Christ Church Oxford: A Visitor’s Guide
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Christ Church is one of Oxford’s best-known colleges. With a long-standing history and stunning architecture, it’s little wonder it’s at the top of most people’s list to explore when they visit Oxford.
This guide will walk you through some of Christ Church’s iconic architecture and through a short history of the college, with sections on the college’s affiliations with Harry Potter and Alice in Wonderland.
Ready to discover Christ Church? Here’s what you need to know.
Why Visit Christ Church Oxford?
Oxford isn’t short of attractions, whether it’s the abundance of sandstone colleges or the gently meandering Thames (better known as the Isis in its Oxford stretch), there’s a lot for any visitor to cover. Even so, we’d recommend taking some time to explore Christ Church college.
In the past, it was a place of pilgrimage. These days, it is one of the largest colleges in Oxford and was the 13th college established out of the current roster of 45 colleges and permanent private halls.
Displaying a blend of English Gothic and Romanesque architecture, it’s a visual feast, even by Oxford’s high standards.
Walls punctuated with stained glass windows, intricate lierne vaulting carved into the ceilings. There’s a lot to cover and luckily for you, many of the college’s most impressive features are in areas that are open to the public.
Christ Church Cathedral (Oxford’s Cathedral)
One of the first sights that Christ Church isn’t like any other Oxford college is the fact that it is home to the city’s cathedral.
Christ Church Cathedral was the original church for St. Frideswide Priory, an old nunnery which sat where the college does today. In fact, as the Cathedral building (though much altered) dates back to the 12th century, it’s the oldest part of the college – closely followed by its adjoining Chapter House.
In 1525, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey took over the chapel as part of his plan to turn the priory into Cardinal College and it became both the college chapel and Oxford’s Cathedral.
Despite being one of the smallest cathedrals in all of England, Christ Church Cathedral’s architecture is grand – if not in scale than in design.
This is in no small part thanks to an extensive redesign in the 19th century by Gothic revivalist Sir George Gilbert Scott (who also designed the Midland Hotel at St Pancras station and the Albert Memorial in London).
Tom Quad and Tom Tower
The scale of Wolsey’s designs for what was to be Cardinal College are never more apparent than in the magnificence of the Tom Quad – Christ Church’s main quad. It’s the first thing you’ll see if you come through the main entrance at St Aldates.
The Quad is more formally known as the Great Quadrangle. Little question why – the largest quad in Oxford, it’s flanked by the Tom Tower at one end, and entrances to the Cathedral and the Dining Hall on the other.
The square Tom Tower, topped with its statement octagonal lantern dome, was designed by Christopher Wren. It’s also home to Great Tom – the loudest bell in Oxford (a fact you’ll wholeheartedly agree with if you’re ever in the vicinity when it rings).
Christ Church Hall
Once the largest hall in Oxford (until Keble claimed the title by building a bigger one in the 19th century), Christ Church Hall is a striking spot. Grand paintings hang on the walls, long rows of tables and benches sitting between them, all topped with a 16th-century hammerbeam ceiling to round things off.
The paintings alone are a who’s who of famous alumni – look closely and you’ll discover portraits of a diverse range of figures from W.H Auden to Robert Burton.
You might think that the official dining hall for Christ Church’s students might look like it’s been taken straight out of a Harry Potter film – that’s no accident.
While the hall itself wasn’t used as a Harry Potter filming location (though the Ante Hall and Bodley Staircase leading up to it were), the crew used it as inspiration for the set they built at Warner Brothers Studios in Leavesden.
Christ Church Picture Gallery
The Christ Church Picture Gallery is another feature that makes the college unique. This collection of paintings by old masters, housed in a purpose-built gallery, is unrivalled by other Oxford or Cambridge colleges.
The collection has a particular leaning towards Italian art of the 14th to 18th centuries. Highlights include works by Fra Angelico, Tintoretto and Frans Hals, alongside drawings by other well-known names such as Peter Paul Rubens, Michelangelo and Da Vinci.
Entrance to the Picture Gallery is charged separately to that of the college (although free for National Art Pass members and members of the university).
Christ Church Meadows
The timeless Christ Church Meadows are a popular picnic location and sanctuary nestled alongside the River Isis, and home to longhorn cows and other cattle.
Besides the free-grazing and beautiful location, the meadows have another function: they are also the most easily accessible access point for the rowers’ boathouses—and we all know how much Oxford loves rowing.
The annual collegiate regatta, Summer VIII, takes place in the River Isis with the meadows as their backdrop.
Difficult as it is to believe for such an idyllic location – the meadows have played an important part in Christ Church – and Oxford’s history. During the English Civil War, they acted as a defence against Roundheads approaching the college.
In 1785, it became a location for the first English hot-air balloon flight when James Sadler took off from the meadows before guiding his balloon to land in Woodeaton, six miles away. Look closely at the walls of Merton College to see a plaque commemorating the effort.
Visitors can access the meadows from Folly bridge or Broad Walk.
Christ Church, Oxford History
Want to brush up on the history of Christ Church before you visit? Let’s take a quick jaunt through the annals of time.
St Frideswide Priory and Cardinal College
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where Christ Church’s history begins. Safe to say it hearkens back to the time before it was a college at all, but was instead a priory dedicated to St. Frideswide, the patron saint of Oxford.
Cardinal Wolsey obtained a papal bull licensing the dissolution of St Frideswide priory in 1524. He intended to pull down the priory and build a grand college named Cardinal College in its stead.
The plan was only ever half realised. Although Wolsey was successful in pulling down most of the priory buildings (with the exception of the church, which was to become Christ Church Cathedral) and starting sections of the grand college such as the Tom Quad, he fell from power and died well before the project neared completion.
King Henry VIII’s College to Christ Church
After Wolsey, Henry VIII took over the college — which became his namesake — before reforming the establishment to Christ Church college and naming the college’s chapel as a cathedral in 1546.
This unique history led to a college that, at the time, was structured very differently to Oxford’s other college. Traditionally headed by a Dean of the Church of England and governed by the cathedral’s canons, it was a stark contrast to the traditional structure of masters, deans and undergrads found in the rest of the university.
By the time of the Civil War, Christ Church was flourishing and, like much of Oxford, was loyal to the crown. King Charles I based himself and his Parliament at the college when fleeing London and the plague in 1625.
Christ Church became the de facto capital of the country – a fact that was not forgotten when Charles was defeated and Oliver Cromwell came to power in the new Commonwealth. The college dean was imprisoned in London and replaced with one of Cromwell’s choosing.
The Evolution of Christ Church College
After The Restoration, Christ Church was well on its way to becoming the prestigious college it is today. Since the College had lost funds due to the war and Commonwealth, the college branched out to recruit the influential and wealthy.
During the 1660s, John Fell (the Dean at the time), included residences for students and ensured that the college’s relationship with the monarchy was restored.
To cement this relationship, the college would perform royally mandated acts, like expelling John Locke (the Father of Liberalism) and sending undergrad troops to fight for James II.
John Fell finished Tom Quad and ensured that the administration of the college and cathedral resembled pre-war times.
In the 1700s, John Fell built Christ Church Library in Oxford and set up the foundation for Christ Church’s impending successes. In the 18th century, academic pursuits were vigorous, the wealthy held the college in high esteem, and the curriculum varied to promote the University’s exceptionally high standards.
This set the tone for the following generations. In the 19th century, Oxford adopted the modern system for its undergraduate program. More teachers came to work there while new subjects like maths and classics found their way onto the curriculum.
Finally, while the popularity of Christ Church increased, the number of students for undergraduate and postgraduate studies rose. This, in turn, led to a need for more residences, which saw the construction of Blue Boar, Pocock Garden and the Memorial Garden.
Notable Alumni of Christ Church
Besides the grand story of origin, Christ Church’s list of alumni includes an impressive number of great individuals and unique minds.
Some noteworthy alumni are:
- Edward VIII
- Sir Robert Peel
- Samuel Fell
- John Fell
- Peter Martyr Vermigli
- Albert Einstein
- Charles Lutwidge Dodgson
- Jacob Rothschild
- Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss
- Richard Stengel
- Bryan Guinness
- Sir Robert Dudley
- Randolph Churchill
- Neil O’Brien
- Princess Badiya Bint Hassan
- Prince Abbas Hilmi
- Riz Ahmed
Christ Church: The Star of Harry Potter
Welcome to Hogwarts, students!
If you’re a Harry Potter fan, like we are, then you’d remember that line and the staircase it took place in. This location – at the top of the Bodley Staircase in Christ Church, is where Harry Potter’s first step into Hogwarts really happens.
Many people (ourselves included) rave about the dining hall and its connection to Hogwarts. The writers of Harry Potter’s movies used the Christ Church hall as inspiration. Although, in the real dining hall, you’ll see fewer tables and, unfortunately, no floating candles.
While many of the movie’s iconic scenes were filmed in the Warner Bros Studio, some were filmed in the college.
Remember the scene where Harry learns of his seeker destiny? Take a peek at the Christ Church Cloisters and see if it looks familiar (hint: it will).
Alice in Wonderland
On the 4th of July 1862, Lewis Carroll published a children’s book. Not just any children’s book either… but Alice in Wonderland.
That story started at Christ Church College. In 1856, Henry Lidell moved to Christ Church to fulfil his newly appointed role as the College Dean. Lidell was quick to befriend a mathematician at the college, Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a talented writer publishing under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll.
The story has it that one day, Dean Lidell took his three young daughters and his friend out on the River Isis for a picnic. The girls were 13, 10, and 8 years old and soon got bored. So Dodgson began telling them incredible stories of a young girl going on fascinating adventures.
Alice, the second oldest daughter of Henry Lidell, was so impressed by the stories that she asked for a keepsake of the story in writing. After expanding on it and adding a few drawings alongside it, Charles Lutwidge honoured the request. The book known as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland practically wrote itself.
How to Visit Christ Church College Oxford
A self-guided visit is a great idea for anyone reluctant to spend too much time in groups and you can stroll through the attractions at your own pace. That said, you may miss out on some information along the way.
Entrance to the college costs £16 for adults and £15 for concessions. Children under 5 are free. Tickets need to be booked in advance here.
Or On a Tour
The best tour options provided by tour guides come with comprehensive knowledge. Including where to see those particular elements and quirks that make Christ Church unique.
Consider a guided tour to catch a peek of the storytelling glass stained windows, the fireplace decorations that inspired the tweedle twins, with a few Harry Potter stories thrown in for good measure.
Christ Church Oxford Accommodation
During vacation periods, Christ Church offers unique accommodations to the public. If you’re visiting in March, April, July, August or September, you can book into vacant student accommodation. This will either be at 117 St Aldates or the Liddell Building.
This accommodation allows you to be within walking distance of Christ Church, as well as giving you the chance to live a student’s life — if only for a short time.
There are en suite rooms and standard rooms (shared bathrooms with other rooms and floors) to choose from. And you can select either a twin or a double room.
Unfortunately, this accommodation is not available to those under 18, and it might be hard for disabled people to navigate to and from their rooms.
Not sold? There are also tons of luxury hotels or bed and breakfasts in Oxford for anyone interested in staying outside the college gates.