1555: Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, Oxford martyrs

1 comment October 16th, 2016 Headsman

The Anglican Church memorializes the feast of the Oxford Martyrs on October 16 — which also happens to be the date in 1555 that the first and second of those Reformation prelates went to the stake in that city.

The Oxford Martyrs are three in all, a proper trilogy;* the last in chronology if not in precedence was the Anglican Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who sanctified King Henry’s putting aside his first wife, and was burned at the pleasure of that scorned Catholic’s daughter in 1556. By that time he outlived by seven months the men whose execution we mark here, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley.


Detail view (click for the full image) of a woodcut illustration of Latimer’s and Ridley’s martyrdom in John Foxe’s 1563 Book of Martyrs.

Given a different set of breaks and perhaps a Y chromosome in the royal offspring, Latimer might easily have been martyred a generation prior under a King Henry who stuck to his papist “defender of the faith” credentials. Latimer was a rising reformer in the late 1520s whose subversive preaching had already got him slapped down by Cardinal Wolsey.

Wolsey’s fall and Henry’s departure from the Roman communion arrived just in time to ramp Latimer from prospective heresiarch to the master pulpit rhetorician of a new order. (He’s particularly remembered for some metaphorical sermons about playing cards.) In 1535, Latimer became Bishop of Worcester in which capacity he did not disdain the office of exhorting Catholic martyrs themselves on the foot of the pyre. Even in Henry’s last years, when militant Protestants could be put to death as readily as recusant Catholics, Latimer courted principled danger by refusing to sign on to Henry’s “six articles” asserting Catholic doctrines like transubstantiation and clerical celibacy. Latimer resigned his bishopric and went to the Tower of London rather than endorse them.

Nicholas Ridley at this period was a reformist priest in Cranmer’s more cautious orbit, who advanced him rank by rank — and with no dungeon interim — to the Bishop of London and Westminster.** Ridley had the honor of being a primary antagonist to the radical John Hooper in the “vestments controversy”, Ridley defending the status quo of clergy bedizened with suspiciously Romish priestly attire despite the poverty of Christ.

Ridley basically won this dispute in the short term, but had scant leisure to celebrate before the sickly young king’s death set the realm up for a contested succession. Under his gilded robes Bishop Ridley spent the brief ascendancy of Lady Jane Grey thundering against the bastard rival who intended to — and very soon did — supplant her.

Tried together in your basic case of victor’s justice, Ridley and Latimer were burned with Cranmer brought out as a witness in an attempt to intimidate him. Cranmer’s vacillating recantations before his own execution do him little credit, but considering how the Ridley died it would require a hard heart not to empathize. Protestant martyrologist John Foxe made purple prose or a very black scene:

Then they brought a faggot, kindled with fire, and laid the same down at Dr. Ridley’s feet. To whom Master Latimer spake in this manner “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”

And so the fire being given unto them, when Dr. Ridley saw the fire flaming up towards him. he cried with a wonderful loud voice, In manus teas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum: Domine recipe spiritum meum. And after, repeated this latter part often in English, “Lord, Lord, receive my spirit;” Master Latimer crying as vehemently on the other side, “O Father of heaven, receive my soul!” who received the flame as it were embracing of it. After that he had stroked his face with his hands, and as it were bathed them a little in the fire, he soon died (as it appeareth) with very little pain or none. And thus much concerning the end of this old and blessed servant of God, Master Latimer, for whose laborious travails, fruitful life, and constant death, the whole realm hath cause to give great thanks to Almighty God.

But Master Ridley, by reason of the evil making of the fire unto him, because the wooden faggots were laid about the gorse, and over-high built, the fire burned first beneath, being kept down by the wood; which when he felt, he desired them for Christ’s sake to let the fire come unto him. Which when his brother-in-law heard, but not well understood, intending to rid him out of his pain, (for the which cause he gave attendance,) as one in such sorrow not well advised what he did, heaped faggots upon him, so that he clean covered him, which made the fire more vehement beneath, that it burned clean all his nether parts, before it once touched the upper; and that made him leap up and down under the faggots, and often desire them to let the fire come unto him, saying, “I cannot burn.” Which indeed appeared well; for, after his legs were consumed by reason of his struggling through the pain, (whereof he had no release, but only his contentation in God,) he showed that side toward us clean, shirt and all untouched with flame. Yet in all this torment he forgot not to call unto God still, having in his mouth, “Lord, have mercy upon me,” intermingling his cry, “Let the fire come unto me, I cannot burn.” In which pangs he laboured till one of the standers-by with his bill pulled off the faggots above, and where he saw the fire flame up, he wrested himself unto that side. And when the flame touched the gunpowder, he was seen to stir no more, but burned on the other side, falling down at Master Latimer’s feet; which, some said, happened by reason that the chain loosed; others said, that he fell over the chain by reason of the poise of his body, and the weakness of the nether limbs.

* There’s a just-so story backed by little to no concrete evidence that the three Oxford Martyrs are metaphorically represented as the three blind mice (pursued by a female antagonist!) in the nursery rhyme.

** Barstool trivia: Ridley is the only person who has ever held this title.

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1555: John Bradford, in the grace of God

Add comment July 1st, 2016 Headsman

The Protestant martyr John Bradford, burned for his faith on this date in 1555, is the popularly reputed source of the idiom “There but for the grace of God go I” — a sentiment admirably fashioned for reckoning the scaffold.

Those who know their own hearts, will be ready to acknowledge, that the seeds of the worst and most aggravated wickedness which have been practised by other men, lie hid therein, (Matt. xv. 19,) and are only restrained from bursting forth by God’s grace. The pious Martyr Bradford, when he saw a poor criminal led to execution, exclaimed, “there, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford”. He knew that the same evil principles were in his own heart which had brought the criminal to that shameful end. (Source)

It was certainly apt for Bradford himself, who got religion as a student in the 1540s, left off law studies for theology, and was ordained an Anglican deacon by Bishop Nicholas Ridley just in time for the wheel of fortune to spin back to Catholicism.

Clapped in prison within the first weeks of Queen Mary‘s attempted Catholic restoration, Bradford for a time shared lodgings in the Tower with both Ridley and Thomas Cranmer.

Alas, be he ever so pious, our holy martyr’s temporal legacy — his authorship of the aphorism attributed him — remains impossible to substantiate. The remark is not known to have appeared in print until well over two centuries after Bradford’s cold ashes melted into the Smithfield market, and it was thereafter attributed in the 19th century to a variety of other figures as well as to Bradford. (The rivals on no better authority than Bradford could claim, it must be said.) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, for instance, puts the remark in the mouth of 17th century divine Richard Baxter. (“I never hear of such a case as this that I do not think of Baxter’s words, and say, ‘There, but for the grace of God, goes Sherlock Holmes.'” in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”)

But the mysterious provenance is only fitting, since that grace expired soon enough for John Bradford — as it does for all other flesh besides.

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1555: Robert Ferrar, Bishop of St. David’s

Add comment March 30th, 2015 Headsman

The Martyrdom of Bishop Farrar [sic]

by Ted Hughes

Burned by Bloody Mary‘s Men at Caermarthen

“If I flinch from the pain of the burning, believe not the doctrine that I have preached.
 — His words on being chained to the stake.

Bloody Mary’s venomous flames can curl;
They can shrivel sinew and char bone
Of foot, ankle, knee and thigh, and boil
Bowels, and drop his heart a cinder down;
And her soldiers can cry, as they hurl
Logs in the red rush: “This is her sermon.”

The sullen-jowled watching Welsh townspeople
Hear him crack in the fire’s mouth: they see what
Black oozing twist of stuff bubbles the smell
That tars and retches their lungs: no pulpit
Of his ever held their eyes so still,
Never, as now his agony, his wit.

An ignorant means to establish ownership
Of his flock! Thus their shepherd she seized
And knotted him into this blazing shape
In their eyes, as if such could have cauterized
The trust they turned towards him, and branded on
Its stump her claim, to outlaw question.

So it might have been: seeing their exemplar
And teacher burned for his lessons to black bits,
Their silence might have disowned him to her,
And hung up what he had taught with their Welsh hats:
Who sees his blasphemous father struck by fire
From heaven, might well be heard to speak no oaths.

But the fire that struck here, come from Hell even,
Kindled little heavens in his words
As he fed his body to the flame alive.
Words which, before they will be dumbly spared,
Will burn their body and be tongued with fire
Make paltry folly of flesh and this world’s air.

When they saw what annuities of hours
And comfortable blood he burned to get
His words a bare honouring in their ears,
The shrewd townsfolk pocketed them hot:
Stamp was not current but they rang and shone
As good gold as any queen’s crown.

Gave all he had, and yet the bargain struck
To a merest farthing his whole agony,
His body’s cold-kept miserdom on shrieks
He gave uncounted, while out of his eyes,
Out of his mouth, fire like a glory broke,
And smoke burned his sermon into the skies.

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1555: William Hunter, reader

Add comment March 26th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1555* — crying, “away, thou false prophet!” at the priest sent to hector him in his last moments — William Hunter was burned in Brentwood, Essex for Protestantism.


Hunter at the stake, from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

Here in the last brief moment of official Catholicism under Queen Mary, our apprentice silk-weaver was caught reading the Bible for himself in the local chapel.

Called in for questioning, both Hunter and the civil authorities decided it was worth his life to dispute the doctrine of transubstantiation. Catholic pro, Hunter con, of course.


(cc) image from Bopuc.

So that was that.

A couple of years later, the very justice who had first examined Hunter received a grant to found a school. Brentwood School is still going strong in its fifth century, and on its grounds — directly adjacent, in fact, to the school’s first purpose-built room** — rests a stone for the edification of the generations of Anglican pupils who followed. It honors the young man who died to crack open a book.

WILLIAM HUNTER. MARTYR. Committed to the Flames March 26th MDLV.
Christian Reader, learn from his example to value the privilege of an open Bible. And be careful to maintain it.

An elm tree planted at that spot came to be known as the Martyrs Elm.


1847 illustration of Brentwood School and the Martyrs Elm.

* This is the date per Foxe’s Book of Martyrs; others give March 27. The memorial stone carries the day for our purposes in view of contradictory sourcing.

** The legend that Brentwood School was founded as the justice’s penance for dooming Hunter seems to be unfounded.

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1555: John Hooper

Add comment February 9th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1555, English Calvinist John Hooper fell victim to Mary Tudor’s abortive bid for Catholic restoration.

A onetime monk on the receiving end of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Hooper got the evangelical bug by reading Zwingli and became more un-Catholic than the anti-pope.

That meant that in quasi-Catholic Anglican England, he had to hot-foot it over to the continent a couple of times to keep out of trouble.

Even when more aggressive reformers took the lead after Henry VIII died, Hooper proved a gadfly; he’s noted for setting off the decades-long “vestments controversy” with his denunciation of the “Aaronic” ceremonial garb donned by priests.

(Hooper himself had to work out a compromise just to be ordained in garb sufficiently modest to satisfy his conscience.)

He survived the fall of his patron Edward Seymour, but the death of Edward VI and the ensuing succession of the Catholic Queen Mary Tudor was Hooper’s demise. Historians may debate whether “Bloody Mary” really deserves her unkind nickname, but had she left a proto-Puritan loose cannon like Hooper unmolested, she would have indeed been a little lamb.

Hooper — naturally — took solace from the Word, “as St. Paul that loved the policy, laws, order, and wisdom of the Romans, yet disliked very much the vice and naughtiness of Nero, unto whom he submitted, and willingly brought into servitude both his body and goods, and rebelled not, though Nero was a naughty emperor, for his office sake, which was the ordinance of God.”

A large collection of Hooper’s writings (including the foregoing) is available at this Google books freebie.

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