where the city’s north gate once stood.

St Michael at the North Gate exterior

St Michael at the North Gate History

St Michael (it tends to go without an apostrophe and an ‘s’), built in the 11th century, is Oxford’s oldest building. The church was erected beside the north gate of the former city walls, and the tower retains the original Anglo-Saxon construction. St Michael is also the city church of Oxford, where the Lord Mayor and Sheriff of Oxford are expected to appear on days of civic importance. Ancient St Michael only acquired this status in 1971; Oxford’s original city church was St Martin’s, which is now Carfax Tower, then All Saints’ Church on the High Street, which became the library of Lincoln College. The church, which is open to visitors, has played host to a number of famous parishioners. Arts and Crafts artist William Morris married his wife Jane here in 1859, and John Wesley, early leader of Methodism, preached here in the 18th century.

Although no obvious evidence remains from the outside, St Michael was once attached to the Bocardo Prison, which lay across the street, by a set of rooms linked to the church tower. The prison was demolished in 1771, but lives long in the memory as the place that held the Oxford Martyrs. Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer, three Protestant churchmen responsible for much of the Reformation of religion under Henry VIII and Edward VI, came a cropper during the abrupt resumption of Catholicism in the reign of Mary I; after tense escalation the queen sent them to the stake. In years to come, when the Reformation was continued, they were mythologised in collective memory. The site of their execution is marked by a cobblestone patch on the west end of Broad Street. Their cell door can be found inside the tower of the church.

Reredos in St Michael at the North Gate in Oxford

One of Oxford’s oldest non-university ceremonies takes place at the church of St Michael at the North Gate: ‘beating the bounds’. This annual ceremony is held on Ascension, which falls 40 days after Easter, and is led by the vicar of St Michael. After a service at 9am, the vicar and parishioners proceed, holding sticks of willow, and visit each of the boundary stones marking the parish; each of these the vicar daubs with chalk, and the church wardens and parishioners then strike the stones with their sticks, shouting ‘mark, mark, mark’. This tradition has Anglo-Saxon origins, though its first recorded practice in Oxford is 1428. In an era when the parish was the basic unit of taxation and government, and everyday life relied on territorial boundaries and knowledge of their position, the ritual played an obviously practical role. Today it’s continued, like many similar customs in England, for the preservation of tradition. As modern Oxford has sprung up around the church (St Michael finds itself at one end of a shopping street full of modern chain shops) many stones are left in comically inconvenient places, like the centre of Marks & Spencer, the Clarendon Shopping centre, and Brasenose and Lincoln Colleges, where the procession ends.

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