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Museum of Oxford Digital Exhibitions

Old glass in a new window

Photo credit: David Fisher

Traces of medieval Oxford survive in different ways across the City. The Queen’s College on the High Street was almost entirely rebuilt in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in a very different style to most other Oxford Colleges. But even here the pre-Reformation world survives.

The College was founded in 1341 by Robert de Eglesfield in honour of Queen Philippa of Hainault, wife to King Edward III. In 1516–19, as the Reformation was about to take hold in Germany, the chapel was extended, and a set of windows was added. Fragments of their stained glass survive in the classical chapel which exists today. They depict the coats of arms of various Catholic archbishops and cardinals, including those of Thomas Wolsey.

At the Reformation, the English Church largely abandoned the tradition of praying to saints, yet these surviving early sixteenth-century windows depict many major medieval saints: Margaret, Christopher, and Edward the Confessor. Most strikingly of all, St Peter is portrayed here as the Pope. When these windows were first installed, the Pope’s authority as Peter’s successor and leader of the Church was being challenged in Europe but defended in England. King Henry VIII wrote a defence of Catholicism, and Pope Leo X rewarded him with the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ and a ceremonial sword containing a relic of St Peter, now in the Ashmolean Museum. Two hundred years later, England’s religious and political landscape was unrecognisable; but the same windows were reset in the rebuilt chapel.