Oxford Magdalen Bridge

Has been described as a Possible Fortified Bridge

There are no visible remains

NameOxford Magdalen Bridge
Alternative NamesPetty Pont; East Bridge
Historic CountryOxfordshire
Modern AuthorityOxfordshire
1974 AuthorityOxfordshire
Civil ParishOxford

Magdalen Bridge. There was a bridge across the river Cherwell as early as 1004. It was later known as Petty Pont, Eastbridge and finally Magdalen Bridge. There was a drawbridge at its eastern end in the late 14th century and it contained rounded and pointed arches of different sizes: by the 16th century the causeway and bridge was of stone, 1500ft long with 20 arches and deep cut waters. From 1321 bridge hermits repaired it. A new design by John Gwynn completely replaced it with semicircular arches between 1772 and 1778. (Steane 1997)

There was a bridge across the river Cherwell at the eastern entrance to the town by 1004. It was later known as Pettypont, East Bridge, and finally Magdalen Bridge. By the 16th century the bridge or causeway was of stone, approximately 500 feet long with some 20 arches and deep cutwaters. There was a drawbridge at its eastern end in the late 14th century, and a wooden arch in 1585. The bridge contained both pointed and rounded arches of differing sizes and although its overall appearance was late-medieval it evidently included work of several different periods. Most known bequests for its repair date from the 14th century, and there were pontage grants in 1328 and 1376; but the bridge was apparently in satisfactory condition for much of the 16th century, which suggests that there may have been a major, unrecorded restoration in the 15th century. Hearne believed that Bishop William Waynflete was responsible, but cited no evidence. Houses apparently stood upon the bridge in the 13th century, but had been removed by 1578; others, built early in the 17th century, were removed in 1634 after complaints from the university.

The bridge straddled the town boundary where it crossed the eastern branch of the river Cherwell and in the Middle Ages responsibility for its upkeep was divided between town and county, the county accepting only a quarter share

The town relied heavily on alms and bequests, and from at least 1321 appointed bridge-hermits. By 1571 the city was financing repairs by a combination of parochial taxation and a levy on senior councillors and despite the 16th century Mileways Acts continued to pay for repairs out of municipal funds or private charity. In 1665, when part of the bridge collapsed, the city's responsibility for its repair was confirmed by a judgement in the county assizes. In 1723, however, the university carried out major repairs voluntarily: several large round arches may date from that restoration. Nothing was done about the cluster of houses channelling the London and Henley roads into an inconvenient passage only 13 ft. wide at the eastern entrance to the bridge. In 1771 the bridge was declared dangerous, some of its piers having been swept away by floods, and the Oxford Improvement Act of that year included provision for the bridge's reconstruction. The bridge collapsed at its western end shortly afterwards. Milham Bridge was used as a relief route during the rebuilding, between 1772 and 1778. The new bridge, designed by John Gwynn, included three large semicircular arches over each branch of the river, two smaller ones over the towpaths, and a single arch with panelled bays where the bridge crossed the central island. It was 27 ft. wide with large central recesses. Plans for a richly ornamented balustrade were later modified and the present plain design by John Townsend adopted. The western channel of the river was deepened to lessen the danger of flooding, properties built on the island since the bridge's reconstruction in 1723 were demolished, and Gwynn's plans also called for the removal of properties in St. Clement's and of the Professor of Botany's house in the Physic Garden to accommodate the sweeps at each end of the bridge. There was strong opposition to the proposals, and although the rest of the work on the bridge and its approaches was completed by 1782 it was only in 1790 that the vice-chancellor agreed to the removal of the professor's house. The bridge was widened in 1835 and again in 1882, but care was taken to ensure that its appearance should otherwise remain unchanged. (VCH)

Gatehouse Comments

The drawbridge at the east end could have been defensive and/or may have been to allow masted vessels to travel upstream at a time before modern demands for water reduced the flow and size of all English rivers. However there was a cattle ford beside the bridge so the Cherwell was not a deep river at this point. Certainly the Cherwell is not the river it once was and the tradition of jumping off the Magdalen Bridge to celebrate May Day is now dangerous and actively prevented. However, it seems unlikely this modern conflict between town and gown will result in the foundation of a new university.

- Philip Davis

Not scheduled

This is a Grade 2* listed building protected by law

Historic England Scheduled Monument Number
Historic England Listed Building number(s)
Images Of England
Historic England (PastScape) Defra or Monument number(s)
County Historic Environment Record
OS Map Grid ReferenceSP521060
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  • Hibbert, C. (ed), 1988, The Encyclopaedia of Oxford (London: Macmillan) p. 2430
  • Hassall, T.G., 1979, 'Communications' in A Crossley (ed), A Victoria History of the County of Oxford Vol. 4, The City of Oxford (OUP for the Institute of Historical Research) p. 286-9 online transcription
  • Hurst, H., 1899, Oxford Topography: An Essay p. 206 online copy


  • Bruce Watson, 2013 Sept, Gazetteer of fortified bridges (working list kindly shared with Gatehouse)