Oxford is famous for its spires and we’ve come up with a few suggestions for those looking to explore the dizzying architectural heights of this richly historic city. Here are our Top 5 Churches to Visit in Oxford.
St Michael at the North Gate
Lesser known but a real treasure, St Michael at the North Gate is Oxford’s oldest landmark dating back to 1040 and a first-rate choice for those interested in exploring Oxford’s past. Situated on Ship Street, the church’s location is a historical nod towards the city’s medieval layout with the Old Saxon bell tower standing as a relic of the settlement’s original north wall. A trip up the tower (small fee required) reveals some spectacular panoramic views of central Oxford – as well as a sneak peek into the neighboring Jesus College. Tours are available on a daily basis and provide an indepth foray into the church’s colourful history, including its brief time as a war prison! There is also an introduction to the site’s impressive silver, bronze and manuscript collections. St. Michael’s has had some notable alumni. Famous poet, textile designer and philanthropist William Morris married at St Michael’s in 1859 and the original marriage certificate is on display in the bell tower.
The University Church of St Mary is part of the university church network and can be found on High Street. University memorials, services and other events are regularly held in St Mary’s, as well as the occasional piece of student theatre! An obvious draw for St Mary’s is its marvelous tower that offers spectacular views of central Oxford and beyond (there is £4 admission charge to climb). The tower is believed to be the oldest part of the church, built in 1280 with the ornate spire added between 1315 and 1325. Since then the site has undergone centuries of change and re-development. The current building is a fusion of medieval, gothic and contemporary design – all of which is explained by the church’s guided tour. Other areas covered on the tour include the church’s many notable historical events: the establishment of Oxford’s first university building; the trials of the Oxford Martyrs (including Thomas Cramer); the birth of the Oxford movement; and the establishment of Oxfam. After exploring St Mary’s you can reward yourself by settling down in the church’s beautiful café which rolls into the church gardens offering unparalleled views of Radcliffe Square.
Christ Church Cathedral is one of Oxford’s most famous landmarks, and can be visited as part of the wider entry to Christ Church College. The cathedral has a rich heritage as a monastery and later as the Augustinian priory of St Frideswide, Oxford’s patron saint. From the 13th century the place of worship was a major site of pilgrimage. In the 16th century the building was surrendered to Cardinal Wolsey who began building a college and chapel on the grounds. Thankfully, Wolsey fell from power before parts of the north side of original cathedral could be demolished, but Tom Quad still remains as a legacy of Wolsey’s efforts. As well as some fascinating late Norman features (including the amazing stained glass), Christchurch Cathedral has some notable alumni buried within its walls including philosopher John Locke and scholar Robert Burton. Visiting is usually allowed between 10am – 5pm, but this is subject to change during Oxford University term times, so always check before you visit. Standard admission to the college, including the cathedral starts from £7.
Christ Church stained glass. Photo Credit: Meraj Chhaya
Unconventional but a must-see, St Barnabas Church is located in the stylish, bohemian district of Jericho. With a Venetian-style square bell tower and a Romanesque basilica, St Barnabas is a little piece of Italian artistry tucked away in the tiny North Oxford backstreets. Completed in 1872, the church’s design is based on the Torcello church in Venice and was built as part of the ‘Oxford Movement’. St Barnabas, also features widely in Oxford-based literature, including the novels of Thomas Hardy, P.D. James and the poems of John Betjemen. Truly one for architectural enthusiasts, this is an excellent place to stop and explore, and it’s conveniently only a 3 min walk from The Old Bookbinders Pub that serves up a fantastic pub lunch!
Magdalen College Chapel technically isn’t a church, but is well worth a visit for those interested in participating in a service whilst in Oxford. The Magdalen Chapel is prolific in its services and choral events, offering fourteen services a week to students and the public. The chapel is a fine example of High Anglican architecture and was influenced by the Catholic Revival in the Church of England. It is also home to one of the university’s best choirs. Entry to the college, including the chapel starts at £5 for adults.