The Oxford Martyrs

On this day, Oct. 16, in 1555, a few powerful words were exchanged between bishops Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer just before they were both burned at the stake in Oxford, England.

“Be of good heart, brother Latimer, for God will either assuage the fury of the flame, or else strengthen us to abide it.”

Nicholas Ridley (1500-1555)

“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.”

Hugh Latimer (1485-1555)

Well-known and favored as bishops under Henry the VIII and Edward VI, these men were disliked by Queen Mary as she came to power and restored papal authority and Roman Catholic doctrine. They were accused of heresy for spreading the truth of God’s Word. They were imprisoned and mistreated in the Tower of London, tried for treason and then sentenced to death. Queen Mary’s terrible persecution of the Protestants gained her the nickname Bloody Mary.

“Latimer and Ridley share more than a martyrdom,” writes Scott Hubbard, a seminary student at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis. “The bishops also join each other on the list of England’s most influential Reformers — men and women whose allegiance to Scripture and the glory of Christ transformed England from a Catholic kingdom to a lighthouse of Reformation.”

Until a few months ago when I stood in Oxford on the steps of the Martyrs’ Memorial — just yards away from the place on Broad Street where their martyrdom took place — the powerful stories of these two men and their counterpart Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, were pretty much unknown to me.

I had very briefly heard about Cranmer when my daughters and I studied Lady Jane Grey, who was queen for nine days after the death of Edward VI at age 16. But otherwise I somehow had missed these martyrs and their remarkable contributions to the Reformation and church history.

A great way to learn the stories of Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer is to listen to the Here We Stand podcast, a 31-day journey about the heroes of the Reformation, produced by Desiring God. Cranmer’s story is featured in episode 14, titled “The Gospel Lobbyist.” Latimer’s and Ridley’s stories are featured in episode 16, titled “The British Candle.”

Two other great resources are Reformation Heroes, written by Diana Kleyn and Joel R. Beeke, and Trial and Triumph: Stories from Church History, written by Richard Hannula.

Also, if you’re studying the Reformation this month in connection with its 500th anniversary, you’d probably enjoy this great biography titled Lady Jane Grey by Simonetta Carr. It’s excellent for kids and adults.

Finally, another fantastic and very concise book on the Reformation is Michael Reeves’ Freedom Movement: 500 Years of Reformation.

In this book, Reeves concludes: “For us today, the Reformation has sparkling good news — news of an enjoyable and satisfying God. A God who lavishes His love on those who have not made themselves attractive to Him. A God whose love can liberate the most broken and guilty.”

He continues, “What Martin Luther discovered in the Bible pulled him out of despair and made him feel he had ‘entered paradise itself through open gates.’ Nothing about that message has changed or lost its power to brighten lives today.”

Indeed. The Gospel continues to change lives. And by God’s grace, Latimer and Ridley’s candle shall never be put out.

 

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A Tale of Two Countries: Oxford

Known as the “City of the Dreaming Spires” and home to the oldest university in the English-speaking world, Oxford, England, is like no other place I’ve visited.

Bicycles and weathered stones intertwine the new with the old.

The first landmark we found was Tom Tower. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, this bell tower serves as the entrance to Christ Church. Christ Church is one of Oxford University’s 38 colleges and is part of the Cathedral of the Oxford diocese. Famous graduates of this college include 13 British prime ministers and Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland.

This punt is on the River Cherwell, a major tributary to the River Thames. We found it while strolling between Christ Church and the Oxford Botanic Garden. If you look closely between the trees, you can see the square Magdalen Tower off in the distance. The landmark is part of Magdalen College, which was founded in 1458. Author C.S. Lewis was elected as a fellow and tutor in English literature at Magdalen in 1925.

North of Christ Church on Queen Street is St. Martin’s Tower. Also called the Carfax Tower, it is 74-feet tall and includes a clock with two bells that chime every quarter of an hour.

This is Broad Street.

On Broad Street is the Sheldonian Theatre, also designed by Sir Christopher Wren and built in the 1660s.

The Sheldonian Theatre is the University of Oxford’s official ceremonial hall, so activities like graduation happen there.

Just across the street is Blackwell’s Bookshop, where I purchased a hardback pocket edition of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

(Please note: The title does NOT include an Oxford comma, even though the book was written by a professor and graduate of Oxford University, was published in Great Britain and was sold in Oxford at the UK’s largest academic bookstore. Therefore, as a former copyeditor, I now rest my case that the Oxford comma is optional most of the time.)

Another remarkable building situated between Broad Street and High Street is the Radcliffe Camera. It was built in 1737 and is a notable library only open to Oxford students.

 

This is the courtyard of Lincoln College, which was founded in 1427 and is the ninth oldest college of Oxford University. The ivy here is in a league of its own.

Isn’t the size of this ivy’s “trunk” amazing? I wonder if it has been growing since the 1400s.

The dining hall at Lincoln features a portrait of theologian John Wesley, founder of Methodism. Wesley was a fellow at Lincoln College from 1726 to 1751. We also found his name etched in the glass doors to the chapel.

Nearby is the University Church of St. Mary. There’s been a church on this site since Anglo-Saxon times. St. Mary’s is where, in 1555, the Oxford martyrs Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer were tried for treason. It’s also where C.S. Lewis delivered his outstanding sermon “The Weight of Glory” in 1941.

This stone monument is the Martyrs’ Memorial, located just around the corner from a cross set in Broad Street, which marks the actual scene of the martyrdom.

Besides the statues of Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer, the monument features an inscription that reads: “To the Glory of God, and in grateful commemoration of His servants, Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer, Prelates of the Church of England, who near this spot yielded their bodies to be burned, bearing witness to the sacred truths which they had affirmed and maintained against the errors of the Church of Rome, and rejoicing that to them it was given not only to believe in Christ, but also to suffer for His sake; this monument was erected by public subscription in the year of our Lord God, MDCCCXLI.” 

Just down the street from the Martyrs’ Memorial is The Eagle and Child, where C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and the other Inklings met every Tuesday to discuss their writing projects.

In honor of C.S. Lewis, who once said he could never get a book long enough or a cup of tea large enough to suit him, I ordered a large cup of Earl Grey tea.

It was such an honor to sip tea and talk about books with our lovely friend and extraordinary tour guide, MariAnne.

Seated in the top front seats of a double-decker bus, we left Oxford with hope that someday we’ll return for more adventures in this historic city.