Hugh Latimer (1470- 16 October 1554).

Hugh Latimer is regarded by many as one of the most zealous reformers in England, having begun his ecclesiastical career as a priest and a fierce defender of the Church of Rome . Not only zealous , he was an impressive orator with great sincerity who pressed his teachings into the conscience of the listener. His style was very much pitched at the common man, with both simple and familiar expressions , and a droll humour that made his discourses interesting and suited the need of the time.

His father was a farmer at Thurcaston, near Sorrel in Leicestershire. A tenant farmer he employed six men and ran stock of about a hundred sheep and thirty cows. Hugh was the only son, and had six sisters. From this modest background, Hugh was educated  at the local school and then sent to Leicester with a view to joining the church. He went to Cambridge in 1484 where he took his degree and  became a priest. Such was his zeal and dedication that he was appointed cross bearer for the University, a post he held for seven years. In his time at Cambridge Latimer gave an oration against the protestant reformers and severely criticised Philip Melanchthon for introducing innovations.

Among his associates at Cambridge was Thomas Bilney who played a major role in converting Latimer to the reformers` cause. This he did by dropping criticisms and comments on corruptions etc of the Catholic church into discussions. Eventually Bilney asked Latimer to cast aside any pre conceived prejudices and to examine and compare the two doctrines with a clear mind. D`Aubigne in his History of the Reformation relates that Bilney decided to use the confessional as the means to speak to Latimer who was smitten that the heretic (Bilney) wished to confess to the catholic, and was convinced that his discourse about Melanchthon had worked such an effect. However, that was not the case. Bilney knelt before the cross bearer and told of his own anquish before he had found peace in being able to call God his father through the workings of Jesus Christ. 

"A new, strange witness ,- the Holy Ghost, was speaking in Latimer`s soul. He learned from God  to know God; he received a new heart."

Latimer said afterwards in a sermon delivered before the Duchess of Suffolk:

" by his confession I learned more than afore than in many years. So from that time forward I began to smell the word of God, and forsake the school doctors,  and such fooleries."

It was about 1523 when the conversion occurred and Latimer set out gaining converts within Cambridge and the surrounding countryside. Inevitably his activities came to the attention of the resentful priests (Cambridge was entirely papist at this time), especially for stating that the locking up of the Scriptures from the people was a flagrant abuse of power. In a short time Latimer, Bilney and other reformers were summoned before the clerical court.

The rigour of the court, led by bishop Cuthbert Tunstal of Durham, focussed their attention on Bilney, whom they regarded as the arch heretic. In the event Bilney recanted and carried a faggot as a sign of his penance. He was, however, deeply unhappy and ashamed to face his colleagues at Cambridge. Latimer got of lightly on this occasion. Within a couple of years Bilney returned to his faith and preached again far and wide; this had its effect on Latimer who also renewed his preaching and took the opportunity while preaching at Windsor to address Henry VIII. This he did in a letter that counselled the king to be aware of those about him who were not all that they seemed. The letter was quite well received by Henry who liked the candidness. Shortly afterwards Latimer was able to help the King`s Doctor and was taken to the Court where he was rewarded by Thomas Cromwell  who gave him the benefice of West Kingston in Wiltshire. Zealous as ever, Latimer went to his benefice and spent much effort renovating the church and getting out amongst the congregation.

The purpose of rewarding Latimer was essentially a routine matter, as the real intention of it was to gain his assistance  to make the kings supremacy acceptable to the people, moreover, in London, not in the wilds of Wiltshire. Latimer, however, had had enough of the vanity and  vices of the Court, and stayed in Wiltshire preferring to reclaim wandering sinners. However, his idyll did not last long as by duplicity and numerous slanders he came under attack by the ministers of Bristol. They were mainly country ministers but included a few who drew up (as was often the manner) quotes from his sermons that could be twisted against him. such as `speaking lightly of the worship of saints` and that there was `no material fire in hell`. These utterly petty complaints were made to the Bishop of London who summoned him to appear before him.

Aged sixty six, Latimer was suffering from gallstone problems, and was not a well man. Despite his poor health and the advice of friends that he should leave the country, he set off. A series of pantomime meetings then took place as Latimer was urged to sign documents accepting the papist  views, but he continually declined to sign. He did however, write a long but straightforward letter telling the Bishop that if he found his sermons offensive then say in what way they were so. Thoroughly fed up with the pettiness of it all Latimer was finally saved by the intervention of the King. Following this, Latimer became a close friend of Anne Boleyn, herself a friend to the reformers, and further rewarded by Cromwell by appointment to the see of Worcester. In 1539 another attempt was made by Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, to accuse Latimer of unacceptable behaviour but this allegation also fell by the wayside. In the same year Latimer declined to support the Act of Six Articles and resigned his bishopric. it was alleged comments about this legislation that were next used to obtain his imprisonment. It came about following a fall, when Latimer went to London for treatment. His whereabouts came to the attention of the papists and Gardiner, who had him imprisoned in the Tower for the next six years along with his friend the bishop of Chichester. The accession of Edward VI saw a general amnesty and he was released from his prison.

Latimer declined to seek his reinstatement, and there were still  bickering complaints about him. But, having the kings licence, he returned to the country and preached as and when he thought necessary for the rest of Edward`s short reign. The accession of Queen Mary in 1553 was a turning point with his enemies once more in positions of power. Gardiner became Lord Chancellor and immediately  cited him before the Council. Perhaps it was intended to frighten a dangerous adversary out of the kingdom, but Latimer was not afraid to face his critics and promptly went to London. The Council were aggressive and critical  and, along with Cranmer and Ridley, he was again confined in the Tower.

In the spring of 1554 the three were sent to Oxford  under close confinement, with the intention that they publicly debate their views with representatives from the Church of Rome. This was in itself a great sham as they were denied even pen and paper to make notes, and access to books and Scriptures. The inevitable charges arose , including the old favourite transubstantiation, and equally inevitable was the finding of guilty of heresy. On the 16th October Latimer and Ridley were burnt at the stake on  ground on the north side of Balliol college. Cranmer lived a while longer before being burnt on 21 March 1556.

 Come the day Latimer appeared ready dressed in a shroud and with bags of gunpowder about him to hasten his death. Turning to Ridley he said

 "they two should that day light such a candle in England, as he trusted , by God`s grace, would never be put out."

18/07/2011

Home Scottish Reformation The Covenanters Ulster Scots English Reformation European Reformation General Topics & Glossary My Books & Bibliography Contact