We use cookies to improve your experience, some are essential for the operation of this site.

St Peter, Oxford, St Peter-in-the-East, Oxfordshire

(51°45′14″N, 1°14′58″W)
Oxford, St Peter-in-the-East
SP 519 064
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Oxfordshire
now Oxfordshire
medieval St Peter
now St Peter
  • Janet Newson
26 July 2011

Please use this link to cite this page - https://www.crsbi.ac.uk/view-item?i=7077.

Find out how to cite the CRSBI website here.


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.


Exterior Features



Exterior Decoration

String courses
Corbel tables, corbels

Interior Features

Wall passages/Gallery arcades


Vaulting/Roof Supports


Interior Decoration

String courses



Loose Sculpture


The plan and scale of the crypt and chancel indicate that the church was being prepared as a place of pilgrimage (VCH). The crypt has three aisles, of which the outer ones could serve as an ambulatory. The present doorways led to four access stairwells, those to N and S apparently leading up to the wall passages at window level in the chancel, acting as a sort of triforium, that connected to stairs to the chamber above the chancel, and to roof level in the E corners. The staircases at the W end led directly up to the nave, from each side of the confessio. This was a well organised, sophisticated arrangement for the controlled movement of pilgrims. This design is well known in cathedrals, but is rare in parish churches. As part of this plan, it is believed there may have been a triple chancel arch with central piers resting on the solid masonry of the W wall of the crypt. However, there seems to be no evidence of the church possessing any relics or of becoming a place of pilgrimage, and in the 13thc. a single large chancel arch was inserted.

The crypt shows parallels with the early Romanesque crypt at Lastingham, Yorkshire, that has groin vaulting and piers with plain cushion capitals. The rich figurative sculpture on two of the capitals at St Peter’s may reflect its slightly later date. Fish scales are the major motif, appearing either way up and often with a double edge. The dimensions of the crypt are given by Dyson et al. as: length 36 feet, width 21 feet and height 10 feet (11.0 m. x 6.4 m. x 3.0 m.)

The E façade of St Peter-in-the-East bears a strong resemblance to the façades of some Romanesque churches in Western France. For example, the church of Notre-Dame-la-Grande in Poitiers, and the cathedral at Angouleme, have W façades with pepperpot turrets at the upper corners and a gabled pediment in between.

In the chancel, the rib vaulting of the E bay with chain links is unusual. The links are constituted of lengths of ¾ section roll moulding. Of the link motifs, the commonest is the chip-carved cross and variants of it, associating the sculpture with that of the S nave doorway. Stylised flower shapes also feature, and there are a few unique designs. All motifs would have been relatively simple to execute.

Sherwood & Pevsner (1974) believe that the chevron vaulting of the chancel W bay was altered in the 19thc. This may well be so, because the finer workmanship and three-dimensionality does not match the heavily moulded chevron elsewhere in the church, or the chain links in the E bay, all typical mid-century work. A heavy type of chevron rib vaulting is found in chancels at Iffley, Oxfordshire, and Elkstone, Gloucestershire. These churches feature stepped lateral chevron with complex carved apical bosses with head masks facing each rib. St Peter’s has no apical boss.

The Romanesque decoration of the S doorway with its chip-carved crosses and beakheads is unlikely to be earlier than 1150. Many of the beakheads lack the smooth contour of most bird heads where there is no break between head and beak. Most beakheads here have a distinct, apparently chiselled, break above beak level. This style of beakhead also occurs at St Ebbe’s, Oxford, and one head in particular, wearing a nose strap or bridle, is very similar in both churches. Possibly masons from the same workshop may have contributed to both churches (Halsey, 1988). Truncated beakheads also occur on the tower arches at Iffley, near Oxford, yet all the heads on the earlier W portal are bird heads. Truncated heads dominate at Lincoln Cathedral and Tutbury Priory.

Sherwood and Pevsner (1974) suggested that the S doorway had been reset and that the loose beakhead voussoirs might be from another doorway. Since three of the four voussoirs bear two beakheads, this is possible. There is only one voussoir with two heads on the S doorway. However, their view that the loose voussoirs were smaller may be mistaken because the height dimensions given here come within the range of those of the S doorway, averaging 0.29 m. The widths of all voussoirs vary considerably. As the loose voussoirs do not appear to taper, it seems likely they are jamb voussoirs. Loose voussoir 4 has the same conformation at its outer edge as those of the S doorway, and the other three might have been the same. If the doorway was reset, it is possible that its configuration is not as the original, and that all the voussoirs might have come from the one doorway.

Sturdy (1972) mentions the finding of a late 12thc. or early 13th. coffin in the excavations prior to the library conversion, and Sherwood and Piper (1989) report seeing a large stone coffin lid with a cross between four circles of probable 12thc. date. It is not known whether this relates to the decorated stone block now in the chancel. As the incised design on the block is similar to the motifs within the chains of the ribs, although on a different scale, it might be of similar date.

The original Romanesque font is known from two engravings by Michael Burghers (c.1657-1727) (reproduced in Theobald, 1770). One shows a narrow thick-sided bowl from an oblique angle, without a visible base, and the other gives a panoramic view of the sides with twelve arcades containing figures, said to be apostles. The amount of detail varies, and two figures are badly damaged. The arcades have columns with double cushion capitals, with a roll moulding over the arch with an outer band of uneven pellets. There are three-pointed motifs in the spandrels, and a band of leaf decoration round the rim. apparently all finely and freely executed. The design is in the tradition of twelve-arcaded fonts, as at Dorchester-on-Thames (in lead), and at Rendcomb, Gloucestershire (in stone). However, this font was relegated to the churchyard later in the 17thc. (Gough, 1792; Dyson et al.,1961), and was replaced by one in wood (by Grinling Gibbons and still in existence). The wooden one was replaced by ‘a plain stone one before 1843’, made as a memorial to Vicar W.K. Hamilton who left St Peter’s in 1841, later to become Bishop of Salisbury (Dyson et al., 1961).

The plain stone font presumably refers to the present one, that might be called plain in that it lacks the figures in the arcades. This accords with a handwritten account of the church that describes 'a fine old Norman (sic) font, its bowl ornamented with arches and bead moulding', with no mention of figures in the arcades (Green, 1905). This is the only account seen by the author that seems to give a description of the 19thc. partial copy that now resides in the crypt.

In 1927, it was reported that part of the old 'polygonal font', removed in the 17thc., is preserved in the sill of the W window of the porch (Lyne, 1927). This seems to accord with the 1961 report that 'part of the original, with chevron decoration and figures of Apostles under canopies, was found in 1894 and returned to the church’, to be mounted in the sill of the W porch window (Dyson et al., 1961). Since then, Sherwood and colleagues (1974, 1989) report font fragments ‘largely of vertical zigzag’ in the S porch. Engravings of the original font show no sign of zigzag or chevron, and moreover these authors make no reference to the present font. The origin of these fragments remains unknown.


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.