Martyrs’ Memorial

Martyrs' Memorial

The Martyrs’ Memorial, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott and built of magnesium limestone, has stood as a focal point at the south end of St Giles since its completion in 1843, when it replaced “a picturesque but tottering old house”. It was modelled on the Waltham Cross.

The Martyrs’ Memorial was erected almost 300 years after the event it commemorates, and says as much about the religious controversies of the 1840s as those of the 1550s. It commemorates three Protestant martyrs (Cranmer, Ridley, and Latimer) who were burnt at the stake in Oxford in 1555.

The Memorial is Grade II* listed
(List Entry Number: 1107172)

The memorial had fallen into a poor state of repair by the beginning of the twentieth century, but thanks to a joint effort by Oxford City Council and the Oxford Preservation Trust it was fully restored in 2003.


Left: The memorial in 2003, standing incongruously amid the fun of St Giles Fair.

Martyrs' cross

In recent years an idea was mooted to move the Memorial to the west end of Broad Street, where this cross in the road (left) indicates the site of the ditch outside the city’s north gate where the three Protestant martyrs were burnt at the stake. But G. V. Cox wrote in his Recollections of Oxford (1868) that “It had been found impracticable to get a site in Broad Street, the actual scene of the martyrdom”, and the same is true today: so it remains where it has always been, counterbalancing the war memorial at the north end of St Giles.

Martyrs' Memorial c.1905
Reproduced from a F. Frith & Co postcard of 1922

Who were the Martyrs?

In 1553 when the Roman Catholic Queen Mary came to the throne, Thomas Cranmer (Archbishop of Canterbury), Nicholas Ridley (Bishop of London), and Hugh Latimer (Bishop of Worcester) were summoned to appear before a commission in the University 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 in the ditch outside the city wall. (The northern part of the city wall ran alongside St Michael at the Northgate Church.)

Archbishop Cranmer, who had been given longer to appeal, was forced to watch, and wrote a recantation. None the less on 21 March 1555/6 he was taken from Bocardo (the city gaol at the Northgate in Cornmarket) to the ditch 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 Archbishop, Cranmer well: his expenses included the cost of wine, figs, oysters, veal, and almonds, as well as his barber and laundry charges; but the macabre final items on this list were the hundred wood faggots and 50 furze faggots that formed his pyre….

On the Memorial, Cranmer faces north holding a Bible; Ridley faces east; and Latimer looks to the west, with his arms folded across his chest (views of the statues here).

Why was the Memorial erected?

In the 1840s the Anglican Low Church was profoundly alarmed at the burgeoning Newmanite or Tractarian movement, which sought to prove that the key doctrines of the Church of England were catholic. As a riposte, their Low Church opponents, led by the Reverend Golightly, raised funds for setting up the Martyrs’ Memorial to remind Oxford and the nation that the Church of England’s founding fathers had been martyred by Roman Catholics.

The inscription on the base reads:

“To the Glory of God, and in grateful commemoration of His servants, Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer, Prelates of the Church of England, who near this spot yielded their bodies to be burned, 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; this monument was erected by public subscription in the year of our Lord God, MDCCCXLI.”

A long report in Jackson's Oxford Journal of 15 April 1843 (p. 3) includes the following:


We understand that at the meeting of the General Committee, which was held in the Council Chamber, April 7, 1843, the Sub-Committee reported the completion of this tribute of public reverence to the faith and fortitude of the martyred Prelates, with the exception of the inscription, which is to be in bronze letters; the work has been brought to a conclusion honourable to all concerned in its design and execution; to Mr. Scott, the architect; to Mr. Henry Weeks (long the coadjutor of Sir Francis Chantrey), the sculptor of the statues; to Mr. Kirk, of Sleaford, Lincolnshire, the builder; to Mr. Cox, the skilful and ingenious clerk of the works and sculptor of the decorative devices); and to Mr. Charles Lindley (owner of the Mansfield Woodhouse quarry), who supplied that finely crystalized and magnesium limestone which has so largely contributed to the beauty and durability of the Memorial.

The solicitude felt by the public that the Martyrs should at length have a Memorial worthy of their heroic endurance of agony, has been shown in the amount of the money subscribed, 8,389l. 14s. which sum has been laid out upon the two component parts of this grateful commemoration, that is, upon the Martyrs’ Aisle attached to St. Mary Magdalene Church, and the Martyrs’ Memorial Cross, at the north end of its church-yard.

It is manifest that so costly a display of exquisite workmanship (in which there is so much of decoration and delicate carving in the detail) ought to be guarded from harm by a suitable fence — such a fence will cost 288l. It is also said that 188l. is still wanted to save the Committee from personal liabilities to this amount; the reasonableness or rather necessity of the fence, and the fairness of saving the Committee harmless, will readily induce not only the friends of the undertaking but the admirers of the work to contribute to the fulfilment of purposes so just and necessary.

This report is followed immediately by a long abstract of the instructions that had been given to the competing architects for the erection of the monument (which was now complete except for the fence). It was intended that it should look like the Waltham Cross, but without its “heavy and dwarfish appearance” and with the figures standing forth with more prominence.

The Martyrs' Memorial immediately became an important city landmark. Cuthbert Bede (in his novel The Adventures of Mr Verdant Green) wrote thus about it in 1853:

He who enters the city, as Mr Green did, from the Woodstock Road, and rolls down the shady avenue of St Giles’, between St John’s College and the Taylor Buildings, and past the graceful Martyrs’ Memorial, will receive impressions such as probably no other city in the world could convey.

Martyrs' MemorialImage dated 16 March 1842 by the engraver J. Newman of Budge Row, London (more information)

An earlier appeal for funds in 1949

Oxford, Vol. 10, no. 2 (1950):

But no lover of Oxford can have heard without concern, last summer, that the ravages, during more than a century, both of time and of undergraduate vandalism, have seriously impaired not only the beauty but the safety of the Memorial. A warning note had indeed been sounded nearly fifty years ago. In 1903 the Vicar and Churchwardens of St. Mary Magdalene, who are the trustees of the Memorial, spent £60 on urgent though minor repairs. Their architect then drew attention to a measure of crumbling and decay, which must inevitably increase in time. As for the vandalism, one night’s thoughtless Alpinism, last June, was responsible, in the opinion of the present architect, for over £20 worth of damage. More than £60 will be required to repair the injuries inflicted on it, on 5 November last, by a general mob, including undergraduates, younger townsfolk, and even visitors from London.

Obviously the cost of any substantial work of restoration must be beyond the means of the present Vicar and Churchwardens. It was with their ready support and goodwill that an appeal for a fund of £1,000 for this purpose was inaugurated in May 1949…. The May 1949 appeal had the whole-hearted support of the present Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the Bishop of Oxford, the Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, and High Steward of the University, the Lord Lieutenant of the County, and the Mayor of Oxford.

Today the traveller, the visitor, the inhabitant will see a memorial in sad deterioration; the figure of Cranmer is decrepit, the monument itself disfigured by decay. When fully restored, with its armorial bearings freshly coloured, it will again rejoice the eye and heart.

St Giles’ home

Stephanie Jenkins

Oxford History home