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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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Bob Trubshaw

The earliest history of Oxford reveals that the long peninsular of land at the confluence of the rivers Cherwell and Thames was used as a barrow cemetery in bronze age times - a linear barrow cemetery being situated on what is now the University Parks cricket ground, with other barrows throughout the town. However, unlike nearby Abingdon and Dorchester, Oxford was not developed in the Roman period [2]. No reason has been put forward although it is assumed that the ford was known and used at that time. Perhaps the Thames and the Cherwell formed the boundaries of three Celtic tribes (the Dubunni, the Atrebates and the Catuvellauni) leaving the peninsula as 'liminal space' or 'no man's land'. Typically, the Celts placed shrines at the boundaries of their territory, on such areas of no man's land, the 'placeless places'. Although no evidence has been discovered of a Celtic shrine at Oxford, the idea tantalises me as it would fit the geography and might also account for the lack of Roman settlement. For lack of any better alternative, perhaps this shrine was situated at what is now the holy well of St Frideswide at Binsey (164:485081) - see [3] for a description.

The history of Oxford must account not only for its lack of prominence in the Roman period - even though it was an obvious crossing place over the Thames - but also explain why, by the tenth century, it enjoyed exceptional success. The old parts of the town are all situated on the peninsular between the rivers. This is of more than passing interest, as the majority of confluences in this country seem to have become significant sacred sites in post-Roman times. The evidence for this would make at least one article in its own right, but for the moment let it suffice to observe that such places - surrounded by marshes and frequent floods - would be the nearest inland equivalent to such Holy Islands as Iona, Lindisfarne, St Michael's Mount and the rest.

The Welsh Mabinogion gives us the tale of Llud and Llefelys. In order to cure the land of its malaise, Llud is ordered to measure the length and breadth of the land and thereby determine its centre. It is predicted that when he finds the centre two dragons will be discovered fighting. Llud obeys this order and the centre is found to be at Oxford. But what existed here at the time of this tale being composed and/or recorded?

It is in the eighth century that Oxford follows the Anglo-Saxon fashion for confluences with the founding of St Frideswide's monastic centre. She was the daughter of a Saxon king who, according to a twelfth-century hagiography, resolutely refused all offers of marriage. In the most dramatic form of her legend her final and most importunate suitor was struck down by a lightening bolt. The site of this monastery is under the present chapel of Christ Church college, which also doubles as Oxford's cathedral. In the church is the reconstruction shrine of St Frideswide with no less than three foliate heads form the 1250s. Their benign expressions allow speculation that these are 'Green Women' - possibly representations of the saint and her companions.

Should we read into the tale of Llud the implication that dragon's symbolised the female generative powers. And if St Frideswide's nunnery or monastery is to represent one of the dragons, what represents the other draconian combatant? Could it be a continuation of my hypothetical Celtic shrine to female clthonic powers? Oh, it is so easy to add speculation to speculation!

Excavations and documentary sources reveal that this Saxon religious settlement was the seeding of a major town - indeed, by the tenth century Oxford would seem to be the largest English town not on the site of a former Roman one. By the start of the twelfth century we find Oxford is the dominant academic centre in the land. Why? Others have suggested [4] that a Druidic college - or loosely-affiliated colleges - had survived in the region although no evidence has been forthcoming.

The site of this Anglo-Saxon monastery has retained significance in a surprising manner. From excavations it is known that the cemetery partly underlies Tom Quad - the main quad of Christ Church. When Wren designed this college he perpetrated the geomantic significance by placing a statue of Mercury - the most alchemical of the Classical deities - in the centre, within a pool of water to reflect his chimeral image. Around this runs a circular path bisected by two diagonal paths - the astrologer's symbol for Earth - surely a 'mystical centre' of the most manifest kind.

In a previous article on Oxford [5] there was a lengthy aside on the significance of towns designed around Carfaxes i.e. a major crossroads which divides the town into quator furcae ('four quarters') or quadrifax ('crossroads') - it is uncertain which of these two Latin terms has been corrupted into 'carfax' but the meaning is essentially the same. This scared ground plan was that used in the creation of Rome and became the model for Roman colonial towns, surviving into Anglo-Saxon planned towns. Although the pattern of paths in Tom Quad forms such a quadrifax Oxford has its own Carfax with the tower of St Martin's still surviving and known as the Carfax Tower. Alfred Watkins in The Old Straight Track describes two leys in the centre of Oxford which cross through this tower [6].

Going to the northern end of one of these leys takes us to the tower of St Michael's, which is one of the few eleventh century towers surviving. Although now removed from its original location, a carved sheela-na-gig can still be seen here. By the way, both these towers are open to the public and - for a small fee - can be climbed to enjoy the magnificent views.

Apart from its present-day signifance as a centre of learning (and tourism!) Oxford combines many facets of the 'mystical centre' or omphalos. Its location on a confluence, the Mabinogion geomantic legend, the medieval monastery, the Carfax, the crossing leys, Wren's symbolic statement in Tom Quad and just the sheer 'magnetic power' of the place.


1: The quest for the omphalos, Bob Trubshaw with John Walbridge, Heart of Albion Press, 1991.
2: 'The city of Oxford' in Current archaeology No.121, Sept/Oct 1990.
3: Strange Oxford ed. Chris Morgan, Oxford Golden Dawn Publishing, 1986
4: 'Here be dragons - the inner world of Oxford' by Cath Is-Foel in Wood and water Vol.2 No.36 Summer 1991
5: 'The quest for the omphalos - finding the mystical middle of England (part 5)', Bob Trubshaw, Mercian Mysteries No.6, Feb 1991.
6: The old straight track, A. Watkins, Methuen, 1925.

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.13 November 1992.

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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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Created April 1996; updated November 2008