Thursday, October 13, 2011

The University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford

The University Church of St. Mary the Virgin stands in the physical centre of the old walled City of Oxford, whilst the university grew up around it.

During the medieval period scholars lived in houses with their teachers and the university had no buildings of its own, so inevitably St. Mary's was adopted 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, 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 in order to house his books. 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 was used by the university's parliament. 

By the mid 17th century all university business was removed form the church, nevertheless this church remains the place where the university formally comes to worship. 

The so called Oxford Martyrs, i.e. 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 their trial in St. Mary's. The reason why they were tried and then burnt was that they did not believe the doctrine of transubstantiation.

 During the Nazi regime in Germany and Austria a large number of refugees came to Oxford. Many were of Jewish origin but members of a Lutheran or Reformed church. They wished to attend services in their own language and tradition. They held their first service in this church on Sunday 3 September 1939, the day that Britain declared war on Germany, and have continued to meet there ever since. 

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