GALLING it must certainly have been these past 150 years or so for Catholics in Oxford.

The splendid Victorian Martyrs' Memorial, designed in high Gothic style by George Gilbert Scott in 1843, commemorating the three Protestant martyrs horribly executed by order of Catholic Mary I, stands proud and tall in St Giles, but nothing at all commemorates the equally horrible deaths of four Catholics condemned by Mary's Protestant half sister Elizabeth I.

Now Dr Joseph Shaw of St Benet's Hall, who last month led a procession through Oxford to commemorate the Catholic martyrs, tells me that Merton College has agreed in principle to put up a plaque on the site of their execution.

The four, the seminary priests Richard Yaxley and George Nichols, their gentleman helper Thomas Belson, and a Catholic inn servant, Humphrey Prichard, were all hanged, drawn and quartered 418 years ago this week on July 5. 1589.

Dr Shaw needs the permission of Merton to put up a plaque to mark the spot of the beastly deed as number 100 Holywell Street now stands there, its garden enclosed by a fragment of Oxford's old city walls; and it is the property of Merton.

At last month's march from St Michael at the North Gate, where the condemned four were kept in the adjoining Boccardo Prison (now demolished), to Holywell Street, modern Catholic priests said prayers around a model gallows.

Oxford, unlike Cambridge, was considered a hotbed of Catholicism when Elizabeth came to the throne.

A report from Oxford's mayor to the Privy Council dated 1561 read: "there are not three houses in Oxford that are not filled with Papists."

The four catholics commemorated last month were caught in the Catherine Wheel pub (after which presumably the firework is named); the place where the Gunpowder plot conspirators were caught 15 years later.

Richard Yaxley and George Nicols, a native of Oxford, were both undercover priests from the Catholic college of Douai, where such dedicated people were trained for the so-called English mission.

The other two, Thomas Belson and Humphrey Pritchard, apparently suffered death simply for being catholic and for helping the priests.

According to 18th-century catholic historian the Rt Rev Dr Challoner, Thomas Belson " was apprehended in the company of Mr. Nicols and Mr. Yaxley, examined both at Oxford and at London, and finally tried and condemned with them for his hospitality and charity to them; and God was pleased he should be their companion in death; for no sooner was Mr. Nicols and Mr. Yaxley dead, but Mr. Belson was also ordered up the ladder to finish his course.

"He first embraced the dead bodies of his pastors, which were then in quartering, and begged the intercession of their happy souls, that he might have the grace to imitate their courage and constancy."

Apart from these four martyrs, others captured in Oxfordshire included George Napier, executed in Oxford on November 9 1610, and Edmund Campion.

Campion was captured, thanks to the wiles of the head of Elizabeth's secret service, Sir Francis Walsingham, at Lyford, near Wantage, on July 17, 1581. He was dragged out of a priest hole in the house of a certain Mr Yates following a tip-off from someone called George Eliot, who was himself being investigated for murder.