On a gray wall of Oxford’s ancient castle, just a few streets from its bustling university, a melancholic plaque on the site of the medieval gallows honors one of Oxford’s many Catholic martyrs. 

When the memorial to Blessed George Napier (1550-1610) was unveiled last October, it marked the latest tentative move to set the historical record straight by ensuring martyrs from all Christian denominations were fairly acknowledged.  

Born in Oxford, Napier was expelled from Corpus Christi College for being a Catholic recusant, and returned to England as a secret missionary after training as a priest abroad. He was arrested at nearby Kirtlington after being informed on by a captured highwayman, and executed for his Catholic faith.  

Though Napier was beatified in 1929, the plaque is the first commemorating him in his hometown. 

“Many religious and political figures have long been honored by memorials in Oxford, but Catholics have until recently been left out,” said Joseph Shaw, a philosophy lecturer at the university’s Benedictine St. Benet’s Hall. “Fortunately, there’s greater awareness of the Catholic martyrs now and the atmosphere is changing. If we’re to be true to ourselves, we must understand and record our history properly.” 

Overlooked sacrifices 

While 40 English and Welsh Catholic martyrs have so far been canonized, hundreds more have been declared blessed by the Church, of whom at least 70 had direct Oxford links.  

They include St. Thomas More (1478-1536), beheaded for refusing to accept King Henry VIII’s break with Rome, who was chancellor of Oxford University, and the Jesuit St. Edmund Campion (1540-1581), a fellow of St. John’s College, who was hanged at Tyburn in London alongside St. Ralph Sherwin and St. Alexander Briant.  

History has nevertheless been dismissive of Oxford’s Catholic martyrs.  

The established Church of England ensured their fate was overshadowed by that of the city’s Protestant martyrs, 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 reimposition of Catholicism by Henry VIII’s daughter, Mary I.  

Cranmer and his companions had led England’s Protestant reforms, and were brought to Oxford for trial because the university was a center of theological learning. The spot where they were killed is still marked with a cross of bricks on Broad Street, in front of Balliol College. A memorial was unveiled to them on St. Giles Street in 1841, during opposition to the pro-Catholic Oxford Movement led by Blessed John Henry Newman (1801-1890). It declares the Protestants bore witness “to the sacred truths ... against the errors of the Church of Rome” — a reminder that the Church of England’s founders were martyred by a Catholic ruler. 

Anti-Catholic hostilities 

Father Bernard Green, a Catholic historian, thinks the traditional anti-Catholic feeling should be understood. 

The Protestant regime of Queen Mary’s half sister, Elizabeth I, which saw the return of persecution, was a fragile one, since the unmarried queen had no direct heir. Catholics were linked to several high-profile assassination plots, and there was a threat of invasion, blessed by the pope, who declared Elizabeth deposed in 1570.  

The sinking of the Spanish Armada in 1588 defused the immediate dangers. But with the practice of Catholicism now declared illegal, being a priest and saying Mass became treasonable offenses. It was natural that those apprehended would be suspected of political conspiracy.  

Even so, Father Green believes the time has come for greater fairness.  

“The most serious opposition Elizabeth faced both at home and abroad was indeed Catholic, so we can appreciate why her government was worried about Catholics,” he said. “But the great majority of Catholics weren’t politically involved at all — this has a been a precondition for their honoring by the Church. There was also a religious fervor behind the hostility to Catholicism and the determination to eradicate it.” 

Better ecumenical climate 

Research by Catholic historians such as Eamon Duffy has opened up a new debate about England’s Protestant Reformation, and raised questions about the pro-Anglican perspectives that have traditionally dominated the teaching of English history.  

Father Timothy Radcliffe, a popular Dominican theologian, feels an improved ecumenical climate has made Catholic-Anglican discussions about the past a lot easier. 

“The fact that we now have no serious prospect of union is paradoxically making us more relaxed,” said Father Radcliffe, whose Catholic Blackfriars Hall sits alongside colleges belonging to Anglicans, Baptists and other denominations. 

“Since the differences are clear, we can relax in each other’s company now more than was sometimes the case.”  

Facing realities of past 

Shaw agreed, but he thinks the past should be studied accurately, without attempting to ignore realities.  

The motives of Protestants and Catholics were generally quite different, Shaw told OSV.  

Whereas zealous Protestants saw Catholics as idolators, whose acts of worship had to be suppressed to allay God’s anger, most Catholics made no such claims against Protestants and only wanted to worship in private. Those involved in conspiracies were only a tiny minority and have never been recognized as martyrs by the Church.  

“To suggest there’s a moral equivalence between them, and that all should be treated equally, is a historical falsification — this isn’t the way to seek an honest accounting with the past,” said Shaw.  

“But it’s important that much of the heat has now gone out of our past conflicts, and that we’re no longer so dominated here by an Anglican and Protestant view of history. Places of martyrdom have a special significance for Catholics — it’s essential they can now be appropriately marked and commemorated.” 

As history touches the present, few doubt the scars of past brutalities will still take time to heal, but that the contribution of Catholic martyrs to making Oxford a great center of Christian learning will eventually be recognized and understood.  

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Poland.Malgorzata Glabisz-Pniewska contributed to this story.

Oxford's Catholic History (sidebar)

Unlike Cambridge, Oxford was a hotbed of dissident Catholicism. In 1549, when attempts were made to impose a Protestant Book of Common Prayer, the Reformation changes were supported by only two of the 13 heads of colleges. Many Catholics were killed during ensuing riots, while recalcitrant Catholic priests were hanged from their church spires in nearby Chipping Norton and Bloxham. 

A decade later, when a team of royal commissioners visited Oxford to impose Queen Elizabeth I’s Acts of Uniformity and Supremacy, Catholic students were said to have been imprisoned “in great numbers.” Despite this, a report to the Privy Council warned that “there are not three houses in Oxford that are not filled with Papists.” There would be many later tales of Catholic defiance. 

When a chapel was dedicated to St. Ignatius in 1795, it was the first legal Catholic place of worship in Oxford for well over two centuries. A Catholic Emancipation Act removed other restrictions in 1829; but all students were still required to be practicing Anglicans. Only in 1895 were Catholic students finally allowed to enroll openly at Oxford University.