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Time to reconsider the Reformation martyrs

by
06 January 2017

Despite a century of ecumenical co-operation, some historical divisions still need healing, says Jonathan Luxmoore

ALAMY

Bearing witness: the Martyrs’ Memorial in the centre of Oxford

Bearing witness: the Martyrs’ Memorial in the centre of Oxford

WHEN Pope Francis was in Sweden in the autumn, helping to prepare for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, he spoke of the “ecumenism of blood” shared by Churches from past persecutions (News, 4 November).

Such words could be taken to heart in Britain, as we reflect on the mutual sufferings inflicted here, too, by the Reformation. As Brexit forces us to reflect on our place in the world, and what unites us, it will be worth looking at the sectarian habits that, despite a century of ecu­menical co-operation, still affect us.

Since the 1970s, Anglican and Roman Catholic historians have made strides towards a more bal­anced view of the Reformation. Scholars such as Christopher Haigh and Eamon Duffy have questioned the motives behind the embrace of Protestantism in England, and how far it reflected popular feeling. They have been challenged by the likes of Diarmaid MacCulloch, who has sought to demonstrate why Pro­t­estantism naturally belonged here.

Questions have been raised about the Anglican perspectives that traditionally dominate the teaching of English history. We know now that the 1559 Settlement was by no means the end of the Reformation process here, and that the destruc­tion of monasteries, lib­raries, and artworks was indeed calamitous.

Protestants and Catholics both inflicted and suffered appalling cruelties, and few today would dare to justify the violent measures used. The truth in all its complexity has begun to be told more openly.

 

AT A practical local level, how­ever, we still seem to be lagging behind, often through a weak know­ledge of facts and a poor grasp of their implications. This is graph­ically illustrated in Oxford, which bore the brunt of Reforma­tion harsh­ness. The university had had a mission to train priests and teachers for the Catholic Church. But it became Protestant during the reign of Henry VIII, excluding other confes­sions until the 19th century.

This helps to explain why the only Reformation victims officially commemorated in the city were the Protestant bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, and Arch­bishop Thomas Cranmer of Canter­bury, who were burned at the stake here in 1555 and 1556, during the brief reimposition of Catholicism under Mary I. The site of their deaths is famously marked by a cross of slabs on Broad Street, and an ornate memorial unveiled in 1841 during opposition to the Oxford Move­ment.

However, while Oxford Uni­versity’s on­e-time Chancellor, St Thomas More (1478-1536), is re­­vered by all Churches, com­para­t­ively little attention has been paid to dozens of other Roman Catholic martyrs connected with the city — some of whom, such as St Edmund Campion (1540-81), a Fellow of St John’s College, were prominent at the time.

The lingering anti-Catholic legacy in Oxford is understandable. Unlike Cambridge, it remained a hotbed of dissident Catholicism throughout the 16th century. In 1549, when attempts were made to impose the Book of Common Prayer, it was approved by only two of the 13 heads of colleges, and sparked a rebellion throughout the county, during which the Vicar of nearby Chipping Norton, Henry Joyes, was hanged in chains from his own church tower.

A decade later, when royal com­missioners visited Oxford to impose Elizabeth I’s Acts of Uniformity and Supremacy, local Catholics were said to have been imprisoned “in great numbers”. And when Roman Catholic practices were declared illegal and treasonable after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the Thames Valley became a hotbed of recusancy.

The city’s oldest inn, the Mitre, which dates from the 13th century, hosted secret masses in its vaults; and in 1605, the Gunpowder Plot conspirators were found to have met in the Catherine Wheel Inn, another Roman Catholic safe house.

While the university remained Royalist when civil war erupted in the 1640s, serving as headquarters for Charles I, the rest of the city backed Cromwell’s Parliamen­tarians; and when it was captured, books, pictures, and other objects associated with recusancy were burned in the streets.

Even after the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act, Oxford students were still required to be practising Anglicans until the 1890s, when the Jesuit Campion Hall and Benedic­t­ine St Benet’s were founded, and Roman Catholics allowed to enrol.

 

PROMINENT Roman Catholics have been reluctant to highlight historical injustices, perhaps for fear of drawing attention to their Church’s once distrusted image as a “foreign mission”. It took until 2008 for a tiny wall plaque to be installed on Holywell Street in memory of four Roman Catholics — Thomas Belson, Humphrey Prichard, and the priests Richard Yaxley, and George Nichols — who were hanged, drawn, and quartered there in 1589, and beatified as martyrs in 1987; and until 2010 for a tablet to commemo­rate Blessed George Napier (1550-1610), who was ex­­ecuted similarly in Oxford Castle.

Napier was expelled from Corpus Christi College for being a recusant, and then later returned to England as a secret missionary, after having been ordained abroad.

“The priest’s head and quarters were set upon the four gates of the city,” one chron­icler recounted, “and upon that great one be­long­ing to Christ Church next to St Aldate’s, to the great terror of the Catholics then in and near Oxford.” Even then, no official Anglican repre­se­n­t­atives attended the plaque un­­veil­ings, or joined a pilgrim­age in memory of Oxford’s Roman Ca­tholic victims.

People such as Napier were, of course, far less well known than Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer — although some Catholic victims, such as the Blessed John Story (1504-71), the Regius Professor of Civil Law, who was kidnapped from the Netherlands and executed at Tyburn, were prominent nation­ally.

 

DEFINITIONS and understandings of martyrdom also differ between the Churches, particularly when those in question did their own share of persecuting. Roman Catho­lics, who hold a notion of martyr­dom that emphasises its sacra­mental place in defending divine truth, may have doubts about whether the highly politicised Cranmer properly qual­ifies as a martyr.

Anglicans, in turn, may have doubts about the pugnacious Story, who had earlier helped to root out Protestants, and acted as a pro­s­ecutor at Cranmer’s trial. Not all Christian victims of persecution necessarily suffered “in odium fidei” — out of hostility for the faith.

When, in a conciliatory gesture, a memorial was dedicated in 2009 to 23 Catholic and Protestant “Martyrs of the Reformation” in the Uni­­ver­sity Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, some observers com­­­­­­­plained that this was mis­conceived.

Some of the Roman Catholics who were listed, they argued, had supported armed resistance, and were not recognised as martyrs even by their own Church, while most of those commemorated would not have wished to be placed alongside their opponents. To declare them equal and reconciled centuries later relativised and trivialised their con­victions and testimonies.

 

AS WE approach the 500th an­­niversary of the Reformation, these stories still matter. Beliefs and practices may have changed greatly in all Churches, while the secular indifference of contemporary soc­i­ety has brought Christians into closer co-operation. Anglicans and Roman Catholics, whatever their continued differences, are now good friends and neighbours. And yet many historical divisions still need to be healed, while Christians will always have a duty to seek charity and mercy for victims of injustice.

In other European countries, a single Church emerged victorious where the Anglican ascendancy re­­mained contested by Roman Catholics and Noncon­formists. So religious conflicts dragged on, and still have echoes today.

The Reformation era, meanwhile, coincided with the development of England as a nation-state, with modern institutions of governance and economy, as well as links with Europe and emerging notions of freedom, representation, and law. All of these, and the religious conflicts that helped to shape them, remain important subjects of debate today.

Anglicans and Roman Catholics could respond to all this by foster­ing a more objective, non-sectarian view of the past in England, pres­sing for the updating of guidebooks in cities such as Oxford, and criticising histories that ignore sign­ificant parts of the factual record. They could also appoint historians and theologians in ecumenical partner­ships to study the motivations and agendas of either side.

While 4 May is already marked by both Churches as a day of Reformation martyrs, the Church of England could also adjust its lec­tionary to include something more incisive than the current pious hope that “those who have been divided on earth may be reconciled in heaven”.

It could also consider updating its liturgical calendar, which com­memorates Charles I and Sts Thomas More and John Fisher, but could similarly acknowledge other Reformation victims, whose “historical character and devotion” are now, in the words of a 1958 Lambeth Conference resolution, “beyond doubt”.

The ornate Martyrs’ Memorial in Oxford was expensively renovated for the Millennium, and declares that Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer died “bearing witness to the sacred truths which they had affirmed and maintained against the errors of the Church of Rome”. The fateful inscription, which was said to be a reason why Pope Benedict XVI declined to visit the city in 2010, recalls the deadly seriousness with which such issues were once treated.

Today, when Oxford teems with students and academics from all over the world, it deserves to be matched with more sympathetic, tolerant, and enlightened attitudes.

 

Jonathan Luxmoore’s study of Communist-era martyrs, The God of the Gulag, was published by Gracewing in 2016.

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