Hugh Latimer

The Life And Martyrdom Of Hugh Latimer

The Sower 1881:

Leicestershire has reason to be proud of its connection with the history of our country’s Reformation. Two of the most prominent leaders of this movement—Hugh Latimer and John Wycliffe—spent a portion of their valuable lives in this county; the former his childhood, and the latter his closing years. In the small, quiet town of Lutterworth did Wycliffe industriously labour as rector; it was here that he preached the truths of the Gospel with a characteristic fervour and simplicity; it was here that he penned a large number of those outspoken tractates that so powerfully influenced the minds of his countrymen; it was here that he rendered verse after verse, chapter after chapter, book after book, into his mother tongue, until there lay before him the first English Bible; and it was here also that he died a peaceful death. A century passed away, and then the same county gave birth to another champion of the Reformation. This was Hugh Latimer.

In the village of Thurcaston, a few miles from the ancient town of Leicester, did Latimer first see the light. The date of his birth is somewhat uncertain, but it was about the year 1485. From Latimer’s own lips we learn “that upon a farm of four pounds a year at the utmost, his father tilled as much ground as kept half-a-dozen men; that he had it stocked with a hundred sheep and thirty cows; and that he found the king a man and horse, himself remembering to have buckled on his father’s harness when he went to Blackheath; that he gave his daughters five pounds a-piece at marriage; that he lived hospitably among his neighbours, and was not backward in his alms to the poor.” It was in this manner that the preacher, in one of his sermons before the court of King Edward, introduced his audience to the scenes of his boyhood. Young Latimer was sent to a neighbouring school, where, at an early age, he gave such evidence of good abilities, and so distinguished himself, that he left his native county and entered the University of Cambridge. Here he made rapid progress in the learning of that age.

At that time the Leicestershire student was a rigid Papist. He had already become master of arts in priest’s orders, which honour his learning had gained him: and his religious zeal was so marked and intense that it procured for him the office of cross-bearer in all public processions. He intensely hated the Reformers and their teaching, and on one occasion he delivered a vehement oration against Melancthon. Being severely exact in his observance of Rome’s ceremonies, Latimer fiercely condemned the laxity and indifference of his religionists. Any person holding opinions that were adverse to the claims and dogmas of “the Church” was sure to encounter his violent denunciation and scathing exposure. In a word, Latimer was as loyal and zealous a Papist as it was possible to conceive; as faithful and as willing a servant as any the Pope had in his service.

But Latimer’s eloquence and zeal were about to be diverted into another and a very different channel. Among those who had listened to Latimer’s vituperative statements about the Reformers and their theology was Thomas Bilney. Admiring his zeal, Bilney could not help but pity his deplorable ignorance of the Truth, and he began to search out means whereby he might win him to the cause of Christ. At length Bilney visited him, and, under the pretext of a confession, rehearsed the simple truths of the Gospel in Latimer’s ears. This interview was attended with the most important results. From that day Latimer was a champion of the Gospel. By the instrumentality of Bilney, his eyes were opened, and he was enabled to see the error of his ways. His burning zeal, his brilliant talents, and his fervid eloquence, were now transferred to the cause of the Reformation; and Latimer now laboured more diligently, if such a thing were possible, on behalf of the Truth, than he had done previously in the interests of error. Activity in a good cause no sane man can help but admire, and this feature is a most conspicuous one in Latimer’s life. He threw his very heart and soul into the service of the Gospel. Unless the Lord had mercifully arrested him, we have every reason to believe that Latimer would have been as zealous a bigot and as cruel a persecutor as Bonner or Gardiner, for he possessed those characteristics that only needed circumstances and development to permit them to launch out into malicious and disreputable deeds. Whether Papist or Protestant, Latimer could not be lukewarm; he was so constituted that he must be zealous. Therefore, thanks be unto God, his zeal was not permitted to cause him to raise his hands against the saints of the Most High. No, his activity was now employed in supporting and propagating the verities of the Bible; and, by preaching in public, exhorting in private, and everywhere insisting upon leading a holy and consistent life, he sought to bring souls to Christ, both in the town and University.

Such a line of action was sure to bring down upon him the wrath of the enemies of the Gospel. It was soon whispered that Latimer was disseminating “heterodox” opinions, disparaging to the practices and doctrines of the Papacy. His zeal for the “old” doctrines had cooled, and his sympathy for the “new” ones was not difficult to discover. At last the storm which had been brewing for some time burst. During the Christmas holidays of 1529 Latimer preached a course of sermons in Cambridge, in which he took occasion to dilate upon the impiety of indulgences, the uncertainty of tradition, and the vanity of works of supererogation; he stoutly inveighed against the multiplicity of ceremonies with which true religion was encumbered; and the pride and usurpation of the Romish hierarchy he did not hesitate to denounce and expose. He did not stop here, however, but went so far as to advocate a remedy for the improvement of this state of things. Latimer, in these sermons, most firmly insisted upon the right of the laity to the Bible, and he severely censured those who dared to deprive the people of this privilege by keeping the Scriptures locked up in unknown tongues. “A free and open Bible for all,” was Latimer’s demand. Great was the out-cry against these discourses, which invests them with a certain degree of importance. One of these sermons was preached from the words, “Who art thou?” (John 1:22); and from this discourse we subjoin a few extracts.

After explaining the circumstances that caused the framing of the short question, “Who art thou?” Latimer then expresses himself on the natural state of man. He says:—

“Now then, according to the preacher, let every man and woman, of a good and simple mind, contrary to the Pharisees’ intent, ask this question—Who art thou? This question must be moved to themselves, what they be of themselves, on this fashion—what art thou of thy only and natural generation between father and mother, when thou camest into the world? What substance, what virtue, what goodness art thou of thyself? Which question, if thou rehearse oftentimes to thyself, thou shalt well perceive and understand how thou shalt answer it, which must be made in this wise: I am of myself, and by myself, coming from my natural father and mother, the child of the anger and indignation of God, the true inheritor of hell, a lump of sin, and working nothing of myself, but all towards hell, except I have better help of another than I have of myself. Now, we may see in what state we enter into this world; that we be of ourselves the true and just inheritors of hell, the children of the ire and indignation of Christ, working all towards hell, whereby we deserve of ourselves perpetual damnation, by the right judgment of God and the true claim of ourselves; which unthrifty state that we be born into is come unto us for our own deserts.”

Farther on in the same sermon, the earnest preacher treats of the Incarnation of Christ as follows:—

“And now, the world standing in this damnable state, cometh in the occasion of the Incarnation of Christ; the Father in heaven perceiving the frail nature of man, that he by himself and of himself could do nothing for himself, by His prudent wisdom sent down the Second Person in the Trinity, His Son Jesus Christ, to declare unto man His pleasure and commandment; and so, at the Father’s will, Christ took on Him human nature, being willing to deliver man out of this miserable way, and was content to suffer cruel passion in shedding His blood for fallen mankind, and so left behind, for our safeguard, laws and ordinances to keep us always in the right path unto everlasting life, as the Gospels, the Sacraments, the Commandments; which, if we do keep and observe according to our profession, we shall answer better unto this question, ‘Who art thou?’”

This is a short specimen of the preaching that attracted such general attention, and brought into play such a formidable array of hostile criticism. In these sermons there is not that clear, Scriptural ring that is to be found in Latimer’s later discourses; but there was quite sufficient “heresy” to arouse the opposition of the upholders of Rome’s tenets. There was one point in particular that his enemies keenly opposed, and that was the advocacy of a free and open Bible. One of the first to enter the lists against the preacher was Dr. Buckenham, a prior of the Black Friars. The proposal that the Scriptures should be in the possession of the laity was most nauseous to the theological palate of the prior, who immediately set to work to prove the danger of such a measure. “To give the Word of God to the people,” said the prior, “would inevitably lead to the most serious consequences. The man at the plough would leave his labour when he heard the words, ‘No man that layeth his hand on the plough, and looketh back, is meet for the kingdom of God;’ the baker would cease to make leavened bread, when he heard that ‘a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump of dough;’ and the simple man, likewise, would deprive himself of his sight, because the Gospel says, ‘If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee;’ and thus the world would be full of beggars.” These were the arguments put forward by Dr. Buckenham to establish the desirability of keeping the Scriptures from the people. Such foolish statements were easily overthrown by Latimer, who, in his reply to the Black Friar, indulging in a vein of human sarcasm, exposed the puerility of his opponent’s arguments, and insisted more strongly than ever upon the necessity of the circulation of the Bible in the English tongue.

Swarms of doctors and friars, monks and priests, now raised their voices against him; and, eventually, the Bishop of Ely issued an ultimatum, commanding Latimer to desist from preaching in his diocese. His enemies were now elated; for, preaching being forbidden him, what harm could he do? It was his persuasive eloquence that caused them to quake, and now that silence was imposed upon him, what had they to fear? But, at this juncture, his enemies were completely out-maneuvred by Dr. Barnes, prior of the Augustine Friars, whose church, being exempt from the jurisdiction of the bishop, was placed at the disposal of Latimer. Here he continued preaching for more than three years, fearlessly displaying the Gospel banner in the sight of all.

Besides preaching, Latimer devoted a large portion of his time to deeds of benevolence. He and his friend Bilney wore companions in this delightful work. In the cell of the prisoner, in the garret of the pauper, and at the bedside of the sick, they were alike welcome as the certain harbingers of comfort and consolation. Thus Latimer laboured with a burning zeal for the good of souls. He was ever “about his Master’s business.” Many there were who tried to hinder him in his noble work, and among the number was Dr. Redman, a man of a mild disposition, but his mind was wholly enrapt in the superstition of that age. He was a man of great influence in the University of Cambridge at that time, and one who greatly disliked Latimer’s boldness and honesty in preaching the truths of the Gospel. Consequently he thought it his duty to indite a letter to Latimer, asking him to alter his style of speaking in the pulpit. To this the Gospel champion returned the following laconic answer:—

“Reverend Mr. Redman,—It is even enough for me that Christ’s sheep hear no man’s voice but Christ’s; and as for you, you have no voice of Christ against me; whereas, for my part, I have a heart that is ready to hearken to any voice of Christ that you can bring me. Thus, fare you well, and trouble me no more from talking with the Lord my God.”

During this period, which Latimer had turned to such good account, the Papists had been busily plotting for his removal from Cambridge. Complaint after complaint of the alarming proportions “heresy” was beginning to assume in the town and University of Cambridge were continually reaching the ears of the King and his courtiers, and Bilney and Latimer were specially mentioned as the two men who were directly responsible for the progress of the odious movement. Cardinal Wolsey was then at the head of affairs; and Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Tonstal, Bishop of London, were his chief advisers.

For some considerable time this trio of ecclesiastics treated the news from Cambridge with cool indifference. Wolsey, in fact, who was no persecutor, looked upon the matter as a jest, as a mere cry of jealousy on the part of a lazy and indolent set of priests. At length, however, action was taken, and a court was erected, with the Bishop of London as president, for the trial of the ringleaders of the “heretical” movement. Latimer, amongst others, was summoned to London. There the earnest Reformer appeared, and, after acquitting himself with satisfaction before his judges, he again returned to Cambridge. Latimer, in nowise daunted, still continued his exertions for the propagation of the Gospel, and his words and deeds clearly proved that the tactics of his foes had neither cooled his ardour nor intimidated his courage. He was “at it again,” to use the words of a modern writer hostile to the Reformation. About this time a proclamation was issued by the King, forbidding the use of the Bible in the English vernacular. This royal mandate incited the pen of Latimer to indite a letter to the monarch, expostulating with him upon the folly and unreasonableness of such a policy that would deprive his subjects of the only Book that would give stability to his throne and enjoin loyalty upon its readers. Henry VIII, with all his faults, could admire the genuine honesty of Latimer, whose letter he received in no unfavourable spirit.

Shortly after the publication of this appeal to the King, Latimer was appointed to the living of West Kingston, in Wiltshire. Here he was as diligent as ever, preaching and benevolence being his chief delights. In this part of the country, however, he was not free from enemies, who manifested their malice towards him by the constant circulation of reports that were not at all calculated to give him rest and peace. Letters were sent to the Archbishop of Canterbury complaining of the vicar of West Kingston and his preaching; and some neighbouring priests there were who, from their pulpits, loudly denounced Latimer as an enemy of “Mother Church” and an obnoxious “heretic.” On January 29th, 1531, the noble man was ordered to appear before Warham, the Primate, to answer for his questionable assertions. Latimer appeared; and, in one of his sermons preached at Stamford in the year 1550, he has given a description of one of his examinations. “I was once in examination before five or six bishops,” says the preacher, “where I had much trouble: thrice every week I came to examinations, and many snares and traps were laid to get something. Now, God knoweth I was ignorant of the law, but that God gave me wisdom what I should speak; it was God indeed, or else I had never escaped them. At last I was brought forth to be examined into a chamber hung with arras, where I was wont to be examined; but now at this time the chamber was somewhat altered. For whereas before there was wont always to be a fire in the chimney, now the fire was taken away, and an arras hung over the chimney, and the table stood near the fire-place. There was amongst the bishops who examined me, one with whom I had been very familiar, and took him for my great friend, an aged man, and he sat next to the table’s end. Then, amongst other questions, he put forth a very subtle and crafty one, and such an one indeed as I would not think so great danger in. And when I should make answer, one said, ‘I pray you, Mr. Latimer, speak out, I am very thick of hearing, and here may be many that sit far off.’ I marvelled at this that I was bid to speak out, and begun to suspect, and give an ear to the chimney; and there I heard a pen writing in the chimney behind the cloth. They had appointed one there to write all mine answers, for they made sure that I should not start from them: there was no starting from them. God was my Lord, and gave me answer; I could never else have escaped it.” Thus, as he himself tells us, he was permitted to escape out of their hands, and there is every reason to believe that the bishops were restrained from carrying out their cruel designs by the influence of the King.

Anne Boleyn was now the King’s consort, and Thomas Cromwell was at the helm of affairs. These two important personages, having a strong desire to promote the progress of the Reformation, induced their royal master to elevate Latimer to the episcopal bench as Bishop of Worcester. This promotion did not at all interfere with his honesty and zeal, for Bishop Latimer was the same sincere and indefatigable worker for Christ as he had been when merely spiritual overseer of a small rural parish. The oversight of the clergy he considered the chief branch of his duty, and all historians of that time pronounce him to have been remarkably zealous in inciting his subordinates to their duty as ministers of Christ. During the important Parliamentary session of 1535 the good bishop was summoned to London, when he opened the convocation of the clergy with an admirable sermon, in which he made a vigorous attack upon the errors and abuses of the day. During this session several important bills were passed that tended to the curtailment of Popish power and influence in this country; and a few months afterwards a royal proclamation was issued, permitting the people of England to read the Bible in their own language. How this event must have rejoiced the heart of Latimer, who for many years past had been striving, on behalf of the people, for this very privilege!

In the year 1539 Latimer was again summoned to the metropolis to answer to some charges of seditious preaching that had been preferred against him. The good bishop replied to his accusers in such a manly and straightforward manner, that completely overhauled the scurrilous assertions of his enemies, and gave the king such complete satisfaction that he was dismissed from the royal presence with a gracious smile. But the Romish party was now in the ascendency in the king’s councils, and they succeeded in passing the obnoxious “Six Articles,” by which the bishops and clergy were compelled to teach transubstantiation, to live celibate lives, and to practice auricular confession. Honest Hugh Latimer was too fond of his Bible—possessed too intense an affection for the pure and simple Gospel of Jesus Christ—to sign these articles; and so he resigned his bishopric, and retired into the country. Soon after his retirement, however, an accident befell him, through the fall of a tree, that caused him to pay another visit to London to seek medical advice. Latimer’s arrival in the metropolis was simultaneous with the fall of Cromwell, and the consequent rise of Gardiner and the Papal faction to power. Quickly did they manifest their determination to crush the Reformation, by seizing its most popular and powerful preacher, and throwing him into prison, where he remained until the death of the king.

On the accession of Edward, Latimer was immediately set at liberty, and requested to resume his duties as Bishop of Worcester. This request was renewed again and again, but to no purpose. On no account would he consent to be bishop again, for he would rather proclaim the Gospel up and down the kingdom than be confined to any particular diocese. Whilst Cranmer, Ridley, and others were busy making the necessary legislative changes for the establishment of the Reformation in the land, Latimer was zealously teaching the people the nature and the benefits of its glorious principles. It is as a preacher that we find Latimer chiefly occupied during this short reign. Undoubtedly, he was the most zealous, outspoken, and powerful preacher of the day. Crowds always thronged to hear him preach, and his audiences embraced all classes, the rich as well as the poor, the king as well as the peasant. To the poor he was a great friend, and to the oppressed he was a noble benefactor. For a time, Latimer resided with Cranmer, at Lambeth, and there, as he tells us in one of those autobiographical sketches with which his sermons happily abound, he would go into the garden intending to read, when he was sure to be interrupted by the calling of persons who had been cruelly treated by the judges, seeking to enlist his generous aid and advice. These matters Latimer would ventilate in his sermons with a fervour and a power that left no question who were the cruel oppressors. His Lent sermons before King Edward and his court were plain, honest, and outspoken. Perhaps no monarch in modern times was ever told the truth so plainly and so forcibly as Latimer told it to the “young Josiah” of England in these sermons. A spade was a spade with Latimer, whether he stood before king or peasant, nobleman or mechanic. Wherever he found evil he exposed and denounced it. Although the young king set his court an excellent example, it was little heeded. The state of society was terrible indeed; bribery and corruption abounded on every hand, justice was unfairly and improperly administered, and the poor were oppressed to an almost incredible degree. There were many amongst the nobility who professed an attachment for the Reformation—not because they had any love to its principles, but because it had enlarged their territories and replenished their coffers. Latimer knew all this, and his honest soul was horrified at the sad state of the kingdom. When, therefore, this eloquent preacher came to stand before Edward and his court—when he was face to face with those covetous nobles, those corrupt judges, and those avaricious courtiers—he spared them not. He hit hard, and he spoke to the point. To all alike he spoke out clearly and forcibly; he stoutly inveighed against the hypocrisy of those who professed an adherence to the Gospel because of the “loaves and fishes;” he denounced in earnest language the maladministration of justice that was so prevalent; he eloquently pleaded on behalf of the poor who were so generally neglected and cruelly oppressed; and he appealed to the king, to his councillors, his nobles, his judges—in short, to all—to amend their lives, and to use their influence to remedy this lamentable state of things. But, wishing Latimer to speak for himself, we now give an extract from the last sermon he delivered before the young king and his court, on March 10th, 1550:—

“‘Take heed, and beware of covetousness’ [this was his text]; ‘Take heed, and beware of covetousness;’ ‘Take heed, and beware of covetousness.’ And what and if I should say nothing else these three or four hours (for I know it will be so long, in case I be not commanded to the contrary) but these words, ‘Take heed, and beware of covetousness’? It would be thought a strange sermon before a king to say nothing else but ‘Beware of covetousness.’ And yet, as strange as it is, it would be like the sermon of Jonah, that he preached to the Ninevites, as touching the shortness, and as touching the paucity or fewness of the words; for his sermon was, ‘There are yet forty days to come, and Nineveh shall be destroyed.’ Thus he walked from street to street, and from place to place, round about the city, and said nothing else but, ‘There are yet forty days,’ saith he, ‘and Nineveh shall be destroyed.’ There is no great odds nor difference, at the leastwise in the number of words—no, nor yet in the sense or meaning—between these two sermons, ‘There are yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be destroyed,’ and these words I have taken to speak of this day, ‘Take heed, and beware of covetousness.’ For Nineveh should be destroyed for sin; and of their sins covetousness was one, and one of the greatest; so that it is all one in effect. And as they be like concerning the shortness, the paucity of words, the brevity of words, and also the meaning and purpose; so I would they might be like in fruit and profit. For what came of Jonah’s sermon? What was the fruit of it? ‘At the preaching of Jonah they believed God.’ Here was a great fruit, a great effect wrought. What is the same? ‘They believed God:’ they believed God’s preacher, God’s officer, God’s minister, Jonah, and were converted from their sin. They believed that, as the preacher said, if they did not repent and amend their life, the city should be destroyed within forty days. This was a great fruit, for Jonah was but one man, and he preached but one sermon, and it was but a short sermon neither, as touching the number of words; and yet he turned all the whole city, great and small, rich and poor, king and all.

“We be many preachers here in England, and we preach many long sermons; yet the people will not repent nor convert. This was the fruit, the effect, and the good that his sermon did, that all the whole city at his preaching converted and amended their living, and did penance in sackcloth. And yet here, in this sermon of Jonah, is no great curiousness, no great clerkliness, no great affectation of words, nor of painted eloquence; it was none other but, ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be destroyed;’ it was no more. This was no great curious sermon, but it was a nipping sermon, a pinching sermon, a biting sermon; it had a full bite, and thus it was indeed a nipping sermon, a rough sermon, and a sharp, biting sermon. Do you not here marvel that these Ninevites cast not Jonah into prison? that they did not revile him and rebuke him? They did not revile him nor rebuke him; but God gave them grace to hear him, and to convert and amend at his preaching. A strange matter—so noble a city to give place to one man’s sermon! Now, England cannot abide this; they cannot be content to hear God’s minister, and his threatening for their sin, though the sermon be never so good, though it be never so true. It is ‘a naughty fellow, a seditious fellow; he maketh trouble and rebellion in the realm; he lacketh discretion.’ But the Ninevites rebuked not Jonah that he lacked discretion, or that he spake out of time, that his sermon was out of season made; but in England, if God’s preacher, God’s minister, be anything quick, or do speak sharply, then he is a foolish fellow; he is rash; he lacketh discretion. Nowadays, if they cannot reprove the doctrine that is preached, then they will reprove the preacher that he lacketh due consideration of the times; and that he is of learning sufficient, but he wanteth discretion. ‘What a time is this’ (they say) ‘picked out to preach such things! He should have a respect and a regard to the time, and to the state of things, and of the commonweal.’ It rejoiceth me sometimes when my friend cometh and telleth me that they find fault with my discretion; for by likelihood, think I, the doctrine is true; for if they could find fault with the doctrine, they would not charge me with the lack of discretion or with the inconveniency of the time, I will now ask you a question. I pray you, when should Jonah have preached against the covetousness of Nineveh, if the covetous men should have appointed him his time? I know that preachers ought to have a discretion in their preaching, and that they ought to have a consideration and respect to the place and the time that they preached in; as I myself will say here what I would not say in the country for no good. But what then? Sin must be rebuked; sin must be plainly spoken against. And when should Jonah have preached against Nineveh, if he should have forborne for the respect of the time, or the place, or the state of things there? For what was Nineveh? A noble, a rich, and a wealthy city. What is London to Nineveh? Like a village, as Islington, or such another, in comparison of London.

Such a city was Nineveh; it was three days’ journey to go through every street of it, and to go but from street to street. There were noblemen, rich men, wealthy men; there were vicious men, and covetous men, and men that gave themselves to all voluptuous living, and to the worldliness of getting riches. Was this a time well chosen and discreetly taken of Jonah to come and reprove them of their sin, to declare unto them the threatenings of God, and to tell them of their covetousness, and to say plainly unto them, that except they repented and amended their living, they and their city should be destroyed of God’s hand, within forty days? And yet they heard Jonah and gave place to his preaching. They heard the threatenings of God, and feared His stroke and vengeance, and believed God: that is, they believed God’s preacher and minister; they believed that God would be true to His Word that He spake by the mouth of His prophet, and thereupon did penance to turn away the wrath of God from them. Well, what shall we say? I will say this, and not spare: Christ saith, Nineveh shall rise against the Jews at the last day, and bear witness against them; because that they, hearing God’s threatening for sin, did penance at the preaching of Jonah in ashes and sackcloth; and I say Nineveh shall rise against England—thou England! Nineveh shall rise against England, because it will not believe God, nor hear His preachers that cry daily unto them, nor amend their lives, and especially their covetousness. Covetousness is as great a sin now as it was then; and it is the same sin now it was then; and He will as sure strike for sin now as He did then.”

The foregoing extract is a sample of the plain, clear, and forcible style of Latimer’s preaching. But it must not be inferred from what we have stated that these sermons before the young king and his nobles were merely moral lectures; for any person who is at all conversant with them will readily admit that they contain some of the plainest and simplest expositions of Gospel truth to be found anywhere. Hugh Latimer was one who knew too well the glories and benefits of the Gospel to be silent about them; he was thoroughly aware that it was the only effectual remedy for the evils which he so sincerely deplored. In his sermons, therefore, he never hesitated to unfurl the banner of the Gospel, and to proclaim its grand, discriminating truths, which were the very life and sustenance of his own soul.

As soon, however, as Edward had gone to his grave, and Mary was firmly seated on the throne, Latimer, who had retired into the country, was summoned to London. The Popish council dispatched a courier with a command to that effect. Before the arrival of the messenger, however, Latimer had received information of his coming, and he at once prepared for his journey. The pursuivant, when he delivered the note, was astonished at the honest man’s readiness, to whom Latimer said: “My friend, you are a welcome messenger to me. And be it known unto you and to all the world, that I go as willingly to London at this present, being called by my prince to render a reckoning of my doctrine, as ever I was at any place in the world. I doubt not but that God, as He hath made me worthy to preach His word before two excellent princes, so will He enable me to witness the same unto the third, either to her comfort or discomfort eternally.” To London, therefore, Latimer repaired; and, after his appearance before the council, he was thrown into the tower, where he remained until he was sent with Cranmer and Ridley to Oxford, to take part in those remarkable debates with the champions of Rome upon religion generally, but more especially upon the Lord’s Supper. In this city he was kept until his death, which occurred on the 16th of October, 1555.

It was a cold, grey October morning, when Hugh Latimer—and Nicholas Ridley—were led by the mayor and bailiffs of Oxford to the stake, which was pitched on the north side of the town, over against Balliol College. As these two valiant heroes were known to have many sympathisers amongst the people, it was deemed advisable, in case of emergency, to have a strong body of halberdiers present. A large concourse of spectators assembled to witness the scene, and in the centre of the throng a sort of pulpit was erected, from which a sermon was about to be preached. Ridley was attired in his episcopal robes, that reminded the onlookers of his former position and dignity; but Latimer simply wore a Bristol frieze gown, under which was a shroud, hanging over his hose, down to his feet. Ridley came first, and on looking back he espied his companion, to whom he said, “Oh, be ye there?” “Yea,” said Latimer, “as fast as I can follow.” Upon their arrival at the stake, Ridley cheered his brother in tribulation’s path with these words: “Be ye of good heart, brother, for God will either assuage the fury of the flame, or else strengthen us to abide it.” Then they both joined in earnest prayer, after which Dr. Smith ascended the pulpit, to deliver a bitter harangue against the two martyrs and their doctrines, taking for his text the words, “If I yield my body to the flames to be burned, and have not charity, I shall gain nothing thereby.” From the text, it is not difficult to guess the nature of the sermon, which scarcely lasted a quarter of an hour. Both of them now prepared for the fire. “Then they were ready, Ridley, standing stripped to his shirt, joyfully exclaimed, “O Heavenly Father, I give unto Thee most hearty thanks, for that Thou hast called me to be a professor of Thee, even unto death. I beseech Thee, Lord God, take mercy upon this realm of England, and deliver the same from all her enemies.” Being chained to the stake, a lighted faggot was laid at Ridley’s feet, when Latimer uttered those memorable words—words which, like the last words of a dying parent, have been treasured in the memory of the sons and daughters of England, and have come down to us as fresh as on the day they were uttered—”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 then commenced their cruel work, and after exclaiming, “O Father of heaven, receive my soul!” Latimer speedily succumbed to their fury. Ridley’s sufferings, however, were considerably prolonged; but at length he followed his martyred companion to the regions of eternal glory. This was indeed a grand scene in our history, and it has been fittingly memorialised by one of the most gifted of our poets in the following lines:—

“How fast the Marian death-list is unrolled!
See Latimer and Ridley, in the might
Of Faith, stand coupled for a common flight!
One, like the prophets whom God sent of old
Transfigured, from this kindling hath foretold
A torch of inextinguishable light;
The other gains a confidence as bold;
And thus they foil their enemy’s despite.
The penal instruments, the shows of crime,
Are glorified, while this once-mitred pair
Of saintly friends, the murtherous chain partake,
Corded, and burning at the social stake.
Earth never witnessed object more sublime
In constancy, in fellowship more fair.”

Hugh Latimer (1487-1555) was a Protestant Reformer and martyr. Under the reign of Queen Mary I, he was burned at the stake together with Nicholas Ridley. As the fire took flame around their feet, he reportedly said to Ridley, "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."