The Martyrs' Memorial is an imposing stone monument standing at the intersection of the southern end of St Giles Street in Oxford. It commemorates three Anglican bishops who were burned at the stake under Queen Mary in the 1550s: Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, and Hugh Latimer.
History of the Martyrs' Memorial
Designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, the Martyrs' Memorial was constructed in 1840-42, replacing "a picturesque but tottering old house" that occupied the site.
The memorial commemorates the "Oxford Martyrs," Anglican bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley and the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, who were executed in Oxford on the orders of Queen Mary Tudor.
The bishops were tried for heresy at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin and imprisoned at the Bocado Prison near St Michael at the North Gate Church, before being burned at the stake just outside the city walls in Broad Street.
The context of the martyrdom is the religious and political upheaval that followed King Henry VIII's break with the Roman Catholic Church in 1534. It was Archbishop Cranmer who annuled Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon and married him to Anne Boleyn instead. Protestant ideas gained a foothold in Britain during Henry's reign and the three bishops were among many who converted to Protestantism and taught according to its principles.
But then came the reign of Queen Mary Tudor (1553-1558), who would become known to history as Bloody Mary for the many executions she ordered. Mary was a Roman Catholic and, moreover, it was her mother who had been cast aside by Henry VIII. The annuled marriage of her parents made Mary an illegitimate child, so she had extra reason to remain staunchly Catholic and attempt to undo her father's reforms.
After being tried convicted of heresy in Oxford, the bishops Latimer and Ridley were executed on October 16, 1555. According to legend, Latimer said to his friend Ridley as the flames began to burn: "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."
Thomas Cranmer recanted his Protestant teachings publicly and in writing, but Mary was not convinced of his sincerity and sentenced him to death anyway. Before his execution, Cranmer recanted his recantation from the pulpit of St. Mary's University Church and declared himself a Protestant. When he was burned at the stake, on March 21, 1556, he thrust his right hand in the flames first until it burned away, proclaiming: "I have sinned, in that I signed with my hand what I did not believe with my heart."
The inscription on the base of the Martyrs' Memorial reads as follows:
This inscription goes a long way to explaining the reasons behind the Memorial's erection, some 300 years after the event it commemorates: the monument reveals more about the religious controversies of the 1840s than those of the 1550s.
Much of the Anglican Church was profoundly alarmed in the 1840s at the burgeoning Newmanite or Tractarian movement also known as the Oxford Movement, which sought to prove that the key doctrines of the Church of England were Roman Catholic. Low Church opponents, led by the Reverend Golightly, raised funds for setting up the Martyrs' Memorial to remind the inhabitants of Oxford (and the nation at large) that the Church of England's founding fathers had been martyred by the Roman Catholic Church.
What to See at the Martyrs' Memorial
The architect, a young George Gilbert Scott, was chosen by competition. He based his design on the 13th-century Eleanor Cross at Waltham in Essex, a prominent example of the Decorated Gothic style. It took two years to construct and was completed in 1842. The spiky and pinnacled Decorated Gothic memorial has been likened to the spire of a sunken cathedral.
Cuthbert Bede (in his novel The Adventures of Mr Verdant Green) wrote about the setting of the Martyrs' Memorial in 1853:
The actual site of the execution is about 20 meters away in Broad Street and is marked by a cross of bricks set in the road.
Quick Facts on the Martyrs' Memorial
|Names:||Martyrs' Memorial · The Martyrs Memorial|
|Categories:||memorials; Reformation history sites; historic monuments; Grade II* listed buildings|
|Styles:||Gothic Revival style|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||51.755196° N, 1.259083° W|
|Address:||St Giles Street|
|Lodging:||View hotels near the Martyrs' Memorial|
- Personal visits (2005-07).
- Geoffrey Tyack, Oxford: An Architectural Guide (Oxford University Press, 1998), 210.
- Thomas Cranmer - BBC History
- Eyewitness account of Cranmer's execution - English History Primary Sources
- Hugh Latimer - Diocese of Ely
- Nicholas Ridley - Wikipedia
Map of the Martyrs' Memorial, Oxford
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