Ridley, Latimer, and Cranmer: The Oxford Martyrs
article was originally published in Reformation and Revival:
A Quarterly Journal for Church Leadership 7 (1998): 167–79.
It is republished here with only minor corrections.
One of the
most interesting bits of Oxford history is the story of the
Oxford Martyrs and the statue by which they are remembered. The
history of the monument itself is fascinating. In 1833,
John Henry Newman (1801‑90), an Anglican priest, began
publishing a series of pamphlets called Tracts for the Times.
By them he intended to defend the Anglican Church as a divine
institution, the doctrine of apostolic succession, and the
Book of Common Prayer. He was followed by John Keble
(1792‑1866) and E. B. Pusey (1800‑82) in the Oxford
Movement. Some critics saw these emphases as a drift back to
By 1838, the Oxford Movement was in full swing. Some more
vigorous Protestant Anglicans, concerned about the powerful tug
of the Oxford Movement’s account of the tradition of the western
church on the hearts and minds of Oxford, commissioned the
Martyrs' Memorial in remembrance of the death of three of the
English Reformation's most well-known and fascinating heroes,
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, Bishop Hugh Latimer, and Bishop
Nicholas Ridley. The construction of the memorial was funded
through subscriptions, which was also a vehicle by which various
Anglican pastors could register their support of ideas for which
the memorial would stand. It was not well supported locally. The
memorial was completed, in 1845, just two years before Newman
completed his conversion to Rome. Newman was later rewarded for
his labors with a Roman cardinal's hat. Along with him several
other prominent Anglicans converted to Rome, apparently
justifying the fear of some of the movement’s critics. It was
ironic that the monument honoring England's most famous
Reformers should be built in the midst of controversy involving
Rome, for it was a very similar controversy that made three
churchmen into martyrs.
Cranmer suggested to Henry
that he might consult the universities who in turn might be able
to find grounds in canon law for the divorce. Henry was
delighted with this suggestion. This would not be the last time
Cranmer would be of such assistance to Henry.
fascinating of the three martyrs is the reluctant Archbishop,
(c. 1489‑1556). Thomas, like his fellow martyrs, was educated at
Cambridge. Raised a loyal son of the church and a loyal servant
of his king, Cranmer took priestly orders and became a fellow in
Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1514. Soon after, he abandoned his
order to marry. He became a reader at Buckingham College.
After less than a year of marriage, Cranmer's wife, Joan, died
and he was readmitted to Jesus College as a fellow (a tutor),
and shortly before 1520 was ordained to the priesthood.
By 1529 it
had become apparent to King Henry VIII that his wife, Catherine
of Aragon, was not going to produce an heir to the throne. He
sued the pope for divorce. Seeing Henry's unsuccessful attempt
to free himself to produce an heir, Cranmer suggested to Henry
that he might consult the universities who in turn might be able
to find grounds in canon law for the divorce. Henry was
delighted with this suggestion. This would not be the last time
Cranmer would be of such assistance to Henry.
later, Cranmer, the loyal servant of Henry Tudor, was serving as
his ambassador to the pope. While on this trip, he met and
secretly married Margaret Osiander, niece of the Lutheran
reformer of the same surname.
On the face of it, this was a strange thing for Cranmer to do.
Why would a zealous priest, in the service of the king, on a
trip to see his "holy father" take a second wife? This
contradictory modus vivendi marked Thomas to his
end. We know him as a Reformer, yet for most of his career he
was not terribly Reformed in his actions, and perhaps the one
unifying theme of his service was his dedication to an idea
which most Reformed people found distasteful, to say the least.
Cranmer was a committed Erastian.
He believed that the king was rightly the temporal head of the
church. The Genevan Reformers and their Palatinate, English and
American heirs believed that Christ is the temporal and
spiritual head of the church, and they struggled mightily to
prevent secular authorities from manipulating the church. At the
same time, Cranmer did much to advance the Reformation in
England, in a way in which few others could. In 1532 he was
appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, the ecclesiastical leader of
the English church. He served Christ in that office until the
accession of Mary Tudor in 1553.
appointment, until the accession of the child Edward VI
(1547–53), Cranmer served Henry very faithfully, granting
ecclesiastical sanction to Henry's marital infidelities. The
year following his appointment, Cranmer annulled Henry's
marriage to Catherine. He performed the same "service" for Henry
in 1536, leading to Anne Bolyn's execution and then officiated
at Henry's marriage to, and divorce from, Anne of Cleves. Not
surprisingly during this period, Cranmer advanced his Reforming
ideas very cautiously, authoring and sanctioning a series of
Articles, none of which can be described as militantly Reformed.
His Ten Articles of 1536 endorsed three sacraments:
baptism, communion and penance. Although the article on the
Eucharist did not use the word transubstantiation, it is not
clearly Protestant. It was replaced a year later by the
Bishops' Book, named after the men who wrote it. This work
endorsed seven sacraments and the Ave Maria. The
Bishops' "Book"' was revised by King Henry and aptly renamed
The King's Book in 1543.
The major change is that now the book clearly endorsed
Unfortunately for Margaret Osiander, her husband opposed
ineffectively the Six Articles of 1539 which Henry
imposed on the church. These articles were Henry's response to
the growth of the reformation in the church. They endorsed
transubstantiation, communion in one kind, clerical celibacy,
monastic vows, private masses and auricular confession. Being a
pastor's wife can be unpleasant. Being an archbishop's wife can
be miserable, especially when it is illegal to be such!
Margaret, whom Cranmer had kept in hiding seven years, was now
sent to Germany. Ironically, after all Cranmer had done for
Henry's married life, it is Henry who unwittingly enforced an
unwanted separation on his archbishop.
had good reason to trust his archbishop. Cranmer had done little
to challenge or disappoint him. During Henry's life, the most
radical move Cranmer made was to encourage the distribution of
the Bible in English, not an insignificant contribution, mind
you, but not enough to get him in trouble with his "boss," as it
were. Tied as he was to Henry's whim, Cranmer could only be as
effective as Henry was tolerant. At the king's death and the
accession of young Edward VI, Cranmer flew his Reformed colors
more openly. His view of the Supper became more recognizably
Protestant. He imported the Italian humanist and Reformer Peter
Martyr Vermigli (1500‑62) to be Regius Professor of Divinity at
Oxford and the Strasbourg Reformer, Martin Bucer (1491‑1551) to
hold the same post at Cambridge.
In 1549 he published his greatest work, the Book of
Common Prayer The Book continues to be praised as a signal
literary and theological achievement. It was revised and made
more clearly Protestant in 1552. In the next year he also
published the plainly Calvinistic Forty‑two Articles, the
basis of the Elizabethan Thirty‑Nine Articles (1571).
'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." These were among the last words of Hugh
Latimer, as he and Nicholas Ridley stood back to back at the
stake to be burned on October 16, 1555. Hugh Latimer was
ordained to the priesthood in 1522. He was one of twelve
preachers licensed by Cambridge University to preach anywhere in
England. Three years later, however, the growing influence of
Martin Luther on Christendom in England was beginning to show in
Hugh Latimer. He declined an invitation to preach against Luther
and soon found himself giving an explanation to Archbishop
Wolsey (c.1474‑1530). He satisfied Wolsey but was placed on a
short leash. Upon Cranmer's appointment to Canterbury, Latimer
was again allowed free reign. By 1539 he was openly opposing the
doctrine of purgatory and the mass. His outspoken criticism of
the Six Articles of 1539 cost him his job as Bishop of
Worcester. The year before his resignation, in a strange bit of
foreshadowing, Latimer had preached at the execution of John
Forest. Now, he, along with Nicholas Ridley, was odd man out.
From 1540‑46 he was confined to the Tower of London. At Edward's
accession, he was released and renewed his preaching ministry.
As Bishop of London, Nicholas
Ridley was an equally inviting target for Mary's wrath. Ridley
had been, since 1537, Cranmer's chaplain and one of his closest
advisors, helping to shape the 1549 Prayer Book. He also
distinguished himself in Mary's mind, no doubt, by supporting
her chief rival for the throne, Lady Jane Grey.
As Bishop of
London, Nicholas Ridley was an equally inviting target for
Mary's wrath. Ridley had been, since 1537, Cranmer's chaplain
and one of his closest advisors, helping to shape the 1549
Prayer Book. He also distinguished himself in Mary's mind,
no doubt, by supporting her chief rival for the throne, Lady
Jane Grey. Upon her accession to the throne, one of Mary Tudor's
first tasks was to seek out and destroy the most visible
proponents of the hated Protestantism. Latimer was an obvious
target. He, along with Cranmer and Ridley, was arrested in 1553
and taken to Oxford to appear before a papal commission there.
In March 1554, all three men were imprisoned in the Bocardo
Prison near Oxford's north gate.
On April 14, the men were taken from the Bocardo to the
University Church, St. Mary the Virgin, to prepare to dispute
transubstantiation and the sacrifice of the mass.
On the twentieth, four days after the disputation, the outcome
of which is easily guessed, all three men were brought before
the commissioners and each was told he had been proved wrong and
was given opportunity to recant. Each refused. They were
condemned as heretics.
There was a
problem regarding their punishment. The statutes for burning
heretics had been repealed in 1547. In the fall, Parliament
obliged by re-enacting the statutes. In September 1555, Cranmer
was tried in St. Mary the Virgin before the papal commissioners
and convicted of heresy. Because of his exalted status in the
church the proceedings had to be sent to Rome. Cranmer had
eighty days in which to appeal. He had longer to wait and more
time to think about his predicament.
15, Ridley and Latimer were tried separately for heresy and
convicted. The next morning, the two men were led to the stake.
The mayor and gentry were present as were a number of soldiers
to prevent anything untoward from happening. Archbishop Cranmer,
still in the Bocardo Prison (near the site of the execution),
was brought out only at the last moment to witness the death of
his friends in front of the Master's Lodge of Balliol College.
Ridley came first, then the poorly dressed Latimer who joked
about the slow progress they were making. When the two met, they
greeted each other with joy (having been separated for some
time) and prayed together. They, along with everyone else
present, settled down for the regulation sermon.
the Oxford theologian, Richard Smith, preached from the text,
"'If I yield my body to the fire to be burned, but have not
charity, I shall gain nothing thereby" (1 Cor 13:3). Both Ridley
and Latimer "gestured their disapproval" and the sermon ended
rather quickly after only fifteen minutes. They begged for
permission to reply but were denied. They did not want to miss
an opportunity, even at their own execution, to testify to the
There being no further occasion
for delay, they were commanded to prepare themselves for the
fire. Ridley distributed his garments, a small collection of
mementos brought for the purpose, among the officers, and among
his weeping friends and relatives. Latimer simply allowed the
attendants to undress him, and being stripped into his shroud,
he seemed as comely a person to them that were present, as one
should lightly see; and, whereas in his clothes he appeared a
withered and crooked silly old man, he now stood bold upright,
as comely a father as one might lightly behold.
were already chained to the stake, and exhorting each other with
fervent prayers, George Shipside was allowed within the ring of
guards to give to each a bag of gunpowder which would shorten
their sufferings, and which each accepted thankfully as a token
of the mercy of God.
The fire was
then brought and it was at this juncture that Latimer uttered
the words which have ever since been associated with the
occasion: "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." It was a fitting
and symbolic end to their relationship. In the event too, it was
Ridley who had need to "play the man, " for the older man died
swiftly and comparatively painlessly, probably from suffocation,
while his younger colleague suffered excruciating agonies from a
slow fire. Shipside, who had been allowed to remain to help him
in whatever way he could, unwittingly made things worse through
his own agony of mind by putting more faggots on the wrong
moment, and it was one of the soldiers who eventually cleared a
way for the air with his bill, and the flames reached the gun
Their prayers were answered. Many of the spectators were
disgusted, but at least one of the audience, a fellow of
Magdalen College, was converted.
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.
(who believed in papal supremacy) would be a true test of
Archbishop Cranmer's belief in royal sovereignty over the
church. In November 1553 Cranmer stood trial, accused of
entering the Tower of London on July 10 and proclaiming Lady
Jane Dudley to be queen and conspiring with the Duke of
Northumberland against Mary. He denied both charges. He was
convicted and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered and
imprisoned in the Tower of London to await execution. Not
content with civil prosecution, Mary also wanted Cranmer
convicted of heresy.
1555, Cranmer's period of appeal on the heresy charges expired.
The pope ordered his excommunication and degradation from holy
orders. During part of this period he was housed in Christ
In January he was returned to the Bocardo. During Cranmer's
imprisonment, he was deprived of friendship and isolated. Under
these circumstances the governor of the Bocardo did what decades
of ecclesiastical and civil pressure were unable to do: cause
Cranmer to repent of his Protestant faith. In January 1556, "For
fear of death" Cranmer submitted to the Roman Catholic Church,
affirming transubstantiation and papal supremacy of the church.
however, had decided that, despite his recantation, Cranmer must
die. On February 14 he was formally "degraded" from his office.
Cranmer took the opportunity to appeal his conviction and gave
no hint of his earlier recantation. Cranmer made two more
ambiguous statements. On the twenty‑sixth he signed a full
renunciation of his Protestantism. Again, mentally and
emotionally tormented, he signed another such document on March
18. That, however, was not the end of it. Perhaps, as his day
drew near, the memory of the heroic deaths of Ridley and Latimer
did "light such a candle" in Cranmer's heart and mind. The
morning of March 21 was wet. The sermon was preached in St.
Mary's. The preacher rejoiced in Cranmer's apparent conversion
to Rome and proclaimed that his death, with that of Ridley,
Latimer and Hooper, made up for the death of John Fisher! Dr.
Cole also promised to Cranmer, immediately upon his death, all
the rites of the church: dirges, masses and funerals in all the
churches in Oxford.
Cranmer was called upon to testify to his faith. He did,
categorically renouncing everything he had ever said or done
"contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart." In case
there might be any ambiguity about what he meant by truth he
refused the pope as 'Christ's enemy and anti‑Christ with all his
false doctrines." He declared that since it was his hand which
had "offended writing contrary to my heart, my hand shall first
be punished therefore; for, may I come to the fire, it shall be
first burned." John Foxe (1517‑87) in his justly famous Acts
and Monuments of Matters Happening in the Church (1563)
recorded the rest of this sad story.
And when the wood was kindled
and the fire began to bum near him, stretching out his arm, he
put his right hand into the flame, which he held so steadfast
and immovable (saving that once with the same hand he wiped his
face) that all men might see his hand burned before his body was
touched. His eyes were lifted up to heaven, and oftentimes he
repeated "this unworthy right hand,' as long as his voice would
suffer him; and using often the words of St. Stephen, "Lord
Jesus receive my spirit," in the greatness of the flame he gave
up the ghost.
than a year after Ridley and Latimer had died confessing Christ,
Cranmer also met his Savior in the flames on Oxford's
the movement and the controversy it created are often
described as the Tractarian movement.
In 1829 Parliament
passed the fourth of five Catholic Emancipation Acts.
These were a series of acts begun in 1778 under
George III in which Catholics were progressively
permitted to own landed property without taking an oath
which denied their religion. They were freed to
acknowledge the supremacy of the pope and they were
given the franchise, access to the universities and the
professions. These acts, particularly the act of 1829
in conjunction with the growth of Protestant
liberalism, led to something of an exodus out of the
Church of England into the Roman Catholic Church.
The starting academic
position was lecturer. A reader was one step up. it is
something like the move from Assistant Professor to
Associate Professor in the United States.
(1498‑1552) aligned himself with the Reformation
in 1522. In the early 1550’s he provoked a storm
of controversy (including a lengthy rebuttal by Calvin)
by teaching that justification on the ground of Christ’s
indwelling of the believer.
Erastian describes a view of the church named
after the physician‑theologian who played a significant
role in the Reformation of Heidelberg, Thomas Erastus
(1524‑83). Erastus argued that the church should
serve the state. This was a point of controversy among
Reformed theologians. The Genevan (Calvin and Beza) and
Heidelberg (Ursinus and Olevian) theologians disagreed.
They argued successfully that the state should protect
and respect the sphere of authority belonging to the
church. Erastus was supported by the Zürich theologians,
notably by Heinrich Bullinger. The Calvinist view is
contained in Westminster Confession of Faith,
23:3 (in the 1647 edition and in the 1729
American revision); and Belgic Confession, Art.
36. To this day, Anglican Erastianism requires
that ecclesiastical appointments are not made officially
by the church, but by the queen. In practice the prime
minister consults with the archbishop and then passes on
the appointments to the queen and parliament. These
appointments are rarely questioned.
It was not for nothing
that before his “reformation" of the church, Henry was
named Defensor Fidei (Defender of the Faith) by
the pope. It is unlikely that Henry ever adopted any
distinctively Protestant views during his lifetime. His
'break" with Rome was surely an act of convenience more
than an act of conscience or principle. The initials
F.D. (Fidei Defensor) are still stamped on
Transubstantiation is the
traditional Roman Catholic view at consecration, the
wafer used in the mass becomes the actual, physical body
of Christ. The substance (essence) of the bread is said
to have changed even though the transformation is not
apparent. This change in substance makes possible the
priestly 'sacrifice" of the mass. According to
Heidelberg Catechism, Question 80, "…the
mass teaches that the living and the dead do not
have forgiveness of sins through the sufferings of
Christ, unless Christ is still daily offered for them by
the priests, and that Christ is bodily under the form of
bread and wine, and is therefore to be worshipped in
them. And thus the mass at bottom is nothing else than a
denial of the one sacrifice and passion of Jesus Christ,
and an accursed idolatry." Westminster Confession of
Faith, 29:2: "…so that the so‑called
sacrifice of the mass is most contradictory to Christ’s
one only sacrifice, the alone propitiation for all the
sins of the elect."
Bucer was buried in Great
St. Mary's Church in Cambridge. So intense was Mary's
hatred of Protestants that, in 1557, Bucer's body
was exhumed and publicly burned. Later, under Elizabeth
I, his remains were re-interred in St. Mary's. His grave
is marked with a plaque in the church. It is ironic that
this should happen to Bucer who along with Philip
Melanchthon, was among the most irenic and ecumenical of
The Bocardo, was built in
the late thirteenth century. The name possibly refers to
its unsanitary state (boggard), or it may describe a
place from which it is difficult to escape.
A disputation is
something like a formal debate. Martin Luther was called
to disputations to give an account of his new views at
the Diet of Worms. It was a common and, when properly
employed, useful way for the church to a theological
understanding. However, it is also a procedure subject
to considerable abuse, as in the case here where it is
more an inquisition than honest debate between two
competing views. This section follows closely the
account given s.v. “Martyrs' Memorial,” in The
Encyclopaedia of Oxford (London, 1988).
One can still see
evidence of the nearby flames of the martyrs' fire on
the door which is within the college. There is a
permanent memorial to the martyrs, a cross, embedded
flush with the pavement, in the Broad Street on the spot
where they died.
The gunpowder was for throwing in the fire at the
appropriate moment to finally kill the condemned.
D. M. Loades, The
Oxford Martyrs (London, 1970), 219‑20. This
entire section and the next follows Loades.
Oxford's largest college.
Foxe, as quoted in Jan
Morris, The Oxford Book of Oxford (Oxford, 1978),
The account book of the (Oxford) city Bailiffs for March
21, 1556, recorded nonchalantly the bill for the
cost "For an 100 of wood faggots; For an 100 and half of
furs faggots; for the carriage of them; for two
labourers." Morris, ibid.
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