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Museum of Oxford Digital Exhibitions

A Protestant Virgin Mary

Photo credit: David Nicholls (19 March 2013), CC BY-NC 2.0

Why is there a statue of the Virgin Mary in the University Church? Is it not a feature one would expect to find in a Catholic house of worship? Its erection in 1637 was the product of a major campaign for religious renewal spearheaded by the then Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud (1573-1645) and his royal master Charles I. Later known as ‘Laudianism’, this involved promotion of elaborate liturgy and church architecture, and strictly hierarchical ecclesiastical governance. Laud’s and Charles’s radical Protestant adversaries discerned in it a return to the hated ‘popish’ past.

In his desire to reform the University according to this creed Laud rewrote its statutes – or rules – and made ambitious plans to rebuild the City. He also hoped to expel all non-religious events from the University Church, reserving it purely for the worship of God. In the turbulent years leading up to the Civil Wars and his own execution, Laud was only partially successful. Not until the opening of the Sheldonian Theatre would his ideal be achieved. But in 1637 his former chaplain Dr Morgan Owen did do something to assert the religious importance of the University Church: he donated funds for a rich new edifice on its front.

Built by Joshua Jackson, this south porch is a peculiar construction. Gothic on the inside and classical without, it frames two twisted – or Solomonic – columns intended to remind viewers of the twin pillars that had supported the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Most controversially, the porch contains a statue of the Virgin Mary and Child. This was seen by contemporaries as a dangerous sign of Catholicism. It would be raised at Laud’s trial as proof of his treason. The statue was also attacked in the Civil Wars, with soldiers shooting at it in religious outrage. The current statue, erected in the nineteenth century, is a replacement for the one they mutilated.