Thursday, July 26, 2012

3: Nicholas Ridley (ca 1500-1555), Bishop and Martyr

Nicholas Ridley ... one of the architects of the Anglican Reformation

Patrick Comerford

Nicholas Ridley (ca 1500-1555), Bishop of London, was one of the Oxford Martyrs burned at the stake during the reign of Queen Mary I for his theological teachings and for his support of Lady Jane Grey after the death of Queen Elizabeth I.

Nicholas Ridley was born ca 1500-1502 into a prominent family in South Tynedale, Northumberland, the second son of Christopher Ridley of Unthank Hall.

He was educated at the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and was admitted to Pembroke Hall, now Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1518. As a student, he distinguished himself with his proficiency in Greek. He was probably acquainted with Thomas Cranmer, who was then a Fellow at Jesus College, and Hugh Latimer of Clare College, and he belonged to a circle of young men attracted to the currents of reform inspired by the Continental Reformation.

Pembroke College, Cambridge ... Nicholas Ridley was elected a fellow in 1524, and later became Master of Pembroke (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

He graduated BA at Cambridge University in 1522. When he was elected a Fellow of University College, Oxford in April 1524, he declined the offer and instead accepted his election soon afterwards as a Fellow of Pembroke College, Cambridge.

He received his MA (Master of Arts) degree at Cambridge in 1525, and was ordained priest soon after, acting as the agent of Pembroke College for the college churches in Tylney, Soham and Saxthorpe.

He went to the Sorbonne in Paris in 1527 for further education, and later attended lectures at the University of Louvain. After returning to Cambridge around 1530, he became the Junior Treasurer of Pembroke College.

Back in Cambridge he learned by heart the New Testament epistles in the Greek version produced by Erasmus, who had been Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity at Cambridge and resident at Queens’ College from 1510 to 1515.

In 1533, Ridley became the Senior Proctor of Cambridge University, and paid many visits to London to protest against the threatened withdrawal of academic privileges.

At that time, there was significant debate about the Pope’s supremacy. Ridley, who became the University Chaplain and Public Orator in 1534, was well versed in Biblical hermeneutics, and signed a resolution at the university declaring: “That the Bishop of Rome had no more authority and jurisdiction derived to him from God, in this kingdom of England, than any other foreign bishop.”

Ridley received the degree Bachelor of Divinity (BD) in 1537 and was then appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer as one of his chaplains. On 13 April 1538, Cranmer made Ridley the Vicar of Herne in Kent in the Diocese of Canterbury. In Heme Vicarage, he first read the treatise by the ninth-century monk Bertram (Ratramnus) on the Lord’s Supper, De Corpore et Sanguine Domini, and began “to search more diligently and exactly” both the Scriptures and the writings of the Early Fathers more closely on the question of the presence of Christ in the sacrament.

But Ridley only gradually rejected the crucial doctrines of the old dogmas. Although he preached in 1539 against the Six Articles, he accepted at the time the doctrine of the corporeal presence, treated auricular confession as permissible, though unnecessary to salvation, and, by declining to marry, showed himself favourable to the principle of clerical celibacy.

In 1540, Ridley was elected Master of Pembroke College. That same year, he also received the degree DD (Doctor of Divinity) and became one of the King’s Chaplains, and he was appointed a prebendary or canon of Canterbury Cathedral a year later.

In 1543, Ridley was accused of heresy. His doubts about auricular confession, his alleged condemnation of some church ceremonies as beggarly, and his direction that the Te Deum should be sung in English rather than Latin at Herne Church were among accusations that he appears to have refuted to the satisfaction of the commissioners sent to examine him.

In all this Ridley had the support of Cranmer, and in 1545 he was appointed a prebendary of Westminster Abbey.

In 1545, Ridley was appointed a Prebendary of Westminster Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In 1547, Ridley was appointed Vicar of Soham, a Pembroke College living, Then on 4 September 1547, he was consecrated Bishop of Rochester, with permission to hold in commendam, until Christmas 1552, his two vicarages and his two canonries.

In a sermon at Saint Paul’s Cross, Ridley attacked those who mocked the Sacrament, but gave no indication of his own views. However, from the day he became a bishop, Ridley was wholly absorbed in assisting Cranmer to consolidate the Reformation, so that it was said later: “Latimer leaneth to Cranmer, Cranmer leaneth to Ridley, and Ridley leaneth to his own singular wit.”

Shortly after moving to Rochester, he directed that the altars in the parish churches in the diocese should be removed, and tables put in their place to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. In 1548, he helped Cranmer to compile and to edit The Book of Common Prayer.

At the end of 1548, Ridley was appointed one of the visitors for the visitation of Cambridge University, with the intent purpose of establishing Protestant principles on a firm basis in the university.

Great Saint Mary’s, the University Church in Cambridge … Ridley began his visitation to Cambridge with preaching in the church in May 1549 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The visitors did not arrive till May 1549, when Ridley opened the proceedings by preaching in the University Church. He next presided over three disputations between Protestant and Catholic champions on the subject of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and on 20 June 1549 pronounced a learned judgment in favour of the view of the reformed church. He repeated these opinions in a sermon preached in the university church ten days later.

Ridley differed from his fellow-commissioners as to the desirability of merging Clare College in Trinity Hall, and, although he carried his point, he was withdrawn from the commission before its work came to an end.

In 1549, Ridley was one of the commissioners appointed to investigated Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, and Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London. He concurred that they should be removed from office.

Ridley was translated from Rochester in April 1550, succeeding Bonner as Bishop of London. He moved quickly to suppress old ceremonies and liturgical gestures and replaced the stone altars in parish churches with wooden tables: “If we come to feed upon him, spiritually to eat his body, and spiritually to drink his blood (which is the true use of the Lord’s Supper), then no man can deny but the form of a table is more meet for the Lord’s board than the form of an altar.”

As Bishop of London, he also he played a major part in the vestments controversy, involving John Hooper, a former Cistercian monk, who had been exiled during the reign of King Henry VIII, and had returned to England in 1548 from the churches in Zurich, where he had been influenced by Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger.

When Hooper was invited to give a series of Lenten sermons before the king in February 1550, he spoke against Cranmer’s 1549 ordinal, in which the oath mentioned “all saints” and required newly-elected bishops and those attending the ordination ceremony to wear a cope and surplice. In Hooper's view, these requirements were vestiges of Judaism and Roman Catholicism, which had no biblical warrant, and he argued that they were not used in the Early Church.

Hooper was summoned before the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Privy Council, whose primarily concern was whether Hooper was willing to accept the royal supremacy, which was also part of the oath for newly ordained clergy.

Hooper gave sufficient reassurances, and was appointed Bishop of Gloucester. However, he declined the office because of the required vestments and the invocation of the saints in the oath.

The king accepted Hooper’s position, but the Privy Council did not. He was called before the Privy Council on 15 May 1550 and a compromise was reached. Vestments were to be considered a matter of adiaphora or res indifferentes (“things indifferent” rather than a matter of faith), and Hooper could be ordained without them at his discretion, but he had to accept that others could wear them.

Hooper was confirmed in his new office once again before the king and council on 20 July 1550. But the issue was raised once again, and Cranmer was instructed that Hooper was not to be charged “with an oath burdensome to his conscience.”

Cranmer assigned Ridley to consecrate Hooper as bishop. However, Ridley would only use the ordinal as prescribed by Parliament. Ridley may have felt upstaged by Hooper’s role in securing a former Augustinian church in London for use by Jan Laski and Continental Protestant refugees outside Ridley’s diocesan jurisdiction.

The debate about Hooper’s consecration dragged on for months without resolution. Ridley insisted on maintaining order and authority. In a letter written in Latin on 3 October 1550, Hooper laid out his argument contra usum vestium.

Hooper argued that vestments should not be worn as they are not indifferent, nor is their use supported by scripture. He contended that church practices must either have express Biblical support or be things indifferent, approval for which is implied by scripture. Furthermore, an indifferent thing, if used, causes no profit or loss.

Ridley replied in English, saying that indifferent things do have profitable effects, which is the only reason they are used.

Ridley rejected Hooper’s insistence on biblical origins and pointed out that many non-controversial practices are not mentioned or implied in scripture. Ridley denied that Early Church practices are normative for the present situation, and linked such primitivist arguments with the Anabaptists.

Where Hooper argued about the priesthood of all believers, Ridley said it did not follow from this doctrine that all Christians must wear the same clothes.

For Ridley, on matters of indifference, one must defer conscience to the authorities of the church, or else “thou showest thyself a disordered person, disobedient, as [a] contemner of lawful authority, and a wounder of thy weak brother his conscience.”

For Ridley, the debate was about legitimate authority, and not about the merits of vestments themselves. He warned Hooper of the implications of an attack on English ecclesiastical and civil authority and of the consequences of radical individual liberties, while reminding him at the same time that it was Parliament that established the “Book of Common Prayer in the Church of England.”

The weaknesses in Hooper’s arguments, Ridley’s laconic and temperate response, and Ridley’s offer of a compromise no doubt turned the Privy Council against Hooper, who also lost the support of Heinrich Bullinger, Martin Bucer and other reformers, although Jan Laski remained a constant ally.

In mid-December 1550, Hooper was put under house arrest. During that time he wrote and published A godly Confession and protestacion of the Christian faith. But this publication, his persistence his theological views, and his violation of the terms of his house arrest, led to Hooper being placed in Cranmer’s custody at Lambeth Palace on 13 January 1551. From Lambeth Palace he was sent to Fleet Prison on 27 January.

On 15 February, in a letter to Cranmer, Hooper submitted to consecration in vestments. He was consecrated Bishop of Gloucester on 8 March 1551, and later preached before the king in vestments.

On 2 February 1553, Cranmer was ordered to appoint John Knox as Vicar of All Hallows’ Church, London, placing him under the authority of Ridley. Knox returned to London in order to preach before the king and the court in Lent but then refused to take up his new parish.

Like Latimer and others, he spoke out against the social evils of the time, attributing the “sweating sickness” that plagued London to divine punishment for covetousness, and condemning the rapacity of the nobility.

Ridley was disquieted by the greed of Edward VI’s courtiers and their raids on church property, which he argued had contributed to the spread of poverty throughout England. That same year, in a sermon before the king in Westminster, Ridley pleaded with Edward VI to give some of his empty palaces over to the city to house homeless women and children. Owing to Ridley’s suggestion, King Edward VI founded no less than 16 grammar schools, including Christ’s Hospital, on the site of Grey Friars’ Church, near Newgate Market, as well as Saint Bartholomew's Hospital, in Smithfield, and Bridewell Royal Hospital, later known as King Edward’s School, Witley.

In 1553, Ridley was nominated as Bishop of Durham, but he was never able to move there following the death of King Edward VI. While the young king lay seriously ill, Ridley signed the letters patent giving the throne to Lady Jane Grey, daughter of the Duke of Suffolk. On 14 July 1553, he preached a sermon at Saint Paul’s Cross in London, in which he described that Princess Mary and Princess Elizabeth as bastards and argued that the succession of Mary would be disastrous to the religious interests of England.

But the support for Lady Jane Grey’s claims collapsed. When it was obvious Lady Jane’s cause was lost, however, Ridley went to Framlingham to ask Queen Mary’s pardon, but at once he was arrested. He was sent to the Tower of London, along with Latimer, the Duke of Suffolk and others, while Bonner was reinstated as Bishop of London. Throughout February 1554, the political leaders of the supporters of Jane were executed, including Jane herself.

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)

On 8 March 1554, Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer were sent to Bocardo prison in Oxford to stand trial for heresy. On 17 April 1554, Ridley was brought into the Divinity School at Oxford. There, in the presence of a large, noisy and hostile audience, he was invited to defend his faith. His chief opponent was Dr Richard Smith, canon of Christ Church, who was aided by 11 other theologians, including Nicholas Harpsfield, Owen Oglethorpe, President of Magdalen College, Oxford, Dr William Glyn, President of Queens’ College, Cambridge, and Thomas Watson, Master of Saint John’s College, Cambridge, afterwards Bishop of Lincoln.

Hugh Weston, Rector of Lincoln College, acted as moderator, but the theological disputation was in reality a heresy trial. At the end of the day’s debate, Ridley was declared a heretic. Three days later, he was brought before royal commissioners sitting in Saint Mary’s Church, and, on refusing to recant, was excommunicated.

On 30 September 1555, in accordance with a new commission from Cardinal Pole, three bishops, White, Brookes and Holyman, summoned Ridley to stand trial under new statutes on the capital charge of heresy. John Jewel acted as notary to Ridley.

He acknowledged the truth of the chief charges which accused him of denying the presence of the natural body of Christ in the Eucharist after the consecration, or the existence in the mass of a propitiatory sacrifice for the living and the dead. He was directed to write out his opinions at length.

The University Church of Saint Mary, Oxford, where Ridley’s his language was declared blasphemous (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The court met the next day in Saint Mary’s Church, Oxford, and, after examining Ridley’s written defence, the judges declared his language blasphemous and unfit to be recited. He was sentenced to the greater excommunication, and on 15 October was formally degraded in the mayor’s house by Bishop Brookes and Marshall, vice-chancellor of the university. Immediately afterwards, Ridley was handed over to the mayor for punishment.

Ridley, who had been elected Master of Pembroke College in 1540, sent his last message to the college from Oxford as he awaited death: “Farewell, Pembroke Hall, of late mine own College, my cure, and my charge ... In thy orchard (the walls, buts, and trees, if they could speak, would bear me witness), I learned without book almost all Paul’s Epistles, yea and I ween all the canonical Epistles, save only the Apocalypse. Of which study, although in time a great part did depart from me, yet the sweet smell thereof, I trust, I shall carry with me into heaven: for the profit thereof I think I have felt in all my lifetime ever after; and I ween of late (whether they abide there now or no I cannot tell) there were who did the like.”

In a letter to the prisoners, Ridley wrote: “Why should we Christians fear death? Can death deprive us of Christ, which is all our comfort, our joy, and our life? Nay, forsooth. But contrary, death shall deliver us from this mortal body, which loadeth and beareth down the spirit, that it cannot so well perceive heavenly things, in the which so long as we dwell, we are absent from God ... Let us not then fear death, which can do us no harm, otherwise than for a moment to make the flesh to smart; for that our faith, which is surely fastened and fixed unto the Word of God, telleth us that we shall be anon after death in peace, in the hands of God, in joy, in solace, and that from death we shall go straight unto life ... let us comfort our hearts in all troubles, and in death, with the Word of God: for heaven and earth shall perish, but the Word of the Lord endureth for ever.”

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)

Ridley and Latimer were burned at the stake at Broad Street outside Balliol College in Oxford on 16 October 1555. Cranmer was taken to a tower to watch the proceedings. Ridley burned extremely slowly and suffered a greatly. Ridley’s final words before the fire was lit were: “Heavenly Father, I give thee most hearty thanks that thou hast called me to a profession of thee even until death. I beseech thee, Lord God, have mercy on this realm of England, and deliver the same from all her enemies.”

Ridley’s brother-in-law foolishly put more faggots on the pyre to speed Ridley’s death, but they caused only Ridley’s lower parts to burn. Latimer is supposed to have said to Ridley: “Be of good comfort, and play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”

In the flames, Ridley cried out with a loud voice in Latin: “Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit: Lord receive my spirit,” and then he repeated these words in English.

Ridley is remembered as one of the principal architects of The Book of Common Prayer and of the Forty-two article, leading to the later Articles of Religion or 39 Articles. He preached frequently and on many great state occasions. However, his reputation as a preacher must be accepted on hearsay, for but all that has survived are reports of his sermons.

Legislation was passed in the Elizabethan Parliament in 1559 reinstating Ridley and describing him as “that famous and notable member of the Church of God … of great learning, integrity of life and sincerity of doctrine.”

Ridley’s stance on uniformity in worship during the vestments’ controversy with Hooper became the model of Reformed Anglicanism and was confirmed in the preface “Of Ceremonies” in the second Book of Common Prayer and was reiterated later in the writings of Richard Hooker.

Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer are known as the Oxford Martyrs. They are commemorated by the Martyrs’ Memorial near the site of their execution, erected in 1841.

Ridley Hall, Cambridge … founded in 1881 and named in honour of Nicholas Ridley (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A chair he once owned is in the Chapel of Pembroke College. A path on the north side of the Bowling Green in Pembroke College is still known as Ridley’s Walk.

In 1881, Ridley Hall, Cambridge, was founded in his memory for the training of Anglican priests. Ridley College, a private school, was founded in St Catherine’s, Ontario, in 1889. Ridley College was founded as a theological college in Melbourne in 1910.

Nicholas Ridley is remembered alongside Hugh Latimer in the calendar of the Church of England and many member churches of the Anglican Communion on 16 October.

Remembering a martyr ... the Latin dedication at Ridley College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


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.

Select bibliography:

Maurice Betteridge, ‘Ridley, Nicholas,’ pp 190-19, in Alister E McGrath (ed), The SPCK Handbook of Anglican Theologians (London: SPCK, 1998).
Mark D. Chapman, Anglican Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2012).
(Revd) Henry Christmas (ed), The Works of Nicholas Ridley (Cambridge: Parker Society, 1841).
Sidney Lee, ‘Nicholas Ridley,’ Dictionary of National Biography, vol 48, pp 286-289.
Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (London: Yale University Press, 1996).
HCG Moule, Bishop Ridley on the Lord’s Supper (London: Seeley and Co, 1895).
Stephen Neill, Anglicanism (London: Penguin, 3rd ed, 1965). F. Procter and WH Frere, The Book of Common Prayer, With a Rationale of its Offices (London: Macmillan, 1965).
JG Ridley, Nicholas Ridley (London: Longman, Greens and Co, 1957).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.


  1. Excellent, as always, Patrick ... you might want to look over the opening paragraph again though ...