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The Cathedral stands on the site of an ancient Saxon Church, founded in the 8th century by St Frideswide, the Patron Saint of Oxford. Though nothing now remains of this church, a Saxon cemetery lies under the cathedral cloister.
The present building was constructed in the last quarter of the 12th century as the monastery church for a community of Augustinian Canons. The monastery was called St Frideswide’s Priory, and inside the church stood an ornate shrine on which were kept the relics of the saint. Pilgrims visited the shrine throughout the Middle Ages, including Catherine of Aragon, who, in 1518, came to pray for the birth of a healthy son.
In 1524, just before the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Cardinal Wolsey gained permission from the Pope to close down St Frideswide’s Priory so that he could use the land to build a vast new college for the university. He planned to include a new chapel for his ‘Cardinal’s College’ but died before the building was complete, which meant that the old monastery church was retained. King Henry VIII founded the college as Christ Church instead and in 1546 moved the first Bishop of Oxford into the church, thereby creating a unique institution: a college chapel that is also the Cathedral for the Diocese of Oxford.
Christ Church Cathedral is one of the oldest buildings in Oxford and one of the smallest cathedrals in England. Unusually for a cathedral, its centre stalls face inwards, in collegiate style. Its interior is breathtaking; the stonework almost glows and the stained glass is stunning. The Becket Window in the Lucy Chapel dates from 1320 and is one of very few images of Becket to survive. There is still a shrine to St Frideswide. But perhaps best of all is the remarkable stone vaulted ceiling in the chancel, which is 500 years old.
Visitors should note that services begin five minutes later than ‘normal’ time, because the Cathedral keeps the old ‘Oxford Time’ (ie five minutes west of Greenwich). This means 6pm Oxford Time is 6.05pm GMT or BST.
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