A Christian witness since the 8th century
St Ebbe’s stands at a place where Christians have been meeting together for 1300 years. While the origins of this ancient place of worship are lost, we do know that St Ebbe’s Church formed part of Eynsham Abbey at its foundation by the Ealdorman Aethelmaer in 1005, and is referred to even then as “ancient St Ebbe’s.” It is thus the earliest mentioned Parish Church in the City of Oxford.
Who was St Ebbe?
St Ebbe is depicted in ancient glass in a window on the south side of the Church. She was the daughter of Aethelfrith, king of Northumbria, and sister of the Northumbrian kings, Oswald and Oswy. Her father was killed in battle in 617, and she and her brothers lived in exile. She became a nun through St Finan of Lindisfarne and founded a religious house at Ebchester on the Derwent. The neighbouring promontory, St Abb’s Head, is named after her. She became Abbess of Coldingham in Berwickshire and died in 683.
There is no certainty how this church came to be named after her. Some think it is because of St Oswald’s connection with Gloucester in the 10th century. Others consider it possible that St Ebbe accompanied her brother when he came south in 635 to attend the baptism of Cynegils, King of Wessex, in the Thames at Dorchester by St Berinus. She would have crossed the Thames at Oxford. It is possible that Epsom, also named after her, was founded as a result of that journey as well.
St Ebbe’s Church
The present church is the result of major rebuilding in 1814 and 1816, enlarged again between 1862 and 1868 by G. E. Street, who was then Diocesan Architect. The earlier church had a nave and north aisle under the same roof, a chancel and north chapel, with a tower and north and south porches. The nave dated from the 12th century or earlier. The north wall was 15th century, as was the chapel. Part of the tower fell down in 1648 and the whole church was thoroughly repaired in 1696. Nevertheless, due to its dangerous condition, the building was demolished in 1813, with the exception of the tower and southwest corner. A new church was built on the enlarged site, incorporating the rectory which had stood on the corner of St Ebbe’s Street and Church Street (now Pennyfarthing Place). The Church, designed by William Fisher, was completed in 1816 and paid for mainly by the Bishop and Oxford Colleges.
The enlargement in 1868 added the south aisle, and a north aisle was created by inserting an arcade, while at the same time galleries were removed which had been added earlier to provide increased seating.
Some of the monuments from the old church were retained in the new: to Richard Whorwood (died 1688), William Bodley (died 1717), and his son, John, and to Frances Whorwood (died 1678). Windows in the south aisle contain glass of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. The East Window is a memorial to Thomas Valpy French, who was Rector until 1850 and who went to Lahore in Pakistan as a missionary, becoming the first Bishop of Lahore and the founder of the Diocese.
The church possesses beautiful Communion plates of Elizabethan and Jacobean date, all of which are still in regular use.
There is a delightful peal of eight bells, five from the 18th century, three of which replaced known bells of the 16th century.
The Norman West Door
When Oxford surrendered to the Normans in the 11th century, Robert D’Oyley, a Norman baron, was appointed the governor. He is described as “a robber of the Church and poor, continuing to be so till such time as he received a vision from the Virgin Mary; which converting him, his hard heart was mollified and became a nourisher of the poor and a builder and repairer of churches.” In 1087 he “evinced his penitence” by rebuilding, at his own cost, the parochial churches which were in ruins both within and outside the walls of Oxford. The fine west door may date from this rebuilding. The beakheads are said to symbolise evil spirits waiting on the threshold to pluck away the good seed from the hearts of those leaving the building! But the west door was only opened to dignitaries of the Church!
St Ebbe’s Parish
If stones could speak, what stories these walls could tell! The church is poorly endowed, and St Ebbe’s Parish has for centuries been a poorer part of the City. The value of the living in 1296, for instance, was only six marks (£4), and the report of the Edwardian Commissioners in 1547 spoke of a population of only 363, and of no ornaments, plate or jewels belonging to the church. The Health Report of 1846 especially condemned the drains, which were uncovered and gave rise to the cholera outbreaks in 1832 and again in 1846 and 1854.
But if poor in substance, the parish is rich in history. When in 912 Ethelred died, King Edward took possession of Oxford, and in 1015 the Great Council of the Kingdom was held here in Oxford Castle, within the parish. Canute the Dane held council here, and some say Harold was crowned king here by the Archbishop of York. In 1065 Danelaw was accepted as the Common Law of England at a Witenagemot in the Castle. On the arrival of the Normans, parishioners watched the enclosure of the Castle area, with a wide, clear space on the city side known as the bailey. The parish of St Peter-le-Bailey is part of St Ebbe’s parish today.
The Franciscan Friary
The Franciscans arrived in Oxford in 1224 and settled right by the church, outside the city wall, where they built an enormous friary which must have completely overshadowed little St Ebbe’s. Permission was given to them to make a “little gate” in the city wall, to give them access to the city, and this is reserved in the name, “Littlegate Street”. The famous friar, Roger Bacon, inventor and educationalist, is buried in the parish, having died in 1294. His name is preserved in “Roger Bacon Lane”.
The old St Ebbe’s Rectory in Paradise Square stands in the last remaining part of the grounds of the friary, once “a large plot of ground partly enclosed by a rivulet and whereon was so pleasant a grove of trees, divided into several walks, ambits and recesses, as also a garden and orchard adjoining, that by the citizens of Oxon was called Paradise”.
St Ebbe’s Today
In recent years, the parish has changed beyond all recognition. The tightly packed terraces dominated by the gas works have disappeared. In their place, new housing has brought the new population to balance the commercial presence which crowds round the little church.
But while everything around us may change, the Good News of Jesus Christ has never changed, and is as relevant today as ever. This is the Gospel still preached today in this ancient parish. “Little St Ebbe’s,” as the old map calls the church, is today a flourishing parish church made up of a range of people: families, locals, students, international visitors, older folks… and more! We believe that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and for ever,” and we preach the unchanging Gospel about the unchanging Lord, which is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes”.
For more information about what goes on at St Ebbe’s please pick up a ‘Welcome to St Ebbe’s’ leaflet, and for details of current sermons please take a quarter card. Both are available at the Welcome Desk or ask a member of staff.