University Church of St Mary the Virgin

Visiting Oxford > What to See > Historical Places

University Church of St Mary the Virgin

University Church of St Mary the Virgin is actually from where Oxford University grew, and an un-missable spot if you’re visiting the city. A church was established on this site before 1068, and from at least 1252 the congregation has met here, adopting it as the first building of the University of Oxford. Believe it or not, in the early 13th century the church was actually used for lectures!

Dating back to the 13th century, St Mary’s is the largest parish church in Oxford and serves as the spiritual home to the University of Oxford. Its stunning Gothic architecture, characterized by soaring spires and intricate stonework, attracts visitors from around the world, drawn not only by its religious significance but also by its historical and cultural importance.

The History of University Church of St Mary the Virgin

The University Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford boasts a rich and storied history that stretches back over eight centuries. As we mentioned, its origins can be traced to the late 13th century when construction began on the church’s earliest incarnation. Originally built as a place of worship for the residents of Oxford, St Mary’s quickly became intertwined with the academic and intellectual life of the burgeoning university town.

Over the centuries, St Mary’s evolved both architecturally and functionally, reflecting the changing needs and aspirations of the university and the community it served. The church’s Gothic architecture, characterized by soaring spires, ornate carvings, and intricate stained glass windows, bears witness to the skill and craftsmanship of its medieval builders.

St Mary’s has also weathered its share of challenges and changes over the centuries. It survived the tumult of the English Reformation, enduring periods of religious upheaval and reform. In later centuries, it witnessed the rise of new movements and ideologies, adapting to shifting cultural and social landscapes while remaining a steadfast symbol of faith and tradition. Today, the University Church of St Mary the Virgin continues to stand as a beacon of Oxford’s heritage and a testament to the enduring values of learning, faith, and community. 

Why Should You Visit University Church of St Mary the Virgin?

Inside the church, you will be greeted by a serene and majestic interior adorned with intricate stained glass windows, elaborate carvings, and a magnificent vaulted ceiling. The church’s spacious nave and tranquil chapels provide a peaceful retreat from the bustling city streets, inviting contemplation and reflection.

There are quite a few things to see if you visit this church, so here are the highlights you should look out for:

  • The Baroque porch: This porch was designed by Nicholas Stone and claims to be the most beautiful one in England!
  • The 13th-century tower: The tower is open to the public for a fee and offers excellent views of the city (especially of Radcliffe Camera, All Souls College, and Brasenose College). 

But that’s not all! Beyond its religious and academic significance, St Mary’s offers panoramic views of Oxford from its tower, providing visitors with a unique perspective of the city’s historic skyline. Climbing the tower’s spiral staircase rewards adventurers with breath-taking vistas of Oxford’s spires, rooftops, and picturesque landscape, offering a memorable experience and a glimpse into the city’s past and present.

Where is the University Church of St Mary the Virgin?

The University Church of St Mary the Virgin stands as a cherished symbol of Oxford’s heritage and a beacon of faith, scholarship, and community.

The Church is located in the heart of Oxford, England, near the historic Radcliffe Square. Here is a map to get you there:

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