Christian Martyr born 1485 - Burned at the Stake 1555
(work in progress)
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 Fishers sermonsperhaps the best
of their time and delivered by a most saintly mandid 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 Latimers Sermons on the Card (December, 1529). Among
popular preachers, John Longland, bishop of Lincoln (152138)
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 (148591),
took his bachelors 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. Edwards 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 Bilneys 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 satirisedindulgences,
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 Cranmers
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 Canterburys book for
proof of his assertions; and discussion of the one subjectthat
of the popes supremacyupon 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
In Oxford, the famous Martyr's Memorial in the center of town
commemorates the 'faithfulness unto death' of the three martyrs.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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)