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Hugh Latimer

Christian Martyr born 1485 - Burned at the Stake 1555
(work in progress)

Hugh LatimerHugh Latimer was famous as a preacher. He was Bishop of Worcester (pronounced WOOS-ter) in the time of King Henry, but resigned in protest against the King's refusal to allow the Protestant reforms that Latimer desired. Latimer's sermons speak little of doctrine; he preferred to urge men to upright living and devoutness in prayer. But when Mary came to the throne, he was arrested, tried for heresy, and burned together with his friend Nicholas Ridley. His last words at the stake are well known: "Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, and play the man, for we shall this day light such a candle in England as I trust by God' grace shall never be put out."


The increasing stress laid upon edification made itself felt not only through the press, but even more through the pulpit literature of the day, which showed a great facility of expression and a command of genuine emotion not reached before. Medieval oratory, at its best, did not, and could not, equal it, because it was impossible, in the earlier days, to combine these two elements to the degree possible at the reformation. Even just before the reformation, bishop Fisher’s sermons—perhaps the best of their time and delivered by a most saintly man—did not reach the same force and directness of speech, the vivid personal appeal, the command of an audience, to which many later sermons attained. In its sudden rise to excellence, the sermon of the day may, indeed, be compared with the drama: both were affected by the growth of the language, and also by a movement of thought able to wield that language with greater power; both suffered, at a later date, from an excess of fancy, beginning to appear even in Latimer’s Sermons on the Card (December, 1529). Among popular preachers, John Longland, bishop of Lincoln (1521–38) and chancellor of Oxford, had a great reputation; so, upon the other side, had John Hooper, afterwards bishop of Gloucester, whose sermons upon Jonah, before Edward VI, were vigorous in denunciation and fearless in reproof. But the reputation of all these capable preachers, speaking, as they did, to a generation tolerant, or even avaricious, of sermons, was overshadowed by the greater name of Hugh Latimer. 26
Latimer, the exact year of whose birth is uncertain (1485–91), took his bachelor’s degree at Cambridge in 1510, and his bachelorship of divinity in 1524. As crossbearer (1522) to the university and as Fellow of Clare he had some academical position. Up to 1524, he had opposed the new teaching, and, in his “act” for B.D., had attacked Melanchthon. But, after that discourse, Thomas Bilney, desiring to influence him, chose him as confessor and, as a penitent, gained him over to his own views. Together, they spent their days in works of mercy; in the evening, they, with Robert Barnes, Stafford and others, met at “The White Horse” for reading and discussion. “Little Germany,” as the place was called, became a centre of influence in the university, and remained so until an abusive sermon of Barnes, preached in St. Edward’s church on Christmas Eve, 1525, brought danger upon the “Germans.” Hitherto, Wolsey had been very tolerant and, although urged by the bishops to take steps against heresy at the universities, had refused to do so. But Barnes, who, like Latimer, had come under Bilney’s spiritual influence, had not learnt reverence or discretion, and in this sermon he had attacked Wolsey with violence. Taken to London and examined before Wolsey, he agreed to recant; after this he was imprisoned for three years and then escaped to Germany. The incident scattered the band of Cambridge scholars and was a crisis in their history. It not only brought them into disrepute, but lent bitterness to their words and writings. 27
When Barnes preached this celebrated sermon, he had exchanged pulpits with Latimer, who, although he had just been inhibited by the bishop (West) of Ely, could still preach in the exempt chapel of the Augustinian priory. The trouble caused Latimer, also, to be called before Wolsey, who appreciated his good qualities and his sound old-fashioned learning, and allowed him to return to Cambridge with a general licence to preach, signed by the cardinal himself. The incident shows the attitude taken by those in high authority towards reform; but the bitterness of preachers like Barnes and the scurrility of some pamphleteers made it hard to maintain this attitude. Up to this time, the movement in England had been mainly based on learning and was distinctly English. In spite of the names of Lutherans and Germans loosely given to them, and of their sympathy for German writers, these Englishmen, as yet, owed little to foreign influence. But increasing intercourse gradually brought about a closer unity of opinion: few English theologians became Lutherans, but some became Zwinglians and other Calvinists. Latimer, however, may be taken as representing the earlier and more characteristic stage of the movement. He attacked specially those abuses which Erasmus had satirised—indulgences, pilgrimages, veneration of images; upon the positive side, he laid stress upon the life and example of Christ, and help up a high ideal of conduct. But he did not move of his own accord to any revolutionary conception of the church, to any assertion of individual liberty, or to an attack upon the doctrine of the sacraments, although that was the central topic of his examination at his trial (1555). Even then, however, he leaned mainly upon Cranmer’s book, and confessed that he had only been of his final opinion for some seven years. 28
His boldness during the trial, and his determination, both for himself and in inspiring others, was a strange contrast to the timidity of some of his earlier Cambridge friends. His arguments were, however, less forceful than his example: he referred again and again to “my lord of Canterbury’s book” for proof of his assertions; and discussion of the one subject—that of the pope’s supremacy—upon which he would have liked to enlarge, was refused him. The Conferences between him and Ridley (published in 1556) give a pathetic picture of their imprisonment.
The number of the “criers under the altar” must needs be fulfilled. Pardon me and pray for me: pray for me, I say: pray for me, I say. For I am sometimes so fearful, that I would creep into a mousehole; sometimes God doth visit me again with His comfort. So He cometh and goeth, to teach me to feel and to know mine infirmity, to the intent to give thanks to Him that is worthy, lest I should rob Him of His duty, as many do. Fare you well.

These were his words to Ridley. To another prisoner, wavering in the peril of death, he wrote:
If any man perceive his faith not to abide the fire, let such an one with weeping buy his liberty, until he hath obtained more strength, lest the gospel by him sustain an offence of some shameful recantation. Let the dead bury their dead. Let us that be of the lively faith follow the Lamb wheresoever He goeth.

Clearly those were not mistaken who had seen in the great preacher an underlying strength of manliness, inspired by piety, as the foundation of his character.


Hugh Latimer was Bishop of Worcester during the reign of Henry VIII. Although divorce was against the doctrine of the Church of England, Latimer supported the practice in an attempt to stop the King from beheading Ann Boleyn so he could marry Jane Seymour.

Bishop Latimer was a graduate of Cambridge University and a major figure in The Reformation. Imprisoned in the Tower of London as a heretic, he was burned at the stake in 1555 with Cranmer and Ridley.

In Oxford, the famous Martyr's Memorial in the center of town commemorates the 'faithfulness unto death' of the three martyrs.


Chapter 41

Hugh Latimer: Reformer and Martyr

Reformation in England

God works in mysterious ways, and the wonders of His providence sometimes leave us gasping in surprise. The Reformation in England is illustrative of this truth. While in Germany and Geneva God brought about the Reformation through the work of mighty men of God such as Luther and Calvin, in England the Reformation turned on the lust and fornication of a king -- Henry VIII, known throughout history as the man of many wives, some of whom he murdered.

About the lust of Henry we must say a few words because the work of the noble Hugh Latimer cannot be understood without the background of a fornicating king.

Henry, a Tudor king, was married to Catherine of Aragon. Henry wanted to be free of this marriage, partly because Catherine had not succeeded in giving him a male heir to sit on the throne, and partly because Henry had his lustful eyes upon Anne of Boleyn, a girl of the palace who would not sleep with Henry unless he married her.

The pope would not release Henry from his marriage to Catherine, and Henry, in a fury against the pope, cut all ties between England and Rome, rejected the ecclesiastical and civil authority of the pope in England, made himself head of the church in England, and refused to allow any money to leave England's shores to find its way into papal coffers.

Under these circumstances, Reformation came about in England. It was not as if Henry himself was interested in reforming doctrine; he hated it, remained all his life devoted to Romish heresy and superstition, persecuted and killed those who promoted Reformation truths, and determined to keep his church in England loyal to the doctrine of the Roman church. But his determination to get rid of papal rule in order to marry Anne Boleyn opened the door to Reformation efforts.

In Germany, Geneva, and other parts of Europe, reformation had come about through separation from the church of Rome. This was never to happen in England. In this country, reformation was attempted by efforts to change the church of Rome itself into a Protestant church. England still bears the effects of this today.

Latimer's Early Life And Conversion

The date of Hugh Latimer's birth is not known, but apparently took place somewhere between 1475 and 1490. He was born of a prosperous farmer in Thurscaton in Leicestershire. Recognizing his great abilities, Hugh's father gave him every educational opportunity, and when Hugh was 14, sent him to Cambridge. There he studied, became a fellow of Clare Hall, took a degree, entered into a study of theology with a view to devoting his life to the service of the church, and established ties with Cambridge which would last throughout much of his life.

Cambridge was in ferment, partly because the teachings of John Wycliffe had never been lost in England, partly because the writings of Luther had come into the country and were avidly read, studied, and discussed in Cambridge's halls, and partly because Erasmus had seen to it that his edition of the Greek New Testament was circulated in England's intellectual circles.

Although Latimer showed great intellectual abilities, profound insights into theology, and powerful oratorical gifts, he devoted his time and abilities to do all he could to combat anything that faintly resembled the Reformation. He was a bitter opponent of the Scriptures and ridiculed a colleague who expounded the Scriptures in his classroom. Latimer even used the opportunity of his dissertation for a divinity degree to attack the views and teachings of Philip Melanchthon.

But God brought Hugh Latimer to the service of the Reformation, though in a rather remarkable and even humorous way. A group of men, one of whom was Thomas Bilney, was accustomed to meet to discuss ways of promoting the Reformation to which they were deeply committed. Bilney had seen Latimer's great potential and had long pondered ways to persuade Latimer to join the movement for reform. Finally he hit upon a clever, though under God's blessing, successful way. Pretending to desire to make confession and be absolved from sin by Latimer, he used Latimer's naiveté and pride (Hugh Latimer thought Bilney was about to make confession for his devotion to the Reformation and ask for forgiveness) to describe for Latimer his own conversion from the comfortless doctrine of work righteousness which Rome taught to the blessed peace of faith in the perfect sacrifice of the spotless Lamb of God. Latimer was moved as never before, and, humbled before God, he cast his lot with the Reformation movement.

Latimer the Reformer

Latimer's considerable gifts were now devoted to the cause of reform, and he became an ardent and eloquent preacher of reform. His life was, from that moment on, a life on an ecclesiastical roller coaster -- sometimes full of success, sometimes loaded with heartbreak, apparent defeat, and suffering.

As his preaching attracted more people, the bishop of Ely, Dr. West, began to take notice. While first rather tolerant of Hugh and inclined to be sympathetic, he was moved to anger when he heard Hugh preach against the great sins of bishops -- a sermon which Latimer preached on the spur of the moment when, about ready to preach on another passage of Scripture, he saw the bishop of Ely with his retinue enter the building. Bishop Ely did not take kindly to such open criticism and forbad Latimer to preach in his diocese.

A sympathetic prior from a local monastery of the Augustinian order, whose monastery was free from the supervision of the bishop, opened his pulpit to Latimer, and the crowds were larger than ever.

But greater triumphs awaited him -- and greater troubles. When Cardinal Wolsey looked favorably on Latimer, all the pulpits in England were opened to him. When Cardinal Wolsey, England's most powerful man under the king, fell from favor, Latimer's enemies smelled blood. When king Henry was favorably inclined toward Latimer (partly because Latimer, foolishly, approved the king's divorce of Catherine of Aragon), he came under the king's protection, felt sufficiently free with the king to plead for some easing of the persecution of Protestants, and received from the king the benefice of West Kingston, where he preached Reformed doctrine. When the king had his back turned, occupied with other matters, Latimer was summoned before the bishop of London, harshly and incessantly questioned over many days, and finally excommunicated and condemned. He was restored to favor only by appealing to the king and agreeing to 14 points of Romish practice and worship which included approval of Lent and the lawfulness of crucifixes and images in the churches.

This moment of weakness was, by his own admission, the low point in Hugh's life, a black day indeed, a sin which he confessed before his God, but a crucial point in his life: he resolved that, come what may, he would never do such foolishness again. It was a resolution which would be sorely tested.

His life of ups and downs continued. Through the favor of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cranmer, Latimer received the bishopric of Worchester where he spent several happy and fruitful years preaching reform, but sufficiently far from the public eye that he attracted little unfavorable attention. But the Lord was not ready to leave Hugh in obscurity and, as his fame spread, he was summoned to preach at the opening of Parliament in 1536, and in the same year at a Convocation called to confirm Henry VIII as head of the church of England. In both sermons, Latimer preached strongly in favor of reform and pleaded with the assembled dignitaries to bring about reform as swiftly as possible.

While it seemed as if his pleas were well-received, an event of another kind spoiled it all. Lutheran theologians came from Germany to discuss union between the two countries and cooperation in the Reformation. When the Lutheran theologians were understandably unwilling to accept the Romish doctrine of transubstantiation, Henry became increasingly stubborn and not only insisted on the doctrine, but threatened any who denied it with the direst punishments.

Latimer, fully aware that he could never teach such doctrine, resigned his bishopric. He would probably have escaped punishment if it were not for the fact that a tree fell on him and caused injuries which brought him to London for medical help. He was immediately imprisoned, thrown into the Tower of London, and remained there for six years until Henry, having exhausted himself with all his wives, died.

Edward VI, the son of Anne Boleyn and the only male heir, took the throne. Edward was strongly in favor of the Reformation and offered Latimer his bishopric once again, which offer Latimer refused on the grounds of his advanced age. But he did continue to preach, for he had always been and continued above all to be, a preacher of the gospel.

Latimer's Martyrdom

But Edward soon died and Mary came to the throne. This is the Mary who has rightly earned the name by which she has been known since her death: "Bloody Mary."

Arrested and thrown again into the tower, Latimer was deprived of even a semblance of creaturely comforts. He was tormented and questioned, threatened and mocked, while every effort was made to get him to recant. Though now past 80 years old, he remembered the shame and confusion of his earlier weakness and steadfastly maintained his confession of faith in his Savior Jesus Christ. His response to the taunts and ridicule of his tormentors was: "I thank God most heartily that he hath prolonged my life to this end, that I may in this case glorify God with this kind of death."

Hugh Latimer with Ridley and Cranmer, fellow Reformers, were transferred to Oxford for trial and sentencing. All were found guilty of heresy and sentenced to be burned at the stake. On October 16, 1555 Ridley and Latimer were led from the Tower outside the north wall of the town, a stone's throw from Baliol College, with Latimer lagging a bit because of his feebleness. Kneeling together before the pile of faggots, they both prayed and, rising, submitted themselves to the will of God and their captors. They were tied to the same stake with a chain around their waists, leaving their hands and arms free. The

faggots were piled around them, but, prior to their being lit, a sympathetic onlooker tied bags of gun powder about their necks to speed their death. The faggots were lit and the pain began. It was then that Latimer uttered those immortal words which have rung down the centuries of time: "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."

The flames quickly reached the gunpowder tied about Latimer's neck and he died with little suffering. But the case was not so with Ridley. The wood was wet and burned only around his legs. His agony was great and all but unbearable. His legs were completely burned away before an onlooker removed some of the higher faggots to permit the flames to rise higher and explode the gunpowder which ended his life as well.

The triumph was the victory of faith; the everlasting shame and reproach remains Rome's.

Latimer's Place in Church History

All Latimer's contemporaries spoke highly of him. He was eloquent in speech, perhaps England's most powerful preacher. He was a man of impeccable moral conduct. He was kind, honest, enthusiastic about the work, given to many works of mercy, and wholly devoted to the cause of the spread of the gospel.

One writer says this of his sermons:

... The sermons of Hugh Latimer ... although in style essentially medieval, belong in thought and intention to the days of reform. Racy, full of anecdote, reminiscence and humour, rich in homely English words like "ugsomeness," "dodipoles" and "belly-cheer," these sermons are an indication of the vigour and courage and outspokenness which belonged to the New Age. Latimer has hard words to say about the pope--"that Italian bishop yonder, the devil's chaplain"-- and about the falseness of images and relics, of the Roman doctrine of the Mass, and about the contemporaries, especially bishops and others who neglect the ministry of the Word and become "unpreaching prelates." Bishops, he says, "are so taken up with ruffling in their rents, dancing in their dominions ... munching in their mangers and moiling in their gay manors and mansions" that they have no time for preaching, while the devil "the most diligent prelate and preacher in all England" is busy poisoning the hearts of men.

Hugh Latimer was "one of the most distinguished prelates of the Church of England, undoubtedly one of the ablest, if not the ablest ecclesiastic among the English reformers of the 16th century ... the John Knox of England, the bearer of a name that `now shines over two hemispheres, and will blaze more and more till the last day."

Latimer, while dying, spoke of a light in England that would never go out. If today it has indeed not gone out, sadness fills the souls of those who must admit that it is now little more than a small and flickering flame.


"Hugh Latimer was the son of an English farmer, educated at Cambridge University, and ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1510. 'Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations' (Jeremiah 1:5). Though reputed as a preacher prior to his conversion to Christ in 1525, after contact with Thomas Bilney-- another Cambridge scholar who had come to accept the preeminence of the Scriptures over the preeminence of the Pope-- Hugh Latimer was transformed into a mouthpiece for the claims of Christ over the claims of Romanism."


"The world was ordained to endure, AS ALL LEARNED MEN affirm and prove it
with Scripture, six thousand years. Now, of that number there be past
five thousand five hundred and fifty-two (years); so that there is no more
left but four hundred and forty-eight." (Hugh Latimer, 1490-1555)





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