Largely rebuilt in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the oldest part of St Mary the Virgin is the tower (1280), to which was added a spire built between1315 and 1325, profusely decorated with gables, pinnacles, gargoyles and statues of the saints that look out from each corner. The ‘Virgin Porch’ on the High Street is no less elaborate with its unusual barley-twist columns to each side (1637), and statue of Virgin and Child above, which still displays the bullet holes made by Cromwell’s troopers.
The church stands in the original centre of the old walled city of Oxford and the University grew around it. From the thirteenth century to the seventeenth century it was the seat of the University’s government and was used for University business. In 1555 it was famously the site of the trial of the Oxford Martyrs, when the Bishops Latimer, Ridley and Archbishop Cranmer were found guilty of heresy and were taken to Broad Street to be burned at the stake; an iron cross in the road marks the site of the fire.
Today you may climb the 127 steps to the top of the tower to enjoy the 360-degree views of the High Street and Radcliffe Square with their multiplicity of historic buildings and colleges, and then descend below for refreshments in the Vaults Café, once the home of the University Parliament.