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University Church of St. Mary the Virgin

This 11th-century church served as the center from which the city of Oxford grew and its tower is one of the best lookout points in the district.

The University Church of St. Mary the Virgin is the largest of the city’s parish churches. Surrounded by university buildings, the religious site stands out for its Baroque entrance and spire. Climb the tower for fantastic views of the city center and university buildings, as well as other landmarks.

The church dates back to Anglo-Saxon times, when it was at the center of the old walled city. It is the famous site of the 1555 trial of the Oxford Martyrs, who were burnt at the stake for heresy. The church was rebuilt in the Perpendicular style in the 16th century, although parts of the original 13th-century structure, such as the tower, still remain. 

From outside, admire the ornate Baroque spire, which was added in the 14th century, and the decorative gargoyles and grotesques that adorn the façade. In particular, the ornate south porch warrants special attention, with its spiral columns and curly pediment.

Enter the serene church and wander through the spacious nave. Be sure to inspect the marvelous stained-glass windows, some of which date from the 1400s. The church is home to one of only two classical organs by the acclaimed Metzler Orgelbau firm in the United Kingdom. Note its unstained oak case and carved wooden pipe shades. 

Ascend the church tower for an inspiring view of the campus. On the way up the tower, stop in at the clock mechanism room to learn a little about the structure. Use the room as a rest stop on your way up the fairly steep ascent. From the summit, you’ll have superb views of Radcliffe Camera, the first circular library in Britain. 

The University Church of St. Mary the Virgin is open to visitors daily from morning until late afternoon. There is a small fee to climb the tower, which opens after morning services. The church is beside the High Street and within easy reach of other attractions, such as Radcliffe Camera, Bodleian Library and the Sheldonian Theatre on university grounds. Make your way to the colleges of Brasenose or All Souls to find the church.


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