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Museum of Oxford Digital Exhibitions

Martyrs or traitors?

Photo credit: Jane Roblin/Art UK, CC BY-NC 4.0

Built nearly 300 years after the events it commemorates, the Martyrs’ Memorial is a great Gothic structure intended to celebrate three men killed for their rejection of the Catholic faith. During Mary I’s five-year reign (1553-1558) around 300 Protestants were burned for heresy, that is, for abjuring what Catholics saw as the one true faith. Among them were Bishops Hugh Latimer of Worcester and Nicholas Ridley of London in 1555, and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury in 1556, after his trial in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin. The burning of these three Protestants took place in Broad Street, Oxford, and the event is commemorated by the Martyrs’ Memorial in St Giles which was designed by George Gilbert Scott and erected between 1841 and 1843. Cranmer is shown holding a copy of the 1541 English Bible. Ridley is depicted wearing the bishop’s robes that he defended against still more radical Protestants who called them ungodly and popish. Latimer is figured in ‘pious old age’, as he was about 68 at the time of his death. 

The memorial was as much about the Victorians as it was about these Tudor martyrs. The decision to commission the monument grew out of the deep anti-Catholicism of many nineteenth-century Oxford Protestants. They were horrified by the growing civil and religious freedoms allowed to Roman Catholics. Some also feared that Oxford University, which still refused to admit anyone who was not a member of the Church of England, would soon be forced to change. Hence the urgent need to remind the public of the dangers of Roman Catholicism and to assert that Oxford was impeccably Protestant. Although the plans for a new church near the site had to be scaled down due to lack of funding, the cost of the Memorial was largely covered by private subscriptions. The inscription on the base is strongly anti-Catholic and refers to the ‘errors of the Church of Rome’.