Thursday, July 19, 2012
2: Hugh Latimer (ca 1485-1555), Oxford Martyr and Reformation preacher
Hugh Latimer (ca 1485-1555) is one of the three Oxford Martyrs of Anglicanism – alongside Thomas Cranmer and Nicholas Ridley – and was one of the principal promoters of the Reformation in Tudor England.
In theology, Latimer was never a clear thinker, and there were times when it seemed he hardly knew himself what he believed. Yet, Latimer was the outstanding English preacher of the Reformation. His sermons against ecclesiastical abuses led to several trials for heresy, but no proof could be established against his orthodoxy. Latimer had little interest in reﬁned details of doctrine; instead, his zeal was concentrated on the moral life of Christian clergy and people. He was a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, and Bishop of Worcester before the Anglican Reformation, and later chaplain to King Edward VI. In 1555, under Queen Mary, he was burnt at the stake, becoming one of the three Oxford Martyrs of Anglicanism.
Latimer was born into a family of yeoman farmers in Thurscaston, Leicestershire. But his date of birth date is unknown, although contemporary biographers, including John Foxe, placed the date somewhere between 1480 and 1494.
An only boy who grew up with six sisters, he started school at the age of four, but little else is known of his childhood.
The chapel of Peterhouse, Cambridge, where Hugh Latimer was an undergraduate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
He was a student at the University of Cambridge, and Venn says he was probably at Peterhouse, where he was a pupil of Dr John Watson. He said later that while he was a student he was not unaccustomed “to make good cheer and be merry.” But at the same time he was a punctilious observer of the most minute rites of his faith and later described himself at time as being “as obstinate a Papist as any in England.”
While he was still an undergraduate, Latimer he was elected a fellow of Clare Hall, now Clare College, on 2 February 1510. He received the degree Bachelor of Arts (BA) later that year, he proceeded MA in April 1514 and he was ordained priest in Lincoln on 15 July 1515.
During his early years as a priest, Latimer was a zealous Catholic, opposing the Lutheran opinions and he was a bitter opponent of the movement for an English Reformation.
A plaque at Chetwynd Court, King’s College, Cambridge, marking the site of the White House Tavern where Latimer would join those who discussed Reformation ideas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
In 1521, Reformed-minded thinkers at Cambridge began discussing Luther’s writings at the White Horse Inn, which came to be called “Little Germany.” Those who met at the White Horse Inn would later include Thomas Cranmer, future Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Barnes, Prior of the Austin Friars in Cambridge and future martyr, Thomas Bilney, who would change Latimer’s views about the Reformation, Stephen Gardiner, later Bishop of Winchester, Miles Coverdale, translator of the Bible and future Bishop of Exeter, Matthew Parker, later Archbishop of Canterbury, William Tyndale, Bible translator, Nicholas Shaxton, later Bishop of Salisbury, and John Bale, later Bishop of Ossory, and would later include Hugh Latimer.
Many of the group in the White Horse had been influenced by a new translation of the New Testament by Erasmus and by the ideas of Luther. Many of them also preached at the Church of Saint Edward King and Martyr, close to King’s College, Cambridge. The church played a unique role in the early days of the Reformation, and the church was closely associated with the Austin Friars, whose priory stood on the site of Corpus Christ College. The North Chapel of the church had been built for the use of Trinity Hall and the South Chapel for the use of Clare Hall (now Clare College).
Meanwhile, Latimer was nominated in 1522 to the positions of university preacher and university chaplain. He was one of 12 priests licensed by Cambridge University to preach in any part of England, and he was also appointed to carry the silver cross of the university in processions.
Latimer continued with his theological studies and received the degree Bachelor of Divinity in 1524. The subject of his public disputation for the degree was a defence of the Pope’s authority and a refutation of the new ideas of the Reformation emerging from the Continent, in particular the opinions of Philip Melanchthon, who would later become the leading Reformer in Germany after the death of Martin Luther in 1546.
“At last,” said those who heard his words, “England, nay Cambridge, will furnish a champion for the church that will confront the Wittenberg doctors, and save the vassal of our Lord.”
However, their optimism was short-lived. After his oration his friend Thomas Bilney, one of the group that met regularly at the White Horse Inn, came privately to Latimer in his study. He recognised Latimer’s honesty and sincerity and asked if he might be allowed to make a private confession of his own new-found faith.
Latimer was convinced by Bilney’s testimony. Later, reflecting on his sudden conversion, Latimer acknowledged: “To say the truth, by his confession I learned more than before in many years. So from that time forward I began to smell the word of God, and forsook the school-doctors and such fooleries.”
He soon became the most popular preacher of his day and one of the leading spokesmen for the Reformation. His homely practical sermons were strikingly simple, yet powerful and challenging. He joined the group of reformers at the White Horse Inn and began to preach publicly on the need for a translation of the Bible into English. This was a dangerous move as the first translation of the New Testament by William Tyndale had recently been banned.
At the Midnight Mass in Saint Edward’s in Christmas 1525, Robert Barnes preached what was probably the first openly evangelical sermon preached in a church in England, proclaiming the Gospel and accusing the Church of many heresies. Saint Edward’s thus claims to be “the cradle of the Reformation” in England.
Hugh Latimer was among the other reformers who preached regularly at Saint Edward’s. Some of the sermons he preached there have been preserved, and the pulpit from which he preached is still in use.
In 1526, Robert Barnes was forced to make a recantation, and in 1527 Bilney incurred the displeasure of Wolsey and was forced to make humiliating penance for his offences.
The Bishop of Ely, Dr Nicholas West, decided to come to hear him preach in Great Saint Mary’s, the University Church in Cambridge. On seeing the bishop enter the church, Latimer boldly changed his theme to a portrayal of Christ as the pattern for priest and bishop. The bishop professed his “obligations for the good admonition he had received,” but informed the preacher that he “smelt somewhat of the pan.”
Latimer was prohibited from preaching in the university or in any pulpit in the Diocese of Ely. However, the pulpit of the Augustinian Friars in Cambridge – now part of the site of Corpus Christ College – was outside episcopal control. There Robert Barnes was the prior, Myles Coverdale, translator of the Bible, had joined the community in 1523, and Desiderius Erasmus had been close to the community while he was at Queens’ College, Cambridge, from 1511 to 1514.
In early 1528, Latimer was called to answer for his opinions before Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who admonished Latimer but gave him a special licence to preach throughout England.
Wolsey fell out of favour with Henry VIII the following year when he failed to expedite the annulment of the king’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. In December 1529, Latimer preached his two “sermons on the cards,” which caused a turbulent controversy in the university. At the same time, however, it was reported to the king that Latimer favoured the cause of the king’s divorce, and he was invited to preach before Henry in Lent 1530. The king was so pleased with the sermon that after it “he did most familiarly talk with him in a gallery.”
Secure in Henry VIII’s protection, Latimer wrote a famous letter on the free circulation of the Bible, a letter remarkable for what Froude justly calls “its almost unexampled grandeur,” and for its striking repudiation of the aid of temporal weapons to defend the faith, “for God,” he says, “will not have it defended by man or man’s power, but by his Word only, by which he hath evermore defended it, and that by a way far above man’s power and reason.”
Latimer left Cambridge in 1531 when, on the nomination of the king, he became the Vicar of West Kington, near Chippenham in Wiltshire. Later that year in London, he preached a sermon that exasperated Bishop John Stokesley of London and in the January following Latimer was summoned to answer before the bishops in the consistory.
In March 1532, he was brought before convocation, and was censured, excommunicated and imprisoned. But through the intervention of the king he was released after voluntarily signifying his acceptance of all the articles except two, and confessed he had erred not only “in discretion but in doctrine.”
After the consecration of Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533, Latimer’s fortunes changed completely. A commission appointed to inquire into the disturbances caused by his preaching in Bristol severely censured his opponents. When the bishop prohibited him from preaching in his diocese, Cranmer gave him a special licence to preach throughout the province of Canterbury.
In 1534, Henry VIII formally repudiated the authority of the Pope. Latimer began to advise Cranmer and Cromwell on a series of legislative measures, and he became royal chaplain to Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn that year.
In September 1535, he was consecrated Bishop of Worcester, in succession to Geronimo Ghinucci, an Italian absenteeand one of four Italian bishops who had been placed in the diocese, one after another. In Worcester, Latimer promoted reformed teachings and iconoclasm, and supported Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell in the Dissolution of the Monasteries. As Bishop of Worcester, and at the insistence of Thomas Cromwell, he preached the final sermon before the Franciscan friar John Forest was burned at the stake on 22 May 1538 for denying the royal supremacy.
When he opposed Henry VIII’s Act of the Six Articles in 1539, Latimer was forced to resign his bishopric, was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and was then confined to the precincts of the palace of the Bishop of Chichester.
After the attainder of Cromwell, little is known of Latimer until 1546, when – because of his connections with the preacher Edward Crome – he was summoned before the council at Greenwich, and committed once again to the Tower of London.
Henry VIII died before Latimer’s final trial could take place, and the general pardon at the accession of Edward VI brought his liberty. During the next six years, he lived with his friend, Thomas Cranmer, continuing to play his part as a major figure in the English Reformation.
Latimer declined to resume his see, despite a special request from Parliament, and in January 1548 he again began to preach, with more effectiveness than ever and with crowds thronging to listen to him both in London and throughout England. Perhaps his best-known sermon from this time is ‘Of the Plough.’
He became a court preacher until 1550, and then served as chaplain to Lady Jane Grey’s step-grandmother, Catherine Duchess of Suffolk.
Key figures in the story of the Anglican Reformation depicted in a window in Trinity College, Cambridge, from left (top row): Hugh Latimer, Edward VI, Nicholas Ridley, Elizabeth I; (second row): John Wycliffe, Erasmus, William Tyndale and Thomas Cranmer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
However, shortly after Edward VI’s sister, Mary I, came to the throne in 1553, Latimer was summoned to appear before the council at Westminster. On 14 April 1554, commissioners from the papal party, including Edmund Bonner and Stephen Gardiner, began to examine Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, former Bishop of London, and Thomas Cranmer, former Archbishop of Canterbury.
Latimer, hardly able to sustain a debate at his age, responded to the council in writing. He argued that the doctrines of the real presence of Christ in the Mass, transubstantiation, and the propitiatory merit of the mass were unbiblical. The commissioners tried to demonstrate that Latimer did not share the same faith as eminent Fathers, to which Latimer replied: “I am of their faith when they say well ... I have said, when they say well, and bring Scripture for them, I am of their faith; and further Augustine requireth not to be believed.”
Latimer believed that the welfare of souls demanded he stand for the Protestant understanding of the gospel. The commissioners also understood that the debate involved the very message of salvation itself, by which souls would be saved or damned.
After the sentence had been pronounced, Latimer added: “I thank God most heartily that He hath prolonged my life to this end, that I may in this case glorify God by that kind of death.” To which the prolocutor replied: “If you go to heaven in this faith, then I will never come hither, as I am thus persuaded.”
The Martyrs’ Memorial at the south end of St Giles’ near Baliol College in Oxford ... Latimer and Ridley were burned at the stake near this spot on 16 October 1555 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Latimer was burned at the stake on 16 October 1555, alongside Nicholas Ridley, onetime Bishop of London, outside Balliol College in Oxford. As the flames rose, he is said to have said to Ridley: “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’s grace shall never be put out.”
It was said he “received the flame as it were embracing it. After he had stroked his face with his hands, and (as it were) bathed them a little in the fire, he soon died (as it appeared) with very little pain or none.”
Five months later, Thomas Cranmer was also burned at the stake at the same place in Oxford on 21 March 1556. Of almost 300 people burned during Mary’s reign, the most famous are the Oxford martyrs. The Martyrs’ Memorial in the city centre, near the site of their execution, commemorates the “faithfulness unto death” of these three martyrs.
Latimer and Ridley are honoured together in the calendar of the Church of England and in the Episcopal Church (USA) on 16 October. A square, Latimer Square, is named after the man and is located in central Christchurch, New Zealand.
The Latimer room in Clare College, Cambridge, is named after him. Latimer’s pulpit can still be seen in Saint Edward’s Church in Cambridge, where there is a window to his memory. The Chaplain of Saint Edward’s is the Revd Dr Fraser Watts, who is also the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Science in the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Queens’ College.
Keep us, O Lord, constant in faith and zealous in witness, that, like thy servants Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, we may live in thy fear, die in thy favour, and rest in thy peace; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Keep us, O Lord, constant in faith and zealous in witness, that, like your servants Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, we may live in your fear, die in your favour, and rest in your peace; for the sake of Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Allan G. Chester, Hugh Latimer: Apostle to the English (New York: Octagon Books, 1978).
Harold S. Darby, Hugh Latimer (London: Epworth Press, 1953).
Tom Freeman, ‘Text, Lies and Microfilm,’ Sixteenth Century Journal XXX (1999).
James Gairdner, ‘Latimer, Hugh,’ Dictionary of National Biography vol 32, pp 171-179.
Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (London: Yale University Press, 1996).
Stephen Neill, Anglicanism (London: Penguin, 3rd ed, 1965). Susan Wabuda, ‘Latimer, Hugh (c.1485–1555),’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.