Hugh Latimer (1487-
Apostle of England
George M. Ella
When Robert Demaus (1829-
A Yeoman of England
Few facts concerning Latimer’s family and childhood have survived. Attempts to date his birth back from the known date of his martyr’s death in 1555 have proved unsuccessful. Ages given at his death vary from almost seventy to well over eighty. Going back, say, eighty years would make 1475 Latimer’s year of birth. In comparison, Luther was born in 1483. Our subject’s father was a yeoman farmer who rented land on which he kept upwards of a hundred sheep. Latimer tells us in a sermon preached before King Edward VI that his mother milked thirty cows a day. Such scanty facts show that Latimer came from a relatively humble home. Nevertheless, Latimer informs us further that his father earned enough to give alms to the poor, to send him to school, and to give his six sisters a dowry of five pounds apiece.
Latimer was a most precocious child and matriculated at Cambridge at fourteen years of age. He quickly became a scholar of note and gained a fellowship in Clare Hall which both covered his expenses and put to stop the neighbours’ criticism that Latimer’s father was spending hard earned money on his son’s education. Latimer gained his Bachelor of Arts at the age of eighteen. During the next three years, he became Master of Arts, University Preacher and University Regent. Then Latimer took his Bachelor of Divinity and was given further offices reserved for scholars who possessed ‘a sanctity of life which excelled all others.'
Back to the Bible
Erasmus was expounding the New Testament at this time in Cambridge. Many students heard the gospel from Erasmus’ Bible readings for the first time. These lectures were instrumental in Tyndale’s spiritual turn and Reformer Thomas Bilney was led to believe the gospel on reading Erasmus’ Latin version of 1 Timothy 1:15. Latimer, ‘an obstinate papist’ at this time, regarded Erasmus with great suspicion, especially his emphasis on learning Greek. Latimer believed that the Latin language could alone express the will of the Church which was above the Word of God. When he found out that students Thomas Bilney and George Stafford were reading their New Testaments under the influence of Erasmus, he scolded them for putting the Bible before the Church. Latimer then made a speech in the university against Philip Melanchthon because he taught that scholars should test their church-
Carrying out the Divine commission
Now Latimer, Bilney and Stafford visited the students homes, the hospitals and prison houses, preaching Christ wherever they went and assisting the poor as means allowed. Although some fellow-
West would not believe that Latimer was not a Lutheran spy. The bishop now spoke against both Luther and Latimer and banned the latter from preaching. Meanwhile, Robert Barnes, an Augustinian prior, had found salvation in Christ and, as his priory was not under the jurisdiction of the bishops, he allowed Latimer, Bilney and Stafford to join with his fellow friar, Miles Coverdale, in preaching the gospel freely there. Sadly, Barnes became too aggressive and insulting in a Christmas sermon denouncing popery and, when this came to Wolsey’s ear, he decided to stop protecting the reforming movement. Barnes was arrested and efforts were made to cleanse the university of Reformed literature.
Licensed to preach ‘into the beard’ of the Bishop
Wolsey now commanded Latimer to appear before him and defend himself against the charge of Lutheranism. He had arranged that two leading scholars should test Latimer on Duns Scotus and other men revered by himself. Latimer was soon in his element, leading the learned men in discussion and even correcting them when they misquoted the Scots philosopher. Meanwhile, Wolsey, highly amused by the scene, would occasionally utter a ‘Marry, that is well said!’, referring to Latimer’s answers. At the end of the debate, Wolsey asked Latimer to repeat the sermon that had caused West to forbid him to preach. When he was finished, the Cardinal asked Latimer if he were sure that he had not left anything out which might have offended the bishop. On Latimer’s assurance that he had told Wolsey everything, the Cardinal replied that if West could not abide such sound doctrines, he would give Latimer a licence to preach his doctrines ‘into the beard’ of the bishop. Indeed, before dismissing Latimer, Wolsey gave him a special license to preach throughout all England.
Soon a common saying arose at Cambridge, ‘When Master Stafford read, and Master Latimer preached, then was Cambridge blessed.’ The people confessed, that though there were many preachers who gripped their ears, only Latimer gripped their heart. This does not mean that Latimer was without enemies. A Dominican prior named Buckingham railed against Latimer’s endeavour to give the common man the Bible in his own tongue. Buckingham argued that as the Bible was full of dark sayings they would lead the common people astray. If a man should take the Bible at its word, Buckingham argued, and read that he ought to pluck his eye out if it offends him, he would do so without hesitation. Bakers, the Dominican maintained, will start using less yeast when they hear that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump! Latimer was quick to point out that when artists depicted Buckingham as a fox in monk’s clothing, no baker would think that he was truly a four-
King Henry’s interest in Latimer
Latimer, now a public figure, was invited to London by the king to advise him on the question of divorce. Latimer believed that Henry’s first marriage to Catherine of Aragon was doubly illegal as the marriage of a deceased brother’s wife, according to canon law was ‘against divine and natural justice’ and Henry’s father had forced him to marry whilst a minor. This view certainly kept Latimer in Henry’s good books and, by God’s grace, kept him from an early martyr’s death. Cranmer had appealed to all the universities in Europe for their learned men’s opinions on the divorce and most, if not all, looked upon Henry’s enforced marriage as illegal. The whole matter had become a European problem as the pope was not able to pronounce the marriage illegal because Catherine’s nephew, now Emperor, had him in his power. There was, however, much opposition from the English universities. Whilst at court, Latimer preached regularly before the king, not mincing his words in any way. To everybody’s surprise, the king thoroughly approved of Latimer’s preaching, as did Anne Boleyn.
Latimer was invited by Henry to be his guest and help to work out new Articles of Faith. Henry was striving to return to the old Celtic and Saxon traditions whereby ministers and royalty worked together to govern the Church.2 This was in no way a religious Reformation as More, Gardiner and Tunstal succeeded in persuading the king to keep to extreme popish dogmas with Latimer protesting in vain. Not relishing court life in any way, Latimer was thankful to be called to West Kington on the Wiltshire-
Truth on trial
Latimer’s bishop was Cardinal Campeggio who received a large salary for his office, though he lived abroad, so Latimer had nothing to fear from that quarter. However, Thomas More had now taken over from Wolsey as Henry’s chief advisor, and he and his close popish companion Stokesly, Bishop of London, plotted Latimer’s downfall. Latimer had preached by invitation of the minister in a London church but Stokesly argued that as he personally had not given Latimer permission, he had acted in contempt of his authority. Stokesly thus commanded Latimer to return to London and appear before a church tribunal. Latimer refused, saying that if he were to be disciplined it must be within his own local diocese. At first, Hiley, the Chancellor of Latimer’s diocese, supported Latimer but then gave way and the Reformer received a summons via Sir Walter Hungerford of Farley, to appear in London at the Consistory Court on January 29, 1532 and answer for ‘crimes and grave excesses’ he had supposedly committed. Latimer told his friends, ‘What a world is this, that I shall be put to so great labour and pains, beside great costs above my power, for preaching of a poor simple sermon! But, I trow, our Saviour Christ said true, “I must needs suffer and so enter”; so perilous a thing it is to live virtuously with Christ.’ Latimer was now feeling his age, he was in poor health and the long, cold journey to London frightened him more than the thought that he was perhaps going to his martyrdom.
Latimer’s trial went on for months. The strategy of his accusers was to persuade him to sign points that he could accept with a clear conscience but then, after promising that all was over, they would suddenly call him back and place further demands upon him, hoping that he would compromise himself. By 19 April, Latimer realised that his strength was failing and decided to make an unprecedented move. He reminded the Court that they were placed under the jurisdiction of the Throne, and demanded the right to present his case before King Henry.
The monarch made short work of the affair. He told Latimer to appear before Convocation, beg forgiveness for offending his superiors, tell them that they had just cause to be suspicious of him, and, thinking of Latimer’s poverty, he told him to declare before Convocation that as he could not recompense them in any way for their troubles he would pray for them! After a trying ordeal of four months, Latimer was free to return to his beloved flock and carry on the duties of a pastor. It appears that the pope himself had received news of how Latimer, with the help of the king, had got the better of Convocation and swore vengeance on Latimer.
The Reformation makes headway
Meanwhile, Henry married Anne Boleyn, Archbishop Warham, the pope’s man, died and Cranmer took his place. Oddly enough, the pope sent bulls to England telling Henry to dismiss Anne from the court, yet accepting Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury though he had been the primary instrument in working out a divorce for Henry. Now the king’s Lord Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, his archbishop and his queen were all friends of the Reformation. Latimer preached the Word with renewed vigour and crowds flocked to hear him. Soon he was occupying the leading Bristol pulpits to the dismay of the papists who complained to Convocation. Latimer’s critics were told to silence him in oral disputation. However, all the ignorant papist priests could do was criticise Latimer for being Henry’s favourite, which did not help their cause. Indeed, Cranmer decided to visit Bristol himself and support Latimer. He then gave Latimer the task of equipping the West of England with sound gospel preachers and pastors. Between them, the two men showed that they had matured from semi-
Latimer’s brief bishopric
Parliament ordered Campeggio to return to his diocese or otherwise forfeit his bishopric, but the Italian preferred to live abroad. Who was to take his place? The humble people, archbishop, lord chancellor and the king and queen all thought of Latimer. He was horror-
On 9 June, 1536 the first Convocation since the overthrow of Papal Supremacy sat and invited Latimer to preach the opening sermon. He preached on the parable of the unjust steward and the duties of the clergy. Latimer spoke with firmness and eloquence and caused quite a sensation. The sermon was quickly translated into English and distributed throughout the Kingdom. Latimer and his friends wanted Convocation to come out on the side of the Reformation but the sides were about equal and few reforming decisions were made. One glorious outcome of these early clashes between the Reformers and the old papists was that Tyndale’s and Coverdale’s Bible was at last, in 1537, given a Royal licence and soon Bibles were placed in most of the churches in the country. It is from this year that the national Reformation began, a feat never accomplished in Luther’s Germany nor in Calvin’s France.
Another divine gift to England was the birth of Prince Edward, under whom the Reformation spread with great swiftness. In the year 1539, the Reformation received a severe setback via the rightly-
For the next five years or so, Latimer kept under cover, travelling the country and preaching clandestinely. Little is known of this period except that, from then on, fellow Reformers such as Coverdale, Ridley and Foxe called Latimer The Apostle of England. Ridley, using very strong language, says that Latimer led the team of Reformers against the corrupt clergy and ‘their tongues were so sharp, they ripped in so deep in their galled backs, to have purged them, no doubt, of that filthy matter, that was festered in their hearts, of insatiable covetousness, of filthy carnality and voluptuousness, of intolerable ambition and pride, of ungodly loathsomeness to hear poor men’s causes, and to hear God’s word.’3 In 1546, the courts caught up with Latimer. He was asked to recant his Reformed ways and, on his refusal, was again imprisoned, awaiting every day to be sent to the executioner.
Edward’s short but glorious reign
A year later, Henry died, Edward VI, England’s glory, ascended the throne and Latimer was released. The ‘Old Soldier of Christ’ as Latimer was now lovingly called, refused church preferences and said he wished to remain a simple preacher. Edward agreed but made sure that Latimer preached as often as possible to him and his court. A number of these sermons are extant and are as blunt, forthright and Scriptural as can possibly be imagined.
After telling his majesty that he had to sit tight for at least three to four hours, Latimer preached to him the sinfulness of sin, the vicarious righteousness of Christ, the fallacy of putting trust in purgatory and priestly prayers as a means of future redemption and the need for a monarch to be a Christian example to his people.4 Edward followed this sound advice more thoroughly than perhaps any other British monarch.
Mary the Bloody
Edward’s reign was very short and Mary the Bloody replaced him in 1553. What a change! Latimer was quickly arrested. The messenger that brought the news was told that it was most welcome. Latimer explained that he had preached to two princes and now a third would hear his gospel message ‘either to her comfort, or discomfort, eternally’. However, the pope, using the seemingly soulless Mary as his puppet, was now forcing the greater part of England to her knees before him. The holy innocents who refused to bow the knee to this Baal were slaughtered and that slaughter was immense. The papists argued that if they could obtain a recantation from Latimer, their task of making the nation recant would be easy. Latimer, they said had Cranmer as his supporter and Cranmer had Ridley and Ridley, they supposed, had only ‘his own wit’ and was the weaker link. They thus planned Ridley’s spiritual downfall which they thought would then domino back to Latimer.
As their plans were devilish, they proved wrong. Cranmer, after a period of weakness, became stronger in the Lord and neither Ridley nor Latimer flinched once before their accusers, though Latimer was now in extreme old age and very ill. His only worry was that his memory might fail him in finding Scripture to refute his popish enemies. Happily, we have preserved through the care of Latimer’s servant-
Lighting a candle that will never go out
Latimer was condemned to be burnt with his friend Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London. Anticipating this, Latimer had written a letter to ‘all the unfeigned lovers of God’s truth’ which was quickly circulated throughout the country. In it the Reformer said:
Pray for me your poor brother and fellow-
The execution site was the ditch facing Balliol College, Oxford; the date, 16 October, 1555. Two stakes were hammered into the ground and the two martyrs were chained to them by the waist. Relations and friends then tied bags of gunpowder around their necks so that their suffering should be shortened. Faggots were placed around them and ignited at Ridley’s feet. In a strong, fearless voice, Latimer shouted those noble words, ‘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.’ With an equally calm, loud voice, Ridley prayed, ‘Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my Spirit.’ The flames rose and the merciful gunpowder exploded and blew the brave old man and equally brave youth to heaven. They had not showed the slightest evidence of having any pain.
Dear Christian friends, the candle that Latimer and Ridley lit has continued to light the gospel-
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