University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford


St Mary’s stands in the physical centre of the old walled City, and the university grew up around it. In medieval times scholars lived in houses with their teachers and the university had no buildings of its own, so it adopted St Mary’s as its centre. The church continued as a parish church, but by the early 13th century it had become the seat of university government, academic disputation, and the awarding of degrees.
By the 14th century, as colleges were beginning to be founded, the expanding university, desperately in need of more room for its business, constructed the Old Congregation House (c. 1320), a small building of two storeys, on the north-east side of the church, abutting the tower. The House was built with money left by Bishop Cobham for that purpose, and to house his boooks. Thus the upper room became the first university library, containing a small number of chained books, and also the place where the university’s money was kept in the university chest. The lower room, which now houses the cafe, was used by the university’s ‘parliament’.
All university business was removed from the church by the middle of the 17th century, but St Mary’s remains the place where the university formally comes to worship. On two Sundays during term time, the formal university sermon is preached here, before the vice-chancellor and proctors, who enter with full ceremonial procession to their throne-like seats at the back of the nave.
The Oxford Martyrs
Each of the three anglican bishops, Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer, who were burnt at the stake in Oxford during the reign of the Roman Catholic queen, ‘Bloody Mary’, underwent part of his trial in St Mary’s. Their principal crime was not to believe the doctrine of transsubstantiation, although Cranmer, as Henry VIII’s Archbishop, had also played a crucial role in the downfall of Queen Mary’s mother, Catherine of Aragon.
The three men were first tried in April 1554 in the chancel. Ridley and Latimer were again tried here in 1555 before their martyrdom on 16 October - a fearful sight, watched by Cranmer from the roof of his prison, the ‘Bocardo’, which was at the North Gate adjacent to St Michael’s Church in Cornmarket. The place of martyrdom is marked by a cross in the centre of Broad Street, outside Balliol College.
John Wesley
John Wesley, founder of Methodism, often attended the University Sermon in his Oxford days, and subsequently, as a Fellow of Lincoln College, preached some of his most stirring sermons before the University here - notably the famous sermon the ‘Almost Christian’ in 1741. In 1744, again in St Mary’s, he denounced the laxity and sloth of the senior members of the University. He was never asked to preach here again. ‘I have preached, I suppose,’ I wrote, ‘the last time in St Mary’s. Be it so. I am now clear of the blood of these men. I have fully delivered my soul.’
Newman and The Oxford Movement
The present pulpit and furnishings were installed by the University in 1827. Galleries were erected on the north and west walls, creating in the nave an auditorium which could seat a huge congregation. Onto this stage, in 1828, stepped a new vicar, John Newman, Prize Fellow of Oriel College, thought by some to be the most intelligent man in Oxford. Undergraduates flocked to his sermons. Writing 40 years later, Matthew Arnold, who had been an undergraduate in Newman’s time, asked, ‘Who could resist the charm of that spiritual apparition, gliding in the dim afternoon light through the aisles of St Mary’s, rising into the pulpit, and then, in the most entrancing of voices breaking the silence with words and thoughts which were a religious movement, subtle, sweet, mournful?’
It was however, the Assize Sermon of 14 July 1833, preached by John Keble, the Professor of Poetry, from the present pulpit, which is considered to have launched the famous ‘Oxford’ or ‘Tractarian’ Movement, This was an attempt by a group of dons (all clerics at that time) to revive catholic spirituality in the church and University. In this Newman’s leadership was central. The influence of the movement spread out of Oxford, and in subsequent decades had a radical effect on the spirituality and practice of the Church of England. The name ‘Tractarian’ derives from the ‘Tracts for the Times’ - a series of leaflets written by Newman and others to disseminate their ideas.
However, by 1843, Newman was disillusioned with anglicanism and resigned from St Mary’s. He was soon to be accepted into the Roman Catholic Church, and in 1879 became one of its cardinals.



While a structure probably existed on the site since Anglo-Saxon times, the earliest part of the present building is the Tower (1280 AD) with its profusely decorated spire (1315-25 AD).
the Adam de Brome Chapel
The Adam de Brome Chapel, abutting the west side of the tower, was added in 1328 by the then Rector, Adam de Brome, who also established in 1324 the ‘house of the Blessed Virgin Mary’, a new college later to be known as Oriel College.
The chapel is furnished as a courtroom where the Chancellor of the University had surprisingly wide jurisdiction: he fixed rents, fined sellers of bad meat, and even sent a scolding woman to prison.
the Chancel
The Chancel was rebuilt in 1453 and contains stalls which are a fine example of late perpendicular woodwork. It is thought that the remains of Amy Robsart, wife of Robert Dudley, Queen Elizabeth’s favourite, were buried here in 1560.
The altar picture is ‘The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds’ by Francesco Bassano (1549-92).
the Nave
The rebuilding of the nave in the perpendicular style was completed by 1510. The organ screen, of Painswick stone is part of the refitting of 1827 and the nave altar furnishings were introduced in the 1970s as the emphasis of worship moved from matins and evensong to the Eucharist.
the Porch
One enters from the High Street through the ‘barley sugar’ columns of the ‘Virgin Porch’, designed by Nicholas Stone in 1637 and partly paid for by Archbishop Laud’s chaplain Dr Morgan Owen.
The placing of a statue of the Virgin and Child above the porch was one of the charges brought against Laud by his Puritan opponents at his trial in 1641. The bullet holes in the statue were made by Cromwellian troopers.
the Stained Glass
Apart from a few medieval fragments in the east window, St Mary’s glass is of the 19th century. Most notable is the lovely Pugin window of 1843 depicting the life of St Thomas, situated at the east end of the south aisle.
The great west window of 1891, designed by Charles Eamer Kempe, depicts the tree of Jesse with angels, prophets, and patriarchs.
the Old Library
Constructed in 1320, The Old Library is the first university (as opposed to college) building in Oxford and therefore uniquely important; this is where the nascent University began.
By the early thirteenth century, Oxford was firmly established as an academic centre, drawing students from across Europe, undergraduates and masters, such as the Clerk of Oxenford in the Canterbury Tales, living in houses and halls. The growing University had no buildings of its own, so it adopted St Mary’s as its administrative centre and built a two story building, east of the tower, facing onto what is now Radcliffe Square. The upper room became the first University library, which contained a small number of books chained to desks. More recently, under the chairmanship of Canon Milford, Oxfam was founded in 1942, initially to relieve the plight of Greek refugees.
Today the room can accommodate sixty people for meeting and conferences in the very heart of the University. Catering is on hand from the immensely popular Vaults and Garden Coffee Shop.
For bookings: Katharina Franz
For catering: Will Pouget
the Organ
In 1947 a disastrous fire destroyed the original 17th-century ‘Father’ Smith organ. Its replacement, by J W Walker, had become unplayable by 1981. The present organ, the third, was built in 1987 by Metzler Orgelbau of Zurich with the intention of recapturing the spirit of the original ‘Father’ Smith. It is undoubtedly one of the finest instruments of its kind, and incorporates the few of Smith’s decorative pipeshades which survived the fire.


St Mary’s hosts a unique coffee house and cafe, The Vaults and Garden, which occupies the building of Oxford University’s old congregation house, built in 1320. Customers may enjoy breakfast, lunch and tea under the Cafe’s vaulted ceilings or in the Churchyard’s garden which has an unrivalled and privileged view of The Radcliffe Camera and Radcliffe Square surrounded by Oxford colleges.
The Vaults and Garden specialises in organic, locally sourced meat and seasonal vegetables. Meat eaters, Vegans, vegetarians, allergy sufferers are all catered for and there are children’s portions of all the dishes which are freshly cooked on the premises each day. The cafe is also known for its Cream Teas, served daily from 3pm, with homemade scones and offers a wide range of cakes and brownies.
Open from 8am - 6pm,
Breakfast 8:30am - 10.30am
Lunch 12 noon - 2.30pm
Cream Tea 3pm 4.30pm
Coffee and Cakes served all day
The Vaults and Garden Cafe is dedicated to good food, responsible sourcing and good value. Seasonal local produce is supplied by Oxfordshire’s Worton Organic Garden, only 5 miles away, throughout the year. Staff and General Manager, Will Pouget, already known for Oxford’s acclaimed Alpha bar in the Covered Market, regularly visit the farm and the fairtrade coffee served at the Cafe is the result of Will’s own project developing trading links with communities in Central America.
The Vaults and Garden also offer the oldest and most unique space in Oxford for events, drinks and dining hire.
For more details or event enquiries please contact Will or Natasha:
telephone: 01865 279112

Local Interest

The Ashmolean Museum
The Bodleian Library