The parish church of St Michael at the North Gate in Oxford was a popular city church that has experienced regular remodelling through its nearly one thousand years of history. The early eleventh century tower is the oldest building in Oxford, and marked the northern gate to the city, a popular entrance that opened onto the main market area and, unlike the other entrances, did not require crossing water to approach. It is possible that the early church was originally detached from tower, and then rebuilt on the site of the wall which was moved forward.
For a small fee, the tower can be climbed and it offers a wonderful view of the city.
One of the most interesting objects in the church is in the museum in the tower, it is a “Sheela-na-gig”, which was once attached to the tower between the windows overlooking the north gate.
The interior of the church features a variety of styles from many periods, which reflects the continual use over so many centuries.
The Lady Chapel in the north aisle seems to have been built during the thirteenth century, and there are records that indicate a Chantry of St Mary in the church at this time, although there are no remaining traces of it from earlier than the fourteenth century.
The church has many wonderful examples of stained-glass windows, including some 13th century examples that are the oldest examples in Oxford. A stained-glass window of particular interest is from the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, and features one of the very few remaining images of a ‘Lily-Crucifixion”.
There are fifteen known existing examples of lily-crucifixions in total, all English, all from between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, and three of the fifteen can be found in the Oxford area.
The image was probably connected to the Annunciation, and to a popular medieval belief that the Annunciation and the Crucifixion took place on the same date: 25 March, or ‘Lady Day’.
In ‘The Lily-Crucifixion in Late Medieval English Art’, the author suggests a possible attempt to introduce the image of Christ, as second member of the Trinity, into the popular Annunciation scenes of the time. He concludes:
‘It is an image which compresses elements of the Annunciation and the Resurrection, both of which were celebrated amongst the Joys of the Virgin, associated with the annual celebration of Lady Day and the wider ritual world of the Marian guilds and other confraternities.’
It is currently placed in the centre window of the Lady Chapel and flanked by two images of seraphim. These companions are the only other surviving images of what was once a larger set that was devastated by fire in 1953.
Thankfully, a mid-twentieth century vicar of the church included an image of the set in one of his later editions of ‘The Story of the Church of St. Michael at the North Gate’ , as shown below:
The set seems to confirm the connection of the Lily-Crucifixion to the Annunciation, and it is tempting to suggest that the image might be connected to the earlier Chantry of St Mary mentioned above. If so, it offers the local historian an insight into the beliefs of the medieval community that created it and worshipped beneath the images. But this must be cautiously approached as it is not certain that all of the original images are represented in the set, nor that the Lady Chapel was the original location.
One of the items that I find particularly curious is the arms of the See of Oxford. This is shown in the Lady Chapel:
I found the same image carved on the pulpit in St Margaret’s church in Binsey:
It seems uncertain who the three “demi-virgins” are. I’ve read the suggestion that it might represent St Frideswide, the patron saint of Oxford, and her “two companions” who accompanied her during her flight from Oxford in the story of her life. This seems unlikely. Another suggestion is that it represents St Frideswide, St Margaret and St Catherine, as the two other saints were mentioned in the story of St Frideswide as the saints she prayed to when a holy well sprung forth. This seems possible, but I’m still not sure. A third suggestion for the trio was suggest by the priest at St Thomas the Martyr, Oxford, in his weblog; he suggests St Frideswide, St Margaret and St Etheldreda. This seems possible, but I also find it not really convincing. It’s something I’d like to explore deeper.
Finally, here are a few additional examples of some of the fine stained-glass.
St Michael at the North Gate is one of the most historically important and interesting churches in Oxford, and very well worth a visit.
See the entire gallery of my photographs of the church here: