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Looking out over Oxford

To Oxford, the city of the dreaming spires – so-called because of the number of religious establishments in said city. Each college has its own chapel, you see, and there are some churches as well. Funnily enough, one of the churches is designated as the university’s church, even though the colleges have chapels – one of which, the one at Christ Church, doubles up as Oxford’s cathedral. That makes for a lot of spires.

It was to the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, located on the High Street, that I went. There has been a church on that site since Anglo-Saxon times, and in the early days of Oxford University it became an important building, being used for lectures and as a meeting-place for the university authorities, as well as having an upstairs room used as the university’s first library. In the 1550s, it was the location for the trial of the Oxford Martyrs – bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley and archbishop Thomas Cranmer, leading figures in the Reformation under Henry VIII and Edward VI who found themselves on the wrong side when Henry’s daughter Mary became queen. Her attempts to turn the clock back and make England Catholic again have given her the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’. She had those three churchmen charged with heresy, and – this being the sixteenth century – they were found guilty. Latimer and Ridley were burned at the stake on nearby Broad Street in October 1555, with Cranmer suffering the same fate five months later. The church was also used for the awarding of degrees, until these increasingly rowdy ceremonies met with disapproval by the church authorities in the seventeenth century (which, after the Civil War, resulted in Christopher Wren – who’d studied at Wadham College – being commissioned to build the Sheldonian Theatre; henceforth, graduation ceremonies took place there instead). Samuel Johnson is known to have attended services at St Mary’s while he was a student at Pembroke College. In the nineteenth century, the Oxford Movement – calling for the reinstatement of older Christian traditions in the C of E, eventually becoming Anglo-Catholicism or High Church Anglicanism – was kick-started at St Mary’s by the likes of John Henry Newman and John Keble (while the former ended up going all the way and converting to Roman Catholicism, the latter did not and would eventually have an Oxford college and a church in Mill Hill named after him; I should know, for that is the church I was baptised in).

But it was to the tower that I was drawn. It’s the oldest part of the church, dating back to the late thirteenth century (the main body of the church having been substantially rebuilt in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, while the porch dates back to the 1630s – the statue of the Virgin Mary above it was considered so scandalous that you can still see the bullet-holes from when Cromwell’s soldiers shot at it after they’d captured Oxford during the Civil War). I, of course, wanted to climb the tower for a view of Oxford’s dreaming spires. I like climbing towers. I’d previously looked out over Oxford from the tower of St Michael at the North Gate (the City Church, as opposed to the University Church) and from the Carfax Tower, and I reckoned it made sense to complete the hat-trick by going up St Mary’s too; if nothing else, it is reckoned to be the one with the best view over Oxford.

So I paid my £4 and made my way up the narrow spiral staircase. 

Through a window on the way up, I could see the chapel of Exeter College – a college best known by me and doubtless many others as the college where, in the final episode of Inspector Morse, the titular inspector suffers his fatal collapse after figuring out who the murderer was in his last mystery.

Once out in the open, I was confronted by the statue of a bishop which, funnily enough, I’d seen before – on the cover of an Inspector Morse novel (I forget which one). I’ve not been able to find out which bishop it represents; this being Oxford, it’s not like there’s a shortage of candidates.

Looking out to the north, I had the Radcliffe Camera – as in camera being the Latin for ‘room’, this being the reading-room of the Bodleian Library – before me; Exeter and Brasenose Colleges to the left, All Souls College to the right. 

Interesting one, All Souls. First of all, it has no students. That’s not actually true, of course – it has no undergraduate students, and those graduates and postgraduate students who do get to be at All Souls (they have to take a famously hard exam in order to do so) are Fellows of the college. Not students. It’s also home to one of the more bizarre of Oxford’s many academic traditions – a ceremony which consists of a torchlit parade, led by a man carrying a wooden duck on a pole, which takes place once a century (the last one was in 2001, so it looks like I’ve missed out on that).

Moving to the south side, the view takes in Oriel College (with its statue of Cecil Rhodes) and Christ Church, the college that doesn’t call itself a college and which is unique in being the only higher educational institution in this country that’s also a cathedral. 

That particular quirk goes back to its foundation. Or rather, its second re-foundation. Cardinal Wolsey had wanted to establish a college on the site of a priory which he had suppressed, but was prevented from doing so by his own fall from grace. This led to the suppression of Cardinal College while it was still being built; it was re-founded by Henry VIII as King Henry VIII’s College (that king not being short on modesty) although in 1546 it was re-founded again thanks to a re-organisation of the Church of England which led to the creation of the Diocese of Oxford; henceforth, the college chapel – built on the site of the priory church – would be the Cathedral Church of Christ, with the college attached to it going by the name of Christ Church (not ‘Christ Church College’, for the word ‘college’ does not appear in its title). Charles I stayed there during the Civil War (since he had been kicked out of London when the war started, Oxford became his capital until it fell to the Parliamentarians in 1646). Its clock tower, the Tom Tower, is another Wren creation.

Looking at the tower itself, I noticed that there was some old graffiti carved into the brickwork. 

Not exactly surprising, as there are quite a few old buildings where someone’s taken a knife to the stonework to carve their initials for posterity. ‘AR’ was here in 1676, and ‘WF’ in 1762. Who, I wondered, were these people? Had they come to the church intending to carve their initials in the tower, or just spotted the chance to do so once they’d climbed it and noted that there was no-one else around? Did they wonder if they’d be found out, maybe getting them into trouble with the vicar or the university authorities (assuming, of course, that they were students)? Who knows? I wondered, as I have done before, about the point at which graffiti stops being an act of vandalism and becomes historically significant, as witness, for example, the Parliamentarian soldier who carved his name onto the lead lining of the font in the church at Burford when he was being held prisoner there in 1649 (one for another time, that one).

Satisfied with the view, and by now in need of a cup of tea (for it was although the sun was out, it was a cold and windy day), I made my way back down.

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