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Longwall street at the site of the Holywell Gallows

Longwall street at the site of the Holywell Gallows

Andrew Gray, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Site of Holywell Gallows, aka Gownsman's Gallows

19 September 2022 (Updated 13 March 2023)

At the junction of Longwall Street and Holywell Street once stood Holywell Gallows, sometimes also known as Gownsman's Gallows.

The gallows and the nearly stocks were placed purposefully just outside the city walls as a warning to any who might be considering entering the city with criminal intent.

Dating back to at least the 13th century, ownership of the gallows was claimed by Merton College in 1377.

Holywell gallows map

A map circa 1898 showing the site of Holywell Gallows

Gownsman's Gallows

One popular misapprehension that stems from the nickname 'Gownsman's Gallows' is that being hanged at these gallows was a privilege extended only to members of the university. Given the privileged position that university members enjoyed in the town, it is not too outlandish to imagine that even criminals among their number would enjoy the privilege of being hanged on special gallows rather than those used for common criminals. However, this is not the case, the gallows were used for the execution of criminals from all walks of life.

The nickname might have originated from Martin Routh, President of Magdalen College, who is quoted in the autobiography of Julius Hare as having claimed to have seen two undergraduates hanged in the late 18th century for the crime of highway robbery at what he refers to as 'Gownsman's Gallows'.

Holywell Gallows plaque

The plaque commemorating the 1589 Catholic martyrs Credit: bishib70, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Catholic Martyrs at Holywell Gallows

A plaque at this spot commemorates the most famous individuals known to have been executed at Holywell Gallows, George Nichols, Richard Yaxley, Thomas Belson and Humphrey Pritchard. All four were hanged on 5 July 1589 for the crime of pursuing their Roman Catholic faith at a time when such worship was banned in England.

Nichols and Yaxley had been priests engaged in ministering to covert Catholic congregations around Oxford. Belson was one of their followers, as was Pritchard who also worked at the Catherine Wheel Inn in Magdalen Street, where all four were discovered during a raid and captured.

The landlady of the Catherine Wheel Inn was also captured, and sentenced to lifetime imprisonment. The other four were not so lucky.

Nichols, Yaxley, Belson and Pritchard were first transported to London for interrogation. This included torture at Bridewell Prison and the Tower of London, to induce them to confess their faith.

They were then transferred back to Oxford to be executed. Belson and Pritchard were merely hanged, but Nichols and Yaxley were hanged, drawn and quartered and their heads and 'quarters' displayed on poles at the town gates of Oxford as a warning to any others who might be tempted by the Catholic faith!