If you approached Oxford from the north 950 years ago, coming down St Giles, the most conspicuous building in your line of sight would have been the present church tower, dating from about 1050. It is probably the oldest surviving building in Oxford, rivalled only by the castle tower, and originally situated just within the North Gate, of the city, protected to the north by the city wall.
All other traces of the original church have vanished, but a church there certainly was. The Domesday Book (1086) records that ‘the priests of St Michael hold two houses worth 52d’. After the tower, the earliest surviving parts of the church are the chancel, the eastern part of the south aisle (nearest the altar), and the south door, all dating from the 13th century.
The east window of the chancel contains four panels of high quality stained glass dating from the 13th century; it is some of the earliest stained glass in Oxford. Next, in the 14th century, came the lady chapel and the north transept (where the organ now is), while the north aisle and the nave date from the 15th century.
The font also dates from this time; it was removed from the former St Martin’s church at Carfax and may have been seen by William Shakespeare, who stood at a baptism in St Martin’s as godfather to the son of an Oxford friend.
St Michael’s place in the city centre, and the presence of some wealthy parishioners among past congregations, have opened up the church to a fairly constant process of demolition, rebuilding and enlargement. Some of Oxford’s leading citizens, as well as scholars and undergraduates from neighbouring colleges, are commemorated on the many wall plaques and memorials which enhance the church.
The church was substantially restored by G.E. Street in the 19th century, and again after a near disastrous fire in 1953. Since then the largest and most ambitious project has been the restoration of the tower in 1986.
Visitors to the tower go through the first-floor treasury containing a magnificent display of rare silver – the earliest piece dates from 1562 – and the Charter of 1612, bearing the arms of James I. As you climb the tower you will pass the 19th century clock mechanism and the cell door from the Bocardo Prison, which was above the North Gate. This is where the Protestant martyrs, Bishops Latimer and Ridley and Archbishop Cranmer, were held before their deaths in 1555 and 1556.
The roof of the tower, open to the public, gives a panoramic view of the city and the hills beyond. The entrance to the tower is through the Visitor Reception Centre, where you can buy guide books and other souvenirs.