illustration of broad street

The Broad Street Martyrs

As the weather improves, many of us find it hard to draw ourselves away from the city’s sunny streets. Broad street is a popular choice, and ‘there is a simple joy in the communal space it becomes at lunchtime’, says a friend of mine. If you are lucky enough to find a bench, you can enjoy a coffee and catch some sun, in what feels like ‘the heart of Oxford’, says another. 

Even the deeply tragic Jude Fawley, of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, seems to enjoy the street’s ambience and centrality, thinking it the perfect spot for his first meeting with his love-interest, Sue. As it transpires, this was a miscalculation, and she refuses to approach him –  ‘I’m not going to meet you just there […] the place you chose was so horrid’. She is preoccupied by a mark on the floor, ‘gloomy and inauspicious in its associations’, that many of us would not have noticed. After all, it is rare, in the city of spires, that we think to look down. 

For if we did, with Sue’s keen-eye, we might notice a simple cobbled-cross set into the tarmac, just outside Balliol. It was near this spot that in 1555 and 1556 the ‘Oxford Martyrs’,  prominent Protestant bishops Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and Thomas Cranmer, were burnt ‘for their faith’. The cross-proximate to the site where workmen uncovered remnants of a stake, and some charred bone – once noticed, is hard to overlook. 

By the time Latimer, former Bishop of Worcester, went to the stake, he was 70 years old. He made little effort to style himself as either bishop or martyr, choosing to meet the crowds in simple, threadbare clothes, appearing ‘a withered and crooked silly old man’. Yet, in preparing himself for the pyre and stripped to only a shroud, he ‘now stood bolt upright, as comely a father as one might lightly behold’.

Two long years of imprisonment in Oxford’s Bocardo Prison had not sapped the prisoners’ resolve – they had spent their time penning letters of encouragement to their supporters, and continuing their theological scholarship. Ridley, the most dedicated to these efforts, saw their prison-work as essential to maintaining the Protestant faith and to restoring ‘again the lantern of this world’. They would carry this devotional flame to the stake. In their final moments, Latimer exhorted his companion to ‘be of good comfort’, reminding him that they ‘shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace in England, as I trust shall never be put out’. It is said that the horror of the event converted Julius Palmer, a fellow at Magdalen, who would be martyred a year later. 

Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, and thus a high-stakes prisoner, could not be tried as easily. His office meant he was legatus natus (born legate), and so required a papal commission to judge him. This might have bought him a year, but the psychological impact of seeing his friends burned, combined with the effective solitary confinement of his cell, had weakened Cranmer, and he spent his final year trying to appeal his sentence.

He pursued this to the extent of recanting his protestant faith, but this could not sway the Marian court, and he was condemned in March. Led across Oxford for the last time, from University Church to the cross-mark’s north-gate ditch, Cranmer denounced the Pope, expressing deep regret of his recantation and pledging himself to his Protestant cause. Stretching his right arm into the fire, he proclaimed that ‘this hand hath offended’ for signing his renunciation. 

Our history proves, time and time again, that we have never been a people to give up on our principles.

On the 21st of March, The Prayer Book Society re-traced Cranmer’s final steps in a white-robed procession swerving benches of tourists. They stop first at the cross, before heading around the corner, onto St Giles to place a wreath on the Martyr’s Memorial. The memorial, crowned by stone figures of the three martyrs, was, for a time, a topic of great debate within the University. Denounced by Edward Pusey as planned ‘only to serve a party purpose’, the monument was the dividing issue of mid-19th century conversation, understood as having an anti-Tractarian purpose.

When a memorial committee was finally set up in 1838, some still remained concerned that its construction would disturb ‘an evil Reformation spirit’ in the community, agitating confessional divides. Despite complaints, it was erected in 1841, and in 2002, the council, whose coffers had, at one point, maintained the high-profile prisoners, would invest £52,000 into the restoration of the monument. 

This episode attests to Oxford’s long history of protest. This past should not be lost on us. We should remember the Oxfordshire rising of 1596, which took a stand against austerity and Enclosure Acts, and the ‘Campaign Atom’ protestors who descended on Bonn Square demanding an end to America’s bombing of Libya while ‘fully [expecting] to be arrested’. 

Today, we may draw parallels with the OxAct4Pal encampments. Our history proves, time and time again, that we have never been a people to give up on our principles. Ridley and Latimer’s candle burns on, as we prove yet again that we are prepared to stretch our hand into the flame, and hold to our beliefs.

Image credit: Eva Price