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.’
In 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.
On 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.