The Oxford Martyrs: Hugh Latimer

Hugh Latimer - Portrait

Hugh Latimer (c.1486-1555) – Portrait

Hugh Latimer did not mince words. Before kings, before queens, this formerly described “obstinate papist” who at one time viciously attacked the reformer Philip Melanchthon in his disputations became a leader of the Reformation in England. He attacked the mass, the office of pope, and the idea of purgatory. Beloved by the people of England, Latimer would be counted among the Oxford Martyrs and a victim of the Marian Counter-Reformation.

Born around the year 1486 in Thurcaston, England, Hugh Latimer took pride in his heritage recounting, “My father was a yeoman, and the son of a yeoman.” (Lumpkin 187) His father had been quite successful in farming and sent his son, who had an aptitude for learning, to the University of Cambridge. Here, Latimer dove into Roman Catholic orthodoxy. He embraced the authority of the church and did not want to have anything to do with the Lollards or the heretics in Germany. He received his Holy Orders (ordination) in 1510 after his oration decrying Philip Melanchthon. (CPRC) It was during this time that he fell into the company of Thomas Bilney. Bilney witnessed Latimer’s oration on Melancthon and it struck a chord with him. He knew Latimer had potential. Under Bilney’s influence, “in 1525 Latimer came into contact with a group of young Cambridge divines who were influenced by Martin Luther’s new doctrines.” (“Hugh Latimer: English Protestant”) This young group, which was also comprised by Thomas Cranmer, William Tyndale, and John Rogers at one time or another met at the White Horse Tavern at Cambridge. Latimer, once the opposition to the reformation, started to become a part of it.

Hugh Latimer - National Portrait Gallery - London - 1555

Hugh Latimer – National Portrait Gallery – London – 1555

As Latimer started to adopt reforming doctrines, controversy would follow him. As a chaplain at Cambridge, Latimer would sometimes give sermons. On one such occasion, Latimer gave a sermon that ignited a controversy attacking the spiritual merit if pilgrimages:

Now then, if men be so foolish of themselves that they will bestow the most part of their goods in voluntary works, which they be not bound to keep, but willingly and by their devotion; and leave the necessary works undone, which they are bound to do; they and all their voluntary works are like to go unto everlasting damnation. And I promise you, if you build a hundred churches, give as much as you can make to gilding of saints, and honouring of the church; and if thou go as many pilgrimages as thy body can well suffer, and offer as great candles as oaks; if thou leave the works of mercy and the commandments undone, these works shall nothing avail thee. – Sermon on the Cards (quoted in CPRC)

This caused havoc in the congregation. Latimer suggested that good standing in the church did not save someone from perdition. That kind of sermon was not expected and would earn him a reprimand as Latimer would defend his statements.

Even so, the climate in England had been shifting toward reformation. As King Henry VIII sought to get his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, the reformation started to gain steam in 1532. This initial stage was more a political reformation, than a religious reformation. As a result, the church drew up sixteen articles for all the residing priests in the area to sign. Gustav relates, “On the 29th of January, 1532, Latimer appeared before a court under the presidency of Primate Warham, in St. Paul’s Cathedral, and was ordered to sign a paper of sixteen articles, on the belief in purgatory, the invocation of saints, the merit of pilgrimages, and other such topics [Latimer had spoke out against in his preaching] He refused to sign.” (The Luther Memorial 963) By March of that same year, Latimer had still refused. As a result, in April the bishops of the church excommunicated Latimer and locked him in what was known as “Lollard’s Tower,” now a part of Lambeth Palace, as a heretic.

The Reformation ebbed and flowed in England. The political climate had changed, but the theology of the church was still developing. Latimer was not silent in his brief imprisonment and he had powerful friends. Thomas Cromwell had become a friend of Latimer and served as the king’s chief minister. And “thanks to Cromwell’s influence, Latimer was elevated in 1535 to the bishopric of Worcester.” (“Hugh Latimer”). By this time, Latimer’s friend Thomas Cranmer had been installed as archbishop: he gave Latimer free reign.

As Bishop of Worcester, Latimer gained a reputation as one of the leaders of the Reformation in England. His powerful preaching, biting sarcasm, support of the poor, and take no prisoners attitude “made him a favorite of common people and courtiers alike.” (Galbraith 30) Church historian Galbraith recounts, “It may be that no other sixteenth-century English preacher articulated English Reformation doctrine more vividly during his lifetime or, for that matter, after his death. “ (30) His sermons cut to the core making comments not just about the papacy, but the lavish and sinful lifestyle of King Henry VIII. This earned him a number of brief imprisonments and Henry’s toleration of Latimer waxed and waned.

Master Latimer preaching before King Edward VI at Westminster -  1540s - National Portrait Gallery, London

Master Latimer preaching before King Edward VI at Westminster – 1540s – National Portrait Gallery, London

By the time Edward VI arrived on the trone, Latimer had been released from prison and refused to take his bishopric back. Instead he taught in Lincolnshire and the new king Edward held him in favor. Latimer, while certainly benefiting from Edward’s support, stated clearly that he was not going to stop preaching against corruption both in royalty, in the church, and in the nobility. Latimer stated boldly to Edward in 1547:

The preacher cannot correct the King, if he be a transgressor of God’s word, with the temporal sword: but he must correct and reprove him with the spiritual sword, fearing no man; setting God only before his eyes, under whom he is a minister, to supplant and root up all vice and mischief by God’s word…Therefore, let the preacher teach, improve, amend and instruct in righteousness, with the spiritual sword; fearing no man, though death should ensue. – Hugh Latimer (quoted in Lumpkin 189).

The king would rule as he wished, but freedom to rule was not freedom from criticism.

Latimer also made it a point to distinguish reformation doctrine in his famous Sermon on the Plough of 1548. Latimer employed his trademark language to described the Roman Catholic church as the devil “who is the most diligentest bishop and prelate in all England.” Describing the Roman church’s doctrine and attacking the practice of the mass, Latimer expounded:

Where the devil is resident, and hath his plough going, there away with books, and up with candles; away with bibles, and up with beads; away with the light of the gospel, and up with the light of candles…as though man could invent a better way to honour God with than God himself….but as for our redemption, it is done already, it cannot be better. Christ hath done that thing so well, that it cannot be amended. …But the devil, by the help of that Italian bishop yonder, his chaplain [the pope], hath labored by all means that he might frustrate the death of Christ and the merits of his passion. – Sermon on the Plough – 1548 (quoted in CPRC)

After the Sermon on the Plough, Latimer would continue to preach successfully and in great admiration throughout King Edward VI’s reign. Unfortunately, however, it was not to be. The Marian Counter-Reformation had begun with the ascendancy of “Bloody Mary.” Mary did not immediately seek to do away with the reformers in England, “only to ‘neutralize’ the threat posed by recalcitrant reformers.” (“The Oxford Martyrs” 78) However, Mary quickly found out that people like Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer held more of a threat than she had originally realized. Mary had Latimer imprisoned the same year she took power in 1553.

Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley martyred by being burnt at the stake. John Foxe - Acts and Monuments - 1563

Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley martyred by being burnt at the stake. John Foxe – Acts and Monuments – 1563

While in prison, Stephen Gardiner, the same one who interrogated John Rogers, harangued Latimer as well. Try as he might, he could not get Latimer to admit that he had committed error when he preached against the mass, the pope, and the transubstantiation of the Eucharist. As Latimer’s time in prison wore on, he and Ridley and Cranmer would have seen Rogers taken out and burned in February of 1555. Latimer and the others certainly felt solidarity in preaching the true religion. They started referring to Rogers as “their ‘protomartyr’” and the event “began the process by which a nucleus of religious and political opposition [started to] consolidate against Mary.” (Crumrine 88) Unfortunately, Mary continued to sit on the throne and eventually both Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer were taken out as Cranmer awaited a later execution.

On, October 16th 1555, Latimer spoke to his friend Nicholas quoting the ancient martyr Polycarp as the flames came, “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 shall never be put out. “ (Foxe’s Acts and Monuments – 1583 quoted in Cavendish).

The Monument to the Oxford Martyrs - Courtesy: Nerdindeutschland

The Monument to the Oxford Martyrs – Courtesy: Nerdindeutschland

Today a monument stands as a testimony to the Oxford Martyrs right off of the campus of Oxford University. It 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.

“Bishop Hugh Latimer: Protestant Martyr.” (CPRC) Covenant Protestant Reformed Church. United Kingdom. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.

Cavendish, Richard. “Latimer and Ridley Burned at the Stake.” History Today 55.10 (2005): 52–53. Print. EBSCOhost. Retrieved at Westminster Theological Seminary.

Galbraith, Steven Kenneth. “Latimer Revised and Reprised: Editing Frutefull Sermons for Pulpit Delivery.” Reformation 11 (2006): 29–46. Print. EBSCOhost. Retrieved at Westminster Theological Seminary.

Gustav, Ferdinand Leopold König, Heinrich Gelzer, Jean Henri Merle d’Aubigné, and Victor Lafayette Conrad. The Luther Memorial together with the History of the Great Reformation in the times of Luther and Calvin. Philadelphia: The Memorial Publishing Company, 1883. P.963-964. Web. Google Books. 15 Oct. 2015.

“Hugh Latimer: English Protestant.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 15 Oct 2015.

Lumpkin, Hope Henry. “Hugh Latimer: Bishop and Doctor, Social Prophet of the Sixteenth Century.” Anglican Theological Review 13.2 (1931): 187–196. EBSCOhost. Print. Retrieved at Westminster Theological Seminary.


4 thoughts on “The Oxford Martyrs: Hugh Latimer

  1. Pingback: The Oxford Martyrs: Nicholas Ridley | Continuing Reformation

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