Last year I wrote a series of posts on memorialisation and history, inspired by my discovery of Exeter’s memorial to two sixteenth-century martyrs. I uncovered the story of the two local victims remembered on the monument, the life of its colourful creator, and I explored why commemoration of religious martyrs suddenly became widespread in nineteenth and twentieth-century England. Over the summer, free from the golden reins of teaching, I found myself in two locations that provided more pieces of the puzzle.
University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford
I was lucky enough to spend a week working in the Bodleian, and during a lunch break I took a tour around the University Church just opposite. In 1556 the church still functioned as a court and the first Protestant archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, was tried for heresy there by Mary Tudor’s Catholic government. Cranmer was one of the key architects of the early English Reformation, chiefly responsible for the 1549 and 1552 Books of Common Prayer – the latter was eventually the basis for the Elizabethan 1559 version. Cranmer refused to abjure his faith (technically he recanted, but then went back on his original recantation) and was burnt to death on Broad Street in Oxford, just round the corner from the church – and of course very close to the site of the Oxford Martyr Memorial today.
The University Church is also associated with many other significant moments in English religious history. In the 1730s and 1740s John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, preached many sermons there before denouncing the laxity and sloth of the senior members of the University from the pulpit – he wasn’t asked back. In the early nineteenth century, the Oxford Movement (sponsor of the Oxford Martyr Memorial, also known as the Tractarian movement) grew out of a series of sermons delivered in the church. The group of Oxford scholars behind the sermons desired to revive Catholic spirituality in the English Church, and the vicar of the church at the time, John Henry Newman, was one of the leaders of the Movement.
Unsurprisingly, this illustrious history has left its mark on the church building. Inside, I realised that the Oxford martyr memorial represented just one side in the battle of the monuments. The Oxford memorial had been erected by an anti-Oxford Movement group, determined to remind people of England’s bloody Catholic past. But inside the Church, a different narrative is promoted: John Henry Newman is himself commemorated on a stone plaque in the Chancel, erected to mark the centenary of Oxford Movement in 1933:
But if that was the last salvo in the battle for the hearts, minds and memories of the viewers of these lumps of stone, then yet another memorial perhaps represented the peace treaty. For in the nave a large, interdenominational monument is dedicated to all the martyrs of the Reformation, Catholic and Protestant:
The names represent men (no women) from very diverse backgrounds – Catholics that resisted Henry VIII’s break with Rome, Catholics that rebelled against the Protestant Edwardian regime, Protestant Marian martyrs like Cranmer, many Catholic priests executed during a period of intense persecution in the Elizabethan 1580s, Protestant Archbishop Laud, executed by Parliament during the English revolution of the 1640s, and even Stephen College, a victim of the Popish Plot of Charles II’s reign. (For fuller details on these men, see the end of the post). There is no date on the plaque but its appearance and irenic spirit give the impression that it is quite recent. The list of martyrs is comprehensive and inclusive, a modern monument to the human cost of religious reform as well as the extraordinary dedication that religion inspires.
St Catherine’s, Hoarwithy. My second discovery was rather more unexpected. In June I took an annual canoe trip down the River Wye, from Bredwardine to Symonds Yat. The trip takes four days, and on the second night we camped in a peaceful and isolated spot by the river, close to Hoarwithy. It was a clear summer’s evening so we took a wander up to St Catherine’s Church, a chapelry attached to the Hentland Parish Church. In the late nineteenth century the chapel was ‘beautified’ by the vicar of Hentland and the old chapel, allegedly a box like ‘ugly brick building’, was completely encased with local red sandstone. This transformed the edifice into the Italianate delight that you can see today, incorporating southern Italian Romanesque and Byzantine styles that make the chapelry quite unique. Given the architectural design that was settled on, I would imagine that the vicar, William Poole, strongly approved of the Oxford Movement’s attempts to ‘Romanise’ the Church of England. On a warm June evening, with swallows swooping in and out of the tower, and the shadows lengthening as the sun set on Wye valley, the result really is breath-taking.
The interior is no less impressive, with decorative sanctuary stalls topped with figures of local saints; lamps that are copies of those located in Saint Mark’s Cathedral, Venice; marble pillars; and a white marble altar with a golden mosaic in dome above. What I didn’t find out until I returned home and looked it up, was that the sanctuary stalls were carved by none other than Harry Hems, who was one of several skilled craftsmen bought in by the vicar to complete the chapelry’s interior. Hems was of course the master sculptor and wood carver responsible for the creation of the Exeter martyr memorial that inspired my original series of posts. Based in Exeter, he would have travelled some distance to work on St Catherine’s, so it was certainly a happy coincidence to stumble across more examples of his work in such salubrious surroundings, a long way from home.
- Monday: what we know about the two martyrs on Exeter’s monument.
- Tuesday: considers our main source of information about Tudor martyrs, John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, and it’s own role as a memorial to the past.
- Wednesday: explores other English examples of Protestant monuments to martyrs and asks when and why they were erected.
- Thursday: introduces the remarkable Harry Hems, designer of Exeter’s monument and an important collector of historical artefacts in his own right.
- Friday: concludes with some thoughts on the ways that objects and places are invested with meaning, and the relationship between space, memory and history.
- Appendix I: Jonathan jumps on the bandwagon with his own example of a similar monument in Norwich.
- Appendix II: further ‘monumental’ discoveries in Oxford and the Wye Valley.
 This post is in no way just an excuse for me to share my holiday pics.
The men listed on the plaque are:
- Thomas Marshall, Abbot of Colchester, resisted Henry VIII break with Rome, d. 1539.
- Edward Powell, Welsh Roman Catholic priest, resisted Henry VIII. d. 1540 – one of 3 Catholics and 3 Protestants who all suffered together.
- Thomas Bowldry, wealthy farmer, rebel executed by Edwardian Protestant regime, d. 1549.
- Henry Joys, vicar, rebel executed by Edwardian Protestant regime, d. 1549.
- James Webbe, vicar, rebel executed by Edwardian Protestant regime, d. 1549.
- Hugh Latimer, Protestant Bishop, executed by Marian Catholic regime, d. 1555.
- Nicholas Ridley, Protestant Bishop, executed by Marian Catholic regime, d. 1555.
- John Philpot, Protestant archdeacon, executed by Marian Catholic regime, d. 1555.
- Thomas Cranmer, Protestant archbishop, executed by Marian Catholic regime, d. 1556.
- Julins Palmer, Protestant, executed by Marian Catholic regime, d. 1556.
- John Story, Catholic MP and proctor at trial of Cranmer. Executed by Elizabethan Protestant regime, d. 1571 (Edmund Campion was present at his death at Tyburn).
- Cuthbert Mayne, Catholic priest, executed by Elizabethan Protestant regime, d. 1577.
- Edmund Campion, Catholic priest, executed by Elizabethan Protestant regime, d. 1581.
- Ralph Sherwin, Catholic priest, executed by Elizabethan Protestant regime, d. 1581.
- William Filbie, Catholic priest, executed by Elizabethan Protestant regime, d. 1582.
- Thomas Belson, Catholic priest, executed by Elizabethan Protestant regime, d. 1589.
- George Nichols, Catholic priest arrested with Pritchard and Yaxley (below), executed by Elizabethan Protestant regime, d. 1589.
- Humphrey Pritchard, Catholic laymen, executed by Elizabethan Protestant regime, d. 1589.
- Richard Yaxley, Catholic priest, executed by Elizabethan Protestant regime, d. 1589.
- Nicholas Owen, Jesuit lay brother, builder of priestholes, executed by Jacobean Protestant regime, d. 1606.
- George Napier, Catholic priest, executed by Jacobean Protestant regime, d. 1610.
- William Laud, Protestant Archbishop, executed by Protestant Long Parliament, d. 1645 (the Laudian style was a precursor to High Church Anglicanism. Laud’s works were published 1847-1860 by the Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology, closely associated with the Oxford Movement).
- Stephen College, Protestant, executed for high treason during the reign of Charles II (one of the victims of the Popish Plot), d. 1681.