The martyrs’ cross

Martyrs' cross


In the sixteenth century, St Michael-at-the-Northgate Church in Cornmarket was at the extreme northern boundary of the city of Oxford, and the south side of Broad Street was just a ditch outside the city wall.

It was on waste ground beyond that ditch (now the site of Broad Street) that the three Protestant Martyrs of Oxford (Cranley, Ridley, and Latimer) were famously burnt at the stake.

Originally it was hoped to build the Martyrs’ Memorial on this spot, but, as G. V. Cox in his Recollections of Oxford says, “It had been found impracticable to get a site in Broad Street, the actual scene of the martyrdom”. Instead the event is commemorated by this cross set into the road and a plaque in the wall of Balliol College (both shown right). This cross was the “gloomy and inauspicious” place where Jude chose to meet Sue Bridehead in Jude the Obscure.

It is not certain that this cross marks the precise spot where the fires took place, but it is known that Cranmer watched the burning of the others from the Bocardo prison, which was beside St Michael-at-the-Northgate Church.

The Martyrs' Memorial (completed in 1843) stands around the corner in St Giles.

Who were the martyrs?

In 1553 when the Roman Catholic Queen Mary came to the throne, Thomas Cranmer (Archbishop of Canterbury), Nicholas Ridley (Archbishop of London), and Hugh Latimer (Bishop of Worcester) were summoned to appear before a commission in the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford to be examined for their alleged Protestant heresies. Unable to admit to a belief in transubstantiation, they were all found guilty. Ridley and Latimer were burnt at the stake on 16 October 1555. Archbishop Cranmer, who had been given longer to appeal, was forced to watch, and wrote a recantation. None the less he was taken from the Bocardo gaol at the Northgate on 21 March 1556 and also burnt to death.

The records of the City of Oxford show that the Bailiffs of the city petitioned the Archbishop of Canterbury for the payment of the expenses incurred in dealing with the three martyrs. Oxford had looked after the former Archbishop, Thomas Cranmer, well: his expenses included the cost of wine, figs, oysters, veal, and almonds, as well as his barber and laundry charges; but the last items on this list were the hundred wood faggots and 50 furze faggots that formed his living pyre….

The Prayer Book Society meets here every year on 21 March to remember the martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer: photographs of Thomas Cranmer Commemoration 2012

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Stephanie Jenkins

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