ST MARY’S, HIGH STREET
|We are now at liberty to examine the magnificent church which stands to the south of the Radcliffe Camera. But, before we do so, it is well to realize what this part of Oxford looked like in the middle ages. There was no Radcliffe Camera, no Bodleian, no Sheldonian and very little Brasenose. Instead, standing with our backs towards the north side of St Mary’s, we should have looked on to a maze of little courts and passages, and a huddle of houses. These continued right up to the north wall, which ran parallel to the Broad and went across the nearer part of the ground now occupied by the Sheldonian. This was the university world, especially in the days before the colleges. Here were the book shops, and here was always a great concourse of students, listening to lectures, arguing, quarrelling and generally making a noise.|
St Mary’s was the centre of it all. There has been a church on this site ever since the eleventh century. But the oldest part of the present building – the tower – dates only from about 1280. It was built against the end of the old north transept, the roof line of which can still be discerned on its southern face. East of the tower, there are signs of buildings of the same period. At present, the chapel of St Catherine – once the convocation house of the university – lies to the east of the tower with the original university library above it. This building was begun about 1320 at the charges of Thomas Cobham, bishop of Worcester. At the back of the chapel, stand some large stone figures taken from the tower. They include St Hugh, St Cuthbert, two archbishops, two bishops and a king. There is also a wooden statue of Our Lady and the Holy Child. West of the tower is another fourteenth-century chapel. It was built by Adam de Brome, almoner of Eleanor of Castile, and contains his tomb.
Apart from what has just been described, practically the whole church is fifteenth-century. The older building had become worn out by then. The nave and aisles were constructed by the university in the last decade of the century, and the chancel was put up by Bishop Lyhart of Norwich in 1463. Since then, there have been few changes. The fifteenth-century porch was removed and the present one was substituted for it in 1637 by Morgan Owen, Laud’s chaplain. The older porch had a room over it, which was used for university functions. In recent years the lower part of the solid walls of the pulpitum has been removed, forming arches through which a view of the chancel can be obtained. The figures on the screen were replaced at the same time. There is a consecration cross on the south wall of the choir.
The church played a large part in university life in medieval times. The nave was used for lectures and degree ceremonies. Examinations were often held in the porch room. The church must have presented a busy scene in the mornings during term – a few priests finishing their Masses, several lecturers with students gathered round them occupying the nave. The babble of voices and all the noise inseparable from medieval life would make the church anything but a place of peace. The spectacle would have shocked our own ungodly but decorous age.St Mary’s was the scene of many historical events. It was here, by a pillar in the north aisle, that Thomas Cranmer made the pathetic recantation of heresy which he had written out in the hope that it might save him. When he saw that he was to be condemned, he withdrew it and ran through the rain to the stake in the town ditch opposite Balliol so that he might be burned before he was tempted to change his mind again. It was in this church that his fellow heresiarchs, Latimer and Ridley, were degraded from their priesthood. Here, in milder times, John Henry Newman preached the sermons which made him famous.
We leave the church by the south porch and cross High Street into Oriel Street. It is a good thing to pause on the other side of the road, and look back in order to enjoy the full glory of the spire. (From Goulder, Pilgrimage Pamphlets: Oxford & Cambridge, 1963)
Copies of St Edmund Campion’s book, ‘Decem Rationes’ (Ten Reasons, i.e. for Protestants to return to the Catholic faith) was daringly left on the pews of St Mary’s for churchgoers to find on 17th June, 1581 (see here).Blessed Stephen Rowsham was converted while serving St Mary’s as an Anglican clergyman. He was a student at Oriel. He was ordained priest at Rheims, was captured on his mission and was martyred in Gloucester in 1587.
There is a statue of the Blessed Virgin and Child over the porch built by Laud’s chaplain. The original statue was an example of Laud’s ‘Romanisation’ of the Anglican church which so infuriated the Puritans. In 1642 a Parliamentarian soldier shot off the head of Our Lady and her Son, at the end of a brief occupation. For more on the history of the University church, and pictures, see their site.
 Bishop of Worcester 1317-1327. He had been elected archbishop of Canterbury in 1313, but was set aside by the pope.
 Bishop of Lindisfarne 684-687.
 Flourished in the first quarter of the thirteenth century.
 Died 1290.
 Bishop of Norwich 1446-1472.
Bishop of Llandaff 1640-1642. He was Laud's chaplain while the latter was bishop of St David's. He was impeached and imprisoned for promulgating Laud's canons. He died in 1645. The statue of Our Lady, which was erected over the porch as soon as it was finished, is not a pre-Reformation figure but was carved by Nicholas
Stone (lived 1586-1647), an artist employed by Inigo Jones (lived 1573-1652) to make the statues on his new facade for old St Paul's in London. The erection of this statue was brought up against Laud at his trial.
 A pulpitum is a stone screen, formed by two walls running across a church at the entrance to the choir, to which a door in the middle gives access. The tops of the walls are bridged over to form a gallery. The pulpitum served to enclose the choir in monastic and collegiate churches. Two altars were often set either side of the door on the west side, and the gallery was used to accommodate the singers who supplemented the monastic or collegiate choir on great days. Sometimes the gospel at High Mass and the passion in Holy Week were sung from it.