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Get to know A Bit About Britain - an idiosyncratic view of places to visit in Britain, British history - and stuff. Warts and all. Where shall we go today?

Friday, 21 August 2015

The Oxford Martyrs

Cross, Broad Street, Oxford, Ridley, Latimer, Cranmer, burned to death

You never know what might have happened beneath your feet, long before you trod there.  A cross in the centre of Oxford’s Broad Street marks the spot where, almost 500 years ago, 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.

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”.

Memorial, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, Thomas Cranmer, Balliol College, Broad Street, Oxford

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 at 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 – were 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’s excellent blog.

Victorian Martyrs' Memorial, Oxford

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. 

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.

University Church of St Mary, Oxford, nave, damaged pillar, Cranmer

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.  Though the first head of the new Church of England, and no longer subject to the Pope’s wishes, Henry remained a Catholic in terms of 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?

The 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 that is exactly what Protestants did.

Heretics were always burned, burnings were always held in public (often on market days), most burnings took place in the south of England (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).

Archbishop Cranmer, St Giles, statue, Martyrs' Memorial

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.

Doors scorched by flames, gates, Balliol College

The trial of these three men (and both Cranmer and Latimer were in their late 60s) was what we would call ‘show trial’ – the outcome was never really in doubt.  Ridley and Latimer were the first to die, on 16th 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, 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 finally consumed him.

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

Martyrs' Memorial, St Giles, Oxford


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 is etched into our sub-conscious, provided the followers of any creed hurt no one and act within the Law.  Of course, not everyone in the world has caught up with that view yet; perhaps they will, in another 500 years or so.  We have to believe things improve, don’t we?  So perhaps the cross in Broad Street, the Victorian memorial and all the other reminders should not simply commemorate these men, but also recall the pain suffered by people of all beliefs, along the sometimes tortuous path that has led to today.