Originally located just within the fortified city’s north gate, the Saxon tower is all that is left of Romanesque Oxford.
Built around 1000-1050 CE, the Saxon Tower was once part of the original church of St. Michaels Northgate. Situated in the bustling center of the city, it was patronized by the Oxford elite. Over the years, the church has been consistently built and rebuilt, but the tower has survived.
A climb up the 97 stairs to the top of the tower is like a little tour of the history of England. The first floor treasury includes the King James I Charter of 1612, as well as a collection of priceless silver. Most hauntingly, further up the stairs you spy a cell door from the old Bocardo Prison, which consisted of rooms above the North gate. This is the door to a cell that may have held the prison’s most famous captives, the Oxford Martyrs.
During the 1550s, the deeply religious Queen Mary I (of “Bloody Mary” fame) rejected England’s new Anglican religion, in favor of its old Catholic faith. Those who opposed the switch were imprisoned and often killed. In 1555, Bishop Hugh Latimer, Bishop Nicholas Ridley, and Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, were all held in Bocardo Prison for refusing to abandon their Protestant faith. All three would eventually be burned at the stake, just outside the north city wall, cementing their place as martyrs of the Anglican faith.
Today, the top of the tower offers a panoramic view of the modern city of Oxford, from a perch that has literally seen it all.