Far at the end of the long sweep of St Giles, dark and pointedly brooding (some say it resembles the needling spire of a subterranean church) lurks the Martyrs’ Memorial, one of Oxford’s best-known monuments.

It is a grim reminder of the often bloody history of our nation, and of Oxford’s special part in that gruesome tale: the execution by burning of the churchmen, Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer, for their Protestant beliefs – or, as the inscription beneath their stone effigies reads, for their part in:

 ‘ … 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.’

DSCF5967 e1553873558355 - Martyrs' CrossIn some ways more powerful and moving is a simple cross of cobblestones in Broad Street, a hundred yards away.

X marks the spot where the funeral pyres were built and where the martyrs met their blistering death. You could very easily walk by without noticing it (especially before this area was properly pedestrianised.) But, once you have noticed it, you can never pass it again in the same way.

To get the full effect, you must imagine Cranmer, Henry VIII’s once mighty Archbishop, looking out from the barred windows of his cell as the wood was piled higher around the stake, ready to receive his body. For his last place of captivity was the so-called Bocardo prison over the North Gate of the city, in plain and deliberate view of the execution spot. 

From this gruesome vantage point Cranmer had already seen Latimer and Ridley predecease him, Ridley in particular dying in excruciating slow motion as the pyre refused to burn quickly. When eventually the fire caught hold, it raged so violently that (it is said) the very doors of Balliol college opposite were scorched and warped by the heat. They  were taken down and now hang in the central quad, while the door to Cranmer’s cell is on display in the tower of nearby St Michael at the Northgate church.

IMG 5559 e1555507299983 - Martyrs' CrossOn 21 March 1556 Cranmer was escorted to his death. Days earlier, under extreme duress, he had signed a document recanting his Protestant faith; but in his final hours he dramatically reverted to his original position, publicly proclaiming his abhorrence of the Pope as ‘Christ’s enemy and Anti-Christ with all his false doctrine’. And, as the flames began to crackle, he thrust his hand into the fire, declaring: ‘This was the hand that wrote it (the recantation) and therefore it should suffer first punishment … This hand hath offended.’

His words had a resonance which the Victorian clergy of Oxford understood well. For the dramatic monument, designed by Gilbert Scott, erected by public subscription in 1843 and placed so prominently at the entrance to the city and next to St Mary Magdalen Anglican church, was a symbol of their rejection of Catholicism, and in particular Cardinal Newman’s High Church Oxford Movement.

Scholarship, politics and religion have rarely made comfortable bedfellows. The blood-stained pages of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, the flame-warped doors of Balliol, and the cobbled Martyrs’ Cross on the Broad, are powerful reminders of Oxford’s place in a painful and deeply contested history.

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No story is more affecting than that of the Oxford Martyrs. A distinguished local historian writes to add a further layer of powerfully evocative detail.

What brings the horror home to me are the matter-of-fact accounts for Friday 20 March 1555 reproduced in the Oxford Council Acts book. It lists the expenses incurred for Cranmer’s food that day (including plenty of fish, because it was a Friday, I assume), and some more expenses relating to the whole week.

This is followed by the costs of 100 wood faggots, 50 furze faggots, the carriage thereof, and the amount paid to two labourers (presumably for building the pyre).

You may want to look at other pages in the same volume, e.g. p.218 where there is a Privy Council minute concerning the costs for maintaining the three ‘obstinate heretiks’.” Stephanie Jenkins

Simon Ballard, Keeper of the Saxon Tower at St Michael at the North Gate, thinks that X does not mark the exact spot.

The cross in Broad Street acts as a marker for the woeful burning of Cranmer and his Bishops; but the actual site was in a line of ditch where what was once Boswells department store stands. It would have been just outside the North Gate entrance, a deliberately ignominious spot.

A woodcut also shows that it wasn’t from the Bocardo Prison that Cranmer was forced to witness the burning of Bishops Latimer and Ridley, but in fact the adjacent Devil’s Tower. A blow-up of this woodcut can be seen in the Saxon Tower on Cornmarket Street. – SB

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Lest we forget, Oxford was home to considerably more than three martyrs, and some of them weren’t Protestant, as Jean Warr’s Oxford Plaque Guide (2011) reminds us (pp.33-34):

Just before midnight on 18 May 1589, four men, two of them priests, were arrested at the Catherine Wheel Inn (on a site now partly occupied by Balliol College) opposite St Mary Magdalen Church. They were taken to Bridewell Prison, London, for questioning. The priests, George Nichols and Richard Yaxley, were tortured and then brought back to Oxford for trial, together with the two laymen Thomas Belson and Humphrey Pritchard. The priests were accused of treason, under the law at the time which prohibited men who had been ordained abroad as Roman Catholics from returning to this country, and forbade anyone from helping them. Belson and Pritchard, who had been accused of assisting Nichols and Yaxley, were charged with felony … On 5 July 1589, the four Catholics were brought to the city gallows, which was located in Longwall Street, not far from the junction with Holywell Street. There they were hanged. Nichols and Yaxley were drawn and quartered. The priests’ heads were set up on the castle and their quarters on the four city gates.

The four men were beatified by Pope John Paul II on 22 November 1987. In October 2008, a plaque was erected to commemorate their names. Since 2005, the Latin Mass Society has held a pilgrimage to Oxford with a procession following the route taken by the martyrs from the Bocardo prison (no longer there) to the gallows.

A plaque commemorating all the martyrs of the Reformation in Oxford, both Catholic and Protestant, can be found inside the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, in the High Street. It is inscribed with the names of 23 people who died for their faith between 1539 and 1681 – including Archbishop William Laud, once of the University’s most famous Chancellors.

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