Explore 13 of Oxford's most sinister and haunted locations in this self-guided audio ghost tour that you can do any time!
Please note: this tour is designed to be enjoyed from outside the locations mentioned. If you'd like to visit the buildings, you will need to arrange this with the colleges themselves.
Perhaps appropriately, our tour begins outside what is believed to be the oldest building in Oxford. The church of St Michael at the North Gate dates back to the 11th century and, as the name suggests, stood at what was previously the north gate to the city. The gate itself, which spanned Cornmarket street just to the North of the church was home to the old town gaol, known as the Bocardo. Until the building was demolished in 1771 to allow the road to be widened, the rooms above the gate were home to Oxford's criminals while they awaited either their trial or their execution.
Executions were carried out by hanging at the gallows in Holywell street, but the punishment reserved for the most serious crimes was to be hung, drawn and quartered. In Oxford, anyone who was sentenced to this fate would have their body parts displayed on poles near the town gates such as the one that stood nearby, as a warning to anyone entering the city who might also be considering breaking the law.
This was the fate of two Roman Catholic priests, George Nichols and Richard Yaxley in July 1589. The pair were found guilty of ministering to secret catholic congregations in Oxford at a time when catholicism was outlawed in England. Some other famous inmates of the Bocardo prison were Oxford's Protestant martyrs, Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, who we will meet again at the next stop on our tour.
The old Bocardo door has been preserved and is on display inside the church. Another unusual item on display inside is a Sheela Na Gig, a stone carving of a woman in an exceedingly explicit pose. The stone was originally mounted high on the church tower above our heads, overlooking the city gate before it was removed and repositioned inside the church. Tradition has it that the stone was shown to any bride entering the church to be married, presumably as a warning about their upcoming wedding night?
3 minute walk
As you stand on Cornmarket street facing the entrance to the church gift shop, turn to your left and proceed north up Cornmarket street for a short distance before turning right into Broad street. Here, cross over the road and stop where a gold sign on an ornate wooden door reads 'The Master's Lodging, Balliol College'. Look into the middle of the road and you will see a cross inlayed into the tarmac. When you have found this, press play on the next location.
You are now standing near the spot where, in the 1550's, three Protestant churchmen Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, were burned at the stake for refusing to recant their Protestant faith in the face of Queen Mary I, or 'Bloody Mary' as she was known ascending to the throne and enforcing her Roman Catholic religion on the nation.
The cross you can see in the middle of the road marks the spot where the bonfires stood, and it is said that on certain days of the year a strange supernatural glow, and perhaps the flicker of flames, can be seen around the cross.
It was not an easy death for the three men. Burning at the stake was a notoriously slow and agonising process. The Bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley went first. Ridley is said to have warn a bag of gunpowder around his neck in the hope of speeding his departure, but he was out of luck: his side of the bonfire burned extremely slowly, despite his brother-in-law piling additional kindling around his feet in an attempt to stoke up the flames. In the end Ridley was forced to thrust his face down into the flames in order to finally ignite the gunpowder around his neck and bring his suffering to an end.
The last of the trio, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer had managed to buy himself some extra time by signing documents recanting his faith. He was forced to watch his friends burn (no doubt imagining himself in their position) before spending an additional few months in the squalid conditions of Oxford's Bocardo prison. However, despite having publicly recanted his Protestant faith, Bloody Mary wished to make an example of him. Cranmer was burned at the stake here in Broad Street on the spot where his companions, Latimer and Ridley had died six months previously.
1 minute walk
Continue east along Broad Street until you find yourself outside the grand iron gates of Trinity College, the next stop on our tour of haunted Oxford.
Photo: Camboxer, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
We now find ourselves outside the gates of Trinity College, a college founded in the same year that Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were burnt at the stake less than 100 meters away! It was founded on the site of Durhum College, an earlier institution constructed for the use of Benedictine monks.
With this in mind, you would be forgiven for thinking that ghostly monks are what haunt the halls of the college. In fact, the specters who reside here are much more recent in origin.
According to a report from May 1948, Trinity College is haunted by the ghost of two twins, both former students at the college. They were witnessed by a student who claimed to have encountered two ghostly figures floating through Kettell Hall, one of the oldest buildings of the college.
The apparitions were two very similar-looking men aged about sixty and clothed in clerical collars. It was 3am when the student witnessed the pair, and although he admitted he had enjoyed a drink or two that night, it was the ghosts and not him who were legless that night. Only the top halves of the ghosts' bodies were visible!
After researching college history the student came to the conclusion that he had encountered the ghosts of two twins and former students of the college, Noel and Christopher Chavasse. These two ghostly twins had apparently been seen around Kettell Hall by other students on a number of occasions dating back 20 years.
Curiously though, Christopher Chavasse had died in the First World War aged 30 and Noel was still alive and aged sixty-four at the time the student met saw the ghosts.
This means that if the student's identification of the ghosts was correct, he had seen the ghost of one man whose ghost had apparently aged 30 years since his death, and another man who was actually still alive!
2 minute walk
As we stand facing the gate of Trinity, the way to our next stop lies directly behind us. Cross over the road when it is safe to do so, proceed south down Turl Street and stop when you see a pair double wooden doors on your right, at the corner of Ship Street and Turl street.
Photo: hmcotterill, licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr.
If you look up above your head, you will see the branches of a tree that stands in the Principal's garden at Jesus College, just on the other side of the large wooden gates in front of us. This garden is said to be the scene of a very unusual haunting.
In the year 1947, Mary Ogilvie, wife to the then-Principal of Jesus College, was woken one night by the sound of a dog barking. Looking down into the Principal's garden below their bedroom window, she saw a strangely dressed man digging holes in the lawn.
She woke her husband who looked out of the window to see the man already starting on a third hole. Her husband did not want to confront the man, and the two returned to bed with the intention of resolving the issue with the college in the morning.
However, the following morning the pair were surprised to find the lawn completely undisturbed, with not the slightest trace of any digging having taken place.
Like many who have witnessed something they can't explain, the Ogilvies kept what they had witnessed to themselves until some time later when they learned of a story from Oxford's civil war history that they believed shed some light on what they had seen.
The story concerned William Villiers, 2nd Viscount Grandison, who returned to Oxford in 1643 after being wounded fighting for the Royalist cause at Bristol. To his anger, he returned to find his wife in a compromising position with a lover!
Villiers immediately challenged the man to a duel, a somewhat rash act given that he had returned from battle badly injured and was really in no fit state to fight.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Villiers lost the dual in the most terminal way possible. Not wanting to draw attention to their affair, Villiers unfaithful wife and her lover secretly buried Villiers body in what later became the Principal's garden.
So who was it that the Ogilvies witnessed digging holes in lawn at dead of night? Was is Viscountess Villiers lover looking for the perfect spot to bury his lover's husband perhaps? Or maybe it was the ghost of Villiers himself, searching for the spot where his own body was buried?
1 minute walk
Just a few metres further along Turl Street on the other side of the road is the main entrance to Exeter College. Stop here and press play on the next section of our tour.
Photo: Lawrence OP, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0, via Flickr
Exeter College is even older than Trinity, having been founded in 1314, and counts the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, Alan Bennett and Phillip Pullman among its alumni.
The ghostly encounter that concerns us happened at Exeter College in 1916. It was the evening of 31st October, Halloween, and Dr. Thomas Wood, a lecturer in choral music, was in his room at the college. He was preparing to leave to attend a meeting of a student society, but when he opened his door to leave he was shocked to behold a ghostly headless figure standing outside, its arm raised as if to knock on his door! As he watched, the figure faded away into nothingness.
When Dr. Wood had recovered from the shock, he hurried off to excitedly tell his evening companions about what he had witnessed. The identity of the headless ghost for a while remained a mystery, until a discovery was made below the college.
At the time of Dr. Wood's ghostly encounter. excavations were being made at the college to enlarge a coal cellar, and the digging uncovered a quantity of masonry from the old college chapel which had been demolished 60 year before. Among this masonry was a statue that caught Dr. Wood's attention. Not only was it dressed in exactly the same period garb as the apparition he had witnessed outside his door, but it too was missing its head!
The statue was moved to the new college chapel, where it can be seen today. The statue has since been identified as that of John Croaker, another alumni of the college.
Could the uncovering of his statue have in some way roused the unquiet spirit, and sent him wandering off through his old college, perhaps back to his old room?
3 minute walk
Continue south down Turl Street for about 150 meters, ignoring the turnings to Brasenose Lane and Market Street. Carry on until you reach a pair of black iron gates leading to what looks like a stately church, but which a small black sign will inform you is actually Lincoln College library, the next stop on our tour.
As one might expect, considerable renovation work was required to turn the church into a functional library. The place had been a site of burial for many hundreds of years, so it was to be expected that the renovation work should uncover a body or two.
However, the college authorities were not quite prepared for the scale of what they found.
Dr. Chapman who was working as a volunteer on the project described finding 'skeletons packed like sardines in a tin, shoulder to shoulder, face to back of the head, to a depth of about fifteen feet' some of which dated back to the 9th century. 'How many hundreds of skeletons were found on that one site alone!' he lamented.
The hundreds of bodies packed in below All Saints' church highlighted a problem that had faced Oxford 150 years previously. The city was growing fast and its churchyards were rapidly becoming full.
In the absence of new cemeteries to house the overflow, sextons were forced to take drastic measures in order to squeeze new bodies in the already cramped churchyards of city centre churches like All Saints' and St. Aldates church. The churchyard at St. Aldate's had become so full by 1932 that it drew complaints from passers-by. Bodies were crammed in anywhere the sextons could find space. This included underneath the pathways, which had an unpleasant habit of caving in as the coffins below them rotted and collapsed.
There are reports of sextons walking around the churchyard, thrusting a metal spike into the ground in their attempts to find a free spot in between the bodies. Hardly a respectful way to treat the dead, don't you think?
Eventually, in the 1840s the city council took the matter in hand and new cemeteries were consecrated at Osney, Holywell and Jericho and the older burial places like All Saints' church were decommissioned.
Still, one does wonder if the students of Lincoln College are away of how many hundreds of bodies may still lie beneath their feet while they sit industriously studying above!
3 minute walk
Continue the rest of the way along Turl Street until you reach the High Street. Here, turn left and walk for about 2 minutes down the High Street until you reach the traffic lights outside the Old Bank Hotel, and cross over the road. A white building standing to the right of the Old Bank Hotel, on the corner of High Street and Magpie Lane, and this is our next destination.
The large white building that stands before us now houses the Quad restaurant and bar, but over the years has been a drapers shop, part of the old bank and also at one time a stately townhouse.
But one thing it has retained over all its changes in occupancy is its reputation for being haunted!
The building dates back to the 13th century, but was the scene of tragedy during the English Civil War. At this time the building was home to one Prudence Burcote. She was a Puritan and a supporter of Oliver Cromwell, a dangerous thing to be in Oxford at the time when King Charles I had moved his royal court there. Worse still, she fell in love with a Royalist officer!
It's not recorded how this relationship ended, but clearly not well and some have suggested that Prudence died of a broken heart. It is the ghost of Prudence who is said to haunt the rooms and corridors of the building.
Sightings of Prudence's ghost were reported by the owners when the building was still a private residence. She was described as being of medium height with a very sallow complexion and wearing a long brown dress with a white shawl. Prudence was also known to turn the electric lights on and off, and to move sherry glasses from one room to another.
While the building was a bank the staff reported hearing the sound of footsteps and the rustling of skirts when nobody was present.
Is the presence of Prudence's ghost still felt by staff and customers at the Quad bar and restaurant today? Why not step inside for a drink and find out!
4 minute walk
Continue east down the High Street and stop when you see the large wooden double doors of University College on your right.
Photo: Man Vyi, via Wikimedia Commons
University College, outside whose main entrance we now stand, holds claim to being the oldest college in Oxford, having been founded in the year 1249. It can count Percy Shelley, C.S. Lewis and Stephen Hawking among its alumni.
University College is also home to another Oxford haunting dating back to the English Civil War.
Obadiah Walker was Master of University College in the second half of the 17th century. Walker was a staunch Royalist, and when the Parliamentary forces sieged and took control of Oxford in 1646, Walker was one of the many academics whose loyalty to the King saw them being expelled from their university positions.
However, at the monarchy in 1660 Walker returned to Oxford and even became an adviser to James II. Sadly, history once again cause up with him.
When King James II was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and fled to France. Walker attempted to follow him but was not so lucky. He only made it as far as Sittingbourne in Kent before being captured and returned to Oxford where he was imprisoned and later put on trial.
Walker spent two years in prison but managed to avoid the death penalty. After being released he returned to University College where he no longer had a position but lived on what small charity the college could offer him.
His spirit was said to have been broken by the turbulent events of his life, and his unhappy spirit is said to still haunt the room in which he spent the final 10 years of his life, room 1 staircase 8 at University College.
2 minute walk
Look across the road and only a few metres further down the High Street you will be able to see the steps and large wooden double doors that are the entrance to Queen's College. This is the next stop on our tour.
Photo: FoxingClever, licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr.
The library of Queen's College is said to be haunted by the ghost of a former Oxford academic known as Cuthbert Shields.
Shields was born John Laing, but changed his name in adulthood. He chose 'Cuthbert' as he believed himself to be the reincarnation of the Catholic anglo-saxon saint of that name. He chose the new surname shields because he was from South Shields, near Newcastle-upon-tyne!
He was a historian and was actually a Fellow of Corpus Christi College rather than Queen's, but spent much of his time in the library at Queen's College. When he died in 1908 he left a box containing papers to the Queen's College library under the strict instructions that the box should not be opened for fifty years.
The university staff honoured his wishes and dutifully waited fifty years before gathering excitedly in the library to open the box to finally discover what mysteries lay within.
Expectations were high, but the contents of the box proved to be something of an anti-climax. They contained nothing more interesting than Cuthbert's autobiography, written in the form of letters to an archdeacon. The only really juicy bit of information contained within the letters was Cuthbert's admission that he had at one time been a patient at Fulham asylum, a revelation that perhaps shed some light on his eccentric behavior.
The box was left lying on a desk while the disappointed staff dispersed, but later a librarian noticed a figure he didn't recognise bending over the box. He approached, but before he could speak to the man, the figure disappeared into thin air.
The description of the man that the librarian gave matched descriptions of Cuthbert Shields. Since that time, the ghostly figure of Cuthbert Shields has often been seen walking around the upper floors of the library, particularly in the area in which the box was opened.
4 minute walk
Continue east along the High Street for around 400 meters, crossing over the junction with Longwall Street, and stop outside the cathedral-like structure of Magdalen College Chapel.
Photo: John Mulcaster Carrick, 1859
Magdalen College can perhaps lay claim to being the most haunted college in Oxford, housing a somewhat confusing array of ghosts, both famous and ghastly.
Its most famous spook is Oscar Wilde, who studied Classics (or 'Greats' as it was then known) at Magdalen as a young man in the 1870s.
Its most grizzly ghost is that of George Napier, yet another Catholic priest from Oxford who was executed for this faith in 1568. Like other Catholic martyrs before him, he was hanged, drawn and quartered and his body parts displayed in spikes at the four city gates. His head was said to have been displayed on a spike at Magdalen College. His family retrieved his body parts from the four city gates with the hope of giving George a proper Christian burial, but they were unable to reclaim his head.
Napier's headless ghost is said to still be seen wandering the streets of Oxford, still searching for his missing head. Apparently, he has a habit of alarming people by peering in through windows at Magdalen, though how this is achieved without a head is anyone's guess!
Although mostly associated with Magdalen, he is also said to haunt his old home, a building also owned by the college, where his heavy dragging footsteps can sometimes be heard. He has also been seen wandering down the Banbury Road and also on the road to Temple Farm. A very busy fellow indeed!
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. The students terrifying encounter may be explained by some archeological work underway at the college at the time. Magdalen College was built on the site of the 15th century St John the Baptist Hospital, and 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. If fact, the student who encountered the ghostly monks was herself sick at the time. Perhaps the monks were trying to tend to her sickness in their own traditional way?
If you wish to extend your tour a little, a short walk further brings you to Magdalen Bridge. The bridge is said to be haunted by a dark figure who is seen is seen standing on the parapet, wildly waving his arms before pitching backward off the bridge into the water below.
This strange vision is said to be the ghost of an unfortunate chimney sweep who was killed in 1754 in violence surrounding the Oxfordshire elections. The sweep had been standing on the parapet of the bridge, jeering at a coach-load of passing Tory's, when one of the passengers of the coach took exception to the lad and pulled a pistol on him. He fired a single shot as he passed, hitting the sweep in the chest and either killing him instantly or sending him to a watery grave in the river Isis below.
6 minute walk
Carefully cross the road and proceed back up the High Street until you reach the turning to Merton Street. Turn left down Merton Street and follow the road past the grand gates of the Examination School and round the corner onto a cobbled street. Follow this for approximately 150 meters and you will find yourself outside the wooden gates of Merton college.
Photo: Cycling Man, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, via Flickr.
Merton College is one of the wealthiest of the colleges that make up the University of Oxford. In spite of this, it has had a troubled history. It was the only Oxford college to side with Parliament during the Civil War, and when Charles I arrived in Oxford to set up his court here, Merton College was taken over by the royalists and used to house Charles I's staff.
In the 1830s Merton College was the centre of a bizarre craze for stealing door knockers that swept through Oxford's student population. These thefts became such a nuisance that college porters learned to recognise the distinctive grating sound of a poker or pry-bar on the outside of their doors as students attempted to make away with their door knockers. Eventually, the craze passed, but years later the pond in the centre of Christchurch College's Tom Quad was drained for cleaning, and, to the college's surprise, a large number of stolen door knockers were discovered at the bottom!
Merton has had many notable alumni, including T.S. Elliot and prime minister Liz Truss, but perhaps the most beloved and celebrated former member is J.R.R. Tolkein, author of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. While Tolkien studies at Exeter College as a student and spent much of his academic career at Pembrooke College, it is Merton College that his ghost is said to haunt.
Tolkien was a professor of English Language and Literature at Merton College from 1945 until his retirement 6 years later. When his wife died in 1971, a heartbroken Tolkien returned to Merton, living in a flat provided for him by the college here in Merton Street.
With his tweed jacket, waistcoat and a pipe rarely far from his lips, Tolkien struck an easily recognisable figure about the college. His ghost is said to be no less recognisable, and is occasionally seen drifting along the corridors and across the quads of Merton College.
Later occupants of Tolkien's study in the Fellow's Quad at Merton are said to have reported smelling inexplicable gusts of pipe smoke, as if Tolkien had been there just moments before.
2 minute walk
The final stage of our route will differ depending on whether you are walking during the day or at night, as our route takes us down lanes that are gated and shut after dusk.
If it is daytime, continue west along Merton street, looking for a black iron gate leading to Grove Walk, a path that runs along the side of Merton College chapel. Take this path and pause after passing through another gate onto the path known as Dead Man's Walk.
If it is after dusk, you will need to omit the short walk down Grove Walk, and enjoy the next stop from outside Merton College chapel.
Photo: Google Street View
If you have made it down Grove Walk, you will now be standing on a path that is bordered by the walls of Merton College to the north, and Merton playing fields to the south. The path is known by the sinister name of Dead Man's Walk, so called because it was once the route taken by funeral processions in between the old Oxford synagogue at St. Aldates and the Jewish burial ground that once stood where the University of Oxford Botanic Gardens now stands.
However, it is not a Jewish ghost that is said to haunt this lane at night, but the ghost of one Francis Windebank, who was a colonel in the Royalist army during the English civil war. Windebank was at his father's home at Bletchingdon Park when the Parliamentary forces attacked the house. Windebank surrendered but was allowed to return to Oxford.
However, the decision to return to his Royalist companions at Oxford was one Windebank would regret. Windebank was tried by a Royalist court for the crime of surrendering to the Parliamentary forces. He was found guilty and sentenced to be executed by firing squad.
According to one account, this sentence was carried out against a wall in Blue Boar street, just opposite the Oxford town hall. Windebank's ghost can be seen walking the length of Dead Man's Walk and on to the place of his execution. A curious addendum to this version is that Windebank's ghost is only visible above the knee due to the path having been raised in height since the time of his death!
According to another version of the story, the place chosen for Windebank's execution was actually the Fellow's Garden at Merton College and it was Cromwell's men who carried out the sentence, not those loyal to the King. If this telling of the story is to be believed, Windebank's ghost roams the gardens and nearby hallways of Merton College.
4 minute walk
If you are following the route of this tour during the day you can follow Grove Walk to the south and then turn right onto Broad walk, which will lead you to St. Aldates. Turn right and proceed north to the gates of Christchurch College.
If you are talking this tour at night, you will currently be outside Merton College chapel. Continue west along Merton Street, cross Oriel Square and turn left down Blue Boar street. This will lead you to St. Aldates where you can turn left and shortly arrive outside the main entrance to Christchurch College.
Photo: Barry Marsh via Flicker (Public domain)
We now stand at the final stop on our tour, Christ Church College, one of the largest and wealthiest of Oxford's colleges. 13 British prime ministers have been educated here, as well as kings, archbishops and writers, to name just a few.
The tower above our heads is Tom Tower, named for Great Tom, the bell it contains. The bell is rung 101 times a day, once for each of the original 101 scholars of the college. This used to happen at midnight, but more recently the time of ringing has been moved to the less anti-social hour of 9 pm. Probably a good thing too, as the ringing took a full 20 minutes!
Christ Church College is also home to Oxford's Cathedral, and in 1898 the cathedral became the location of a strange supernatural mystery. From 1855 to 1891, the Dean of Christ Church was Henry Liddell. Liddell was father to the famous Alice, who inspired Liddell's friend the Reverend Charles Dodgson to write Alice s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-glass under the pen name of Lewis Carroll.
Alice's sister Edith died young, a death that affected Henry Liddell so greatly that for many years, even the speaking of Edith's name was banned in the Liddell household as it caused Henry so much distress to be reminded of her. After her death, a plaque dedicated to Edith was placed in Christ Church Cathedral.
After Dean Liddell's death in 1898, something very strange was obseved in the cathedral. A stain had appeared on the wall that was said to bear an uncanny resemblance to the face Dean Liddell.
The face in the stain was in profile, its eyes seemingly gazing left towards his daughter Edith's memorial plaque. The stain remained for nearly three years and photographs of it appeared in national newspapers.
You have now reached the end of the tour. If you've enjoyed this free ghost tour and would like to help support Dark Oxfordshire, you can send me a donation via Paypal.