15 April 2024

Saint Giles in Oxford,
a 900-year-old church
in the city centre that
looks like a country church

Saint Giles Church at the north end of the wide thoroughfare of Saint Giles in Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Giles Church in Oxford is at the north end of the wide thoroughfare of Saint Giles, best known for the Martyrs’ Memorial to the south. The 900-year-old church stands at the point where Saint Giles forks and divides to become Woodstock Road to the left or west and Banbury Road to the right or east, and it faces both Little Clarendon Street and Keble Road.

Oxford’s main war memorial adjoins the south end of Saint Giles churchyard, and other nearby landmarks on the west side include the former Radcliffe Infirmary and Observatory, Somerville College, Saint Aloysius Oratory Church, the Eagle and Child, which sadly has been closed too long, Saint Cross College, Pusey House and Blackfriars; to the east, the nearby landmarks include the Lamb and Flag and Saint John’s College.

Saint Giles is often open for two hours on selected weekday afternoons. I often pass the church on the bus or walk by it. But for years I seem to have missed the opportunities to see inside. Then, one recent afternoon in Holy Week, I saw it was open an hour or so before a memorial service began and I had my first chance to walk around the interior of Saint Giles.

But, because I was reluctant to intrude on a family’s gried during that memorial service, I decided to return to Saint Gile last week and see the interior, which retains the atmosphere of an English country church.

Inside Saint Giles Church, Oxford, facing the east end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Saint Giles is a pretty church first built in the 12th and 13th centuries. But the first record of a church on the site dates from the Domesday Book in 1086, when a landowner named Edwin declared that he wanted to build a church adjoining his land, outside the north wall of the city.

When the church was first built it stood in open fields, 500 metres north of the city walls, with no other building between it and the city’s north gate, where the Church of Saint Michael at the North Gate stands. About 1,000 people lived within the walls of Oxford at the time.

Soon, however, before the area outside the city walls began to be settled, and Saint Giles had a parish of its own that had become widely spread and thinly settled.

The chancel and sanctuary in Saint Giles Church, Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

This first church on this site was built for Edwin, son of Godegose, and finished in 1120. In 1139, Edwin granted the church and its property to the newly-founded Benedictine Abbey at Godstow Abbey, 3.2 km (2 miles) to the north-west.

However, the church was not consecrated until 1200. It was consecrated by Saint Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln, who had also expanded Saint Mary Magdalen Church to the south in 1194. A 13th or 14th century consecration cross is carved into the west column of the bell tower and consists of interlaced circles.

There is 12th century stonework in the chancel, and other early parts of the church include the lower section of the bell tower and two windows on the north side of the clerestory of the nave.

The East Window in Saint Giles Church, Oxford, with scenes of the Ascension (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The 13th century chancel roof still has its original timber beams. An analysis of the timbers suggests that they were cut in 1288, and this is thought to be the oldest roof in Oxford.

The tower was finished early in the 13th century, which is also the date of the aisle arcades and Early English Gothic lancet windows. The Decorated Gothic chancel was built late in the 13th century.

There is a 13th century font close to the south door, and there are several carved corbels at the north-west end of the church.

The 13th century baptismal font close to the south door (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

At the Dissolution of the monasteries during the Tudor Reformation, Godstow Abbey surrendered Saint Giles Church and all its lands to the Crown in 1539. Henry VIII granted Saint Giles to his personal physician, Dr George Owen of Godstow, in 1542.

Owen’s son sold the church to Sir Thomas White in 1573. White, a former Lord Mayor of London, had founded Saint John’s College on Saint Giles Street in 1555, and he gave the advowson or the right to nominate the vicar to the college, which continues to exercise this right.

The incumbents of Saint Giles have included two notable associates of Archbishop William Laud: William Juxon (1609-1615), who later became President of Saint John’s College, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury; and Thomas Turner (1624-1629), later Dean of Canterbury

The carved and painted figures of Henry Bosworth and his family above the vestry door (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

A curious feature surviving in the church is a set of carved and painted figures representing Henry Bosworth, who died in 1634, his wife Alice, and their three children. The figures appear to have been made for a family tomb that was never finished, and today they look rather forlorn standing above the modern door to the vestry.

During the Civil War, when Charles I made Oxford his headquarters, a group of Parliamentary soldiers were held prisoner in the church in 1643, and they burned all the furniture. The Vicar of Saint Giles, John Goad, continued to hold church services through Parliament’s bombardment of the city defences in 1645, and once again the church was damaged. The Bosworth tomb may have been destroyed at this time.

Saint Giles received minor repairs in the 17th and 18th centuries. Parts of the building were repaired at different times in the 19th century, and the south chapel was rebuilt in 1850, so that much of what is seen today is Victorian.

The bell tower has a ring of eight bells. The oldest bell is the tenor, cast by Ellis Knight I of Reading in 1632. Five more were cast by William Taylor of Oxford in 1850. The youngest bells are the treble and second, cast in 1927 by Mears and Stainbank at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in the East End of London.

Outside in the churchyard, the choir has planted a rose garden, and for some time now a number of homeless people have been spleeing in tents in a sheltered grassy corner of the churchyard.

Looking out into Saint Giles churchyard from the south porch (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

An annual fair was established to celebrate the consecration of the church in 1200, and Saint Giles Fair continues to this day, more than 800 years later. The whole street is closed when the fair is held on the Monday and Tuesday after the Sunday following 1 September, which is Saint Giles Day.

Saint Giles was a hermit or monk active in the lower Rhône in the 7th century and is the patron of a variety of people including beggars, cancer patients, disabled people, people with mental illnesses, outcasts and poor people, as well as the city of Edinburgh. He also gives his name to my local parish church, Saint Mary and Saint Giles in Stony Stratford.

Oxford has expanded over the centuries, and Saint Giles is now a city centre church. As north Oxford was built up and the population grew, new parishes were created out of parts of Saint Giles, including Saint Philip and Saint James (1862) and Saint Margaret’s (1883). Saint Giles is now reunited with the parish of Saint Philip and Saint James and with Saint Margaret in a united benefice.

The west end of Giles Church, Oxford, seen from the chancel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Revd Daniel Walters has been the Vicar of Saint Giles and Saint Margaret since 2021. He studied at Cambridge (MA) and Sheffield (MA) and trained for ordination at the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield.

• There is said Holy Communion (BCP) every Sunday at 8 am and the Sung Eucharist at 10:30, with Evensong on Sunday evenings at 6:30. Evening Prayer is said Tuesday to Saturday at 5:30. The church is open for private prayer most weekday afternoons from noon for two hours.

Oxford has expanded over the centuries, and Saint Giles is now a city centre church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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