St Mary’s stands in the physical centre of the old walled City, and the university grew up around it. In medieval times scholars lived in houses with their teachers and the university had no buildings of its own, so it adopted St Mary’s as its centre. The church continued as a parish church, but by the early 13th century it had become the seat of university government, academic disputation, and the awarding of degrees.
The Oxford Martyrs ~Each of the three anglican bishops, Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer, who were burnt at the stake in Oxford during the reign of the Roman Catholic queen, ‘Bloody Mary’, underwent part of his trial in St Mary’s. Their principal crime was not to believe the doctrine of transsubstantiation, although Cranmer, as Henry VIII’s Archbishop, had also played a crucial role in the downfall of Queen Mary’s mother, Catherine of Aragon.
John Wesley, founder of Methodism, often attended the University Sermon in his Oxford days, and subsequently, as a Fellow of Lincoln College, preached some of his most stirring sermons before the University here – notably the famous sermon the ‘Almost Christian’ in 1741. In 1744, again in St Mary’s, he denounced the laxity and sloth of the senior members of the University. He was never asked to preach here again. ‘I have preached, I suppose,’ I wrote, ‘the last time in St Mary’s. Be it so. I am now clear of the blood of these men. I have fully delivered my soul.’