Nicholas Ridley by G W Bromiley
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It is reported that even during the period of his greatest success Ridley had some forebodings of his eventual martyrdom here was no doubt something of intelligent anticipation in these presentiments. Events abroad had shown how easily a favourable situation could be transformed, and the delicate health of Edward VI and the known fanaticism of his appointed successor suggested at once the possibility and even the imminence of a similar change in England. In the event of such an upheaval Ridley himself could hardly hope to escape, for his learning and ability distinguished him as perhaps the most dangerous Protestant champion.
As it turned out, the forebodings or anticipations were fully justified. Edward died in 1553, and once Mary had established herself on the throne she arrested not only those who had attempted to thwart her but also the leading protagonists of ecclesiastical reform. With Cranmer and Latimer, Ridley was imprisoned first in the Tower, and later in the common gaol at Oxford. In 1555 Ridley was separated from the others and lodged with one Irish, the mayor of the city. In his letter to Grindal, Ridley complained of the strictness of his treatment under Irish. He thought that it might be due to some command of the authorities, but on the whole he inclined to attribute it to the mayor's “ill-tempered and superstitious wife”, and he congratulated himself that as a celibate he had at least escaped “the evil and intolerable yoke” of “wedlock with a bad woman”. Ridley remained in the house of Irish until his final martyrdom.
It was during this period of imprisonment that the ultimate quality of Ridley became clear. It showed itself first in the self-forgetfulness of a quite evident and genuine concern for others, whether for fellow-confessors or for those who were likely to suffer by his own downfall. His letter to Grindal testifies abundantly to his interest in the exiles, and we learn from another source “how much assistance, even when in prison, he sent out of England” to relieve their necessity. In another letter written to “his fellow-prisoners for Christ's Gospel's sake” he drew their attention to strengthening and consoling passages in the Scriptures.
The quality of Ridley revealed itself, too, in the inward confidence with which he faced and won through those bitter months. Hitherto Ridley has appeared before us mainly as the ecclesiastic and scholar, but in the prison writings he comes before us as a deeply religious man, versed not only in the letter but also in the spirit of the New Testament. The Piteous Lamentation, for example, contains a most moving passage in which he pondered the question of flight or suffering. He could allow the legitimacy of flight, and he could recognize the folly of seeking danger unnecessarily; but in his own case he thought it right neither to fly nor to recant, but determined to set his face steadfastly to go towards Jerusalem. He had not lost his faith in God. He knew that if God so willed it he could “use His elect to shew forth His power by delivering them and keeping them safe”.
Even the prospect of death could do nothing to daunt the spirit of this faithful servant of the Gospel. He faced death, and a terrible death; but “why”, he asked, “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”.
We find the quality of Ridley finally in his unshakable constancy of conviction in the face of odds which might well have overwhelmed a lesser man. The primary aim of the Romanists was to destroy, not the persons of the Reformers, but their faith. Rightly or wrongly, Ridley was regarded as the outstanding theologian of the Reformed party. In the interview with Secretary Bourn he was even accused “of writing that book of the Sacrament which was set forth in my Lord of Canterbury's name”, I and in the last examination he was told that “Master Latimer confessed his learning to be in Master Cranmer's book, and Master Cranmer also said that it was Ridley's doing”. Ridley himself disclaimed any superiority over Cranmer, partly because he was a younger man, and partly because Cranmer himself was “a great learned man who passeth me no less, than the learned master his young scholar”. True or not, however, it meant that the main effort of the Romanists was directed against Ridley, for it was presumed that if he recanted then Cranmer would easily be shaken, and Latimer was too old to be of any great account.
The means adopted were not of the most scrupulous, and Ridley had to make his defence in the most disheartening circumstances. Prior to the disputation he did at least enjoy the fellowship of his brother-bishops, but he was deprived of his books, so that in all his quotations from the Fathers he had to rely on his memory. When he did come to dispute, he was engaged by two or three well-briefed opponents at once, and so much disorder greeted his speeches, “contumelious taunts, hissings, clapping of hands, and triumphs,” that often he could hardly make himself heard at all. Even as a scholar, Ridley was quite shocked that “such foolish and Robin-hood pastimes” should pass at Oxford for a grave and learned disputation. The nature of the hearing made an adverse decision certain. Ridley conducted his case with great dialectical skill and a wonderful pertinacity, but the proceedings terminated inevitably with a proclamation of victory for the mediaeval doctrine. As Fox put it, “Weston, dissolving the disputations, had these words ‘Therefore I beseech you all most earnestly to blow the note’ (and he began, and they followed), ‘Verity hath the victory’, ‘Verity hath the victory’.”
The disputation had been held in the spring of 1555. In the autumn a commission was sent down from Cardinal Pole to examine Latimer and Ridley and to give them the opportunity of recanting. If they persisted in their views, they were to be degraded from their orders and pronounced heretical. Throughout the examination Ridley maintained his steadfast witness, even to the point of refusing to do outward reverence to the Pope or his legate. After some discussion articles were finally submitted to him, all of which had reference to his doctrine of the Supper. To these he answered affirmatively, but he insisted upon two important distinctions. He rejected the real presence only in the sense of a substantial and not of a true (spiritual) presence, and in denying transubstantiation he did not deny a “sacramental mutation wrought by the omnipotence of Christ's word”. A further examination was held on the following day (October 1st), but Ridley refused to change his position. Accordingly he was declared heretical, and sentenced to degradation from ecclesiastical office, committal to the secular arm, and the ban of the greater excommunication.
The degradation took place a fortnight later (October 15th). For the purpose of the ceremony it was necessary that Ridley should be arrayed in “the trinkets of the mass”. True to his convictions, he inveighed against the apparel as “foolish and abominable, yea, too fond for a vice in a play”. He refused voluntarily to put on the vestments or to take the wafer-cake and book, but he offered no physical resistance when they were put on him and then taken away by others.
The degradation of Ridley left no further bar to his execution, and arrangements had been made for the burning of himself and Latimer on the following day (October 16th). The details of the martyrdom have been movingly given by Fox, and there is no need to give the full story again here. The two martyrs encouraged each other with brave words as they made their last journey. Ridley assured the older man that “God would either assuage the fury of the flame, or strengthen them to abide it”. Latirner remained confident of the victory of their cause: “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”. Before they were chained to the stake, they engaged in prayer, and then distributed their outer clothing and other small effects to their friends and others that stood by. In order to shorten his sufferings Ridley's brother had brought some gunpowder, and when, at Ridley's request, he had shared it with Latimer, he placed it in bags and tied it around their necks.
The assurance of Ridley was fully confirmed by events, although not perhaps as he himself had anticipated. In the case of Latimer, God did assuage the flame, for “the old man soon died, with very little pain or none”. In Ridley's case, however, there was every need of strength to abide it, for the fire had been badly laid, and it burned fiercely underneath without affecting any vital part. The sufferings of Ridley were terrible, and they were only increased when his brother unwisely heaped more faggots on the fire. However, in spite of the pain, he did not cease to call upon God. At last one of the bystanders had the sense to pull away the upper wood, and then Ridley stretched himself to the blaze, and his sufferings were soon over.
It is tempting sometimes to consider the might-have beens of history. Had Edward lived, it is possible that by his scholarship and activity Ridley might have carried through a reformation of the English Church far more thorough and solid than that which was eventually possible. He had both the theological grasp and the ecclesiastical ability to unite the Reformed party and partly to convince, partly to discipline the lesser clergy and people. His force of character and his prestige were sufficient, perhaps, even to restrain those who had Puritan leanings, and he would no doubt have made some small and sensible concessions in order to ensure their larger loyalty. On the other hand, it is always possible that before Edward had attained his majority, Ridley's outspokenness would have caused him to be sidetracked or even suppressed by those unscrupulous adventurers who were merely using the Reformation for their own selfish ends.
Those are only possibilities. The facts are that to a large extent Ridley did accomplish by his death that which he had not been allowed to do in his life. He bore a witness to Reformed truth which at first perplexed and later thrilled and inspired his English countrymen. The horrible nature of his suffering exposed as no words could do the falsity of the Romanists' claim to be the true successors of the Apostles of Jesus Christ. It needed the testimony of many others, including the Archbishop himself, to shake finally that religious conservatism which caused many in England to adhere to the old teachings. But Ridley and Latimer and all those Protestant confessors did not offer their lives in vain. The Protestant Settlement under Elizabeth was history's answer to the boastful Vincit veritas of the disputation, and to the triumph of that Settlement the sufferings of the martyr bishops contributed in no ungenerous measure.
Works, Introduction, p. xi, n. 2, quoting an anecdote from Humphrey's Life of Bishop JewelL
Mary had been designated as such in the will of Henry VIII.
Works, pp. 160-61. Fox refers to this as “the book of catechism”, but it must surely have been Cranmer's True and Catholic Doctrine.
Works, pp. 273-5. The examiners and their notaries seem not to have understood these distinctions.
Reprinted in Works, pp. 293-9