‘Heresy’ rejected as obstacle to new martyrs’ memorial

13 August 2008

by Shiranikha Herbert, Legal Correspondent

THERE is no reason why those who died for their faith in the 16th and 17th centuries should not have a memorial in the University Church — even if they were executed as heretics or traitors, the Oxford Chancellor has ruled.

The Chancellor, Rupert Bursell, in the Consistory Court of Oxford, granted a faculty for the erection of a memorial in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, to commem­orate both Catholics and Protestants from the University and Oxfordshire who died for their faith as a result of the rupture of the Western Church during the Reformation.

The proposal to erect such a mem­orial originally came from Diar­maid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University. The proposal was warmly received by the Vicar and the PCC. The PCC resolved unanimously to place the proposed memorial above the choir stalls.

During the Reformation disputes Roman Catholics killed Protestants, Protestants killed Roman Catholics, and, in the case of William Laud and Stephen College, two of those to be commemorated, Protestants also killed Protestants. Professor MacCulloch said that humble people, as well as dons and great clergymen, had died, many of whose names were unknown.

The memorial sought to com­mem­orate them all, “from Oxford­shire parish priests who were hanged for leading the people in protest against Edward VI’s Reformation, to a carpenter who built hiding places for Catholic priests, to Protestants who pro­claimed their faith in the face of Queen Mary’s move to restore the old faith to England.”

The memorial was designed by Martin Jennings, and cost £18,000. It contains the names of 23 people who died between 1539 and 1681. Above the names are the words (in capitals): “Remember the martyrs of the Reformation both Catholic and Protestant who lived in Oxfordshire taught at the University of Oxford or were brought here for execution.” Beneath the names are the words (also in capitals): “Those whose names are known stand for all who suffered”.


At the specific time of his death, each of those commemorated, whether by name or otherwise, was sentenced to death because his beliefs were regarded as heretical. Heresy was a “theological or religious opinion or doctrine in opposition, or held to be contrary, to the orthodox”. During the English Reformation, what was perceived as “orthodox” at any particular time depended upon which religious opinion, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant, was then dominant. Under the canon law of the Western Church, heretics could not be buried in consecrated ground, nor could they be prayed for. The Chancellor said that if a person could not be prayed for, or buried in consecrated ground, it was difficult to see how that same heretic could be commemorated in a church.

During the Reformation the law was seen also as forbidding burial to a heretic, even if he or she had not been formally excommunicated by the court. That was altered by Canon 68 of the 1603 Canons. Exclusion from holy com­munion was known as lesser excom­munication, and dif­fered from greater excommunica­tion, which was the sentence of an ecclesiastical court.

In relation to heretics, the pro­visions of ecclesiastical law altered after the promulgation of the 1603 Canons, as they required a sentence of greater excommunication to be pronounced before burial should be refused. It was greater excommunica­tion only that deprived a person of the benefit of “the society and conversation of the faithful”.

Excommunication was no longer a sentence that could be passed by an ecclesiastical court, as the disciplin­ary jurisdiction over the laity could be enforced in exceptional circum­stances only, and so far as the clergy were concerned did not include pass­ing a sentence of excommunication.

The Chancellor said that there was no evidence that any of those it was sought to commemorate were the subject of greater excommunication at the time of their death. Bearing in mind, the Chancellor said, that the consistory court was a church court, it seemed clear that the question should be approached with charity, and that innocence in that regard should be presumed until proven to the contrary.

That approach was reflected in the fact that both before and after the Reformation the Church was pre­pared to grant commissions not only to bury persons who had died ex­commun­icate, but, in some cases, also to absolve them in order to permit Christian burial.

In the light of all those matters, and in spite of the fact that some of the amendments of the ancient law came into force only in the middle of the period covered by the proposed memorial, the Chancellor concluded that there could be no good reason why the commemoration should be refused on the grounds of any so-called heretical beliefs or opinions.


The consideration of the petition also included consideration of the fact that some, at least, of those who died were killed as a result of the perception that they were traitors, and that their commemoration in the church would be inappropriate.

The Chancellor, however, drew attention to the calendar to the Alternative Service Book 1980, in which 6 July was set to be observed among the “lesser festivals and commemorations” in memory of Thomas More, Martyr. Thomas More was executed for treason, and was never pardoned.

The July date was now set as a commemoration for “Thomas More, Scholar, and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, Reformation Martyrs, 1535”. In addition, 4 May was set as a lesser festival for “English Saints and Martyrs of the Reformation Era”. The commemoration of Thomas More suggested that the lesser festival also embraced RC martyrs.

The Chancellor concluded that the description of a Roman Catholic as a martyr was fully endorsed, and also that the commemoration of Thomas More, even though he had been executed for treason, was not only permitted by the calendar as a commemoration of a lesser festival in the Church, but that to do so was not contrary to the doctrine of the Church of England. That was so in spite of the fact that the Church of England was “established according to the laws of . . . the realm under the Queen’s Majesty”.

Professor MacCulloch, and Dr Peter Sherlock of the University of Melbourne also drew attention to the fact that not only was Thomas More commemorated in Chelsea Old Church, but Oliver Cromwell’s head was entombed in the chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge; and Mary, Queen of Scots, was both buried and commemorated in Westminster Abbey.

In consideration of all those cir­cum­­stances, the Chancellor granted the faculty, and the mem­orial has now been erected at the church.

Forthcoming Events

16-18 February 2018
Church Times Festival of Faith & Literature

Our literary festival with a theological slant in Bloxham, Oxfordshire. Speakers include Francis Spufford, Ruth Valerio, Eve Poole, Mark Oakley, James Runcie and many others. Find out more

5-6 May 2018
Church Times Festival of Poetry
With Sarum College, Salisbury. More details coming soon - register your interest here

The Church Times Podcast

The Church Times Podcast, hosted by Tim Wyatt and Ed Thornton, features a mixture of interviews and news analysis. Listen online

Subscribe now to get full access

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read seven articles each month for free.