History explorer: The Oxford Martyrs
Ceri Law and Jonny Wilkes visit the University Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford, where leading Protestants were tried for heresy during Mary I's attempts to restore Catholicism to England
The sandy buildings around cobbled Radcliffe Square in the heart of Oxford shine golden in the crisp morning sunshine. Dominating the surrounding colleges are two of the most distinctive features of the city’s skyline: the circular Radcliffe Camera, with its Corinthian columns and stone dome, and University Church.
The church’s square 13th-century tower, topped with a slender spire, is adorned with statues and grimacing gargoyles. Wait long enough and the bells will melodically toll the hour, accompanied by peals echoing from churches across the city. From early morning, tourists flock inside to climb the tower’s 127 steps, eager to enjoy panoramic views across the city.
But it’s more than just the views that attracts more than 400,000 visitors to University Church every year. Its 700-year history has shaped religious debate in Oxford and beyond, perhaps most notably with the trials of three prominent Tudor Protestants – Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley – that were staged here during the reign of Mary I. Incarcerated for over two years (including a spell at Oxford’s Bocardo Prison, the jail adjoining the church of St Michael at the North Gate), the three men were tried for their alleged Protestant heresies in the crowded University Church before being burned at the stake on what is now Broad Street. The site of their execution is marked by a cobbled stone cross in the middle of the road. The Bocardo was demolished in 1771, but the door of the martyrs’ cell is displayed at the church of St Michael.
“Elizabethan Protestants celebrated these three men as martyrs and heroes,” says Dr Ceri Law, research associate in Reformation history at the University of Cambridge. “Memories of them remained powerful in English culture for centuries.” This is clear from the tall Victorian memorial that stands on Magdalen Street 100 metres north of the site of their deaths.
Inside University Church there are a few reminders of the 1555 trials. The most obvious is a plaque in the nave commemorating 23 martyrs of the Reformation – Protestant and Catholic – with connections to Oxford. The list of names offers some sense of the religious turmoil of the 16th century.
When Mary came to the throne in 1553 she was determined to bring England back into the Catholic fold and reverse the religious changes that had begun during her father’s reign. Initially, Henry VIII had been hostile to the ideas of the Protestant Reformation in Europe, an attitude echoed across England – during his reign a condemnation of Martin Luther’s ideas was attached to University Church’s sundial. Rather, Henry’s split from Rome was a political and personal matter, not a theological one, driven by his desire to annul his marriage to Mary’s mother, Catherine of Aragon.
With the creation of a new Church of England came suppression of any opposition. “The best-known case, of course, is that of Thomas More, executed in 1535 for refusing to accept the king as head of the church,” says Law. “Maybe a more interesting victim, though, was John Forest, a Franciscan friar who was executed in 1538 for opposing the annulment and moves towards Protestantism. Forest was the only Catholic burned as a heretic under either the Tudors or Stuarts – though others were executed as traitors.”
Henry’s son, the devoutly Protestant Edward VI, enlisted the help of advisors such as Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, to rid the English church of Catholic customs, particularly the celebration of mass. Ministers clad in simple black and white robes carried out much plainer services, with only one altar and no saintly statues. And at University Church, Reformation sermons were preached to educate students in Protestant theology.
A return to Catholicism
England remained a Protestant country during Edward’s reign of just six and a half years. But after his death, and the subsequent nine-day rule of his Protestant cousin Lady Jane Grey, a Catholic monarch – Edward’s older half-sister Mary – once more occupied the throne of England.
“Many people actively welcomed Mary’s accession, knowing that it would signal the return of Catholicism,” claims Law. “There are plenty of stories of celebrations, and of churches that brought back the mass as soon as they possibly could.”
One such was University Church. In 1554, the year after Mary came to the throne, the church purchased new robes of red and gold, replaced the altars and filled the building with candlesticks and crosses.
“For some people, though, Mary’s accession was a disaster. Hundreds of people fled the country rather than face her Catholic reign,” says Law. Those Protestants who remained endured a period of religious persecution during which 300 people lost their lives for their faith. Such punishments would later inspire the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’.
“Yet Mary was not the only monarch who carried out religious executions – a fact that has too often been ignored,” continues Law. “About 130 Catholic priests were executed during the reign of Elizabeth I. In fact, though attacks on Mary and her regime began during her reign, the name ‘Bloody Mary’ arrived later, in the 17th century, and stemmed from a fear of Catholicism.”
That said, Law does point out that the historian Professor Eamon Duffy – who she believes has done most to argue for a more positive view of Mary’s religious policies – has still, nonetheless, referred to this time as: “The most intense religious persecution of its kind anywhere in 16th-century Europe.”
Trial and execution
Within weeks of Mary’s accession, Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley (bishop of London) and Hugh Latimer (bishop of Worcester) were arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. In March 1554 they were sent to Oxford to await trial for heresy at University Church.
“The process occurred in two parts, and over an extended period,” says Law. “In April 1554, the men were forced to take part in formal disputations against Catholic opponents as a way of publicly condemning their beliefs. Their actual trials and condemnations didn’t take place until September 1555.”
On 12 September 1555, hundreds flocked to University Church to watch the trial – guilty verdicts had long been a foregone conclusion. According to John Foxe, the 16th-century historian and author of the famous Book of Martyrs, so many spectators arrived that extra seating had to be arranged. To this day, the pews in the chancel have flat, truncated finials – adapted to allow space for a raised platform to be constructed on which the accused stood.
Cranmer’s trial came first. He refused to doff his cap to the bishop of Gloucester, the papal representative, or recognise the authority of Rome. Then followed the trials of the increasingly frail Latimer and Ridley (who had denounced Mary and her sister Elizabeth as illegitimate); they were immediately condemned to death.
On 16 October, Latimer and Ridley were taken to the stake on Broad Street to be burned. Latimer quickly succumbed to smoke fumes, but the wood beneath Ridley burned low and slowly, and he suffered an excruciatingly drawn-out death as Cranmer, whose execution required approval from Rome, watched from the Bocardo.
Alone, and under immense pressure to reject his Protestant beliefs, Cranmer made five recantations in the hope of saving his life. He submitted himself to Mary, declared the pope as head of the church and accepted Catholic theology, including the divisive issue of transubstantiation – the conversion at the Eucharist of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Even so, Mary remained determined to have him killed.
“Some suggest that a deliberate decision was made to treat Cranmer’s recantations as insincere,” says Law. “Mary herself was a driving force, and bore a particular grudge against him.” Cranmer had, after all, helped bring about the annulment of her mother’s marriage to Henry VIII – an action that had rendered Mary illegitimate.
On 21 March 1556, as the rain poured down, Cranmer, in a ragged gown and with a long silvery beard, walked into University Church to make a final recantation. He mounted a special platform built in the nave, where a chunk remains missing from the decoration on a pillar opposite the pulpit, cut to accommodate the platform. He led a packed church in prayer before giving an exhortation to obey the queen. Then, perhaps knowing he would die anyway, Cranmer deviated from his script and rejected his recantations entirely. “And as for the pope, I refuse him as Christ’s enemy, and Antichrist, with all his false doctrine,” he declared, before being hurried out of the church and to the site of execution.
Foxe recounts how, after Cranmer had been tied to the stake, he plunged his right hand into the flames, fulfilling a promise he made in University Church: “My hand hath offended, writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished.” Away from reputations of ‘Bloody Mary’ and heroic martyrs, the effect of these executions remains controversial. Says Law: “Though some historians have seen them as counter-productive for the regime and as stoking up further resistance, others have argued they were horribly efficient in stamping out dissent and resistance.”
Mary I: 5 more places to explore
Framingham Castle, Framlingham, Suffolk
Where Mary rallied her troops
After Edward VI’s death in 1553, Mary evaded capture by Protestants wishing to secure Lady Jane Grey’s accession as queen. She made for Framlingham Castle, where she gathered supporters and troops before marching in triumph to London to claim the throne.
Winchester Cathedral, Winchester, Hampshire
Where Mary married her prince
Mary married Prince Philip of Spain in Winchester’s grand cathedral on 25 July 1554. Her choice of husband did not sit well with the country, though, and sparked a rebellion led by Thomas Wyatt. The cathedral still holds a wooden and leather chair she is said to have used.
Where the queen defied a rebel
In 1554 Mary was faced with Wyatt’s uprising. Instead of fleeing London, the queen travelled to Guildhall and gave a rousing speech. Huge numbers of people responded, barring the way into the city, and the rebels dropped their weapons. Guildhall can usually be visited when not being used for events. guildhall.cityoflondon.gov.uk
Hampton Court Palace, London
Where Mary intended to give birth
Now a popular destination for tourists interested in Tudor history, Hampton Court was the venue for Mary’s honeymoon with Philip. In 1554 she exhibited signs of pregnancy, and chose to give birth at this palace, but the pregnancy was phantom and Mary remained childless.
Westminster Abbey, London
Where Mary was crowned
Mary’s coronation took place at Westminster Abbey on 1 October 1553. She later restored the abbey to the Benedictine order. Following her death in 1558 at the age of 42, she was buried at the abbey in Henry VII’s chapel. She now shares the tomb with her half-sister, Elizabeth I.
Ceri Law is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Cambridge, where she works on the Remembering the Reformation project: rememberingthereformation.org.uk. Jonny Wilkes is a freelance journalist