The Reformation was a tough time to live through in England. The definition of orthodoxy changed with the monarch and it was all too easy to be accused of heresy. Many fine Christians died as a result, some of them remembered by name and some whose names have been forgotten. In recalling what happened to the more famous people, we also remember those whom only God recalls by name. We can say with John Bradford, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’
Today we seem to be commemorating people without names: English Saints and Martyrs of the Reformation Era. There are no names because it is impossible to name all who come under this umbrella.
From the fourteenth to the seventeenth century in England there was a time of conflict in the church and in the state. The problems were at their worst in the sixteenth century. Many people found themselves suffering for supporting what they considered to be the truth of the gospel. Not all were famous or important people even in their time, and certainly many are not remembered by name now. Some were simple ordinary people like the carpenter who made places for Catholic priests to hide in, some were priests or bishops, some were great scholars. They were not all of the same denomination either. Roman Catholics killed Protestants, Protestants killed Roman Catholics and even some Protestants killed Protestants. They each fell foul of those in authority in their day and suffered as a result, being executed as heretics and traitors.
During the Reformation in England what was considered orthodox belief changed rapidly and so it was all too easy to be classed as a heretic. Although John Wycliffe had urged people to return to scripture rather than the teachings of people in the 14th Century, it was not until the 16th Century in England that the Reformation really made an impact with Luther’s teachings crossing the English Channel. Many in the church opposed the new teachings but Henry VIII wanted to be in charge of the church in England and so made the church independent of the Pope. Some supported this move and others were opposed to it. Once Henry died, more reform came in under the advisors of Edward VI, his son. Once Mary came to the throne in 1553 she was intent on returning England’s church to union with the Pope. She set out to deal with heresy by burning as many heretics as possible. In five years 300 people perished on her orders.
There is a memorial to 23 of those from Oxford who died between 1539 and 1681. Under the names is written: ‘Those whose names are known stand for all who suffered.’ In looking at some particular individuals we get an idea of the way others suffered. John Houghton, Robert Lawrence and Augustine Webster were Carthusian monks and each was a prior of one of the Carthusian Charterhouses. When Henry VIII was declared supreme head of the Church in England by the 1534 Act of Supremacy these three men met together in London to discuss the religious issues this raised. Approaching Thomas Cromwell who was the chief minister of the king, in the hope of some compromise for the Carthusian communities over the oath of supremacy, they instead found themselves incarcerated in the Tower of London. They pleaded not guilty to a charge of treason at their trial, continuing to maintain that the king could not be head of the church. A great deal of pressure was put on the jury by Cromwell and eventually the three monks were found guilty. Thomas More was in the Tower at that time and watched the three being taken out to Tyburn. He turned to his daughter and said, “Lo, dost thou not see, Meg, that these blessed fathers be now as cheerfully going to their deaths as bridegrooms to their marriage?” The three were hanged, drawn and quartered on this day 1535, refusing a last minute offer of a pardon if they accepted the king’s supremacy. They became the first martyrs of the English Reformation.
Also remembered today are Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer.
Hugh Latimer was a great defender of the Roman Catholic faith and often disputed with the defenders of the Reformation. His mind was changed by one of the people he had disputed with, Thomas Bilney, and came away from the encounter convinced that he was right. His preaching became famous as he encouraged his hearers to live pure and upright lives. He believed that the Bible should be read in every home and that people should pray diligently. He became Bishop of Worcester in Henry VIII’s time but resigned because he saw a return to more Roman ways. He was able to continue to preach during the reign of Edward VI but when Mary came to the throne he was arrested as a leading reformer along with Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley and John Bradford.
Nicholas Ridley agreed with the Act of Supremacy, supporting Henry’s action. He became the king’s chaplain and later, in the time of Edward VI, he was Bishop of Rochester. He helped to write the Book of Common Prayer. He became Bishop of London and worked to improve the conditions of the poor.
On 16th October 1555 Ridley and Latimer were led to be burned at the stake in Oxford. It is possible to see a cross on the ground in Broad Street which marks the place where they died. Ridley arrived robed as a Bishop and Latimer was in a simple frock. Ridley gave his clothes away to the people who were standing there. As an act of mercy, Ridley’s brother tied a bag of gunpowder round each of their necks in the hope of hastening their deaths. As the wood of the fire was set alight, Hugh Latimer said, “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.”
Thomas Cranmer was the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry. He brought in new forms of worship and created the liturgy in English, using his gifts as a translator. He arranged for an English translation of the Bible to be provided for every parish church. Once Henry was succeeded by Edward, Thomas was able to bring in more reforms. He wrote much of the Book of Common Prayer. He also wrote the Forty-two Articles which eventually became the Thirty-nine Articles as we have them now. When Mary came to the throne Cranmer wrote a letter of submission to the Pope and Roman Catholic doctrines despite his Protestant beliefs. Mary did not believe that the submission was genuine and had him arrested. He was burned at the stake in Oxford on 21st March 1556. As he went to his death he withdrew his submission saying, “I have sinned, in that I signed with my hand what I did not believe with my heart. When the flames are lit, this hand shall be the first to burn.” Once the fire was burning he held his right hand in it until it burned away.
It is hard not to be affected by hearing of all the suffering of these martyrs. Perhaps the only response we can give is that of John Bradford who shared a cell with Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley before being put to death in 1555. As he saw the criminals being led out to be executed he said, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor