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St Martin’s Church

City Church of Oxford c.1122–1896


Carfax Church in 2004

The first St Martin’s Church

St Martin’s (or Carfax) Church was built in the early eleventh century. It became the town church in medieval times, and by the reign of Henry II was probably used for council meetings. It was centrally situated centrally at Carfax, just a stone’s throw from the early Guildhall and the later Town Hall in St Aldate’s.

The original church had become unsafe by 1820, and was demolished except for its thirteenth-century west tower (right), which remains a well-known landmark today.

The following Mayors were buried at this church:

  • Richard Carey (1349)
  • Edward Woodward (1497)
  • William Fleming (c.1550)
  • Richard Whittington (1578)
  • William Noble (1578)
  • Henry Dodwell (1578)
  • Thomas Rowe (1599)
  • John Davenant (1622)
  • William Wright (1635)
  • John Dewe (1639/40)
  • Thomas Cooper (1640)
  • William Chillingworth (1645)
  • Martin Wright (1664)
  • William Cornish (1679)
  • William Morrill (1679)
  • William Bayly (1683)
  • Roger Griffen (1690)
  • William Wright (1693)
  • John Austin (1775)
  • John Treacher (1780).
The second St Martin’s Church

St Martin’s Church at Carfax

The replacement St Martin’s Church was opened in June 1822, and was just fourteen years old when the above engraving was published in 1836. This second church only survived for 74 years; it was also demolished (this time to make room for traffic at Carfax in 1896), but again leaving the medieval tower (shown at the back of the engraving). The photograph below must have been taken (by Henry Taunt) shortly before demolition.

St Martin’s Church

W. E. Sherwood described the 1822 church as it was in the later nineteenth century:

It was the City Church, and so contained the Corporation pew on the south side, but opposite this was, strangely enough, a Ladies’ Corporation pew. Not, mind, that Oxford City was then so ahead of the times as to dream of having ladies as aldermen or councillors, but because, I fancy, it was the fashion in those days for husband and wife to worship together. Of course, the cynical said it was because the City Fathers liked to have their wives under their own eyes, but this no doubt was a libel.

However, there they were; the Corporation pew and the ladies’ pew facing each other, and between them, close up to the altar rails, and quite blotting out the east end, was a fine old ‘three decker’; the clerk below, the reader on the main deck, and the preacher up aloft…. In front of the clerk’s seat sat on benches round a stove four old City Almsmen, clad in handsome gowns and wearing brightly-polished sliver badges, two of which are now in the Committee Room of the Town Hall…. The sermons were preached by the four City lecturers in turn, of whom the Rector was as a rule one….

The Mayor and Corporation not only appointed the Rector of this church, but also four City Lecturers.

The demolition of the church upset the last City Rector, Carteret Fletcher, who started his history of the church with the words: “The Street Improver’s besom of destruction having just swept from the face of Oxford its oldest parish church, in which the Mayor and Corporation for more than three centuries regularly attended public worship”.

The Mayor’s seat (now in the Town Hall) and the fourteenth-century font (now in St Michael’s Church) were moved from St Martin’s to All Saints, the new city church. The font (below) is carved with eight figures of bishops and saints.

Font from St Martin's Church


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©Stephanie Jenkins

Last updated: 11 September, 2012

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