Skip to comments.The final hours of Bishops Latimer and Ridley
Posted on 10/27/2005 5:59:40 PM PDT by sionnsar
Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by Gods grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out. These courageous words from the mouth of Bishop Latimer have reverberated down the centuries, a clarion call of the Reformation and one of the most famous statements ever spoken at an execution anywhere in the world. They were uttered in a ditch outside the walls of Oxford in October 1555, 450 years ago. Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, two of the heavyweights of the English Reformation, had helped to transform the Church of England from top to bottom according to biblical principles. But now Queen Mary Tudor was on the throne and their reforming work was undone.
With Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, they were taken to Oxford in March 1554, interrogated, condemned as heretics and excommunicated. In the late summer of 1555 events took a new turn. A papal delegation arrived in Oxford and condemned the prisoners over again at St Mary-the-Virgin Church. Cranmers life would be spared a few months longer because, as Archbishop of Canterbury, the Popes formal verdict was needed before his execution. But Latimer and Ridley could be more easily dealt with. On October 16, Latimer and Ridley were led to the place of execution in a ditch near Balliol College, just outside the city walls (now Oxfords Broad Street). At the stake Ridley and Latimer joyfully embraced, having not met face to face since their arrival in Oxford 18 months before. Ridley encouraged his fellow martyr: Be of good heart, brother, for God will either assuage the fury of the flame or else strengthen us to abide it. Ridley kissed the stake and the two men prayed together, kneeling side by side.
A large number of spectators gathered to witness the execution. Armed soldiers were out in force because the authorities feared trouble from the crowd. Dr Richard Smith, a local Oxford clergyman, preached for 15 minutes from a makeshift pulpit on the predictable text: If I yield my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing (1 Corinthians 13:3). The preacher exhorted Latimer and Ridley to return to the Roman Catholic Church and explained to the crowd that they were not martyrs but suicides. The bishops were told they could only speak if it was to recant, but Ridley replied: So long as the breath is in my body, I will never deny my Lord Christ and his truth. Gods will be done in me. In a loud voice he shouted out that he committed his cause to God.
Ridleys brother-in-law, George Shipside, was allowed within the cordon of guards to give a bag of gunpowder to the two men to shorten their sufferings, which they accepted thankfully as a token of the mercy of God. As the fire was lit, Latimer died swiftly and comparatively painlessly. He held out his hands into the flames and was soon overcome by the smoke. Yet Ridley suffered excruciating agony. As the flames began to rise, he called out (first in Latin, then in English): Into your hands, O Lord, I commit my spirit. But the fire on his side of the stake burned slowly. The bundles of wood and reeds were packed so tightly that the flames burned only his feet and legs, and he cried out: I cannot burn.
Shipside ran forward and unwittingly made matters worse by piling on more bundles of wood high up around Ridleys face and head, which only deadened the fire still further. The martyrs legs were burned off, while above the waist he was untouched. Still conscious, he shouted out, For Gods sake, let the fire come to me! I cannot burn! Lord, have mercy on me! One of the soldiers eventually pulled away a bundle of wood, allowing the flames to rise. Ridley was able to swing himself forward, so that the fire reached the bag of gunpowder around his neck. Archbishop Cranmer was forced to watch the horrifying final moments of his brother bishops and his faith began to waver, though he ultimately also gave his life for the gospel on the same spot.
Yet the martyrdom of Latimer and Ridley had even greater and more far-reaching consequences. By the grace of God, their violent execution did more to promote the growth of biblical Christianity in England than all their sermons and theological treatises put together. Their gospel witness has lived on through four and a half centuries since. May the candle they lit in that Oxford ditch never be put out!
Church of England Newspaper
Although I have read credible articles on why execution for heresy was practiced, I will never understand the logic behind it. Especially I will never understand the savage means of execution. When Elizabeth had the Catholic martyrs killed or Mary had the Protestant martyrs killed, did they think they were right in doing so? Yes, I guess they did. But how could they think that way?
I think you need to understand it in context, for one thing. Remember that Europe had already been convulsed in wars for decades over this stuff, and England was headed for its own bloody civil/religious war. Religious controversy had tremendous potential to cause civil unrest, and to dethrone rulers.
So it wasn't entirely (or even mostly) a religious issue: there was serious power politics involved, of course made much sharper by the religious overtones of the times.
The RC bishops had huge authority, and (through Rome) could basically raise armies to support their sermons. The Reformation bishops could and did seriously undermine the authority of the Catholic Church. In either case, the authorities figured that the church leaders had to be dealt with in a manner that would deter others.
The article only barely alludes to it, but Cranmer was profoundly frightened by the executions, to the effect that he signed a paper recanting his position. Later on he withdrew his recantation and was likewise burned at the stake -- and he held his hand (the one that had signed the recantation) into the fire so that the offending limb might be "cast off" first.
I'm not saying this is right -- far from it. But it does help to explain it.
My impression of it is as follows.
Ever since Classical times, it had always been the case that to commit a crime against religion was to commit a crime against the state. Witness the pagan Roman proscriptions against Vestal Virgins violating their chastity. The persecution of the Christians was an even more obvious example--quite simply, Christianity in its refusal to sacrifice to the Emperor and to worship the gods of the Roman state, was illegal and punishable by death. (The Jews actually had a special exemption.)
This carried forward from pagan times into Christendom, and we have to enter a moment into the medieval mind. The Christian states of Europe labeled heresy as a crime--because it was far worse to destroy someone's soul than destroy someone's body. Heresy was an attack not only on the Church but also on the right order of society; and the social order demanded that it be punished and punished severely. And it was sometime punished by death--but not by the Church, only by the state. The records of the Inquisition commonly use a phrase like "and he was handed over to the secular authorities to be burned." It was the Church that conducted the trial, the State that conducted the execution.
And to be honest, as a Christian today we must admit that the fundamental premise that the medievals worked on was correct, even if their application of it seems savage to us. This idea of numerous heresies "competing in the arena of ideas"--well, I think it is a nice American fiction but doesn't really work in the real world, as evidence by the madness going on in the secular West.
The whole concept of religious tolerance was not brought to the fore until the era of John Locke, although even he excepted Catholics and atheists from his proposed tolerance policy.
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