In December 2018, our family visited Oxford UK. Here are some sights that are especially important for Reformation history.
The Divinity School
The Divinity School of the Old Bodleian Library is known by Harry Potter movie fans as the Hogwarts Infirmary. In real life, its history is far more interesting. It was the site where in 1554 the Protestant reformers Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley were taken by the newly ascendant Catholic authorities to take part in theological “disputations”. These disputations weren’t just simple scholarly debates. Each of the three men had suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of the political and religious sensibilities of the time; each of them was inevitably found guilty of heresy; and each of them was eventually burned at the stake for holding on to the gospel truths to which they were committed.
(Entry cost for a family of 5 was £3.50)
Christ Church College in Oxford has provided scenery for several Harry Potter movie settings, e.g. the Hall, Stairway, and Cloisters. The church itself is also a significant site for English Reformation history. Peter Martyr Vermigli served as Regius Professor of Divinity and then Cathedral Canon during the reign of Edward VI. It’s also the site where Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley were initially tried for heresy under the reign of Mary I (1553-1558), and where Cranmer was stripped of his Archbishop status and mocked.
(Entry cost for a family of 5 was £27)
University Church of St Mary the Virgin
In the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, there’s a pillar with a small section cut away. It was here that Cranmer sensationally reaffirmed the Protestant doctrines which he had previously recanted under duress. A plaque on the pillar reads:
Archbishop Cranmer and Bishops Ridley and Latimer were twice tried for heresy in St Mary’s church during Catholic Queen Mary’s attempt to reverse the Reformation. Ridley and Latimer were burned at the stake in 1555: Cranmer then recanted. In 1556 he was again brought to St Mary’s: this pillar had been cut away[*] to allow the building of a low platform from which he was to make his submission. At the last moment he withdrew his recantation. He walked from the church to the fire with a firm step and smiling countenance, putting first into the flame the hand with which he had signed his recantation.Plaque, ‘The Oxford Martyrs’, in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, quoted 2018.
* A church guide told us that according to the latest scholarly research, the cutting probably wasn’t made just to build the platform. It’s too neatly cut for the rushed events of the time. It was raining that day, so they hurriedly chose an indoor location for Cranmer’s submission. Most likely the pillar had already been cut away for another purpose and formed a convenient ledge to place the platform.
There were a couple of significant moments for us as we were looking at this place.
As we finished taking photos of the pillar, a service of Holy Communion started up in the church. The minister was saying a modern form of words from the prayer book that has been said for almost 500 years–words written by Thomas Cranmer himself. These were words of comfort, hope, and assurance of forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ and his death on the cross. How amazing that Cranmer’s words of gospel truth are still being spoken, even in the very place that he took his final, immensely costly stand for that gospel!
Right in front of the pillar and the picture of Cranmer was a little stand where people could pay a pound to light a candle. According to various signs we’ve seen in historic churches like this throughout the UK, lighting a candle is supposed to be a sign of prayer (some churches say it’s actually a prayer). We thought it was both sad and disturbing that money was being charged directly to pray about (or for?) a man who had stood for the free forgiveness of sins and access to God through Jesus Christ! Donating funds for the necessary upkeep of historic buildings is one thing, but to have these charges linked directly to religious acts is something else!
(This is an active church and entry is free; visitors might like to check out the gift shop or donate directly to help the upkeep of the building)
We found it partly covered by a Christmas market stall selling handbags and coats: the cross in cobbles marking the spot where three key figures in the English Reformation were burned to death (The “Oxford Martyrs”). Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London and Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Gloucester died on 16 Oct 1555. Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury died on 21 March 1556. Cranmer had originally recanted his Protestant convictions after being made to watch the execution of his friends. But five months later, after great anguish, he rallied and publicly withdrew the recantation. He was then led off to his execution. The place of execution was in a field which is now Broad Street, Oxford. The cobbled cross was placed there in the nineteenth century after workers discovered the remains of a stake and pieces of charred bone.
If I were to have a hero, it would be Thomas Cranmer. A priest and scholar made Archbishop of Canterbury in a politically volatile time, he grasped with heart and mind the great biblical truths that had been recovered and clarified through the Protestant Reformation. He knew that we are justified only by faith in Jesus Christ, that all people need to hear and believe the life-giving words of Scripture for salvation, and that Christ truly comes to us by his Spirit, through faith in his word. Working under and (amazingly) through his overbearing and unstable patron Henry VIII, Cranmer sought to implant these gospel truths deeply into English church life, weaving them into the very fabric of its regular worship. He was human and fallible; he inevitably made mistakes, and in weakness and under duress, he wavered. Of course, there must also have been many times when he was brave and strong. But he was not justified by bravery, or strength, or cleverness. He was justified only by faith in Jesus Christ. And he went to his death in full assurance of that faith.
There is also a more official nineteenth century memorial around the corner on Magdalen St.
The monument reads:
TO THE GLORY OF GOD
AND IN GRATEFUL COMMEMORATION OF HIS SERVANTS
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
Some other places
Most of the sites we visited are described in a great little booklet by Julia Cameron calledOxford and Cambridge Reformation Walking Tour (Dictum 2018). The book was lent to us by my friend and colleague Mark Earngey. There are a few other sites in the booklet that we didn’t get around to seeing but would have been worthwhile if we had more time, including Carfax, St Edmund Hall, and St Michael at the North Gate.
I also visited the John Wesley Room in Lincoln College. It’s a restoration of Wesley’s original room, and is still used as a tutorial room today.
We had lunch in the Eagle & Child pub, which was frequented by JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis.
And we had coffee in the Queen’s Lane Coffee House, which claims to be the oldest established coffee house in Europe.