Memorial and history, Part 3: in which Mary Beard sits on a bench

Laura Sangha

This is the third in a series of posts relating to Exeter’s martyr memorial. The first post, contains the details of the martyrs themselves, the second, is on John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments.

What I really wanted to know about Exeter’s martyr monument, was who paid for and created it – when was it erected, how and why? A third plaque on the memorial yielded some information:

To the glory of God & in honour of his faithful witnesses who near this spot yielded their bodies to be burned for love to Christ and in vindication of the principles of the Protestant Reformation this monument was erected by public subscription AD 1909. They being dead yet speak.

Thus the obelisk dates from the twentieth-century, which makes sense – the English Reformation was profoundly iconoclastic and it is hard to imagine money being spent on erecting monuments in an age when destruction of imagery was a mark of Protestant identity. In fact the image of Agnes Prest from the 1887 edition of Foxe that I mentioned prest and stonemasonin my previous post supports just this point. It depicts a visit that Prest paid to Exeter Cathedral, where she met a ‘cunning’ Dutch craftsmen who was apparently repairing the  images and sculptures that had been disfigured during the previous, iconoclastic reign of Edward VI. Prest supposedly said to the Dutchman ‘what a mad man art thou… to make them new noses, which within a few dayes shall all lose their heades’. In response to this rather prophetic prediction of further reform, the stonemason replied with a well thought out theological argument: ‘Thou art a whore!’. Quick as a flash, Prest replied ‘Nay, thy Images are whores, and thou art a whore hunter: for doth not God say you goe a whoring after straunge Gods, figures of your owne making?’ Contradicting his earlier narrative, Foxe went on to claim that it was this encounter that prompted the arrest of Prest for a second time. The episode is an intriguing little diversion, in which Protestants attack Catholic monuments in a book which is itself a monument.

By 1909 though, when Exeter’s monument was put in place, apparently it was considered safe for a community to create images of pious dead people. It’s fascinating that these long gone victims were considered important enough for folk in the early 1900s to voluntarily contribute money to a lasting memorial to them. It speaks volumes about the continuing importance of the Church in English society, civic pride, and communal identities. It also got me wondering – given that Foxe’s work provides so many details about Protestant martyrs, might it be possible that there were lots of similar memorials elsewhere in England? And if so, what might they tell us about why such monuments were erected at this time?


Andrew Lang, Oxford: Brief Historical and Descriptive Notes (1896).

The internet soon revealed the answer. I knew about the Oxford Martyrs’ Memorial commemorating the deaths of Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer in the reign of Mary I – it was completed in 1843. What I hadn’t realised was that this monument has its own fascinating history – it was part of the anti-Tractarian reaction against the Oxford Movement. The Oxford Movement originated in the 1830s in a group of High Church Anglicans whose churchmanship became known as ‘Anglo-Catholicism’ – they wanted to reincorporate traditional elements of late medieval Catholicism into the practices of the English Church. They were opposed by other elements in the Church of England who fiercely criticised the ‘Romanising’ tendencies of the Movement. It was this oppositional element who planned and raised the money for the Oxford memorial, and who placed it on a spot near where Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer had been burned – and of course in the Movement’s home territory.

An awful reminder of evil Catholic deeds.

An awe-ful reminder of evil Catholic deeds.

Thus I discovered that the monument was a statement of anti-Catholicism, financed by an Anglican element seeking to use the Church’s history to defend and shape its future. Hence my claim yesterday that Foxe’s book and martyr memorials are part of the same polemical narrative. The Oxford Monument commemorated the deaths of early English Protestants who had been brutally murdered by Roman Catholics. Like much commemoration, it was meant as a reminder to the ‘losers’ of history that they had lost, and by implication, that they were wrong. So perhaps this might explain the sudden appearance of martyr memorials in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many years after the events they commemorated – it was in part a response to religio-political developments, and was underpinned by that staple of post-Reformation English culture, anti-Catholicism. Foxe wrote his monument to establish the validity of the ‘novel’ Protestant religion against the corrupted Roman Catholic Church, this later monument was erected as a reassertion of those earlier principles.

Thomas_Harding_memorial          amersham obelisk

Further investigation took me to Amersham, a market town in the Chilterns, now part of the London commuter belt. There are several stones commemorating martyr Thomas Harding in the town, and his direct descendent in 1931 unveiled a monument to seven ‘Lollard’ martyrs who were burnt early in Henry’s reign, 1511-1521. And not only that, but Amersham also recently erected a slate plaque in the town square, marking the 500th anniversary of the first death, whilst three highly successful community plays have also been staged telling the martyrs’ stories. Organised in association with the local museum and presumably less partisan than earlier memorials, the plaque and plays suggest a community exploring and engaging with their past in an educational and creative way, though I’d be interested if any Catholics were involved in the productions…

Dartford's monument was opposed by a local Catholic priest.

Dartford’s monument was opposed by a local Catholic priest in the 1880s.

There is a plaque on the wall of St Bartholomew’s Hospital in Smithfield commemorating many Marian martyrs who were executed nearby – like the Amersham monument this was also erected by the Protestant Alliance, though much earlier, in 1870. To my shame, I also discovered that Kent has many similar memorials that I completely overlooked when growing up there. At Canterbury an impressive edifice to all Kentish martyrs can be found. In Dartford, where I went to school, a memorial was first erected on East Hill in 1850, but soon fell into disrepair. Subscriptions were raised for a new monument, and despite the local Catholic priest preaching a series of sermons against it, it was unveiled in 1888 by the Chairman of the Protestant Alliance. Not to be outdone, Cambridge also has a very modern monument to a local martyr, a, err… lovely park bench on Jesus Green, which Mary Beard discovered when she sat on it last year.

These examples suggest that there was a particular moment for the martyr monument (and if you have more I would be really interested to hear about them – you can leave them in the comment section below). It seems that these nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Protestant monuments emerged from a particular political moment, they were created by the Protestant Alliance and other anti-Tractarians because they believed that ‘the Roman Church was not content with equal rights but rather sought to make herself the National Church again’. But does the Exeter memorial fit with this?

I’ll be trying to answer that question tomorrow, when we meet the remarkable Harry Hems, designer of Exeter’s monument and an important collector of historical artefacts in his own right.

Update: Many thanks to Elizabeth Evenden for drawing my attention to the latest edition of the Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, which by strange coincidence is on exactly this topic: ‘Reinventing the Reformation in the Nineteenth Century: A Cultural History’. It looks like a great collection, and includes chapters on anti-Tractarians and illustrated editions of Foxe.

Find out more:

  • 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.
  • 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.

17 thoughts on “Memorial and history, Part 3: in which Mary Beard sits on a bench

  1. On twitter, Sara Barker has reminded me of the Martyrs’ Monument at St Andrews, completed in 1843. Although relating to the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the monument was also connected with contemporary developments within the Church – ongoing disagreements which culminated in the 1843 Disruption.

    • Many thanks for your comment, I think you are spot on. Elizabeth Evenden also mentioned that statues of important English churchmen were erected around the same time, and likewise fit into a similar pattern, thus these polemically inspired memorials came in all shapes, sizes and genres. I am intending to read the Rylands Bulletin so may be able to offer an update in the future.

  2. Pingback: Memorial and history, Part 4: in which several fights break out and a man is murdered in the Solomon Islands | the many-headed monster

  3. When I lived in Bristol I frequently passed a memorial tablet attached to the boundary wall of Cotham parish church at the top of St Michaels Hill, which commemorated Bristol’s Marian martyrs. The crest of the hill above St Michael’s-on-the-Mount-Without was clearly regarded as suitable for very visible public executions pour encourager les autres; I suspect that the early Victorian Highbury Congregational Chapel, now Cotham Church, was situated here precisely because of its historic associations.

    • Many thanks, that’s a great example, and as you will see anticipates several of the themes in the final post tomorrow. *spoiler* Cotham neatly demonstrates the appropriation and re-appropriation of the site by various different groups and their attempts to attach their own meanings to them.

  4. Remembering that there were martyrs in Coventry, Lollards circa 1512 -1520 and Protestants in mid-1550s, I checked out their memorial and it was erected in 1910, so a close contemporary of Exeter’s.

    • Thanks! The trend continues. I’ve got a feeling some of the streets in Coventry might be named after martyrs as well – I will have to look into it…

  5. And another example: Francis Young (on twitter) told me about the martyrs’ monument in Bury St Edmunds, and also a book on the same, Peter Wickins’ Victorian Protestantism and Bloody Mary.

  6. Pingback: Memorial and history, Part 5: in which history delivers a warning from history, and I talk about ‘feelings’ | the many-headed monster

  7. Pingback: Memorial and History, appendix i; in which Jonathan jumps on Laura’s bandwagon… | the many-headed monster

  8. Pingback: Memorial and history, Part I: in which two people meet a terrible end | the many-headed monster

  9. Pingback: Memorial and history, Part 2: in which John Foxe reveals his sources | the many-headed monster

  10. Pingback: Memorial and history, Part 4: in which several fights break out and a man is murdered in the Solomon Islands | the many-headed monster

  11. Pingback: Memorial and History: appendix ii, further discoveries | the many-headed monster

  12. Many thanks for this Laura, very interesting. On the Oxford memorial, Andrew Atherstone has shown that it was at least as much prompted by *Roman* Catholic assertiveness as by catholicising within the Church of England. (Journal of Ecclesiastical History 54;2). More recently, there’s a lot of interesting material in John Wolffe’s very new book for Bloomsbury on sacred and secular martyrdom since 1914, including the Amersham and Smithfield ones.

    Finally, another example for your list is in Lewes, one of several put up around the county by the Sussex Martyrs Commemoration Council. I wrote about it here:

    • Thanks – I really enjoyed your blog post which fleshes out a lot more of the detail, and I am hooked on the question: is a memorial that no one sees or notices actually a memorial? I don’t know of John Wolffe’s book so many thanks for that reference, I do remember seeing Andrew Atherstone talking about memorials at a conference a few years back and feeling pleased that someone was going to pulish on this, great.

      It’s abundantly clear that martyr plaques and obelisks are a really excellent example of the meanings and uses of memorials, and the dynamics at play when these things are commissioned and erected. All these examples surely show us that though we tend to think of people on pedestals as ‘great men’ (or far less often ‘great women’), the reality is that they are the result of a complex stew of motives, often political. They are not neutral statements of ‘fact’ but rather an argument that can be accepted or challenged.

      Historians at Exeter are hoping to collectively author something on statues soon, so more to follow!

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