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.

Saint of the Week: Thomas Cranmer

Cranmer was to be last week’s saint, since his memorial was on Wednesday, March 24. But I kept doing other things in the evening and reading systematic theology during my spare time at work.

Thomas Cranmer was born July 2, 1489, and was burned at the stake on March 21, 1556. He studied at Jesus College, Cambridge, receiving a Master of Arts in 1515 having received a classical education in his Bachelor’s degree but focussing on Continental humanists, including Erasmus, in his Master’s degree. He was also a lifelong collector of books by the mediaeval Scholastics. In 1526 he received his Doctorate of Divinity.

Throughout the 1520s, he was involved in the intellectual discussion and dispersion of Lutheran ideals and ideas amongst the scholars of Cambridge.  In 1526, he entered the King’s service on an embassy to Spain, and in 1527 put his able hand to the task of annulling Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

In 1531, while Cranmer was still working on the annulment with some other scholars who were instrumental in finalising the ideas involved in 1534’s Act of Supremacy, he met Simon Grynaeus, a Swiss humanist and Zwinglian.  Grynaeus and Cranmer were to become friends, thus strengthening Cranmer’s later relationship with the Swiss and Strasbourg reformers.

1532 marked Thomas Cranmer’s presence in the Holy Roman Empire as ambassador.  In Germany he saw firsthand the Protestant Reformation in action.  During his time in the German court of Charles V, Thomas Cranmer moved further into the Lutheran camp.  In October of this same year, Thomas Cranmer received a letter appointing him Archbishop of Canterbury, due no doubt to his work on the King’s annulment, given how few ecclesiastical positions he had yet held.

Nevertheless, despite opposition from various parties in England, Cranmer sought to spread Reformation ideals in the English church, especially after 1534.  In the following years of Henry’s reign, the work of Reform moved slowly in England, although Cranmer appointed reformers such as Hugh Latimer to important positions, and the King commissioned the Great Bible.

The spread of worship in English, however, was not moving apace until Edward VI’s reign when the people would receive the sacrament in an English service.  Nonetheless, at this time Cranmer produced an English translation of the Litany in 1544.  This Litany includes prayers for God to deliver His people from “the tyranny of the bisshop of Rome and all his detestable enormyties”.

In 1547, Henry VIII died and was succeeded by his nine-year-old son Edward VI.  Now worship in the vernacular was able to take off.  The first liturgical text produced by Thomas Cranmer was the Litany,  with the publishing of the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549.  This was followed by a second Prayer Book of 1552.

Thomas Cranmer also worked to produce a Book of Homilies (the present form also has homilies of John Jewel [15222-1571]) in accord with Reformation teaching for use in churches to instruct the people on various subjects such as reading the Bible, how to gain salvation, against whoredom, and the like.  This Book of Homilies was not approved by the Bishops until 1547.

The Reformation was able to spread during Edward’s reign through the media of the Book of Homilies, the Book of Common Prayer, and the English Bible.

And then in 1553, Edward VI, a sickly teenager, died.  His older sister Mary succeeded him.  Mary was a Roman Catholic.  Under her reign, the Reforms of Edward were suppressed and the Church of England returned to communion with the Church of Rome.  The tables were turned, as any reader of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs knows — no more Carthusian abbots were drawn and quartered in London’s streets.  Instead, the Protestants were to feel the flames of the stake.

Thomas Cranmer had, during Henry’s reign, come to the belief that the monarch was the rightful head of the church, and that it was contrary to his role as a bishop to counter the monarch’s headship — hence the lack of a BCP under Henry, who was not in the Reformation for religious but economic, political, and legal reasons.  Finding himself under a Catholic monarch, Thomas Cranmer was in a bit of a sticky position.

On March 20, 1556, Thomas Cranmer watched in Oxford as Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were burned at the stake for heresy.  He proceeded to sign fourteen copies of his recantation of the heresies of Martin Luther with some Spanish friars standing by.

On March 21, Cranmer was escorted to St. Mary’s Church where his public recantation was to take place.  And there, Thomas Cranmer, like Latimer and Ridley before him, played the man, declaring, “And as for the Pope, I refuse him as Christ’s enemy and anti-Christ, with all his false doctrine.  And as for the sacrament–”  Here Cranmer was interrupted and taken away to be burned.

As Cranmer burned, he thrust his right hand into the flames, holding there and saying, “This hand hath offended,” for that hand had signed his recantations.  And so Thomas Cranmer, crafter of the Book of Common Prayer passed from this life to the next.

His greatest contribution of all time was no doubt the BCP.  Tune in sometime after Easter for some thoughts on its awesomeness.