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  • Writer's pictureMimi Goodall, PhD

A Brief History of Martyrs’ Memorial in Oxford

What is the Martyrs’ Memorial?

Martyrs’ Memorial is a 19th-century Gothic stone monument that was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott to commemorate a 16th-century event.



Martyrs’ Memorial History

As a university city, Oxford has always been at the forefront of debate and disagreement. While today academics dispute scientific hypotheses, political theories and cultural interpretations, in the 16th century, the city was a major centre of theological debate. From the 1520s onwards, England was in religious turmoil. Up to this point, it had been a Catholic country, its church and king subject to the rule of the pope in Rome. However, when King Henry VIII decided he wanted to divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon, Pope Clement VII refused permission. Rather than submit to the pope’s wishes, Henry broke from the Catholic Church and created the Church of England, of which he as king was head and therefore able to act as he pleased. This was the beginning of what is known as the English Reformation – when England slowly reformed from a Catholic to a Protestant country. As you might imagine, this was no simple matter. Henry’s actions had repercussions, often violent ones, that lasted for decades. The population of England was divided in its reaction. There were those who welcomed the new church and its Protestant beliefs and those who held onto the old religion. Tensions between the two groups ran high.


Henry was succeeded by his son Edward, a Protestant, who continued and expanded the Church of England. Edward died only a few years into his reign and was succeeded by his half-sister Mary. As Catherine of Aragon’s child, she was a strong and uncompromising Catholic. She reversed the religious decisions of her brother and father and swore allegiance once more to the pope and the Roman Catholic Church. She also decided to punish severely religious leaders who supported the Protestant cause.


This, as you might have guessed, is the point where we meet our martyrs. The three men commemorated here at the Martyrs’ Memorial are Bishops Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer, who had served Henry and Edward and advanced Protestantism around England. When Mary came to the throne, she saw them as a threat. They were put on trial in the religious centre of Oxford, the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, and found guilty of heresy. They refused to acknowledge key Catholic doctrine as the truth and were therefore sentenced to death.


During this time, executions were held publicly to deter people from committing similar crimes. Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer were all burned at the stake a few metres away from where the memorial stands today – just outside the old city walls to the north, where Broad Street is now located. Their deaths, along with those of others who believed in the new Protestant orthodoxy, are termed the ‘Marian persecutions’.


While these events took place in the 16th century, the memorial itself wasn’t built for another 300 years. Its construction resulted from another period of religious tension between Catholics and Protestants in Oxford – which some would call a long-lasting hangover from the Reformation. Anglican clergy in the city were growing alarmed by what was known as the ‘Oxford Movement’, a group of theologians who were bringing the Church of England increasingly into alignment with Catholicism. In response, Anglicans constructed this statement monument, to remind citizens and visitors of Oxford’s Protestant heritage.


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