Saints of the Week: Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley

The Martyrs’ memorial, Oxford (my photo)

This week’s saints are for those of you who perhaps feel a certain lack of things non-Patristic of late, and those who may unreasonably fear my turning Orthodox or Papist (which, in some circles, is thought almost worse than being an atheist).

Bishops Latimer and Ridley will be commemorated this coming week on the anniversary of their death at the stake, 17 October 1555, in Oxford.

Ridley was a Northumbrian, taught grammar at Newcastle, then studied at Pembroke College in Cambridge where he was awarded his Master’s degree in 1525. After his ordination to the priesthood, did further study at the Sorbonne, Paris. In 1529 he returned to England; 1534 saw him senior proctor of Cambridge University. His ecclesiastical career under Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (saint of the week here) and Kings Henry VIII (he’ll never be saint of the week) and Edward VI (not sure if he stands a chance given the sea of truer saints out there) led him to become a chaplain to the King  in 1541, then Bishop of Rochester in 1547, then was translated to the vacant see of London in 1550.

Like many reformers, Ridley was a preacher. According to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs:

To his sermons the people resorted, swarming about him like bees, coveting the sweet flowers and wholesome juice of the fruitful doctrine, which he did not only preach, but showed the same by his life, as a glittering lanthorn to the eyes and senses of the blind, in such pure order that his very enemies could not reprove him in any one jot.

Ridley represents the wing of Anglicanism (which would ultimately win, although is under threat in Australia and possibly some African places), in the Vestments Controversy of 1550-3, that things that are adiaphora — not central to the faith, but matters of indifference regarding salvation and polity — are not to be stripped away willy-nilly. In a controversy with John Hooper, who took a more continental, Reformed line (influenced by Zwingli, not likely to ever be saint of the week either), he said that, even if vestments be adiaphora, the King and Bishops could require people to wear them, and choosing not to is disobedience. Basically.

It’s always more complicated than that.

In 1553, Edward VI died. Ridley was involved in orchestrating the accession of Lady Jane Grey to the throne, signing the letters patent giving her the throne, as well as preaching a sermon claiming Mary and Elizabeth both bastards.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Queen Mary had him burned at Oxford in 1555 — not only was he a Protestant and she a Catholic, he had been involved in conspiracy to prevent her accession to the throne.

Latimer Preaching, from Foxe’s Book, 1563

Hugh Latimer was from Leicester, and entered Cambridge University at age 14. 2 February, 1510, he was elected a Fellow of Clare College. 1514 he was awarded his Master of Arts, and 1515 he was ordained priest; in 1524, he was awarded his Bachelor of Divinity, his disputation for which was a refutation of Reformation doctrines.

However, one Thomas Bilney heard Latimer preaching against the Reformers and went to confess his own Reformation ways to this university chaplain. Latimer was moved by Bilney and began to move towards a more Protestant direction in his belief. He got involved with Bilney and others calling for Reform, including the call for an English Bible. This could have got him into more trouble, but at just this moment Henry VIII got himself a new Archbishop of Canterbury in Thomas Cranmer to get himself an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

1535 saw Latimer Bishop of Worchester, preaching reform and iconoclasm. But in 1539, he was opposed to Henry VIII’s anti-Reform Six Articles, so was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

He found himself in better favour under Edward VI, being a court preacher until 1550. From 1550-3, he was chaplain to Katherine Duchess of Suffolk. Under Queen, Latimer, like Ridley, was arrested — unlike Ridley and Cranmer, he was not involved in any conspiracies against the new monarch.

Trial and Death of the Oxford Martyrs

Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer were taken to Oxford where they were to engage in a disputation on the faith. Latimer was by now quite aged, and provided his declaration in writing. His prayer was, in the words of Foxe, ‘that he might stand faithful to the doctrine he had professed, that God would restore his Gospel to England once again, and preserve the Lady Elizabeth to be queen.’

All these would be granted, but Latimer would not live to see it.

The cross marks the spot where Latimer and Ridley were burned

The result of the disputation at Oxford was, naturally enough, that Latimer and Ridley were heretics in contravention of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Cranmer initially recanted, however (ever the politician?). They were to be burned at the stake in front of Balliol College, at the north end of the city.

Foxe relates the following about Nicholas Ridley:

Dr. Ridley, the night before execution, was very facetious, had himself shaved, and called his supper a marriage feast; he remarked upon seeing Mrs. Irish (the keeper’s wife) weep, “Though my breakfast will be somewhat sharp, my supper will be more pleasant and sweet.”

As they were burned at the stake, Latimer is reputed to have said:

Be of good cheer, Ridley; and play the man. We shall this day, by God’s grace, light up such a candle in England, as I trust, will never be put out.

This echoes the Martyrdom of Polycarp (which both Latimer and Foxe undoubtedly knew). When Polycarp is entering the arena to face death, he hears a voice from heaven that says, ‘Be of good cheer, Polycarp, and play the man.’

As the two theologians were burned, Thomas Cranmer watched. He recanted his recantation and was himself burned at the stake six months later, in 1556, at the same spot.

As discussed in this post, I am not especially comfortable with praising Christians who were killed by fellow Christians as martyrs. However, whether we speak of the Oxford Martyrs, or Thomas More, or the Covenanters, or the Carthusians disembowelled by Henry VIII, or evangelicals imprisoned in Ethiopia today, we can say that they are, at least, victims of conscience in the face of a Christian government that is not behaving especially Christianly.

Of the two, I think I prefer Dr. Nicholas Ridley, in large part because of Latimer’s iconoclasm vs. Ridley’s championing of vestments. My vision of reformed (note the small r), Protestant Christianity is not a reimagined Christianity that starts from scratch but a Christianity purged of the late mediaeval abuses, anti-biblical teachings, and the requirements for salvation for things adiaphora. That is to say, in a post-1662 sense, Anglican, or possibly Lutheran — that trajectory of thought and worship in the Prayer Books, in Nicholas Ridley, in John Jewel, in Lancelot Andrewes, in Richard Hooker, but not in the Puritans, the Presbyterians, the Zwinglians, the Anabaptists.

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4 thoughts on “Saints of the Week: Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley

  1. Logos Bible Software is working on getting more Anglican material into their format, and they recently just posted the Works of Nicholas Ridley on community pricing. It’s exciting to see more historical resources like this come into the digital age!

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