The Oxford Sheela is housed in the old Saxon tower of the “Church of St Michael At the North Gate” in the middle of the city on the corner of North Street and Ship Street. The tower is one of the oldest buildings in the city predating the Norman conquest. The tower is mentioned in the Domesday book and appears to have been an important and comparatively wealthy church at that time. The church formed part of the north gate into the city (see below) interestingly there was also a St. Michaels at the South gate as well.
“At North-Gate and South-Gate too
St Michael guards the way,
While o’er the East and o’er the West
St Peter holds his sway”
The Sheela was originally placed on the West side of the tower high up near the belfry windows. Significantly the Sheela actually looked out over the gate itself. The Sheela is thought to be a 11thC or 12thC Norman addition to the tower. It is currently housed in the tower itself in the Treasury along with other historical artefacts belonging to the church.
As can been seen from the photograph the Sheela is not that big being around a foot square. It’s interesting that the Sheela because of its small size would not have been readily recognizable from the ground. This detracts from the notion that it would have been warning against lust… Why place a warning where no one can see it? There is also a tradition reported by Margaret Murray that the figure was shown to brides on their wedding day. However she says that the source for this was a newspaper article which she once remembers reading 1. I think it would be safer to take this tradition with a pinch of salt taking into account the original position and size of the figure.
It’s placing does however fit in very nicely with the apotropaic or defensive uses of Sheelas. Here we have a sheela not only guarding a church but guarding the main gate into a city! If the reconstruction by the Oxford Archaeological Unit is accurate then the Sheela would have looked out over the very gate itself. Personally I think this is a very strong to pointer to this Sheela at least serving a protective rather than a warning function.
Used with the permission of Oxford Archaeological Unit
The History of the Church
A church is recorded on this site in the Domeseday book in 1086 which mentions that St Michaels owns 2 houses. This would seem to indicate that the church was fairly wealthy at that time. The tower on which the figure resided and is now housed is thought to date from the 11thC and is Saxon in origin. There is a short history at the church’s website at http://www.smng.org.uk/see/history.htm