The Oxford Martyrs

Last updated on March 21st, 2024 at 03:52 pm

Martyrs, Cross, Broad Street, Oxford

Be careful where you tread; you never know what might have happened beneath your feet, long ago.  A cross in the centre of Oxford’s Broad Street marks the spot where, almost 500 years before, three men were legally burnt to death.  Their crime was their faith – although we may argue they strayed into politics too.  The men were Hugh Latimer, once Bishop of Worcester, Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London and Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury.  In the 16th century, the area where they died was a ditch outside the city’s north gate and Balliol College. Nowadays, it is a bustling part of central Oxford, with shops and cafés on one side and Balliol College still there on the other.  Pedestrians and cyclists pass by and over the cross without a second thought – though I’d like to believe that most of them know what it is.  I stood looking at it for some time, thinking what a hideous way it was to die and how far we’ve come.  Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer died because they were Protestants – three of the 280 people executed by fire for heresy during the during the short 5-year reign of Mary I (1553-58), when England officially, and briefly, returned to Roman Catholicism.

Nearby, on the wall of Balliol College, is small memorial pointing out the cross and its significance.

Martyrs, memorial, Balliol, Oxford

Down the road, at the junction of Magdalen Street and St Giles, is the grand Martyrs’ Memorial, a Victorian monument to the three men, erected by public subscription in 1841.  It has echoes of an Eleanor Cross – and I read somewhere that it was modelled on one.  It was commissioned partly in reaction to the so-called ‘Oxford Movement’ – a group which advocated ‘Anglo-Catholicism’, taking the Church of England closer to Roman Catholic ritual.  The inscription on the Martyrs Memorial is unequivocally Protestant, referring to the martyrs affirming “sacred truths” and maintaining these against the “errors of the Church of Rome”.

The doors to Balliol College were reputedly scorched by the flames that consumed the men; they have been re-hung between the front and garden quadrangles – you can see them if you tour the college.

Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley were incarcerated in the Bocardo Prison, which used to join the church of St Michael at the North Gate.  The prison – simple rooms over the city’s north gate – was demolished in the 18th century in order to widen the road; but you can climb the church tower and see the door that led to the martyrs’ prison – and you can read a bit about this on Cranberry Morning.

If you visit the achingly beautiful University Church of St Mary, this is where Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer were tried.  A damaged pillar in the nave is reputedly where former Archbishop Cranmer stood on his last day on earth, on a specially constructed platform.

University Church of St Mary, Oxford, Cranmer, Ridley, Latimer

So references to this terrible event are all around you.  It’s like a badge for the English Reformation; yet it would be missing the point to see all of this in purely religious terms.

Heresy means holding an “opinion contrary to the orthodox doctrine” (Oxford Dictionary) – in this context, the doctrine of the Christian church.  Orthodox religious doctrine in Tudor England was determined by the monarch, whom every subject was obliged to obey – not purely out of fear but, also, because to not do so would be a sin.  Naturally, all of the leaders of the land, including bishops, were expected to enforce the monarch’s religious policy.  To disobey the anointed king or queen risked straying into the realms of treason.  Henry VIII’s break with Rome, which set the Reformation in motion, was less about religion and more about power and his desire for an heir.  Though the first head of the new Church of England, and no longer subject to the Pope’s wishes, Henry essentially remained a Catholic in his beliefs.  Part of the argument Protestants had with Catholics, and for centuries afterwards, was a matter of loyalty: were Catholics faithful to the Crown, or to a foreign (and Catholic) power?

Martyrs, Memorial, Oxford

Protestants, of course, challenged the dogmas and practises of the long-established Catholic Church.  For one thing, they wanted everyone to experience the word of God by reading (or hearing) the Bible in their own language; Catholics felt this would cause people to question the Church, and authority.  Ultimately, English Protestantism was indeed a force for social and political reform.  But the main faith issue between Catholics and Protestants was the formers’ belief in transubstantiation – that the elements of the Eucharist – the bread and wine – are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus; that Christ is actually there – what is called ‘the Real Presence’.  To deny the Real Presence was truly revolutionary – and, to many, heretical.

Martyrs, Victorian Memorial, Oxford

Heretics were always burned in England, burnings were always held in public (often on market days), most burnings took place in the south (Protestantism grew from London and the south-east) and these hideous events took place during the reign of every Tudor monarch: 24 during the reign of Henry VII (1485-1509); 81 during the reign of Henry VIII (1509-47); 2 during the reign of Edward VI (1547-53); 280 under Mary (1553-58) and 4 when Elizabeth was queen (1558-1603).

Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer were all early adherents of Protestantism – the great bishops of reform.  Cranmer, in particular, was one of the architects of the Reformation – practically his first act on becoming Archbishop of Canterbury was to annul Henry VIII’s 24-year marriage to Catherine of Aragon and validate the new one to Anne Boleyn.  The First Book of Common Prayer, introduced in 1549 during the reign of Edward VI, was largely Cranmer’s work.  His support, and Ridley’s, for the claim of the Protestant Lady Jane Grey to the throne, as opposed to Catherine and Henry’s daughter, Mary, won no friends amongst the Catholics.  Indeed, the new queen had a particular dislike for Cranmer for his humiliation of her mother.

Victorian Memorial, Martyrs, Cranmer, Ridley, Latimer

The trial of these three men (and both Cranmer and Latimer were in their late 60s) could be seen as a show trial – the outcome was never really in doubt.  Ridley and Latimer were the first to die, on 16 October 1555.  They were both given small bags of gunpowder to hang round their necks – seen as a humane act – and were tied on opposite sides of the stake.  As the flames began to lick the faggots at Ridley’s feet, Latimer is alleged to have called out: “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man.  We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”  He is reported to have died soon.  Ridley was not so lucky; the fire was slow-burning and he cried out in his agony, “I cannot burn, I cannot burn!”  Eventually, the flames reached the gunpowder round his neck and it was all over.

Cranmer watched his friends die from the Bocardo.  Over the coming months, he formally recanted his Protestantism, signing a document to that effect.  It was not enough to save him.  And, standing on the platform in St Mary’s on the morning of his execution, 21 March 1556, he disclaimed his recantation and denied the authority of the Pope.  Later, tied to the stake, he thrust his ‘unworthy’ right hand, which had signed his recantation, into the flames and was seen to wipe his forehead with his left hand as the heat increased and consumed him.

Oxford Martyrs, St Mary's University Church, Oxford

Movingly, a memorial in the University Church of St Mary records the names of 23 Oxford ‘Martyrs of the Reformation’ – Catholic and Protestant.

It’s been a very long time since the State has killed anyone for their religious beliefs in the United Kingdom.  I’d like to think we have moved on even further, in the 21st century, to a point where religious tolerance should be etched into our sub-conscious.  Provided the followers of any creed hurt no one and act within the Law, their freedom to worship as they wish should be respected, and they should be able to do so without let or hindrance, as a lawyer might say.  Part of the price of that tolerance must surely be that no religion, or faith, is above or beyond criticism – including being subject to satire and humour.  Sadly, not everyone in the world, or even in my own country, shares that view and some might see it as unduly idealistic.  Further, religious differences can also be tribal, cultural, even political.  Our freedoms are delicate and can be easily threatened, without anyone appearing to notice.  And sometimes, the people who think they are protecting liberty display a worrying degree of bigotry.  I won’t put up with intolerance – will you?  Perhaps, in another 500 years or so, we will have sorted all this out a bit more.  We have to believe things improve, don’t we?  Maybe the cross in Broad Street, the Victorian memorial and all the other reminders should not simply commemorate these unfortunate men, but also recall the pain suffered by people of all beliefs, along the sometimes tortuous path that leads to a better world.

Cranmer burning at the stake

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74 thoughts on “The Oxford Martyrs”

  1. Thank you for the comprehensive information in your article, I have been writing six short reports on Oxfordshire History for the parish magazine where I live in Kennington, Oxford. It has been a really enjoyable experience researching the history and reading articles like yours to give me the content for the six stories. Keep up the good work

  2. This post brought tears to my eyes. Deep breath in. Deep breathe out. The thought of people being burned to death on market days (which would certainly help to inspire the maximum amount of terror/obedience in the local populace…) is astounding. Bring burned to death, being crushed to death, being stoned to death, being drawn and quartered… what sort of animal are we that we would inflict such horror on fellow members of our species? Thank you for yet another beautifully and respectfully written blog post. Also odd to note that the most burnings-to-death occurred under the leadership of a woman…

  3. I studied about these three men in my training to become an Episcopal deacon. I continue to be disappointed in Cranmer’s renunciation. A very human reaction, but still disappointing in light of his ongoing role in our daily worship.

  4. I appreciate your thoughtful treatment of this painful subject. And I agree with the understanding you expressed:

    “Provided the followers of any creed hurt no one and act within the Law, their freedom to worship as they wish should be respected, and they should be able to do so without let or hindrance, as a lawyer might say. Part of the price of that tolerance must surely be that no religion, or faith, is above or beyond criticism – including being subject to satire and humour. Of course, not everyone in the world, or even in my own country, shares that view and some might see it as unduly idealistic. Further, religious differences can also be tribal, cultural, even political. Our freedoms are delicate and can be easily threatened, without anyone appearing to notice. And sometimes, the people who think they are protecting liberty display a worrying degree of bigotry. “

  5. Thanks Mike for these memories of three of my heroes. The Broad Street cross was always special when I walked past in Oxford. Happily, these days of intolerance have largely gone form our nation. Sadly though, in some other countries religious intolerance is widespread, costing some people their lives.

  6. I think that the human race doesn’t learn from its past mistakes. I will leave you with this thought that was placed next to the exit in the Museum of Torture in Carcassonne:

    “You have just visited the museum of torture. Do you think all this belongs in the past; alas such things are still used today in several countries, with more modern and evil refinements.

    It is an inevitable result wherever intolerance and fanaticism thrive.

    In every human being there is good and evil. Arrogance spreads evil. Wherever it is found it must be fought by the good. You have just seen the consequences of failure.”

  7. Oh Mike, I hope we don’t have to wait another 500 years. But sometimes I wonder. Intolerance, to me, is one of the seven deadly sins. Well, I guess that would make it eight. Or maybe a good replacement for one or two of them.

    This is a fascinating post and timely, as I’m trying to figure out plans for our trip (three weeks from today!) and a visit to Oxford, too! I’m fascinated by this period in history and of course the names Cranmer and Latimer were very familiar to me (Ridley not so much) so I will definitely look for this in Oxford.

    1. Thanks Jeanie – Iet me know if you need any help with your plans. Oxford is wonderful just to walk round, popping into colleges and pubs as you go. There might be restrictions during term time. You can get leaflets with suggested walks from the Tourist Information office on Broad Street or at the railway station.

  8. No wonder she’s known as Bloody Mary. Cranmer once risked his own life to save hers. Henry VIII wanted to execute her, but Cranmer begged for her life. I wonder if he regretted it later.

      1. I suspect regret loomed very large in his mind, but whether he would have behaved differently is another matter. He might have been a weak man, but he was mostly decent.

  9. My grandmother’s family were from Bicester…with cousins in Oxford. Visiting as a child I was taken to see the exact spot of the martyrdom which was explained to me as the consequences of allowing Papacy in England!

  10. Very interesting Mike and beautiful photos. What a horrible way to die, they were bad times. Religion has a lot to answer for. I would like to think that things will improve but I’m not so sure.

  11. ugh I can’t understand why society in the first place would think it’s ok to burn a person to death, what a horrible way to go and I guarantee they wouldn’t have been guilty in the first place right?

  12. Hi Mike – this will make me look around a bit more … now I’m blogging things that I take for granted from my times in and around Oxford need to be investigated more – I must go back as a blogger and look more deeply. I certainly hadn’t realised about the Church – I guess one looks at the colleges … and the church gets bypassed. There’s so much to see.

    The awful thought of being martyred appals me … and yet we’re still doing it in various places around the world – or perhaps worse as there’s mental cruelty too …

    Thanks for a really interesting and informative post – one I’ll need to look at when I get back to visiting in the UK once I’m home … cheers Hilary

  13. Thomas Cranmer, the main author behind The Book of Common Prayer. If for nothing else, everyone should know his name for that book! Researching my family tree, I have realized the truth of people coming to America from England for religious freedom. Really fascinating history. I hope to get to Oxford one day and if I see this, I will think of this post. Thanks.

  14. Excellent, thought provoking post, Mike. Thanks for all the background detail; it adds wonderful depth and meaning to an easily overlooked historical marker.

  15. So much to think about here, Mike. Wearing my old anthropology hat, I once again wonder at the notions European leaders had of themselves, tyranny based on fantasy, dressed up as civilization. I’m presently wondering the same thing about our current ones. They don’t do burning on home territory, but they seem happy to inflict it elsewhere.

  16. artandarchitecturemainly

    Most of the Tudor dynasty was filled with conflict, divisiveness and fear. But Queen Mary was a particularly nasty piece of work. Of course she was unrespected by her father, lonely for her mother, depressed and married off onto a creep. But her murders of Protestants were more vile than other royal murders, so perhaps she took pleasure from the Protestants’ excruciating deaths.

  17. I have to take issue with you, Mike, in saying that Henry remained essentially Catholic in his beliefs. Back then, the divide between Catholic and Protestant belief was smaller than it is now, so I see what you’re saying, but that’s the reason why he still had many “Catholic” beliefs. I do agree with you, however, in being intolerant of intolerance. 🙂 And that St. Mary church certainly does look very beautiful! Thank you for this so lovely blog. xo

      1. Oh, definitely! But everything would have come down a notch, morally speaking. Henry’s subsequent behavior is evidence that his motives at the time were far from spiritual. He would have carried on quite happily until he got tired of Anne and the rest; I can’t imagine he would have been a better husband in that case, just with the Pope’s approval – he would have still had the same temperament and appetites. But I don’t really want to argue with you (if you can believe that…).

  18. You write a beautiful piece on awful events. These stories, and far too many stories still in the world today, are powerful reminders to treasure the freedoms we have. (And I appreciate your note about satire and humor- my husband and I were just talking about how you almost can’t laugh at foolishness anymore without people getting up in arms. Ah well, I have enough of my own to laugh at, I suppose 🙂 )

  19. Such a bloody history that religion has, which is all the more tragic since most religions are founded on the idea that we should love one another. Yes, we have to believe things will improve! A very thoughtful piece with some very well-written history.

  20. I worked in Oxford for over ten years passing it many times not realising it was there or the story. A few years ago I found out about it and went to visit. There torment is something that does not bear thonging about. I also read about the Newbury Martyrs who were all burned . Bad times which unfortunately are still around in some countries

  21. It won’t surprise you that I know the story – being an Oxford girl by background and education, but your telling of it is particularly worthy of the read. Your closing paragraph should prick a few consciences. True freedom includes the welcoming of satire and humour. As Dave Allen would say ‘May your God go with you’.

      1. I can flatter myself that this is a case of ‘great minds think alike’ but I think it might be a stretch on my part. On your great mind, Mike – keep it coming!

  22. Very interesting – in all my visits to Oxford I never noticed this. Incidentally I was inspired by your post on Waylands Smithy to visit it and it was very interesting and surprisingly atmospheric. Also continued to the White Horse at Uffington. So, thanks. Wouldn’t have gone if it hadn’t been for your blog!

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