The Martyrs’ Memorial, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, has stood as a focal point at the south end of St Giles since its completion in 1843, when it replaced “a picturesque but tottering old house”.
It is shown here in 2003, standing incongruously amid the fun of St Giles Fair.
Cuthbert Bede (in his novel The Adventures of Mr Verdant Green) wrote thus about it in 1853:
“He who enters the city, as Mr Green did, from the Woodstock Road, and rolls down the shady avenue of St Giles’, between St John’s College and the Taylor Buildings, and past the graceful Martyrs’ Memorial, will receive impressions such as probably no other city in the world could convey.”
The memorial fell into a poor state of repair recently, but thanks to a joint effort by Oxford City Council and the Preservation Trust, it was fully restored in 2003.
In recent years an idea was mooted to move the Memorial to the west end of Broad Street, where this cross in the road indicates the actual site of the ditch outside the city’s north gate where the three Protestant martyrs were burnt at the stake.
But G. V. Cox in his Recollections of Oxford says that “It had been found impracticable to get a site in Broad Street, the actual scene of the martyrdom”, and the same is true today: so it remains where it has always been, counterbalancing St Mary Magdalen Church at the north end of St Giles.
Who were the Martyrs?
In 1553 when the Roman Catholic Queen Mary came to the throne, Thomas Cranmer (Archbishop of Canterbury), Nicholas Ridley (Archbishop of London), and Hugh Latimer (Bishop of Worcester) were summoned to appear before a commission in the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford to be examined for their alleged Protestant heresies. Unable to admit to a belief in transubstantiation, they were all found guilty. Ridley and Latimer were burnt at the stake on 16 October 1555 in the ditch outside the city wall (which ran alongside St Michael at the Northgate Church). Archbishop Cranmer, who had been given longer to appeal, was forced to watch, and wrote a recantation. None the less he was taken from the Bocardo gaol at the Northgate to the ditch on 21 March 1556 and also burnt to death.
The records of the City of Oxford show that the Bailiffs of the city petitioned the Archbishop of Canterbury for the payment of the expenses incurred in dealing with the three martyrs. Oxford had looked after the former Archbishop, Thomas Cranmer, well: his expenses included the cost of wine, figs, oysters, veal, and almonds, as well as his barber and laundry charges; but the last items on this list were the hundred wood faggots and 50 furze faggots that formed his living pyre….
On the Memorial, Cranmer faces north holding a Bible; Ridley faces east; and Latimer looks to the west, with his arms folded across his chest.
Why was the Memorial erected?
The Martyrs’ Memorial was erected almost 300 years after the event it commemorates, and says as much about the religious controversies of the 1840s as those of the 1550s. In the 1840s the Anglican Low Church was profoundly alarmed at the burgeoning Newmanite or Tractarian movement, which sought to prove that the key doctrines of the Church of England were catholic. As a riposte, their Low Church opponents, led by the Reverend Golightly, raised funds for setting up the Martyrs’ Memorial to remind Oxford and the nation that the Church of England’s founding fathers had been martyred by Roman Catholics.
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.”
Appeal for funds in 1949
Oxford, Vol. 10, no. 2 (1950):
But no lover of Oxford can have heard without concern, last summer, that the ravages, during more than a century, both of time and of undergraduate vandalism, have seriously impaired not only the beauty but the safety of the Memorial. A warning note had indeed been sounded nearly fifty years ago. In 1903 the Vicar and Churchwardens of St. Mary Magdalene, who are the trustees of the Memorial, spent £60 on urgent though minor repairs. Their architect then drew attention to a measure of crumbling and decay, which must inevitably increase in time. As for the vandalism, one night’s thoughtless Alpinism, last June, was responsible, in the opinion of the present architect, for over £20 worth of damage. More than £60 will be required to repair the injuries inflicted on it, on 5 November last, by a general mob, including undergraduates, younger townsfolk, and even visitors from London.
Obviously the cost of any substantial work of restoration must be beyond the means of the present Vicar and Churchwardens. It was with their ready support and goodwill that an appeal for a fund of £1,000 for this purpose was inaugurated in May 1949…. The May 1949 appeal had the whole-hearted support of the present Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the Bishop of Oxford, the Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, and High Steward of the University, the Lord Lieutenant of the County, and the Mayor of Oxford.
Today the traveller, the visitor, the inhabitant will see a memorial in sad deterioration; the figure of Cranmer is decrepit, the monument itself disfigured by decay. When fully restored, with its armorial bearings freshly coloured, it will again rejoice the eye and heart.”