St. Margaret’s church, Binsey, Oxfordshire
Midnight, and monks by candlelight
Although less than 2 miles from Oxford’s city centre St. Margaret’s is hidden behind trees and shrubbery at the end of a long and winding country lane. The church is a strange, isolated and moody little building sometimes welcoming and warm while at other times slightly sinister. It is lighted only by oil lamps and candles as it has no electricity supply.
St. Margaret’s was once the living for a priest called Nicholas Breakspear who became England’s only Pope, Adrian lV, in 1154.
The church is also famous for its holy well and its legendary connection to St. Frideswide, the patron saint of Oxford. This was the ‘Treacle Well’ of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
One day a friend contacted me to tell me how he was reading Andrew Collins’ book, Twenty-first Century Grail and in it Andrew had reported on a trip to St. Margaret’s, Binsey following psychic clues, whereupon he and his companions had found what they had been looking for – an engraved key. They had been told (by the spirit of Aleister Crowley, no less) to be there before midnight on St Frideswide’s feast day, the 19th October. While fossicking around, looking for the key, they were alarmed to witness 12 hooded figures moving in procession along the footpath through the churchyard. Chanting lowly in Latin they entered the church to presumably conduct a ceremony. Collins and co didn’t hang around to find out.
Very soon it would be the feast day of St. Frideswide and so my friend, another friend, and I, resolved to check this out.
The moon was bright that night. We tried the church door carefully, and it was unlocked…straightaway all three of us wondered whether that was a wise thing to do…there may have been people in there already, for all we knew; but we scampered back into the shadows of the trees and waited for what might happen. It was ten to midnight.
Two of us were together at the rear of the churchyard while the other was a little in front of us, concealed by the trunk of a tree. As we waited I could see misty shapes rising from some of the graves…and then, quick as a flash, I saw a cloaked figure dash into the undergrowth about 10 yards to our right. My companion saw it too, and we both kept stock-still peering through the shadows trying to see where it had gone…It was then that my other friend whispered breathlessly, ‘They’re here!”. ..A huddled group of four or five dark-cloaked and hooded figures walked, without a sound, slowly through the eerie glow of the moon. In utter silence they passed through the church door and out of sight. Almost at once we could see the wavering of candlelight reflecting on the window nearest the altar, and, straining to hear, the barely audible incantations within. We crept up to the walls of the church but the windows were too high to see what was going on inside. The candles lights flickered and, almost imperceptible from outside glowed in sinister accompaniment to stir with the secret canticles woven within the dark interior. Once or twice we thought we heard movement inside close to the door and scurried back to the bushes, but nobody appeared…not till the ritual was over anyway.
Fortunately we weren’t by the door when the cowled figures melted into view and exited the yard in the same manner as they had entered it. Unsure if everyone had left the church we waited a couple of minutes before going after the clandestine group…but when we did there was no trace of them; nowhere on the long straight road out of there, or in the fields beside it. They were nowhere to be seen. It was as if they had never been there.
But they had been.
5th May 2011
Note:The church belongs to Oxford’s Christ Church college. Andrew Collins reports that he contacted both the college and the vicar to ask if they performed any ceremonies there on the Feast of St Frideswide. He writes that both were definite that they did not.
The oak pulpit of St. Margaret’s was carved by the system-lauded sculptor and child abuser, Eric Gill.