Hugh Latimer was born at Thurcaston, a village north of Leicester, in about 1485. He later recalled: ‘My father was a yeoman, and had no lands of his own, only he had a farm of three or four pound by year". Among his earliest memories was of buckling his father's armour in 1497 before the battle of Blackheath Field. (1)
John Foxe claims that he was sent to school at the age of four. He entered Cambridge University at fourteen "to study divinity, becoming a scrupulously observant Catholic priest." Foxe goes on to argue that at first he was a strong opponent of Martin Luther and Philip Melancthon. (2) He later recalled that "I was as obstinate a papist as any was in England". (3)
Latimer was a regular visitor to the White Horse tavern that had been nicknamed "Little Germany" as the Lutheran creed was discussed within its walls, and the participants were known as "Germans". Those involved in the debates about religious reform included Thomas Cranmer, William Tyndale, Nicholas Ridley, Nicholas Shaxton and Matthew Parker. Latimer also went to hear the sermons of preachers such as Robert Barnes and Thomas Bilney. (4) Latimer's biographer, Susan Wabuda, has argued that "many of his early opinions may have been shaped less by Luther than by the Swiss reformers". (5)
The main issue discussed by the young priests concerned the doctrine of transubstantiation, whereby the bread and wine became in actual fact the body and blood of Christ. The Catholic Church believed because it is impossible, it is proof of the overwhelming power of God. Martin Luther believed in the real presence of Christ in the sacrament, but denied that he was there "in substance". Luther believed in what became known as consubstantiation or sacramental union, whereby the integrity of the bread and wine remain even while being transformed by the body and blood of Christ. (6)
Latimer graduated in 1511 and was elected a fellow of Clare College. He was ordained subdeacon at Peterborough in March 1515 and a deacon at Lincoln Cathedral the following month, and priest at Liddington that July. Although he was sympathetic to the reformers he kept a low profile and did not become involved in controversial issues.
On 24th December 1525, Robert Barnes preached a sermon in St Edward's Church, in which he attacked the corruption of the clergy in general and that of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in particular. He was arrested on 5th February 1526. Miles Coverdale helped him prepare his defence. Taken to London, Barnes appeared before Wolsey and found guilty. He was made to do public penance by carrying a faggot (a bundle of sticks bound together as fuel) on his back to Paul's Cross. The faggot was a symbol of the flames around the stake. (7)
Another friend, Thomas Bilney, became a well-known preacher against idolatry. Twice he was pulled from his pulpit by some members of his congregation. (8) At Ipswich, Bilney denounced pilgrimages to popular shrines like Our Lady of Walsingham and warned of the worthlessness of prayers to the saints, while at Willesden he attacked the custom of leaving offerings before images. Bilney called on Henry VIII to destroy these images. (9)
In 1527 Bilney's attacks "on the insolence, pomp, and pride of the clergy" drew the attention of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. On 29th November, Bilney was brought before Wolsey and a group of bishops, priests, and lawyers at Westminster. Also in attendance was Sir Thomas More. It has been argued by Jasper Ridley: "This was unprecedented, for a common lawyer and layman would not ordinarily have joined the bishops and canon lawyers in the examination of a heretic." (10)
Thomas Bilney declared that he had not "taught the opinions" of Martin Luther. Bilney was now handed over to Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall who declared he "was a wicked and detestable heretic". Bilney was held in custody and on 7th December he agreed to recant his beliefs. According to John Foxe: "He was sentenced to prison for some time and forced to do penance by going before the procession at St. Paul's bareheaded and carrying a fagot on his shoulder, then standing before the preacher during the sermon." (11)
Bilney remained in prison until his release early in January 1529. On his return to Cambridge he went to see Hugh Latimer and asked him to hear his confession. (12) According to John Foxe: "Latimer was so moved by what he heard that he left his study of the Catholic doctors to learn true divinity. Where before he was an enemy of Christ, he now became a zealous seeker of Him... Latimer and Bilney stayed at Cambridge for some time, having many conversations together; the place they walked soon became known as Heretics' Hill. Both of them set a good Christian example by visiting prisoners, helping the needy, and feeding the hungry." (13)
Thomas Bilney experienced great guilt for recanting. In early 1531 Bilney announced to his friends that he was "going up to Jerusalem" and set off for Norwich to court martyrdom. He began to preach in the open air, renounced his earlier recantation, and distributed copies of the English Bible that had been translated by William Tyndale. He was arrested in March and as a relapsed heretic he knew he would be burnt at the stake. (14)
John Foxe later described his execution at Norwich in August 1531: "Bilney approached the stake in a layman's gown, his arms hanging out, his hair mangled by the church's ritual divestiture of office. He was given permission to speak to the crowd and told them not to blame the friars present for his death and then said his private prayers. The officers put reeds and wood around him and lit the fire, which flared up rapidly, deforming Bilney's face as he held up his hands." Foxe claimed he called out "Jesus" and "I believe". (15)
Hugh Latimer and his fellow reformers were deeply affected by the death of Bilney. According to his biographer, Susan Wabuda: "From the beginning of the 1530s he and his friends attacked the papacy, non-preaching bishops, and the influential mendicant orders. The doctrine of purgatory, never mentioned by name in the Bible, became one of his favourite targets, and with it the elaborate traditional economy of salvation. He began to argue that if votive masses could not assist the departed in purgatory then the institutions which existed largely to celebrate masses for the dead, including the religious houses and chantries, were redundant, and should be dismantled so that their wealth could be redirected, especially towards relief of the poor and to the universities for the training of good preachers." (16)
Latimer was called before William Warham, the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was kept in London for some time, being called for examination three times a week. Latimer complained that he was being kept from his parish without just cause. With the help of Thomas Cromwell he was released. Cromwell was control of the supervision of the King's legal and parliamentary affairs. His work included the sale and receipt of land for the king; the supervising of building works at Westminster and the Tower of London; and involvement in various matters of law enforcement, such as hearing appeals and deciding the fate of prisoners and felons brought before him. (17)
Cromwell told Henry VIII that preachers such as Latimer and Robert Barnes could be helpful in helping obtain a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Cromwell contacted Barnes who was living in exile and invited him to travel to London. Barnes was granted a private audience with the king. As David Loades, the author of Thomas Cromwell (2013) has pointed out: "Although his supplication was offensive to the monarch in the sense that it advocated justification by faith alone, it also explained a number of Lutheran tenents in terms which were acceptable to his sovereign. The king would have been looking for some endorsement of his position on his marriage, and over that it is likely that Barnes was non-committal." (18)
Sir Thomas More considered Barnes a heretic and protested about his meeting with the king. He pointed out that in Barnes's writings he had said that if his king ordered him to violate God's law, he must disobey and passively suffer martyrdom, though even then he must not resist the king by force. Barnes had also said that if the king ordered a man to burn his copy of the Bible, he would be justified in disobeying. More argued that Henry had ordered the burning of Bibles in English and therefore he was acting in a seditious manner. Barnes was in danger of being arrested and so he returned to Antwerp. (19)
Anne Boleyn also became a supporter of Hugh Latimer. As Susan Wabuda has pointed out: "Anne Boleyn's enemies dismissed her as a Lutheran, but the importance of her dedication to the cause of evangelism cannot be overstated. Her patronage became the cornerstone of Latimer's rise to prominence, and he owed his most important promotions to her influence...Anne's influence brought Latimer promotion to the rectory of West Kington in Wiltshire, a valuable living, where he was diligent in his cure, saying mass, preaching, and keeping hospitality. It started him in a lifelong association with the cause of reform in the west country, and gave him a springboard from which to respond to invitations to preach in London, Kent, and elsewhere." It has also been claimed by Wabuda that "at the queen's request Latimer tried to persuade Henry not to confiscate the goods of the religious houses, but to re-found them or distribute their wealth in fulfilment of their ultimate potential as centres of learning and preaching, and continual relief of poverty." (20)
Archbishop William Warham died in August 1532, and was replaced by Thomas Cranmer. He was the ideal man for Henry, since he believed in royal supremacy over the Church. In March 1533, Cranmer was formally consecrated, but immediately before the ceremony he read aloud a statement declaring that while he was willing to take the customary oaths of allegiance to the Pope it would be with the reservation that his duty to the King came first. Cranmer obtained a licence from Henry authorising him to try the case of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He set up his court at Dunstable and on 23rd May pronounced judgement that Henry's so-called marriage with Catherine had never been valid and that the King must stop living in sin with this woman who was not his wife. (21)
In September 1535, Latimer was appointed as Bishop of Worcester. Once established in his diocese he embarked upon a programme of dismantling images and promoting new standards of preaching. He stripped the statue of the Virgin that stood in Worcester Cathedral. He also removed the renowned relic of Christ's blood from Hailes Abbey. (22) In June 1536 Latimer was chosen to preach before the senior clergy assembled at St Paul's Cathedral where he attacked the activities of Pope Paul III (23) John Foxe claimed that his reforms were limited: "He wasn't able to rid his diocese of superstitions but did what he could within the Catholic Church, helping his parishioners exclude as much superstition as possible from their lives and worship. Even then, he continued to be harassed by other members of the clergy." (24)
Friar John Forest, who had been a religious adviser to Catherine of Aragon, was charged with heresy. In the whole history of the religious persecutions in Tudor England, Forest was the only Roman Catholic who was accused of this crime. He was sentenced to be both hanged for treason and burnt for heresy. Bishop Hugh Latimer agreed to preach the sermon at Forest's execution on 22nd May 1538. His sermon lasted for three hours while he waited for death. Latimer told Thomas Cromwell that he made it a long sermon to increase Forest's suffering. "Forest was chained to a gallows which was placed above the fire which burned below him... When the flames reached his feet, he drew them up, then bravely lowered them into the fire, and remained there till he burned to death." (25)
Hugh Latimer joined forces with Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Cromwell and Bishop Nicholas Shaxton to introduce religious reforms. They wanted the Bible to be available in English. This was a controversial issue as William Tyndale had been denounced as a heretic and ordered to be burnt at the stake by Henry VIII eleven years before, for producing such a Bible. The edition they wanted to use was that of Miles Coverdale, an edition that was a reworking of the one produced by Tyndale. Cranmer approved the Coverdale version on 4th August 1538, and asked Cromwell to present it to the king in the hope of securing royal authority for it to be available in England. (26)
Henry agreed to the proposal on 30th September. Every parish had to purchase and display a copy of the Coverdale Bible in the nave of their church for everybody who was literate to read it. "The clergy was expressly forbidden to inhibit access to these scriptures, and were enjoined to encourage all those who could do so to study them." (27) Cranmer was delighted and wrote to Cromwell praising his efforts and claiming that "besides God's reward, you shall obtain perpetual memory for the same within the realm." (28)
In May 1539 the bill of the Six Articles was presented by Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk in Parliament. It was soon clear that it had the support of Henry VIII. Although the word "transubstantiation" was not used, the real presence of Christ's very body and blood in the bread and wine was endorsed. So also was the idea of purgatory. The six articles presented a serious problem for Latimer and other religious reformers. Latimer had argued against transubstantiation and purgatory for many years. Latimer now faced a choice between obeying the king as supreme head of the church and standing by the doctrine he had had a key role in developing and promoting for the past decade. (29)
Bishop Hugh Latimer and Bishop Nicholas Shaxton both spoke against the Six Articles in the House of Lords. Thomas Cromwell was unable to come to their aid and in July they were both forced to resign their bishoprics. For a time it was thought that Henry would order their execution as heretics. He eventually decided against this measure and instead they were ordered to retire from preaching. However, Latimer's close friend and mentor, Robert Barnes was burnt at the stake on 30th July, 1540. (30)
In February 1546 conservatives in the Church of England, led by Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, began plotting to destroy the radical Protestants. (31) He gained the support of Henry VIII. As Alison Weir has pointed out: "Henry himself had never approved of Lutheranism. In spite of all he had done to reform the church of England, he was still Catholic in his ways and determined for the present to keep England that way. Protestant heresies would not be tolerated, and he would make that very clear to his subjects." (32) In May 1546 Henry gave permission for twenty-three people suspected of heresy to be arrested. This included Latimer. He appeared before the Privy Council but it is not recorded what Latimer said at this meeting. However, he was released without being charged with heresy.
Anne Askew was also arrested. Bishop Gardiner instructed Sir Anthony Kingston, the Constable of the Tower of London, to torture Askew in an attempt to force her to name Catherine Parr and other leading Protestants as heretics. Kingston complained about having to torture a woman (it was in fact illegal to torture a woman at the time) and the Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley and his assistant, Richard Rich took over operating the rack. Despite suffering a long period on the rack, Askew refused to name those who shared her religious views. According to Askew: "Then they did put me on the rack, because I confessed no ladies or gentlemen, to be of my opinion... the Lord Chancellor and Master Rich took pains to rack me with their own hands, till I was nearly dead. I fainted... and then they recovered me again. After that I sat two long hours arguing with the Lord Chancellor, upon the bare floor... With many flattering words, he tried to persuade me to leave my opinion... I said that I would rather die than break my faith." (33) Afterwards, Anne's broken body was laid on the bare floor, and Wriothesley sat there for two hours longer, questioning her about her heresy and her suspected involvement with the royal household. (34)
Askew was removed to a private house to recover and once more offered the opportunity to recant. Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Shaxton both went to see her in an attempt to save her life. It is reported that Askew told Shaxton that she wished he had never been born. (35) When she refused to recant she was taken to Newgate Prison to await her execution. On 16th July 1546, Agnew "still horribly crippled by her tortures" was carried to execution in Smithfield in a chair as she could not walk and every movement caused her severe pain. (36) It was reported that she was taken to the stake which had a small seat attached to it, on which she sat astride. Chains were used to bind her body firmly to the stake at the ankles, knees, waist, chest and neck. (37)
Hugh Latimer, unlike Nicholas Shaxton, refused to recant and was sent to the Tower of London. He was released on the death of Henry VIII on 28th January 1547. Edward VI was only nine years old and was too young to rule. In his will, Henry had nominated a Council of Regency, made up of 16 nobles and churchman to assist his son in governing his new realm. It was not long before his uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, emerged as the leading figure in the government and was given the title Lord Protector. He was sympathetic to the religious ideas of people like Latimer and he was therefore released from prison. (38)
This gave the opportunity for Latimer and his friends such as Archbishop Thomas Cranmer their long-awaited opportunity to implement the doctrinal changes they had desired. Later that year the Six Articles were repealed. Latimer did not wish to be a bishop again but instead he was appointed to preach before the young King at court. According to Jasper Ridley, the author of Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002): "In a series of vigorous sermons he dealt, among other things, with the grievances of the common people and their resentment against the enclosure of common lands by the noblemen and gentlemen." (39) His biographer, Susan Wabuda, has pointed out: "Of all the reformers Latimer was the most persuasive in the pulpit... Many of his sermons at Edward's court seem to have been fuelled by a desire to get his own back against those who had thwarted him under Henry. He had wit, and he knew how to turn phrases that stayed in his listeners' memories: on one occasion he shocked his audience by claiming that the busiest bishop in all England was the devil." (40)
Hugh Latimer retired in March 1550 and went to live the the village of his birth, Thurcaston. His peaceful retirement was brought to an end on the death of Edward VI on 6th July, 1553. As soon as she gained power, Queen Mary ordered the arrests of the leading Protestants in England. When he was arrested Latimer told the officer that Smithfield, the place where heretics were burned, "had long groaned for him". (41)
Latimer was taken to the Tower of London. So many Protestants were arrested that Latimer had to share his apartment with Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley and John Bradford. (42) To their mutual comfort, they "did read over the new testament with great deliberation and painful study", discussing again the meaning of Christ's sacrifice, and reinforcing their opinions on the spiritual presence in the Lord's supper. (43)
In March the three former bishops were moved to the Bocardo Prison in Oxford. Latimer, Cranmer and Ridley refused to recant and spent the succeeding months waiting for the inevitable. (44) By the time of his trial at the end of September 1555, Latimer complained that he had been kept "so long to the school of oblivion" with only "bare walls" for a library, that he could not defend himself adequately. (45) Unrepentant he unleashed upon his audience a categorical attack against the Catholic Church, which he characterized as "the traditional enemy of the true, persecuted flock of Christ". (46)
Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were sentenced to be burnt at the stake for heresy on 16th October, 1555. John Foxe recalled that Latimer followed Ridley to the stake in Oxford in "a poor Bristol style frock all worn" and underneath a new shroud hanging down to his feet. Ridley was burnt first and Foxe recorded Latimer's defiant proclamation: "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". Foxe claimed that after Latimer "stroked his face with his hands, and as it were bathed them a little in the fire, he soon died with very little pain."
Nicholas Ridley took some time to die: "Ridley, by reason of the evil making of the fire unto him... burned clean all his nether parts before it touched the upper... Yet in all this torment he forgot not to call upon God... Let the fire come to me, I cannot burn. In which pains he laboured, till one of the standers by with his bill, pulled the faggots above, and when he saw the fire flame up, he wrested himself into that side. And when the flame touched the gunpowder, he was seen to stir no more." (47)
Bishop Latimer was the son of Hugh Latimer of Thurcaston Leicester, a farmer with a good reputation. At the age of four, he was sent to school and trained in literature; at fourteen, he entered the University of Cambridge to study divinity, becoming a scrupulously observant Catholic priest. At first Latimer was a bitter enemy of the Protestants, opposing the works of Philip Melancthon and Master Stafford. But Thomas Bilney felt pity for Latimer and decided to try to win him to the true knowledge of Christ. Bilney asked Latimer to hear his confession of faith, and Latimer was so moved by what he heard that he left his study of the Catholic doctors to learn true divinity. Where before he was an enemy of Christ, he now became a zealous seeker of Him, even asking Stafford's forgiveness before that man died.
In 1529 a great number of friars and doctors of divinity from all schools at Cambridge began to preach against Latimer and his new beliefs. Dr. West, bishop of Ely, forbade him to preach within the churches of that university, but Dr. Barnes, the prior of the Augustine friars, licensed Latimer to preach in his church. Like a true disciple, Latimer spent the next three years working to convert his brothers of the university and the parishioners of his church, speaking Latin to the educated and English to the common people.
Latimer and Bilney stayed at Cambridge for some time, having many conversations together; the place they walked soon became known as Heretics' Hill. Both of them set a good Christian example by visiting prisoners, helping the needy, and feeding the hungry.
After preaching and teaching at Cambridge for three years, Latimer was called before the cardinal for heresy. At this time he bent to the will of the church and was allowed to return to the university, where he met Dr. Buts, Henry VIII's doctor and supporter. Latimer joined Buts in Henry's court for some time, preaching in London, but became tired of court life and accepted a position in West Kingston that was offered him by the king. There he diligently instructed his parish and everyone in the nearby countryside. It didn't take Latimer long to infuriate a good number of country priests and higher church doctors with his beliefs on reform.
Latimer was called before William Warham, archbishop of Canterbury, and John Stokesley, bishop of London, on January 29, 1531. He was kept in London for some time, being called for examination three times a week, until he wrote to the archbishop and said he was too ill to see him anymore. In the same letter, Latimer complained that he was being kept from his parish without just cause, for preaching the truth about certain abuses within the church. Eventually Latimer seems to have accepted the charges against him (although there is no proof of this), and he was freed through the efforts of Buts, Cromwell, and the king.
In time, Henry VIII made Latimer the bishop of Worcester, where he served faithfully, although the dangerous times prevented him from doing everything-he wanted to. He wasn't able to rid his diocese of superstitions but did what he could within the Catholic Church, helping his parishioners exclude as much superstition as possible from their lives and worship. Even then, he continued to be harassed by other members of the clergy.
When the Six Articles were passed, Latimer voluntarily resigned his post, as did Shaxton, the bishop of Salisbury. Latimer went to London, where he was harassed by the bishops and imprisoned in the Tower of London until King Edward took the throne. On his release, Latimer went back to work, preaching twice every Sunday and once every weekday, unlike many clergymen who ignored their duties during Edward's reign. He was now sixty-seven years old and suffering from an injury received by the fall of a tree.
Not long after King Edward's death, Latimer was arrested on Queen Mary's command and thrown back into the Tower of London, where he suffered greatly. He was transferred to Oxford with Cranmer, the archbishop of Canterbury, and Ridley, bishop of London, to answer charges made by Gardiner, the bishop of Winchester.
From the beginning of the 1530s he and his friends attacked the papacy, non-preaching bishops, and the influential mendicant orders. The doctrine of purgatory, never mentioned by name in the Bible, became one of his favourite targets, and with it the elaborate traditional economy of salvation. He began to argue that if votive masses could not assist the departed in purgatory then the institutions which existed largely to celebrate masses for the dead, including the religious houses and chantries, were redundant, and should be dismantled so that their wealth could be redirected, especially towards relief of the poor and to the universities for the training of good preachers.