Two of the Oxford Martyrs, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, were burnt at the stake in Oxford on this date in 1555. The third, Thomas Cranmer was burnt 5 months later on 21st March 1556. They have become celebrated in English church history because they were caught up in the politics of the day and executed for their faith. Latimer and Ridley are honored by the Anglican church on this date, because of their martyrdom. Cranmer has a separate feast day.
Being a cleric in Tudor England was a dangerous business. Henry VIII broke with Rome and declared himself head of the Church of England purely because he wanted a divorce. He had no interest in changing anything else in the church. There were reformers within the English church who wanted to see changes, but they held off until Henry died, because the upper clergy were split between traditionalists and reformers, and Henry sided with the traditionalists, refusing to allow any changes in doctrine or ceremony. When Henry’s son, Edward, was crowned king, the reformers saw their chance. Thomas Cranmer was archbishop of Canterbury early in Henry’s reign and facilitated the split with Rome to be able to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The annulment also put the legitimacy of Mary, Catherine’s only daughter, in jeopardy. Edward, Henry’s third child, took precedence over Mary for the throne because of Salic Law (male heirs take precedence over females, regardless of age) – and, interestingly, Salic Law has only recently been overturned in England.
Edward was 9 years old when he came to the throne in 1537. He had been raised Protestant, but he was king in name only. England was governed by a regency council, and the reform of the church was left in the hands of bishops, of whom Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley were key players. Because Edward was in no position to oppose reform of doctrine and ceremony as Henry had done, the bishops had free hand, and the foundations of the current Church of England were laid at this time. Cranmer was the chief architect of reform. He was responsible for establishing the first doctrinal and liturgical structures of the reformed Church of England. He published the first officially authorized vernacular service, the Exhortation and Litany, under Henry, but his major reforms were under Edward. He wrote and compiled the first two editions of the Book of Common Prayer, a complete liturgy for the English Church. With the assistance of several Continental reformers to whom he gave refuge, he changed doctrine in areas such as the Eucharist, clerical celibacy, the role of images in places of worship, and the veneration of saints. Cranmer promulgated the new doctrines through the Prayer Book, the Homilies and other publications. As the chief reformer under Edward, his fate was sealed when Mary came to the throne. Latimer and Ridley were lesser players, but their fate was also sealed because of their closeness to Edward.
When Edward died in 1553, the church and government were thrown into turmoil. The royal council knew that if Mary ascended the throne, England would be forced back to Catholicism, and there was considerable opposition to this possibility. In consequence, Edward’s council convinced him to name his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, as his successor, and to declare both of his half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth as illegitimate, when it became clear he was dying. On 17th June 1553 the king made his will noting Jane would succeed him, contravening the Third Succession Act.
Ridley signed the letters patent giving the English throne to Lady Jane Grey. On 9th July 1553 he preached a sermon at St Paul’s cross in which he affirmed that the princesses Mary and Elizabeth were bastards. By mid-July, there were serious provincial revolts in Mary’s favor and support for Jane in the council fell. As Mary was proclaimed queen, Ridley, Jane’s father, the Duke of Suffolk, and others were imprisoned. Ridley was sent to the Tower of London. Throughout February 1554 the political leaders who were supporters of Jane were executed, including Jane herself. After that, there was time to deal with the religious leaders of the English Reformation and so on 8th March 1554 the Privy Council ordered Cranmer, Ridley, and Latimer to be transferred to Bocardo prison in Oxford to await trial for heresy.
Latimer was a bit of an odd man out. Before the English Reformation he had been a staunch papist, even describing himself as “as obstinate a papist as any was in England”. But in the mid-1520s he was converted to Protestantism through the teaching of prominent scholars, and became as zealous against the Catholic church as he had once been for it. He even advocated a new translation of the Bible into English even though William Tyndale’s translation of the Greek Testament was still banned. In 1539 when Henry VIII was confronted with radical Lutheran teaching from the continent he produced the Six Articles, reaffirming the heart of Catholic doctrine:
Transubstantiation (real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the mass),
The reasonableness of withholding the cup from the laity during communion,
Observance of vows of chastity,
Permission for private masses,
Importance of auricular confession.
Latimer opposed the Six Articles and was promptly imprisoned in the Tower of London. When Edward came to the throne he was restored to favor, and became the royal preacher until 1550. He was chaplain to the duchess of Suffolk when Mary came to the throne, and so, unlike Cranmer and Ridley, was not in the direct line of fire. He could have fled England, as many other high churchmen did, but he chose to remain and was caught up in Mary’s net, which ensnared all prominent Protestant theologians who remained. At his heresy trial in Oxford Latimer is recorded as saying, “’I thank God most heartily that He hath prolonged my life to this end, that I may in this case glorify God by that kind of death.” The prosecutor replied, (and I paraphrase), “If this faith takes you to heaven, I won’t be joining you.”
Latimer and Ridley’s death sentence was carried out just north of Oxford city wall where Broad street is now while Cranmer was taken to a tower to watch. Ridley burned extremely slowly and suffered a great deal: his brother-in-law had put more tinder on the pyre, in order to speed his death, but they caused only his lower parts to burn. Latimer is supposed to have said to Ridley, “Be of good comfort, and play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” This was quoted in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
A small area cobbled with stones forming a cross in the center of the road outside the front of Balliol College marks the site of execution. The Victorian spire-like Martyrs’ Memorial, at the south end of St Giles’ nearby, commemorates the events. It is claimed that the scorch marks from the flames can still be seen on the doors of Balliol College (now rehung between the Front Quadrangle and Garden Quadrangle).
It is painfully easy, and all too common, to point to events like the execution of Latimer and Ridley, and say, “Look where religion leads.” It is a lot wiser to say, “Look what happens when religion and politics get entwined.” Mary did her best in her short reign to get rid of all people who had stood in her way, and because religious matters were deeply tied to her succession, religious leaders were swept up in her persecutions. I’ll admit that she had the deep convictions of her faith, but she was also a ruthless monarch, and the Catholic church by her day had become more a tool of state than an avenue to spiritual truth. People still use religious doctrine to buttress political beliefs, and this practice is as wrongheaded now as it was in Tudor times – and leads down the same paths.
I have given quite a few Oxford recipes in the past, so here’s video on Tudor cooking from the kitchen of Hampton Court, built by Henry VIII’s primate cardinal Wolsey.