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  • Writer's pictureOscar Patton, MA

A Brief History of University Church of St Mary the Virgin

What is the University Church of St Mary the Virgin?

The University Church of St Mary the Virgin is a Church founded in the 11th century that has hosted graduation ceremonies as well as state trials.

St Mary the Virgin oxford

University Church of St Mary the Virgin History

A church has stood on this spot since at least 1086. In its early days, the university chose St Mary’s as the meeting place for its senior members, or Congregation, and the earliest definite record of a Congregation here dates to 1252. 50 years later, the church was also being used for lectures and the awarding of degrees. It acquired a two-storey extension around 1320 on the north side, with the lower floor used by the university’s parliament; the upper storey, meanwhile, served as the first University Library.

The main body of the church was built in the later 15th and early 16th centuries in the then fashionable Perpendicular style, the late medieval airy and rectangular form made famous by the spectacular King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. However, the earlier Norman church is still visible: the soaring tower dates from the 1270s.

The 17th-century porch (facing the High Street) was designed by Nicholas Stone in an eccentric Baroque style, imported from Italy. Its most striking feature is the pair of twisted columns, which bear a striking resemblance to Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s bronze columns over the High Altar in St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. But the style was too close to Roman Baroque for contemporary puritans, and the porch itself was used as evidence in the trial of Archbishop William Laud after his arrest, when he was charged with treason on the grounds that he had been running an ecclesiastical state within a state. Laud’s puritan opponents cited the ‘very scandalous statue of the Virgin Mary with Christ in her arms, set up in front of the new Church Porch of St Mary’s’.

Graduation ceremonies, held in St Mary’s until the 17th century, were increasingly rowdy. Things changed when Archbishop William Laud ordered in the 1630s that another building be built for graduations. The idea that ‘sacrifice is made equally to God and Apollo’ was repugnant to him. His death interrupted this, and it was only in the late 17th century that construction was begun on the Sheldonian Theatre, designed by Sir Christopher Wren.

St Mary’s was the site of the Oxford Martyrs’ trial, in the 1550s – Bishops Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer, three of the leading lights of the English Reformation, were put on trial, after which they were burned at the stake. Inside the church, you can see ‘Cranmer’s pillar’, a section cut into the pillar opposite the pulpit, which supported Cranmer on a stage as the preacher, Henry Cole, spelled out in a sermon the reasons Cranmer must die. Here, on a stage before a congregation enthralled by the political drama unfurling before their eyes, Cranmer withdrew his earlier recantation of his Protestant beliefs. He swore that he would die a Protestant, and that when he burnt, it would be the hands of those who signed his recantation of faith that would burn first in Hell.

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