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Magdalen College, from the first quadrangle.

Magdalen College, from the first quadrangle.

Photo: Engraving by Skelton (1983)

Magdalen: Oxford's Most Haunted College?

Magdalen College lays claim to the title of the most haunted of Oxford's colleges, housing a somewhat confusing array of ghosts, both famous and ghastly.

The most famous figure said to haunt the college is Oscar Wilde, who studied Classics (or 'Greats' as his course was then known) between 1874 and 1878.

The headless ghost of George Napier

Another ghost is that of George Napier, who was executed for his Jesuit faith in 1568. His body was quartered and the body parts displayed on the Oxford city gates, and his head displayed on the gates at Magdalen College. His family retrieved the body parts in order to give George a proper burial but were unable to reclaim his head.

This is why Napier's ghost is said to be headless, apparently still fruitlessly searching for his head. His ghost has been seen walking up and down the Banbury Road and on the road to Temple Farm.

His ghost is also confusingly reported to have been seen peering into windows, although how this is achieved without a head is a mystery!

His heavy dragging footsteps are said also to be heard in his old home, a building now also owned by the college.

It is possible that the legend of George Napier may have become mixed with that of another Oxford man with a similar name who was also executed for his religion. George Napper was a student at Corpus Christi College and was one of the Catholic Martyrs who were hung drawn and quartered at Oxford in 1610.

The lawn at Magdalen College Oxford

The Cloister at Magdalen College, Oxford. Credit: Velvet, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ghostly monks on the lawn

Another headless ghost is said to walk across the lawn at Magdalen. Although seen only as a black shadowy shape, the figure is believed to be that of a monk.

This was confirmed by the account of a student in the 1980's who claimed that her bedroom was invaded by a number of ghostly monks, singing loudly and accompanied by a strong smell coming from the censers they were carrying.

An archaeological explanation?

Magdalen College was built on the site of the 15th century St John the Baptist Hospital which was being excavated by archaeologists at the time of the student's terrifying encounter.

It has been speculated that the archaeologists may have disturbed the spirits of the medieval monks who tended to the sick at the old hospital, and these spirits may have been attracted to the room of the student as she was unwell at the time.

Find out more

  1. 'Oxfordshire Ghost Stories' by Richard Holland (Bradwell Books, 2013, ISBN: 9781902674735)

Magdalen College, High Street, Oxford

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