Guest Post by Sarah: The Martyrdoms of Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley

My, this blog has been quiet lately! I’ve been busy with the page proofs for The Woodvilles (due out in October in the UK and January in the US), but now that things are quieter I hope to be blogging more.

Now that I’ve made my excuses, I’m pleased to be hosting a guest post by my friend Sarah about a very dark time in English history:

The Martyrdoms of Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley 

On October 16th, 1555, Queen Mary I of England sent two protestant bishops, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, to the stake in Oxford. They had long been in service to the crown and supported the reforms in religion introduced under Henry VIII and his son, Edward VI, but unfortunately Mary I was determined to restore Catholicism. Restoring Catholicism was not easy; indeed, big change in any state is not easy, and these men were two of around 300 that lost their lives to the cause.

Hugh Latimer was born between 1485 and 1491 in Thurcaston, Leicestershire. He was an only son, but had six sisters, and was born into a farming family. Not a lot is known of his early years, though he was educated well enough to attend Christ’s College at Cambridge University at around the age of 14. In February 1510 he was awarded a fellowship to Clare College, became a Master of Arts in April 1514, and was ordained a priest of the Roman Catholic faith in July 1515. Hugh remained true to Catholicism and spoke out against religious reform in his early years as a priest. In 1524, his friend Thomas Bilney asked Hugh to hear his confession of the new faith and following the confession, Hugh himself became a reformer. He said of his conversion-

“To say the truth, by his confession I learned more than before in many years. So from that time forward I began to smell the Word of God, and forsook the school-doctors and such fooleries.”

Hugh began to preach his new faith openly, causing upset within the Catholic church in England. The Bishop of Ely banned him from preaching in his diocese and accused him openly of heresy. Hugh was brought before Cardinal Wolsey, who decided Hugh was not a heretic and restored his licence to preach. Hugh became good friends with Thomas Cranmer, who would later become Archbishop of Canterbury. Both Hugh and Thomas were supporters of King Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn. Through this support, Hugh gained royal favour and was richly rewarded, becoming the Bishop of Worcester in 1535.

Hugh, along with other reformers, had many enemies of the Catholic faith at court, though he was protected by his friendships with King Henry and Thomas Cranmer. However, King Henry was to grow uncomfortable with extreme reformation and passed the Act of Six Articles in 1539. This Act supported traditional Catholic doctrine, including confirmation of transubstantiation and clerical celibacy. Hugh refused to sign the Act and resigned his bishopric, remaining in disgrace until Henry VIII died in 1547.

Nicholas Ridley was born in the early 1500s, the second son of Christopher Ridley. Nicholas received a good education; he was literate, learnt Greek and was taught theology, studying at Pembroke college, Cambridge in 1518 and gaining a masters degree in 1526. After he completed his study in England, Nicholas went to France to further his education, studying at the Universities of Louvain and Paris, and became an ordained priest. In 1529, he was appointed junior treasurer of the college at Cambridge, then became a chaplain.

Nicholas signed the royal decree in 1534, denouncing the Pope’s supremacy over the church. He firmly believed that the Bishop of Rome had no more authority in England than any other foreign bishop and was supportive of his king and the royal supremacy; something that would have kept him high in favour and earned him the king’s trust.

In 1537, Nicholas’ career in the church advanced further when he was appointed a chaplain to Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the following year he became Bishop of Herne. Nicholas was also uncomfortable with the Act of the Six Articles, though he was in no danger as he was unmarried and still believed in the transubstantiation. Nicholas’ church career progressed further over the next few years, as he was appointed Canon of Canterbury and became one of King Henry VIII’s chaplains. He accused of heresy in 1543, but was soon cleared of the charges.

King Henry’s son, Edward VI, became King of England upon the death of Henry VIII in January 1547. Edward was only nine, but was clever for his age and a staunch protestant, and the reformation of religion in England during his reign took off very quickly. The Act of the Six Articles was repealed and Hugh began to preach once again. In 1549, men from Devon and Cornwall rose up against the reforms in the ‘Prayer Book Rebellions’; these rebellions were quickly crushed by Edward’s council and reform continued. Hugh remained an active preacher and campaigner throughout Edward’s reign. He was a friend of Edward Seymour, Edward VI’s uncle and Lord Protector, and was present at the execution of Thomas Seymour.

Mary I, painted aged 28

Edward made Nicholas Bishop of Rochester. Nicholas removed altars in his church, replacing them with plain tables, he established reformed, protestant teachings and abandoned his belief in transubstantiation. He also helped Thomas Cranmer write the Common Book of Prayer. He examined the beliefs of Edmund Bonner and Stephen Gardiner; they were removed from their offices in the church and imprisoned in the Tower of London for their Catholic beliefs. Nicholas took over Edmund’s diocese as the Bishop of London in 1550.

Edward VI became ill in the spring of 1553. His condition rapidly worsened and he made his will in June. His main concern was the succession; Edward’s heir was his fiercely Catholic half sister Mary, who was likely to undo all of the reforms he had worked hard to achieve. Edward changed the Act of Succession of his father, declaring Mary and his other half sister, Elizabeth, illegitimate and unfit to rule; in their place, he named his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, as his heir. Nicholas signed the letters patent of Edward’s decision before the boy king died on July 6th that year.

On July 9th, Nicholas preached a sermon at St Paul’s Cross in London. He told the people listening of King Edward’s death and the contents of the Third Act of Succession. He said Mary and Elizabeth were bastards, unfit to rule the country and proclaimed Lady Jane Grey as Queen of England. Jane entered London the next day, though she did not remain queen for very long as Mary raised an army and claimed her throne, winning it back on June 19th. Jane Grey was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and would later be executed. Nicholas went to beg Queen Mary’s pardon for his proclaimation, where he was quickly arrested and sent to the Tower.

In September 1553 other leading reformers, Hugh included, were arrested and also imprisoned in the Tower of London. Both Hugh and Nicholas were moved to Oxford to be examined by Mary’s council, which included  the now free Stephen Gardiner, and were found guilty of heresy in April 1554. They were offered a chance to recant their heresies and save their lives- they refused, and as a result were sentenced to be burnt alive.

The burning of Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, as shown in Actes & Monuments

The men were to die on October 16th, 1555, sharing a stake in Oxford. Hugh died very quickly, with the words:

“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.”

Nicholas was not so lucky. Death did not come quickly to him, as the wood was piled too high around him. Only the bottom of his body burnt, leaving his top half and the gunpowder around his neck untouched. Nicholas cried out for some of the faggots around him to be removed, with the desperate words, “I cannot burn!”. Eventually the wood around him was removed and the lower faggots caught fire properly, the flames lit his gunpowder and his suffering was over.

Select further reading:

John Foxe, Actes and Monuments, Oxford University Press, 2009 print edition

Anna Whitelock, Mary Tudor: England’s First Queen, Bloomsbury books, 2010

H.F.M. Prescott, Mary Tudor: The Spanish Tudor, Phoenix books, 2003 [1940]

Linda Porter, Mary Tudor: The First Queen, Piatkus, 2009

Peter Wallace, The Long European Reformation, Palgrave Macmillan, second edition, 2012

John Schofield, Cromwell to Cromwell: Reformation to Civil War, The History Press, 2011

Sarah is currently studying for a Bachelor of History with Latin degree at an English university and regularly blogs at her site Henry III (link: )


4 thoughts on “Guest Post by Sarah: The Martyrdoms of Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley”

  1. Eunice Ormonde

    A powerful narration indeed. It makes us think and ponder.
    Those were truly complicated times on religion matters. People were executed or encarcerated for their beliefs. Unfortunally even now days it still happens in some parts of the the world.

    I would like to take this opportunity to ask you, Susan, where or how, can I find any of your books here in Portugal. I´ve been looking in some reference libraries in here but I I simply can’t find none.

    Kind Regards,

    Eunice Ormonde

  2. I visited the memorial of the Oxford martyrs at Easter. I’m always moved when I read of their suffering. Very brave men.

  3. But don’t forget they themselves burned others. Latimer oversaw the execution of a Franciscan monk, burned over a ‘slow fire’ fuelled by a famous effigy of a Welsh saint during the reign of Henry VIII. It had taken two hours for the monk to die, with him suspended in chains over a burning effigy of a Welsh saint, while Latimer had cracked jokes. Anabaptists (who believed in adult baptism and would not bear arms or take of oaths) had been burned by the Protestant authorities under Edward VI, and would be burned under Elizabeth I too. Christians happily have moved on, when other faiths have not !

  4. But don’t forget that in the reign of Protestant Edward VI there were 2 burnings of anabaptists and in the reign of Catholic Mary there were 282 burnings, a lot of people died in prison before their trials and were not allowed normal burial. As for Latimer overseing the execution of friar Forest, he was ordered to do so by the King. In his letter to Cromwell Latimer wrote: “And sir if this be your pleasure that I shall play the fool after my customable manner when Forest shall suffer, I would wish that my stage stand near unto Forest, for I would endeavour myself so to content the people, that though I might also convert Forest, God so helps, wherefore I wold (want ?) that he should hear what I shall say…This is to be feared that some instilled in to him that though he had persevered in his abjuration yet he should have suffered afterwards for treason, and so by this occasion he might have been induced to refuse his abjuration. If he wold yet with heart return to his abjuration, I would wish his pardon, such is my foolishness” (Original Letters, Illustrative of English History, ed. Sir Henry Ellis – series 3, vol.3, p.203-204)

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