17 September 2023
The Martyrs’ Memorial in
Oxford was also a response
in the 1840s to the rise
of the Oxford Movement
The Martyrs’ Memorial at the south end of Saint Giles faces the Ashmolean Museum on Beaumont Street and is one of the outstanding landmarks on the streetscape of Oxford. Tourists use at as an agreed meeting place, and the steps at the base of the memorial are crowded throughout the day by people eating street food or relaxing in the early autumn sunshine.
The Martyrs’ Memorial was erected in 1841 at the south end of Saint Giles, at the junction with Beaumont Street, close to other landmarks in Oxford such as the Ashmolean Museum, Saint John’s College, the Eagle and Child, Saint Mary Magdalen Church, and the bus stops on Magdalen Street.
The memorial commemorates three martyr bishops – Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer – who were burnt at the stake in Broad Street, Oxford, in 1555-1556.
When Queen Mary succeeded in 1553, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London, and Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worcester, were summoned before a commission in the University Church of Saint Mary the Virgin in Oxford and questioned about their alleged heresies. All were found guilty, and Ridley and Latimer were burnt at the stake on 16 October 1555 in the ditch outside the city wall – the northern part of the city wall ran alongside Saint Michael at the Northgate Church.
Archbishop Cranmer, who had been given longer to appeal, was forced to watch, and wrote a recantation. Nonetheless, he was taken from Bocardo, the city gaol at the Northgate in Cornmarket, to the ditch and he too was burnt to death on 21 March 1556.
The city records show that the bailiffs of Oxford petitioned the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Reginald Pole, to be paid for the expenses they incurred in dealing with the three martyrs.
Cranmer was well looked after by the City of Oxford: his expenses included the cost of wine, figs, oysters, veal, and almonds, as well as his barber and laundry charges. But the final telling items on this list were the 100 wood faggots and 50 furze faggots that formed his pyre.
On the Martyrs’ Memorial in Oxford, Cranmer faces north – almost as if turning his back on the city – holding a Bible; Ridley faces east; and Latimer looks to the west, with his arms folded across his chest.
The inscription on the base reads:
‘To the Glory of God, and in grateful commemoration of his servants Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer, Prelates of the Church of England, who near this spot yielded their bodies to be burned, bearing witness to the sacred truths which they had affirmed and maintained against the errors of the Church of Rome, and rejoicing that to them it was given not only to believe in Christ but also to suffer for his sake this monument was erected by public subscription in the year of Our Lord God MDCCCXLI.’
The Martyrs’ Memorial was erected in 1841, almost 300 years after the event it commemorates. Yet it says as much about the religious controversies of the 1840s as those of the 1550s.
Evangelical or Low Church members of the Church of England in the 1840s were alarmed at the rise of the Tractarian or Oxford Movement and its moves to restore Catholic emphasis in the liturgy and teachings of the Church of England.
As a riposte, these Low Church opponents, led by the Revd Charles Pourtales Golightly (1807-1885), raised funds for the Martyrs’ Memorial to remind Oxford and the nation that the Church of England’s founding fathers had been martyred by Roman Catholics. The public subscriptions totalled £8,389.14s.
It is sometimes forgotten that there were two parts of the commemoration: the Martyrs’ Memorial Cross at the north end of Saint Mary Magdalen churchyard; and the Martyrs’ Aisle in nearby Saint Mary Magdalen Church.
The Martyrs’ Memorial Cross was designed by the Gothic Revival architect Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878) and is Grade II* listed. Scott was one of the foremost architects in the Victorian Gothic revival. Despite this, the Martyrs' Memorial was intended as a rebuke to the same High Church tendencies that had been instrumental in promoting the new authentic approach to Gothic architecture.
Scott consciously patterned the memorial in Oxford on the Eleanor crosses erected by King Edward I between 1290 and 1294 to mark the stopping points of the funeral cortege of his wife, Queen Eleanor of Castile (1241-1290).
Scott modelled the cross in Oxford on the Waltham Cross in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire. Henry Weeks (1807-1877) was the sculptor of the statues, which he completed under the direction of Sir Francis Chantrey in 1841. The memorial was built of magnesium limestone by the builder and architect Charles Kirk (1791-1847), of Sleaford, Lincolnshire.
The Martyrs’ Memorial replaced ‘a picturesque but tottering old house,’ and immediately became an important city landmark. It has stood as a focal point at the south end of St Giles since it was completed in 1843.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the memorial had fallen into a poor state of repair. But, thanks to a joint effort by Oxford City Council and the Oxford Preservation Trust, it was fully restored in 2002. The stone in the pavement in front of the memorial records the restoration: ‘The Martyrs’ Memorial was restored in 2002 to mark the 75th anniversary of Oxford Preservation Trust.’
There was proposal in recent years to move the Memorial to the west end of Broad Street, where a cross in the road indicates the site of the ditch outside the city’s north gate where the three martyrs were burnt at the stake.
GV Cox wrote in his Recollections of Oxford (1868) that ‘It had been found impracticable to get a site in Broad Street, the actual scene of the martyrdom.’ The same is true today, and so the remains where it has always been, counterbalancing the war memorial at the north end of St Giles.
Few who cluster around the memorial, munching and chatting on its steps, realise its significance. Those who do probably do not know that this is not the actual site where Latimer, Ridley and burnt at the stake. The actual site is around the corner, in Broad Street. The point in the middle of the street is marked by a cross, with a plaque set in the wall of Balliol College.
The plaque reads: ‘Opposite this point, near the Cross in the middle of Broad Street, Hugh Latimer, one-time Bishop of Worcester, Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London, and Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, were burnt for their faith in 1555 and 1556. HH.’
The plaque was engraved by the sculptor Heather Howes (1926-2012), and is one of her best-known works.
Heather Howes was born Heather Harms in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. She studied art in Aberdeen, specialising in sculpture at Gray’s School of Art, and then spent five years at the Royal Academy Schools, London, winning silver and bronze medals.
She moved to Oxford in the 1950s, and began a career carving work in wood and stone. She married the Oxford architect Gilbert Howes and taught art and craft at Headington School. After retirement, she moved to Brill, near Thame. There she chaired the Buckingham Labour Party and was a district councillor until 1999.