16 October 1555 – The Burnings of Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley at Oxford

Martyrs' Memorial
Martyrs’ Memorial

Today is the anniversary of the burnings of two of the Oxford Martyrs, Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worcester, and Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London. The third Oxford Martyr was Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was burned at the stake on 21st March 1556.

Hugh Latimer was born around between 1480 and 1494 in Thurcaston, Leicestershire. He studied at the University of Cambridge and worked there as the university preacher and chaplain. He was deeply affected by hearing the confession of Thomas Bilney, a man who was later burned for heresy in 1531, and began to accept reformed doctrines, meeting regularly with the likes of Bilney and Robert Barnes, who was also burned for heresy. Latimer was appointed as Bishop of Worcester in 1535, an appointment which is said to have been due to the patronage of Anne Boleyn who was queen at this time. Latimer was introduced to Anne Boleyn by Dr William Butts, Henry VIII’s physician, who acted as Anne’s ‘talent spotter’, helping Anne to choose her chaplains “from the most promising young reformist scholars, particularly from Cambridge” and his old college there, Gonville Hall.1

Latimer was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1539 for his opposition to Henry VIII’s Six Articles but was restored to favour during the reign of Edward VI, becoming a court preacher and chaplain to Catherine Willoughby, the Duchess of Suffolk. He was arrested shortly after Mary’s I’s accession in 1553.

Nicholas Ridley was born c. 1500 in Tynedale, Northumberland. He studied at the University of Cambridge and finished his education at the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1534, he became senior proctor of Cambridge University and then was appointed as one of Archbishop Cranmer’s chaplains in 1537. He served as one of the King’s Chaplains in 1540-41 and was made Master of Pembroke College. Ridley was accused of heresy in 1543 but managed to escape punishment and was made Bishop of Rochester in 1547 and then Bishop of London in 1550. He helped his good friend, Cranmer, with the Book of Common Prayer in 1548 and was also a member of the commission who tried Stephen Gardiner and Edmund Bonner in 1549. Ridley is known for his clashes with John Hooper, a reformer who had lived in Zurich in exile during Henry VIII’s reign. In July 1553, after the death of Edward VI, Ridley signed letters patent confirming that Lady Jane Grey was Queen and went on to preach a sermon at St Paul’s Cross on the 9th July 1553 proclaiming that Mary and Elizabeth were bastards. He was imprisoned when Mary I proclaimed herself Queen.

Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer were imprisoned initially in the Tower of London before being transferred to Oxford’s Bocardo Prison. They were tried for heresy on the 12th September 1555 and all three were found guilty. On 15th October 1555, Ridley and Latimer were condemned to death, but Cranmer,as Archbishop, had to wait for a decision from Rome as to his sentence. Ridley and Latimer were burned at the stake just outside Balliol College in Oxford. Their lives and deaths, and that of Cranmer, who was also executed there in March 1556, are commemorated by a cross on the road which marks the execution site and also by Martyrs’ Memorial, a stone monument standing at the intersection of St Giles’, Magdalen Street and Beaumont Street, near Balliol College. The inscription on the monument reads:

“To the Glory of God, and in grateful commemoration of His servants, Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer, Prelates of the Church of England, who near this spot yielded their bodies to be burned, bearing witness to the sacred truths which they had affirmed and maintained against the errors of the Church of Rome, and rejoicing that to them it was given not only to believe in Christ, but also to suffer for His sake; this monument was erected by public subscription in the year of our Lord God, MDCCCXLI.”

Martyrologist John Foxe described the burnings of Latimer and Ridley in his Book of Martyrs:

“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.’

The place of death was on the north side of the town opposite Baliol College:— Dr. Ridley was dressed in a black gown furred, and Mr. Latimer had a long shroud on, hanging down to his feet. Dr. Ridley, as he passed Bocardo, looked up to see Dr. Cranmer, but the latter was then engaged in disputation with a friar.— When they came to the stake, Dr. Ridley embraced Latimer fervently, and bid him be of good heart. He then knelt by the stake, and after earnestly praying together, they had a short private conversation. Dr. Smith then preached a short sermon against the martyrs, who would have answered him, but were prevented by Dr. Marshal, the vice-chancellor. Dr. Ridley then took off his gown and tippet, and gave them to his brother-in-law, Mr. Shipside. He gave away also many trifles to his weeping friends, and the populace were anxious to get even a fragment of his garments. Mr. Latimer gave nothing, and from the poverty of his garb, was soon stripped to his shroud, and stood venerable and erect, fearless of death.

Dr. Ridley being unclothed to his shirt, the smith placed an iron chain about their waists, and Dr. Ridley bid him fasten it securely; his brother having tied a bag of gunpowder about his neck, gave some also to Mr. Latimer. Dr. Ridley then requested of Lord Williams, of Fame, to advocate with the queen the cause of some poor men to whom he had, when bishop, granted leases, but which the present bishop refused to confirm. A lighted fagot was now laid at Dr. Ridley’s feet, which caused Mr. Latimer to say, ‘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.’ When Dr. Ridley saw the flame approaching him, he exclaimed, ‘Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit!’ and repeated often, ‘Lord receive my spirit!’ Mr. Latimer, too, ceased not to say, ‘O Father of heaven receive my soul!’ Embracing the flame, he bathed his hands in it, and soon died, apparently with little pain; but Dr. Ridley, by the ill-adjustment of the fagots, which were green, and placed too high above the furze was burnt much downwards. At this time, piteously entreating for more fire to come to him, his brother-in-law imprudently heaped the fagots up over him, which caused the fire more fiercely to burn his limbs, whence he literally leaped up and down under the fagots, exclaiming that he could not burn; indeed, his dreadful extremity was but too plain, for after his legs were quite consumed, he showed his body and shirt unsinged by the flame. Crying upon God for mercy, a man with a bill pulled the fagots down, and when the flames arose, he bent himself towards that side; at length the gunpowder was ignited, and then he ceased to move, burning on the other side, and falling down at Mr. Latimer’s feet over the chain that had hitherto supported him.

Every eye shed tears at the afflicting sight of these sufferers, who were among the most distinguished persons of their time in dignity, piety, and public estimation. They suffered October 16, 1555.”2

Also on this day in history…

  • 1532 – While Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII were lodged in Calais, the Duke of Norfolk, Earl of Derby and a group of gentleman met with “the great mayster of Fraunce” and his men at the English Pale, six miles outside of Calais. This meeting was to plan where Henry VIII would meet Francis I. After the meeting, the two groups rode back to Calais, where they dined with Henry VIII.

Notes and Sources

  1. Ives, Eric (2004) The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, p266
  2. Foxe, John (1830) Foxe’s Book of Martyrs; Or, The Acts and Monuments of the Christian Church, p333

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