The church of St Peter-in-the-East is situated in central Oxford, within the old city walls, in a quiet lane off the High Street. The church was closed in 1965, and in 1969-70 was converted into the library for St Edmund Hall next door. The sympathetic conversion left the wide array of sumptuous Romanesque features unspoiled. The oldest part, perhaps 1120-30, is the groin-vaulted crypt or lower church. It has a nave with two aisles of five bays, with two rows of four squat piers with scallop capitals, some with figurative sculpture. Most of its original arched windows survive, and inside are five arched doorways, one of which opens into a confessio or relic chamber, the others all having stairways that led to the upper church. One of these doorways now provides access to the churchyard.
The chancel, directly above the crypt and on the same foundations, is almost entirely Romanesque, c. 1150. At its corners are clasping buttresses with pepperpot turrets, retaining round-headed lancet windows. A Perpendicular E window has replaced the Romanesque ones, but traces of their jambs remain. They were probably similar to the present S and N chancel windows, shafted with decorated capitals and arches both inside and out. Originally the chancel had a chamber above, running its whole length, and remains of the tiny windows lighting it are visible in the E gable. Wall passages within the chancel walls, visible at window level interiorly, led to staircases within the corner buttresses, and also to those from the crypt. On the S side of the chancel, the original ragstone rubble wall largely survives and there are traces of blind arcading. There is an external stringcourse of billet. Part of the external corbel table remains on the N wall. The mid-12thc. S nave doorway has continuous orders of chip-carved crosses, beakhead and chevron. A N aisle was added in the 13thc. The nave originally ended just beyond the S door, but it was extended westwards when a W tower was added at the end of the N aisle in the 14thc.
On the interior, the chancel is rib-vaulted, of two quadripartite bays. Ribs of the E bay are decorated with a chain design, each link bearing two carved motifs. Ribs of the W bay are of deep-cut multiple chevron. Some of the supporting nookshafts have figurative capitals. The internal stringcourse is of zigzag. The original chancel arch was replaced by a wider one in the 13thc.
When the library conversion was made, Sturdy (1972) found the footings and floor levels of a stone and timber church of the 10thc. on the site, and similar footings of a stone 11thc. one. An aisleless stone church was recorded in 1086 when it was held by Robert d’Oilly, the Governor of Oxford, and at this time St Peter’s was already the mother church of Holywell and Wolvercote. The present church is believed to have been completed by 1152. In 1154-56 the advowson was granted to Oseney Abbey, but it was not effected. It had already been acquired by Henry d’Oilly, son of Robert. From Henry it passed to his son, John of Oxford, its first known rector (VCH). The medieval rectory was the wealthiest living in Oxford, largely from tithes from Holywell and Wolvercote. On John’s death the living passed to the Crown, and in 1266 to Merton College.
There have been suggestions that that the church was originally named San Pietro in Vincoli, after the 5thc. church in Rome said to house his chains (Lyne, 1927; Dyson, Croft and Kent, 1961). There seems to be no documentary evidence of this, but the chain motif of the chancel vaulting might indeed be an allusion to it. Because the church was near the city’s east gate, the name was changed to St Peter-in-the-East to distinguish it from the Oxford church of St Peter-le-Bailey.
The Lady Chapel, added early in the 13thc. to the N of the chancel, was probably the first addition to the Romanesque building. It is said to have been paid for by Edmund of Abingdon from the proceeds of his teaching. He gave his name to the college and later became Archbishop of Canterbury.
The crypt was used as a bone repository in later medieval times. In the 17thc. it was let to a vintner as a store. By the 19thc. it had become a charnel house again, and it was not until 1931 that it was cleaned out, repaired and a pavement laid.
|h. of opening||2.36 m|
|w. of opening||1.42 m|
A continuous order with voussoirs of chip-carved crosses and saltires with pellets, mostly two per voussoir, lateral to the face. Most pellets pierced. Several basal jamb voussoirs damaged on L, and blank on R side.
Continuous with thirty-eight voussoirs visible, those near ground level unreadable. Possibly more exist below paving level. All readable voussoirs bear a single beakhead, except for voussoir 21 that bears two. All beaks grip the continuous roll moulding that occupies c. 50% of the voussoir. Most beaks are keeled, but some are chamfered, presenting a flatter dorsal surface and two lateral surfaces. Piercing is often in rows, particularly each side of the keel. Most heads have small pointed ears, patterning on the brow, and large round or slanting teardrop-shaped eyes, shallowly pierced. A few have smaller oval eyes. At the root of the beak, just above the roll moulding, most show a chiselled edge (referred to as truncation), below which the beak protrudes at a lower level. Above beak level, the heads are of diverse grotesque forms (human, beast or hybrid). Only six beakheads are judged to be traditional bird heads, with a smoother contour from brow to beak tip. The voussoirs are finished at the outer edge by a quirk and a narrow fillet. Details below, voussoirs reading L to R:
Voussoirs 1-5, damaged, unreadable.
Voussoir 6, large pierced eyes, visible truncation but little other detail.
Voussoirs 7, 8, zigzag frill on forehead, raised diagonal striations around large eyes, beak more like a tongue, damaged on 8.
Voussoirs 9-11, fluting on brow, obvious truncation, longer keeled beaks, large eyes.
Voussoir 12, rounded bird head with no ears, zigzag frill on forehead, flutings at root of beak with no truncation, beak with many piercings.
Voussoir 13, square human-like head, tiny ears, small oval eyes and a nose, horizontal brow lines, very noticeable truncation, thin beak.
Voussoir 14, as 13 but long pointed ears.
Voussoir 16, eyes high up, little decoration, truncated thin beak.
Voussoir 17, human-like with marked truncation, a central ridge forming the nose.
Voussoir 18, bird head with a fluted fringe on the brow, big eyes with encircling ridges, and a chamfered beak with many piercings.
Voussoir 19, bird head with a deeply cut diagonal pattern on the brow and between the large eyes, a keeled beak with many piercings.
Voussoir 20, human-like, nesting vees on top of head above ears, round pierced eyes, a nose, and a chamfered beak with three rows of pierced holes.
Voussoir 21, same width as other voussoirs but bearing two narrow heads. 21a is a bird head, and 21b is truncated. Both have big round eyes, and smaller beaks with few piercings.
Voussoir 22, a square head, with two rows of raised squares on brow, a nose, and a wide beak with no piercings.
Voussoir 23, a square head, brow as 22, bearing a row of sharp teeth.
Voussoir 24, bird head with round eyes like 12 and 21a.
Voussoir 25, pierced round eyes, a nose and a pierced beak.
Voussoir 26, head has small horizontal eyes and wears an inverted T-shaped nose strap, like a captive bear, above the truncation, with a pierced beak below it.
Voussoirs 27, 28, damaged but truncated beaks present.
Voussoirs 29-31, unreadable, beaks replaced.
Voussoirs 32 – 35, unreadable, beakheads damaged on their outer ends, where a medieval water stoup has been inserted. Beaks replaced.
Voussoirs 36 – 39, unreadable, difficult to differentiate.
Continuous with two rows of bold tubular chevron with hollows, lateral to the face, mostly two centrifugal chevrons per voussoir. On the inner edge, small pyramidal spaces on the soffit each contain a pierced pellet. Between first and second rows of chevron lies a row of fine pellets. Outside the tubular chevron is a hollow and a row of ridged zigzag. This order is missing on the lower R side where a water stoup was inserted.
First order, continuous and plain.
Second order. L nookshaft. Base of two convex mouldings, the lower damaged. Shaft engaged, plain and round. Necking plain. Capital, a single cushion to E and S faces, with a plain shield above an incised V. Impost, with a chamfer below a vertical with a quirk, wraps around both faces and extends along the S wall beyond the capital to the outer edge of the hood.
Arch. Two rows of stepped thick chevron, lateral to the face, followed by a row of fine beading, a hollow and a further row of incised zigzag. Hood of carved raised zigzag, damaged and incomplete. All chevrons and zigzags aligned and centrifugal.
First order. Plain and continuous except for an interruption at capital level by the imposts and a capital-like projection from the second order, that bears a curving scroll decoration on outer and inner faces, separated by a sharp arris. L impost bears a row of raised knobs like undefined nailheads. R impost plain and chamfered.
Second order. L side. Base with two convex mouldings. Engaged round nookshaft carved with scrolling patterns, all with beading. Necking plain. Capital a plain cushion, with a shield and a triangle beneath it demarcated with incised lines. Imposts plain and chamfered. R side, as L but with no decoration on the nookshaft.
Arch, as exterior.
Second order, exterior. Shafts eroded. To accommodate the roofline of the later vestry, the shaft bases have been moved to a higher level, approximately one-quarter up the window. Stepped chevron damaged. Zigzag hood moulding restored, except for a short length at R.
Corbel 1 Unreadable.
Corbel 2 Top shows little ears, human-like eyes; lower part missing.
Corbel 3 Missing.
Corbel 5 A coiled serpent beneath, and possibly a bird’s leg and wing above.
Corbel 6 Unreadable, half missing.
Corbel 7, 8 Unreadable.
Corbel 10 A coil as 5, with an eroded beast above.
Corbel 12-14 Unreadable.
Corbel 15 Modern replacement, a human head.
S and N responds, between E and W bays similar. The half-shaft engaged with a dosseret stands proud of the nookshafts tucked into the angle on each side. Base of two square plinths, the lower chamfered and the upper plain, with two round convex elements above. Half-shaft and necking plain. Capital double-scalloped on its central face, with single scallops to E and W, defined by tucks. Imposts, and those of nookshafts, decorated by the stringcourse of raised chevron.
SW nookshaft. As SE. Cushion capital has shield emphasised by a groove with a vee-shaped groove below, on each face.
NE nookshaft. As SE, but necking damaged. Capital has the head of a bird or an angel on the angle, with well-defined wings on S and W faces, with shallow shields defined by a groove above. Head supported by finger-like processes or hands.
NW nookshaft. As NE, with a carved capital with shallow shields above. A human-like head on the angle, joined on each side to addorsed beast bodies, each with two legs and a lion-like tail that loops under and over the body ending in a tassel.
SW nookshaft. As SE, E bay, but capital entirely carved with a figure on the angle, a round head with diagonal scrolled processes going in four directions, perhaps representing the wind (as W bay, NW).
NW nookshaft. A restored version of the figure of SW, W bay, with wind being blown from his mouth.
SE rib, ten links. Starting with the lowest, a) and b) for each link.
1a) chip-carved saltire with pierced beads containing a tiny cross, 1b) as 1a) but beads with no crosses
2a) saltire with wider arms and pierced circle in centre, 2b) like 2a) but 4 smaller arms added, giving 8-petalled flower
3a) a bigger and looser 8-petalled flower, 3b) 2 narrow saltires on edge with deep gaps between the arms, giving a lacey appearance
4a) 8-petalled flower in square, shallowly incised, 4b) as 4a) but no edging and deeper cut
5a) 8-petalled flower in square, boldly incised, 5b) 4 small 8-petalled flowers in a square
6a) square divided into 8 triangles each containing a bead, 6b) square divided into 4 smaller squares, each with a saltire cross
7a) two squares, one inside the other, separated by 6 beads per side, the inner square containing a raised pierced circle, 7b) square containing 4 diagonal fluted wings with a central pierced circle
8a) saltire, 8b) circle divided radially into 8, with a central hole and 4 ‘leaves’ at the corners
9a) saltire, 9b) a square containing two raised concentric circles, pierced
10a) saltire, 10b) 4 small squares, each with saltires
SW rib, nine links.
1a) and 1b) a large diagonal 4-petalled flower with the petals turned in at the edges, within a square
2a) as SW 1a), 1b) with two concentric circles showing behind the petals, a central pierced disc, no square, 2b) saltire
3a) 8-petalled flower, with diagonal petals longer, 3b) small 8-petalled flower
4a) blank, 4b) square containing 3 circles with beads between outer two
5a) diagonal 4-petalled flower with 3 incised lines on each petal and a tiny central circle, b) saltire
6a) a square, each side with two arcs reaching the centre that contains four plain incised circles, 6b) blank
7a) saltire, 7b) a square containing two concentric circles alternately over- and under-lapped by 4 diagonal petals and a central wavy-edged disc
8a), 8b) saltires with pierced beads, as SE 1b)
9a), 9b) a large diagonal 4-petalled flower with the petals turned in at the edges, with two concentric circles behind the petals, as SW 2a)
NE rib, ten links
1a) a square containing 3 circles with beads between the outer two, as SW 4b) but deeper cut, 1b) saltire with pierced beads, as SE 1b)
2a) saltire with pierced beads, as SE 1b), 2b) square with an oval set diagonally, intersected by a diagonal line
3a) saltire, 3b) blank
4a) saltire, 4b) diagonal 4-petalled flower, as SW 5a) but faint
5a), 5b) damaged, unreadable
6a) saltire, 6b) damaged, unreadable
7a) saltire with pierced beads, as SE 1b), 7b) square containing two concentric circles with a cable between them, a central piercing and corner ‘leaves’
8a) saltire, 8b) two concentric squares containing a central circle
9a) diagonal 4-petalled flower, petals turned in at the edges, with two concentric circles showing behind the petals, a central pierced disc, as SW 2a), 9b) 8-petalled flower with alternating long and short petals, as SE 2b)
10a) a small link containing one saltire with pierced beads, as SE 1b)
NW rib, nine links.
1a) 8-petalled flower with alternating long and short petals, as SE 2b), 1b) saltire with pierced beads, as SE 1b)
2a) saltire with pierced beads, as SE 1b), 2b) diagonal 4-petalled flower, petals turned in at the edges, with two concentric circles showing behind the petals, a central pierced disc, as SW 2a)
3a) damaged, unreadable, 3b) diagonal 4-petalled flower, petals turned in at the edges, with two concentric circles showing behind the petals, a central pierced disc, as SW 2a)
4a) square containing two raised concentric circles, pierced, as SE 9b), 4b) square containing a large disc with four radiating petals to corners
5a) a raised circular ring, 5b) square containing two concentric circles alternately over- and under-lapped by 4 diagonal petals and a central wavy-edged disc, as SW 7b)
6a) diagonal 4-petalled flower, as SE 2a), 6b) three arches separated by beads
7a) square divided into four, each containing a cross, as SE 6b), 7b) diagonal 4-petalled flower, petals turned in at the edges, with two concentric circles showing behind the petals, a central pierced disc, as SW 2a), shallow cut
8a) diagonal 4-petalled flower, petals turned in at the edges, with two concentric circles showing behind the petals, a central pierced disc, as SW 2a), deep cut, 8b) saltire
9a) saltire with pierced beads, as SE 1b), 9b) diagonal 4-petalled flower, petals turned in at the edges, with two concentric circles showing behind the petals, a central pierced disc, as SW 2a)
Pier 1. Base square and plain, and above two round convex mouldings. Necking plain. Capital with double scallops on each face, the shields outlined by lightly incised double lines; central and angle tucks.
Pier 3. Base with corner spurs, SW spur missing. A small grooved strap rides over the moulding in the centre of each face. Necking with cable moulding. E, S, and N faces: scallop capitals with barely defined shields and sheathed pleats in centres and at angles (as image pier 6, N face). Bases bear a raised inverted shield. W face with the upper part covered by overlapping fish scales pointing upwards, and at the base two shields, as on the other faces. Superimposed on this, a symmetrical cross design that might represent a figure, consisting of a diamond-shaped head, horizontal drooping arms and pleated clothing on the vertical body. There is a large volute on the NW angle, and each fore-arm ends in a volute.
Pier 6. Base with spurs on SW and NW corners, the other corners damaged. Capital with E and W faces as pier 3, but N face lacking the raised basal shields. S face has a series of conventional overlapping fish scales at the top, and shields as E and W faces below.
Pier 7. Base plain. Capital decorated on three sides, plain on E face. S face with two addorsed half beasts, their heads facing the angles, each with mane and two front legs with claws. A vertical central band, bearing a fleur-de-lys above and below the two bodies, separates them. At the base, a row of inverted double defined scales. W face with a griffon facing S, affronting the W-facing beast on the S face. The griffon’s head has a long snout, an eye with a pierced centre, and two small ears. The long neck wears a collar, and a band of beading runs from collar to wings. Two short wings and two legs with claws. The long tail is knotted and curled at the end, with two incised longitudinal lines. A vertical structure in the centre resembling that on S face underlies the beast’s body, with two inverted scales at its base. N face, the main field occupied by a man riding a beast bareback on his knees. In front of him is another figure, on the W corner. The rider’s right hand holds the neck of the beast, whose head is turned upwards. The other figure has short legs showing beneath breeches, with possibly an arm in the upper part. Little surface detail, and the whole looks unfinished compared with S and W faces.
|h. of bowl||0.52 m|
|inner diam. of bowl||0.62 m|
|outer diam. of bowl||0.85 m|
|Voussoir 1, height||more than 0.25 m, damaged|
|Voussoir 1, w. at extrados||0.15 m|
|Voussoir 1, w. at intrados||0.14 m|
|Voussoir 2, height||0.30 m|
|Voussoir 2, w. at extrados||damaged|
|Voussoir 2, w. at intrados||0.21 m|
|Voussoir 3, height||more than 0.31 m|
|Voussoir 3, w. at extrados||0.24 m|
|Voussoir 3, w. at intrados||0.23 m|
|Voussoir 4, height||0.32 m|
|Voussoir 4, w. at extrados||damaged|
|Voussoir 4, w. at intrados||0.22 m|
Voussoir 1 bears one head and is the best preserved, comparable to the bird-like heads decorating the S door. It has large round bulging eyes with a raised surround, a boss in the centre of its brow, with a row of pellets and tiny ears above. The profile is smooth, and the beak, with a row of pierced holes each side of the keel, overlies the wide roll moulding, that looks as if it might extend around a soffit. The extrados is incomplete.
Voussoir 2 bears two weathered heads and has a complete extrados with a groove and a verticsl edge as on the S doorway voussoirs. The intrados is incomplete and the roll moulding extends little beyond the beaks, being chamfered to meet a vertical face at right angles. The L head seems to have a truncated edge, whereas the R does not. Both heads have prominent pointed ears (L ear on L head is missing), but the eyes differ and are in different relative positions.
Voussoir 3 bears two heads, but structurally it resembles voussoir 2 with a thick roll. It also has an incomplete extrados. Both heads are bird-like with diagonal ridges on the brow, ears missing on the L head, ringed bulging eyes and beaks with multiple piercings.
Voussoir 4 is weathered but almost complete at both extremities, showing that the wide roll moulding, similar in all, occupies c. 50% of the voussoir height. The L head is probably truncated, and the R is probably a bird head. Eyes damaged, ears small and distinct.
T. Dyson, C.A. Crofts and P.W. Kent, St Peter-in-the-East, Oxford, 2nd edition, Ramsgate (1961), 7-21.
R. Gough, 'XXIV. Description of the old Font in the church of East Meon, Hampshire, 1789: with some Observations on Fonts'. Archaeologia X (1792), 188.
L.H. Green, St Peter-in-the-East Church, 1905, pp. 99-103, Oxford History Centre, handwritten pamphlet.
R.N. Lyne, St Peter-in-the-East, Oxford. Oxford (1927), 8 pp.
J. Sherwood and N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Oxfordshire. Harmondsworth, 1974, 295-7.
J. Sherwood and D. Piper, A Guide to the Churches of Oxfordshire. Oxford (1989), 156.
D.A.M. Sturdy, 'Excavations in St Peter-in-the-East Church, Oxford', Oxoniensia 37 (1972), 245.
J. Theobald, 'Some Account of St Peter's Church in the East, Oxfordshire, from an old MS.', Archaeologia, I (1770, 1st edn), 151-155, plate II.
Victoria County History: Oxfordshire 4 (1979), 398-401.