I always love the stories of Christian martyrs (devoted men or women who die for the name of Christ). There is something about their trust and devotion to Christ that motivates me in my Christian walk. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that I love to hear about Christian’s dying. But, I do love to hear about Christians who die well, never denying the Lord Jesus Christ and his truth. Such is the case of Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, English Reformers who would die as neighbors in an execution by fire.
“Be of good comfort, Mr. Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust never shall be put out.”
Their lives didn’t coincide much, but in their deaths, they stood side by side, perhaps the most well-known martyrdoms of the Reformation.
Early on it was clear that Nicholas Ridley had one of the finest minds in England. After attending Cambridge and the Sorbonne in Paris, he settled down to a scholarly career at Cambridge. About 1534, he first showed interest in Protestantism, and in 1537, he was appointed the chaplain to reform-minded Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury. In the 1540s, when a Roman Catholic reaction set in during Henry’s reign, Ridley was suspected of heresy, but during the Protestant reign of Edward VI, he was appointed bishop of Rochester, and then bishop of London as well.
Ridley used his influence to further the Protestant cause. His impact on the emerging Book of Common Prayer is seen especially in the section on the Eucharist. Christ’s sacrifice was not “repeated,” as in the Catholic liturgy; instead, worshipers offered a “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.”
As bishop of London, he had stone altars replaced by wooden tables for observing Communion, which caused an uproar among Catholics in the city. He also instituted pastoral work in the city, aiding the poor and founding hospitals and schools.
When Roman Catholic Mary Tudor became queen upon Edward’s death, Ridley was imprisoned in the Tower of London. He was joined by Hugh Latimer and Thomas Cranmer, and all three were taken to Oxford, where their “heretical” opinions were examined. When given an opportunity to recant his views, Ridley declined.
Hugh Latimer started out as a passionate Catholic. During his years at Cambridge University (he enrolled in 1506), he gained a reputation both as an ascetic and extraordinary preacher. Upon receiving a degree in theology in 1524, he delivered a lecture in which he assailed German Lutheran Philip Melanchthon for his high view of Scripture.
Among Latimer’s listeners, though, was Thomas Bilney, a leader of a society of Protestants at Cambridge. After the lecture, Bilney asked Latimer to hear his confession. The startled Latimer, believing his lecture had converted the evangelical, readily complied. The “confession,” however, was a stealthily worded sermon on the comfort and confidence the Scriptures can bring. Latimer was moved to tears—and to Protestantism.
Latimer’s sermons now targeted Catholicism and social injustice. He preached boldly, daring in 1530 to utter a sermon before the strong-armed Henry VIII that denounced violence as a means of protecting God’s Word. For this he won the king’s respect.
This farmer’s son soon became one of Henry’s chief advisers after the king’s break with Rome. Appointed bishop of Worcester, he supported Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries. However, when he opposed the king’s Six Articles (Henry’s retreat from Protestantism), he was put under house arrest for six years.
He was given his freedom during the reign of Edward VI, and he flourished as one of emerging Protestantism’s leading preachers. But with the ascension of Mary, he was again imprisoned, tried, and along with Ridley, condemned to death.
A tale of two martyrs
According to John Foxe, in his famous Book of Martyrs (officially titled, Acts and Monuments), Ridley arrived at the field of execution first. When Latimer arrived, the two embraced and Ridley said, “Be of good heart, brother, for God will either assuage the fury of the flame, or else strengthen us to abide it.” They both knelt and prayed before listening to an exhortation from a preacher (as was the custom before an execution for heresy).
After the sermon, one of the officials pleaded, “Mr. Ridley, if you will revoke your erroneous opinions, you shall not only have liberty so to do, but also your life.”
“Not otherwise?” said Ridley.
“If you will not do so,” replied the official, “there is no remedy: you must suffer for your deserts.”
“Well,” concluded Ridley, “so long as the breath is in my body, I will never deny my Lord Christ and his known truth. God’s will be done in me.”
The blacksmith wrapped a chain of iron around the waists of Ridley and Latimer. When the wood about Ridley’s feet was lit, Latimer said, “Be of good comfort, Mr. Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust never shall be put out.”
As the fire rose Latimer cried out, “O Father of heaven, receive my soul!” and he died almost immediately. Ridley however, hung on, with most of his lower body having burned before he passed away.
Galli, M., & Olsen, T. (2000). Introduction. In 131 Christians everyone should know (pp. 375–377). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.