The book of Hebrews speaks of men of faith “who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong” (Hebrews 11:33-34).
These words apply very well to the life and death of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. Unlike the typical bold and fiery Reformer, Thomas Cranmer was a man of peace, a gentle soul, a warm friend, and a man who earnestly shunned controversy. He had many days of glory, wealth, power, and prominence. Thomas Cranmer was the Primate of all England, the respected protector of kings, the trusted friend of queens, a loving husband, a devoted father, a trusted churchman, and the author of the beloved Book of Common Prayer. But the year 1556 saw Cranmer at the great crisis of his life. We will peek into the cell of his prison and see how “out of weakness, Thomas Cranmer was made strong.”
A gloomy light filtered into the dark cell of the prison where Thomas Cranmer sat. The feeble shaft of daylight illuminated a piece of paper. Cut off from the succor of his friends, separated from his wife and children, racked by grief, and bombarded by the rhetoric of his enemies, his weary heart pondered his options. Cranmer had only two. First he could assert the truth he had so long preached: that Christ alone was the head of His Church, that the mass was a Roman innovation, that purgatory was not found in the Word of God, and that man must be born again. Second, he could give in to the pressure of the age and hope to retain his position as Archbishop of Canterbury.
Only weeks before, two of his very dear friends, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, had decided for the first option. They had boldly stood for the truth, and had been burned to death at the stake. Cranmer could stand at the window of his cell and look down the street at the place where they had suffered such a cruel death. Now, if he persisted in his beliefs, their fate would be his.
His mind began to play with him. What good came of their death? Latimer and Ridley were gone. Their voices were forever silent. He could avoid their fate simply by signing that piece of paper in front of him, recanting his “errors.” But he sincerely believed the truth, and he also knew that Jesus had said, “But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 10:33).
For many decades now, Thomas Cranmer had survived when others had died. When popular current had run against the Gospel, Cranmer, like a reed blown by the wind, had bowed over until the storm had passed. He had survived by keeping a low profile and speaking out only when it seemed that the truth would be received. He had always been a peacemaker, a gentleman, a kind-hearted soul who hated no one and sought no controversy. He was now an old man. Could he stand a burning? Would it not be easier to die in a comfortable bed like a respectable man, rather than in open shame like a criminal?
Cranmer was a gentle, timid old soul. He reckoned with himself that, if he lived, he could continue to labor for the cause of Christ. There, in the quietness of his cell, he made his decision. With trembling hand, he signed the paper in front of him. Like Peter before him, Thomas Cranmer had denied his Lord in the hour of trial.
For a while, Cranmer was relieved. He would retain his honor. A date was set in which he was to enter the church and publically renounce his errors before the assembled throng. But as the awful day of public recantation approached, Cranmer’s heart began to smite him with reproach and guilt. The words of Jesus again came throbbing into his heart. “But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 10:33). He had done it. He had denied the Lord Jesus. He had betrayed the Christians who looked to him for leadership. He had given cause for the enemy to blaspheme.
But the deed was done. Oh, if he could only recall the ink! If only that quill pen could suck up the words. But it was too late. The recantation was submitted. The date was set for him to publicly deny the Gospel. We dare not enter the sacred ground where our old penitent sought pardon of his God. What were the agonies of his soul? How many were the tears that etched their way down those aged cheeks? What were the heart-rending cries of the man who had denied his God? But then he remembered Peter. Had not Peter also denied his Lord? Had not Peter also sought and obtained pardoned?
The Book of Common Prayer
Perhaps in those sacred moments Thomas Cranmer bent his knee in his cell and turned with sorrowful eyes to the very words that he had composed in brighter days, words that had been printed in the glorious reign of Edward VI, words which now were a balm to his troubled heart,
Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done and there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders. Spare thou them, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou them that be penitent, according to thy promises declared unto mankind, in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of thy holy name.
The day finally came for the public recantation. With fixed resolve, the aged penitent entered the massive pulpit in the cathedral. Many people had assembled to hear the public recantation of the heretic. Some were there who had once been earnest followers of his preaching, those he had led in days past. Now, they had come to hear him deny his Lord. Their earnest faces gave the penitent new courage.
Looking upon the assembled throng, old Cranmer’s heart quailed but a moment, then his old eloquence and courage empowered his tongue. He addressed the people in carefully crafted words, proclaiming the duty of the people to live as Christians, to shun error, to be loyal to true religion. Then he got to the end of his speech. Up to this point, all the people still assumed that he would now recant his former preaching. Cranmer then said, “I come to the great thing that troubleth my conscience more than any other thing that ever I said or did in my life, and that is the setting abroad of writings contrary to the truth: which here now I renounce and refuse.”
At this point, there was a moment of tense silence in the room, as concerned believers and triumphant bishops alike looked to the pulpit with fixed eyes, waiting for him to renounce his errors. Cranmer then said, “I have written many things untrue. And forasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall be first punished; for if I come to the fire, it shall be first burned.” The aged man still hated controversy, but his hour had come. He had bent over in the wind far too long. He squared his shoulders and continued, “And as for the Pope, I refuse him as Christ’s enemy and anti-Christ, with all his false doctrine. And as for the Sacrament . . .” Here a violent outcry of sound interrupted Cranmer, and his speech was cut short by the enraged bishops. As with the first martyr in the book of Acts, his enemies gnashed upon him with their teeth, and hauled him away to his death.
Very soon, Thomas Cranmer, once the Primate of all England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of the English Reformation, was chained to a rough stake. His wife and children were far away in the safety of Germany and would not learn of his death until the crisis was past and the battle was won.
Cranmer stood in the same place where his two friends had recently gone before him. A mixed crowd was there, a vast concourse of people, for this was none other than the highest churchman in the land of England. Some were his sincere followers from old days, the people who had earnestly followed his preaching and who rejoiced that, even in death, their teacher maintained the truth of the Gospel. Some were his mortal enemies. As the fire was kindled and the flames leaped up, true to his promise, Cranmer held his right hand directly into the fire. Cranmer did not die until the right hand was burned all the way to the stump. The old man then lifted his eyes triumphantly to heaven, his face ringed with flames but full of heavenly peace, and cried out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
In his lifetime, Thomas Cranmer had indeed “subdued kingdoms, obtained promises, and wrought righteousness.” Now, in his death, he “quenched the violence of fire” and “out of weakness was made strong.”
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs by John Foxe Masters of the English Reformation by Marcus Loane The History of the Reformation by J. H. Merle D’Aubigne The Book of Common Prayer
October 31st is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenburg, which is commonly regarded as the start of the Protestant Reformation. God used Martin Luther and the Reformation not just to bring many people and churches back to His word, but to shape the world in many ways.
We should take this milestone in history to look back and remember what God has done in the past. In this post we’ll give you some resource and ideas of how to do that on this, or any, Reformation Day. Also feel free to leave a comment and let us know how you celebrate.
1. Learn about Martin Luther
Reformation Day is a great opportunity to discover or remind yourself of the story of Martin Luther and the beginning of the Reformation. There are many resources on Luther, for children as well as adults. We suggest the account of Luther’s 95 Theses from History of the Reformation in the 16th Century by J. Merle d’Aubigné in Book III, Chapters 4, 5 and 6. You can find this for free at the Gutenberg Project.
Also stay tuned to Discerning History, we plan to post more video and written materials on Martin Luther over the next few days and weeks.
2. Read the 95 Theses
Reformation is the anniversary of Luther’s release of the 95 Theses. He intended them as propositions to be discussed in a formal academic debate. This never happened. Instead their publication caused a great stir, and it proved to be the first step towards Luther’s break with the Catholic church. You should consider reading them, or some of them this Reformation Day. You will see both how Luther held many core beliefs that were the foundation of the Reformation, and how unreformed Luther still was. Find them online here.
3. Review the Fundamentals of the Reformation
Reformation Day gives a great chance to review some of the fundamental doctrines of the Reformation – the doctrines of the inerrancy and sufficiency of scripture, the Five Solas of the Reformation, and TULIP, the Five Points of Calvinism. These are great ways to teach the Biblical doctrines of the Reformation to children.
4. Sing Reformation Hymns
The Reformation led to a revitalization of singing and an outpouring of new songs. Luther himself was an avid song writer. Rejoice in God’s providence by singing some classic hymns that have been translated into English:
Although the day is scheduled to commemorate the start of the Reformation with Martin Luther, it’s a great opportunity to learn more about the many other men that God used in the past, such as John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, John Knox, and many other lesser known figures. You can begin with our Reformation history articles and video here on Discerning History.
6. Have a Reformation Feast
In the Bible we see that God wants His people to rejoice before Him in what He has done. Reformat Day is a great opportunity to do that. Gather with friends and family to eat and review and discuss the history and importance of the Reformation. If you have children there are many ways to get them engaged and excited. You could all dress up as Reformation figures. There are other sites online with more ideas for Reformation Day parties.
7. Listen to the Reformation Polka
On a lighter note, you can listen to the “Reformation Polka,” a fun song about Martin Luther set to the tune of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
During the Middle Ages, the knights were the premiere warriors in the European continent, if not the entire world. Battles were won and lost by a relatively small number of knights in complete suits of armor. Although there were other troops on the field, often many of them, in many battles they did not play a decisive role. Yet there was one nearly forgotten group of peasants in the 15th century that defeated knights over and over again – the Hussites. These common folk of Bohemia, modern Czech Republic, were followers of the martyered John Hus, and ideological predecessors of the Protestant Reformation.
The most effective, and famous, commander of the Hussites was Jan Zizka. Today he is something of a national hero for the Czechs, and there is a massive statue of him on Vitkov Hill, the site of one of his greatest victories, overlooking the city of Prague. Zizka had a genius for organizing the Hussites, who were mostly farmers, and turning them into an effective fighting force. He developed several tactics that allowed the Hussites to defeat several crusades that were launched against them by the Catholic Holy Roman Empire.
Statue of Jan Zizka
Zizka knew what had happened when mobs of peasants had faced knights before – complete defeat. He knew that the Hussite’s only chance for victory was through organization, so that is what he set out to do. He made sure that there were clear rules, and clear punishments for violating them. Disobedience to orders was punishable by death. Zizka also trained his armies to march fast and move quickly, so that they could move easily to strike where they were needed.
Once his army had basic training, Zizka did not immediately go out to face his most powerful enemies. He first took opportunities to try small sorties into the surrounding countryside, practicing the drills that they had learned, gaining their weapons and tactics, and experiencing the rush of battle for the first time. Gradually, through much training and practice, Zizka’s farmers were turned into a disciplined fighting force, a feat nearly unheard of at this time in history. Towards the end of his career, Zizka wrote The Statues and Military Ordinances of Zizka’s New Brotherhood, which codified the practices he had fostered in his forces, and established a code of military conduct.
Zizka’s men lacked not only discipline, but weapons and equipment. So they improvised. They were farmers, so they turned farm tools into weapons. One of the most common were the flails, which farmers used to thresh gain. This was a long handle, with a short length of chain and then a shorter stick. These could easily be turned into fearsome weapons by embedding spikes in the shorter part of the flail.
Replica of a Hussite War Wagon
Another thing that farmers would have were wagons, and this is likely where war wagons, the most famous Hussite innovation, originated. The war wagons eventually became critical to the Hussite tactics. They were wagons that were specifically designed to be turned into a fort at a moment’s notice. They were likely the first mass produced military vehicle in history. They were generally plated with iron, with wheels and panels designed to interlock when placed end to end to create a solid wall. There was a high wall on one side of the wagon, and sometimes a roof, to protect the defenders. A ramp came down to allow easy entrance and exit. There was also a container of stones handily for ballast, and to use as missiles if the enemy got too close.
As part of Zizka’s organization, the crew of the wagon was very systematized. It consisted of 20 men, each with a specific role. Two were drivers who were also armed for defense. Two were handgunners, who manned a small gun or cannon which was usually mounted on a swivel in the wagon. Six more were crossbowmen, who could fire and reload in the shelter of the wagon. Four were flailmen, whose improvised weapons worked best against enemies with anything else other than plate armor. Four were halberdiers, who carried halberds, pike-like weapons that were designed to throw fully armored knights to the ground and then finish them off with a quick blow. Two were pavisiers, who carried large shields to provide cover for those carrying flails, halberds, or crossbows, when not in cover behind a wagon.
These wagons were organized into sections of ten. An army would have a total of fifty to a hundred wagons. 50 to 100 total wagons. This provided a way to very quickly build a fort that provided a refuge that heavily knightly cavalry could not easily overcome. The “tabor,” as the wagon forts were called, could even be mobile, as long as the horses survived. Once enemy knights were worn down by attacking the tabor, they would be vulnerable when the Hussites sallied out from the wagons to counterattack.
Hussites Fighting at the Battle of Lipan
The Hussites armies were some of the first forces of common men who were able to defeat knights through discipline and good training. They could be called the first step in the downfall of the knights. As technological changes lessened the knights’ supremacy, and other factors changed European society, crowds of pikemen and musketeers replaced the cadre of knights that had ruled the battlefield.
The history of the medieval crusades, at least at a very minimal level, is well known to most people. When we think of the crusades, most of us probably imagine an army of pious Christian knights full of religious zeal going to win back the holy land. There are a few issues with this notion. One is that the crusaders were looking to achieve far more than just pleasing God. While many, especially the common people, were motivated by the pope’s promises that their sins would be forgiven, this religious motive was accompanied by a healthy dose of greed. They sought after plunder, land and power. There is no better example of this than the Fourth Crusade.
Once Pope Innocent III called for a crusade to recapture the Holy Land, crusaders began to slowly organize across Europe. Past crusades had gone overland, but that route was long and dangerous. Instead they would try to go by sea, so they sent envoys to Venice, the great seafaring republic, to organize transportation. Venice agreed to help. They would cease all of their trading voyages for two years to devote all of the city’s energies to transporting and supplying the crusade. But they would do it only for a hefty price. It was one of the most expensive contracts in medieval Europe.
In 1202, as most of the crusading army gathered at Venice, things were shaping up to be a disaster. The contract had specified that the army would number some 33,000 men. The actual number who arrived was closer to a third of that. Worse still, the crusaders didn’t even have the money to pay Venice, and the Venetians were not interested in doing them any favors. As the crusaders arrived, the Venetians dropped them off on a small barren island in the lagoon. It was clear that they weren’t getting off until the cutthroat merchants of Venice got their money.
Venetians Taking the Cross
Venice wanted to be paid, and it became apparent that a negotiation was necessary. Eventually the crusaders and Venetians came to an agreement. Dandelo, the Doge, or Duke of Venice, took the sign of the cross and went on crusade, setting an example for his fellow citizens. However, as the crusade finally set out, they invaded not Muslim lands, but Christian. The crusaders had agreed to pay their debts by attacking Venice’s enemies in surrounding lands. The army of Christendom had been coerced into doing the will of the Venetians. When the Pope received word of what was going on, he was furious. He sent letters threatening, and eventually declaring, the entire crusade excommunicated for attacking fellow Christians. But the leaders of the crusade just did what they pleased, and carefully kept this to themselves, for fear of how the common people would react.
While they wintered in their newly conquered lands, the crusaders received an interesting proposal. A young noble from Constantinople, a son of a recently deposed Byzantine emperor, asked their help in restoring him to his throne. He offered, in exchange, to provide them with gold and silver and send knights to help conquer the Holy land, once he was restored to his kingdom. His promises were ridiculous, as anyone who understood the Byzantine empire would have understood. But since he had no kingdom, he was willing to promise anything for the chance of aid. The crusade was short on funds, and Doge Dandelo gave enthusiastic support for the proposal, so they accepted. For the chance of money and influence, the crusade was going to invade an Orthodox Christian empire.
The Crusaders Besieging Constantinople
There ensued in Constantinople a series of complex negotiations and conflicts, both political and military. There were many twists and turns in the story, and desperate and fascinating battles fought. But to summarize the tale, the crusaders eventually laid siege to Constantinople in 1203. They captured the city and put the pretender on the throne as Alexios IV. But the young man discovered that promises are much harder to keep than to make. He was trying to balance the hostile factions in the empire, as well the crusaders who wished to hold in to his word, when a nobleman rose against him, slew him in his palace and was crowned Alexios V. This led to the crusaders laying siege to Constantinople again in 1204. When they regained the city after a hard fought battle, they did not treat it as kindly as the year before. This time the soldiers were let loose to plunder and destroy. One historian wrote:
The Latin soldiery subjected the greatest city in Europe to an indescribable sack. For three days they murdered, raped, looted and destroyed on a scale which even the ancient Vandals and Goths would have found unbelievable. … Greeks were convinced that even the Turks, had they taken the city, would not have been as cruel as the Latin Christians.1
The Byzantine empire was divided up between the crusading forces, and a Latin emperor set up in its place. Although the Byzantines reconquered Constantinople some decades later, Christendom in the east had been dealt a death blow by other Christians. The Byzantines were rendered easy pray for the expanding Turks by the greed of the Fourth Crusade.
Sir Steven Runciman, a historian of the crusades, wrote, “There was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade.”2 While that is hyperbole, the Fourth Crusade was certainly a dark blot on the history of medieval Europe. The original mission of the Crusade was completely reversed. It was totally co-opted by the Venetians and was used as a weapon against their enemies. The opportunistic leaders abandoned any pretense of fighting the Muslims, and instead attacked Orthodox Christians. Although it gained wealth for those involved, the victory was short lived. They left the Byzantine Empire crippled and weakened, easy prey for the Turks. The wickedness of the Fourth Crusade demonstrates how far the medieval Catholic church had strayed from true Christianity.
1. Byzantium and Europe by Speros Vryonis (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967) p. 152. 2. A History of the Crusades by Steven Runciman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951) vol 3, p. 130.
In the last issue, we considered the life of Latimer. We turn now to the life of Ridley, Latimer’s faithful companion at the stake, and the man to whom Latimer addressed his final sermon, “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.” In this issue, we shall see how Master Ridley did indeed stand firm in the fire and “play the man.” But first we will consider Ridley’s background and the steps that brought him to the fire.
Nicholas Ridley was born in 1500 in the extreme north of England, very near the Scottish border. The Ridleys were an ancient house of knights whose bravery was known and admired throughout the border country. They could meet an enemy with calm courage, keep their heads in the heat of battle, and endure pain without flinching. These qualities would be seen in Nicholas Ridley, but he was a knight of a different kind, a knight who wielded the Sword of Truth with unflinching courage. He was resolved to win the victory, though he must die an agonizing death.
Like Latimer, the man who became his close friend and example, Nicholas Ridley went to Cambridge University where he came into contact with other young students like John Rogers, Thomas Bilney, John Bradford, and William Tyndale. These became known as the “Scripture men,” and they met in the White Horse Inn to study and discuss the Bible.
Since the Ridley family was a family of influence and wealth, they sent Nicholas to the continent to study. Thus, unlike the other English Reformers, Nicholas Ridley had experience in the University of Paris. Among the Doctors of the Sorbonne, Ridley was sickened and saddened by the lack of knowledge of Scripture. He wearied of reading the Medieval Scholastics and longed for the pure fountain of God’s truth. The steps of Ridley’s conversion are not known. He was not converted in a moment, like Hugh Latimer or Saul of Tarsus. His conversion was slow, gradual, but just as sure. We know from his writings that he began, in the halls and gardens of Cambridge, to commit large sections of Scripture to memory. What the sword was to the ancient house of Ridley, the Bible was to be to Nicholas.
The English Reformation did not gush forth from the earth like a geyser. Rather it grew slowly and steadily, just as the melting snow on a mountainside descends into the valleys where it forms creeks, then streams, then a mighty river that rolls silently and slowly along with resistless power. So grew the English Reformation.
A brief discussion needs to be made of the relative usefulness of Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley, the three great martyrs of Mary’s reign. Cranmer was a wise leader who used his gentle ways to win friends to the cause of Reform. Latimer was an eloquent speaker who used his tongue to proclaim verbally the truth of God. Ridley was a careful writer who used his pen to write clearly the defense of the Reformed Cause. Though Ridley was the junior of the three men, the other two leaned upon his writing.
The great question at stake in the English Reformation was the question of Transubstantiation. For a long time, even Cranmer held to the belief that, somehow, the Real Presence of Christ must be in the elements. It was not an easy thing for a Bishop of the church to challenge and overturn centuries of tradition. It was Ridley whose masterful examination of the subject convinced Cranmer and Latimer that the Mass must be entirely rejected, not only as unbiblical, but also as blasphemous, idolatrous, and dangerous. Ridley read the continental Reformers like Zwingli, and he drew on Zwingli’s writing to form his own position.
Nicholas Ridley was recognized by his friends as the intellectual leader of the English Reformation. He had a mind that retained all it was given, and his memory was remarkable. He studied for several hours each day and was an active reader whose conversation delighted and edified all that came to stay with him in his parsonage. He was a warm and generous host, and nobody ever came away from his home without being edified by the friendship.
Along with Latimer and Cranmer, Ridley knew that he would not long survive Mary’s reign. After the death of Edward VI, Ridley gave strong support to the coronation of Lady Jane Grey. When she and her young husband went to the block, Ridley was a marked man from the very start of Mary’s reign. Notwithstanding his knowledge of her hatred of him, Ridley went to greet Mary and even offered to serve her and hold services for the royal court. This request was turned down.
For his support of Lady Jane Grey, Nicholas Ridley was arrested on the charge of treason, but the charge was changed to a religious one and he was eventually tried and executed for heresy. Long debates failed to move him an inch from his position. Like his ancestors, Ridley would not flinch in the public arena, and many intellectual lances were shattered against his shield. When the formal trial was made, Ridley had the audacity to put his cap on his head whenever the Pope was mentioned. When Ridley was charged with denying the validity of the Mass, he replied calmly and clearly, “Christ made one perfect sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, neither can any man reiterate that sacrifice of His.” So the debates continued. John Foxe, who was a personal friend of Ridley’s and served under him as a deacon, said that, in spite of the most earnest arguments of the Papists, “nevertheless Ridley was ever talking things not pleasant to their ears.”
On the day of his execution, Nicholas Ridley dressed in his best attire. While Latimer wore a plain and simple gown, Ridley dressed in a black gown trimmed with fur and velvet. This was not to be proud or showy. Ridley was from an ancient house of knights, and he was going out to his final victory. While Latimer tottered because of age and infirmity, Ridley walked firmly and boldly to the stake. When questioned if he would recant, Ridley said, “So long as the breath is in my body, I will never deny my Lord Christ and His known truth.”
Ridley and Latimer are martyred
Ridley then gave away all his fine garments and stood in a plain undergarment. As the smith chained him to the stake, Ridley said, “Good fellow, knock it hard, for the flesh will have its way.” Nicholas Ridley did not want the intense pain to make him flee the stake. The hour of his final battle had come. As the faggot was lit and laid at the feet of the two men, there was perfect silence in the air as the tension mounted. As the flames began to leap upward, Latimer broke the tense silence with those immortal words, “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man.”
As the fire blazed up, the wind blew the fire to the side of “Old Father Latimer.” Latimer looked upward and said peacefully, “Father of heaven, receive my soul.” He soon died with little apparent pain. It would not be so with Ridley. He would indeed have need to “play the man.” The wind blew the fire hard to Latimer’s side, and the fire on Ridley’s side was badly made. The green wood on top would not catch fire, but the wood at the bottom burned fiercely. While Ridley’s face and body were unharmed, his legs were almost burned away. All this time, his shirt was not even singed. He involuntarily leaped up and down in the fire as the burning flesh and muscles reacted to the pain, but he would not utter a scream or cry of reproach. John Foxe says, “Even in this torment, he did not forget to call on God, saying ‘Lord, have mercy on me.’” A relative of Ridley’s tried to relieve his agony and piled more wood on the fire. This only worsened the problem, and Ridley suffered on, but he “played the man.”
Finally, one of the guards realized the problem and reached forward with the hook at the end of his halberd, pulling away the topmost wood. The fire blazed upward through the wood. Ridley cried out in Latin the words he had learned long ago, “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum.” But then, as though he remembered that he was an Englishman, and that the Bible was now in the hands of the common man, he repeated the prayer in his native tongue, “Lord, receive my spirit.”
The candle that was lit by Latimer and Ridley that day is still burning brightly. If you hold an English Bible in your hands, if you sing hymns from an English hymnal, if you worship God in Spirit and Truth, then you owe these men a debt of gratitude. Truly, they did light a candle that has never gone out. That shining candle is now entrusted to us. Don’t let it be extinguished. Don’t compromise the Word of God. Don’t give up the truth for which these men died. Even if you too must burn for it, remember Master Ridley and “play the man.”
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs by John Foxe Masters of the English Reformation by Marcus Loane The History of the Reformation by J. H. Merle D’Aubigne
The Waldenses have been persecuted for centuries. They are a Protestant sect dating back to at least the 12th century. Over the years countless Catholic popes, dukes and kings strove to destroy them, by bloody persecution, but all in vain. One period of intense persecution in the 17th century. The Waldense Alpine valleys, located in what is now northern Italy, were at that point part of the Dukedom of Savoy. The Duke of Savoy, at the urging of the Pope, tried again and again to eliminate this Christian minority.
Usually the Waldenses did not resist what Savoy was doing in time to really stop it. This was due, in large part, to their beliefs. They believed that it was wrong to resist or even mistrust their ruler, unless he was actually in the act of the destroying them. They trusted him and believed him to be a good ruler, just misguided by wicked advisors. They had no understanding of the doctrine of interposition, that the ruler can be removed if he was working against God’s law and his people’s good. They did not understand that a ruler who tried to destroy the Christians in his dominions was wicked, no matter what his advisors had recommended he do. But for many years the Waldenses did have an effective military commander, in the person of Joshua Janavel, also known as Giosuè Gianavello, though at times he stood nearly alone.
Janavel began as a person of no particular note, living near the town of Rora. In 1655, when our story begins, the Duke of Savoy had been increasing the restrictions on the Waldenses. They had been forced from out of the Piedmont up into the mountains, and now they were not allowed to leave an area comprising three alpine valleys. Then an army arrived. The Duke sent 800 infantry and 300 cavalry, and ordered the Waldenses to provide them housing. Most of the Waldenses did not see this for what it was – a way to get troops into the Waldense communities who could massacre them. Most made no efforts to organize a defense. Joshua Janavel was probably the only one to raise a group of militia. He was looked upon as too radical. His fellow countrymen believed he was just organizing rebellion against their legitimate ruler, and that he ought to just submit.
When the small town of La Tour was ordered to provide accommodation, they refused, because they simply did not have enough room. So the army, reinforced to 15,000 men, attacked – burning houses and killing all they met. The ill-prepared Waldenses did try to fight back, and had some successes against the enemy. After repeated attacks were beat back, with heavy casualties, the Catholic commander switched tactics. He met with representatives of the Waldenses and told them that this had all been a big misunderstanding. He said that the Duke had no problem with the settlements in the valleys, and that the attacks had just been due to undisciplined soldiers. Shockingly, the Waldesnses believed him. They returned to their homes, and accepted the troops to be quartered.
The army did not abandon it’s mission to destroy the Waldneses. On April 24th, Easter’s Eve, upon a signal being given, a general massacre began. The massacre was horrible. Children were ripped limb from limb. Pregnant women were ripped open. Families were slaughtered one by one as their loved ones were forced to witness the terrible scene. There was but one bright spot in this horrible day – Joshua Janavel. When the troops came towards Rora, he was ready to resist, though with a very meager force. His militia consisted of only him and six men, facing a battalion 500 to 600 strong. As the Catholics moved up the valley, Janavel and his men positioned themselves in a narrow pass, hiding behind rocks. As the soldiers approached, they let loose a volley. Their aim was true, and six soldiers fell. Quickly reloading, the Waldense militia continued to fire. With the sound of the shots bouncing from mountain to mountain, not seeing foe nor knowing what small numbers they faced, the battalions retreated. They believed that they surely faced a far more formidable force than seven untrained and inexperienced Waldneses.
Though frustrated that day in their plan to massacre Rora, the Catholics returned on the next day, joined by a new battalion. Janavel too had been reinforced, but not by a battalion. He now had seventeen men, but they were not well armed. Six of them didn’t even have firearms – only slings. Again, as the soldiers of Savoy climbed up a narrow defile, they were suddenly struck with a volley and thrown into confusion. This time Janavel and his bold warriors charged forward, leaping from rock to rock with loud shouts. The vanguard turned and fled. The panic spread, and soon the entire unit was fleeing.
Not long thereafter, a regiment came instead of a battalion. They fared no better. These eighteen brave warriors attacked again. This time they again miraculously turned back the regiment, but won even more success. Attacking the main army by rolling stones down the mountains, they actually won some positions.
The Catholics could not stand to be humiliated by this motley throng. The entire army of over 10,000 men moved against Janavel, who now had 30 to 40 men. He turned back a vanguard of picked men, and the fled before him, some so headlong in their flight that they actually ran off of cliffs to escape him. He also turned back the first of three divisions. But while focused in this unit of thousands, another division came into Rora a different way. They secured the town and massacred its inhabitants, capturing Janavel’s wife and daughters.
Janavel still remained at large, and along with Barthelemy Jahier, began a guerrilla war against the Catholic enemy. The Catholics set a price upon his head, and sent a letter threatening him that he had to convert to save his wife and daughters. Janavel wrote in reply,
There is no torment so cruel that I do not prefer it to the abjuring of my religion; and your threats, instead of turning me from it, confirm me in it all the more. As for my wife and my daughters, they know if they are dear to me! But God alone is Lord of their lives; and if you destroy their bodies, God will save their souls. May he graciously receive these beloved souls, and likewise mine, if it so happen that I fall into your hands.
Massive muskets that reportedly belonged to Janavel
Janavel was tried by the Catholics, and condemned to have his flesh torn apart by red hot pincers, his body divided into quarters, and his head displayed as a warning for other would-be rebels. The only problem – they didn’t have him. He continued to fight from the mountains, regardless of the threats made against him and his family. While Janavel was incredibly courageous, he was not invincible. During one battle in 1655 he received a grave wound. He did, however, to the surprise of many, make a complete recovery.
Janavel’s force of outlaws numbered, at one time, as many as 600. The Waldenses, with their Duke against them, had only Janavel and his band to defend them. The outlaws attacked the soldiers who were plundering their people. At times they took the war to the enemy, marching down into the plains, and forcing Catholic towns and villages to pay money, which was used for the outlaws and their defenders. Through the experience of living his life in the valleys, as well as spending much time on campaign there, Janavel was intimately familiar with the terrain of the Waldenses’ homeland. This served him well when he needed to choose strong points from which to resist much larger Catholic forces. At one point, a Catholic army composed of six regiments moved into the valleys, but nearly miraculously Janavel’s forces drove them back, inflicting hundreds of casualties.
The war continued for eight long years. Eventually the Duke, since he was frustrated in his efforts to eradicate the Waldenses by force, made a truce with his people. Part of this included a general amnesty for those who had fought against him. But specifically exempted from this was Joshua Janavel. Instead of being able to live in peace in the land he had fought so hard for, he lived in Geneva in exile.
Although many miles away, Janavel still cared deeply for his native land. Decades later, in the 1680s Janavel noticed changed taking place. He believed that increased persecution was coming, so he wrote to his people with advice to prepare them to stand strong against it. He recommended:
That the preachers gather all the Waldenses together, exhort them, and lead them to covenant to be faithful together until death.
To not allow any troops to be quartered in the valleys. It was by this pretext that the 1655 massacre had been able to take place.
To organize themselves into militia units and train for military service.
To gather wheat to store in a secure place in the mountains so they could take refuge from their foes.
Sadly, Joshua Janavel’s people did not heed his advice. Not long thereafter there was another Easter Massacre and through more naivety, most of the people fell to the sword or too captivity. For a while, things were looking very dire. Janavel by this time was too old to return to fight again. But some, called the Invincibles, did escape the massacre and began a guerrilla war like Janavel had done years before. Because of this thorn in the side of the Duke of Savoy, along with pressure from Protestant countries, the Duke agreed to release the Waldenses and exile them to Protestant countries.
A cave where the Waldenses hid from their persecutors
Although the surviving Waldenses were finally living in a Protestant country, after hundreds of years of persecution, many still longed for their Alpine homeland. They began plotting an escape from exile. Although Janavel was too old to go with them, he met with them to give his expert advice. Some has survived in writing to the present:
If our church has been reduced to so great an extremity, it is our sins that have been the cause. It behooves us, then, every day to humble ourselves more and more before the Lord, … and when any mishap occurs to you, be patient, and redouble your courage, so that there shall be nothing firmer than your faith. …
When you are come into the country of the enemy, seize two or three men of the place where you happen to be [as hostages.] You will treat them with all the tenderness possible. …
You will always keep sentinels posted at the summits of the mountains, that you may not be surprised … and in order to keep the passes free from one valley to another. …
[A] place of sure retreat … shall be … where was the most ancient retreat of our fathers…. Spare no labour nor pains in fortifying this post, which will be your most secure fortress. Do not quit it unless in the utmost extremity…. You will, of course, be told that you cannot hold it always, and that rather than not succeed in their object, all France and Italy will gather together against you…. But were it the whole world, and only yourselves against all, fear ye the Almighty alone, who is your protection.
The severest penalties must be inflicted upon any one who abandons his post.
Have scouts in the level country, to keep you informed of the movements of your adversaries.
On the field of battle give quarter to no one; for how will you keep prisoners? You can neither employ your men to guard them, nor your provisions to feed them; and upon leaving you, they will make known your position to the enemy.
… [S]pare innocent blood, or blood which there is no need to shed, that you may not have it to answer for before God; and in particular, see that you never allow yourselves to be seized with fear or with anger; for if you put your trust in the Lord, be assured that he will never forget you, and that his sword will be around you as a wall of fire against your enemies.
Aided by Janavel’s help, the Waldenses set out on their “Glorious Return.” It was not easy, and they had many obstacles to overcome, natural as well as military, but eventually they triumphed and was able to live in their homeland again. Janavel himself had not long to live. He died on March 5, 1690 of edema, at the age of 73.
Joshua Janavel was used in remarkable ways in Waldense history. While everyone else was acquiescing to the Duke’s commands, he was preparing to fight. When thousands came against his home, they were driven from before him and a handful of companions. When warfare was to many of his countrymen an unthinkable last resort, he had the knowledge and foresight to plan for the future. In the face of impossible odds, he did not lose heart, but with all his trust in God, resolved to fight to the bitter end.
1. Israel of the Alps by Alexis Muston (Blackie & Son, Glasgow: 1875) vol. 1, p. 363 2. Israel of the Alps by Alexis Muston (Blackie and Son, Glasgow: 1858) vol. 2, p. 30-31.
Two men stood back to back at the stake. As a large crowd watched, a heavy chain was passed around their waists to hold them fast. A fagot was kindled. At the sight of the flame, the older of the two men gave utterance to the noblest and shortest sermon he ever gave in his long life of preaching. “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.”
These lines have become among the most famous lines in English church history. The chain that bound Latimer and Ridley together on that morning of October 16, 1555, has continued to bind them together in the common mind. Today, it is almost impossible to think of Latimer without also thinking of Ridley. But in these next two issues of the Mighty Men Herald, we will try to consider these men as individuals and appreciate more fully the steps by which they arrived to be chained together at the martyr’s stake.
The elder of the two men was Hugh Latimer. He was seventy years old when he was burned alive as a martyr of the Gospel. Latimer’s life was already well spent, and “Old Father Latimer,” as he was known, had already lit a candle in England that would never go out.
Hugh Latimer was born in 1485 in Leicestershire. He was the son of a yeoman farmer and was trained to work the land as a boy. Therefore, he always loved gardens and orchards, and even as Bishop of Worchester, he had a love for plants. He was also trained at an early age to use the longbow, and he became an expert archer. When Latimer was 14 years old, his father sent him to Cambridge University. He excelled in the classics and in the scholastic doctors of the Medieval Church. As true of many schoolmen, Latimer continued his scholastic life after graduation, teaching at Clare Hall at Cambridge. In 1514, at the age of thirty, Hugh Latimer received his degree of Master of Arts. He gained many high academic honors and was also ordained a priest in the church of Rome.
In 1522, the new teachings of Luther began to make their way across the English Channel. Thomas Bilney, a student at Cambridge, smuggled a Greek New Testament into his study room and began to read the Word of God at its source. In opposition to Bilney and the other Reformers, Latimer became the spokesman for the Medieval Church in the debates that arose over the “New Learning.” Latimer openly attacked Luther and Melanchthon and argued against learning the original languages and translating the Word of God into the common tongue.
One day, Thomas Bilney went to Latimer’s study and asked the esteemed teacher if he would be willing to hear his confession. Latimer assumed that the young student would confess his heresies and return as a penitent to the bosom of Rome. But Bilney’s “confession” turned out to be his confession of faith in Christ alone and how he had received pardon through the blood of Jesus. The heart of Latimer was pierced by the arrow of divine Truth. D’Aubigne compares the conversion of Latimer to the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. The zealous persecutor now became the zealous preacher of the Gospel. All the learning, the zeal, and the eloquence that Latimer had used for the Pope he now used for Jesus Christ.
Latimer became a bold and zealous defender of truth. He astonished all of Cambridge when he spoke out openly against the Roman doctrine of purgatory. This sermon was followed up by an attack on the immaculacy of the Virgin Mary. Soon, he began to attack the veneration of relics and the images of the saints. During the Christmas season of 1529 he openly attacked the ceremonial trappings of Christmas, and called on all Christians to reject the man-made traditions and festivals of Rome. Latimer probably would have become a martyr much earlier had not the political turmoil over the marriage and divorce of King Henry VIII distracted the realm from doctrinal matters and brought about the downfall of Papal dominion in England. By 1531, Latimer was recognized as one of the boldest and most eloquent preachers in the Reformed party. He became a close friend of Thomas Cranmer, who often warned Latimer to temper his zeal with caution.
Anne Boleyn, the young queen of England, was a firm Protestant and loved the simple preaching of the Bible. She had great respect for the bold preaching of Hugh Latimer and asked Henry VIII to make Latimer her chaplain at court. Latimer accepted this position and preached often before the king and queen. On one occasion, when Henry VIII had seized an abbey and used it to stable his horses, Latimer had the audacity to preach a sermon that kings should not multiply horses. He looked right at King Henry VIII and declared, “A prince ought not to prefer his horses above poor men.” D’Aubigne recounts that there was dead silence in the room, and nobody dared even to look at the king. After the sermon, Latimer’s friends warned him that he might be headed for the Tower. A few days later, the king questioned Latimer about his sermon. Latimer bowed respectfully and said, “Would you have me preach nothing concerning a king in the king’s sermon?” Henry VIII liked this boldness, and though he did not agree with Latimer’s doctrine, he admired Latimer’s courage and he never made a move to arrest him.
When Anne Boleyn fell out of favor, Latimer left London, but he was elevated by Henry VIII to become Bishop of Worchester, where he served for years as a pastor to his flock. During these years, the religious moods of England swayed with the changing wives of the King, but “Old Father Latimer” maintained a consistent loyalty to the simple Gospel he loved and preached.
The pulpit in St. Edward’s Church where Latimer preached. Source.
In 1539, a storm of controversy erupted concerning the hated “Six Articles.” These articles made it clear that Henry VIII, while he was separated from the Pope, was not about to embrace Reformed doctrine. The articles affirmed the Real Presence in the Eucharist, enforced the celibacy of priests and monks, granted the privilege of Papist clergy to hold private masses, and retained much of the doctrine of the Roman church. When the “Six Articles Act” passed the House of Lords, Bishop Latimer renounced his bishopric and resigned his charge. Weaker men like Thomas Cranmer, though they opposed the Six Articles, did not openly oppose them and thus retained their positions. Latimer would not compromise, and he was soon arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. He remained there in the Tower eight long years.
In 1547, Henry VIII died and Edward VI was crowned King of England. This coronation was a great victory for the Reformed Party. Hugh Latimer was sixty-two years old at this time, and Edward VI promptly released “Old Father Latimer” from the Tower. For the next five years, Latimer preached, taught, and wrote. These were years of triumph for the Reformers of England, but “Old Father Latimer” was very prophetic in his warnings that another violent religious storm was on the horizon. The old man would sometimes say, “Smithfield has often groaned for me.” Smithfield was the place of public execution.
Latimer Before the Council
When Edward VI died in 1553, “Bloody Mary” Tudor came to the throne of England. Immediately, she sought to undo all that the good Edward had done. Stephen Gardiner, the queen’s favorite bishop, a devout Romanist and Papist, brought charges against Latimer, and the old man was summoned to Oxford to answer for his “heresies.” For many long months, he and other Reformed churchmen like Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer were summoned to disputation after disputation. Cranmer, always timid, recanted for a time and tried to blend in with the current system. But “Old Father Latimer” would not compromise. Latimer was so sick that he could sometimes hardly stand on his feet during these disputations. His memory was gone, and his sharp skills as an eloquent orator had faded with the years. But Latimer carried his New Testament with him, and did his best to answer all questions in the simple words of Scripture.
On the morning of October 16, 1555, the entire town of Oxford was in the streets. The younger Bishop Ridley appeared first and looked earnestly for Latimer. Finally the old man appeared and Ridley cried out, “Oh, be ye there?” “Yea,” answered Latimer, “as fast as I can follow.” The two men embraced each other fondly and knelt together by the stake. Onlookers tried to hear their words, but their words of sweet fellowship were lost to this world as they prepared for a better. After they were chained to the stake, the burning fagot was lit and applied to the pile. “Old Father Latimer” turned to Ridley to encourage his young friend, “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.”
In a few short minutes, “Old Father Latimer” was in the presence of his Lord and Master. We shall see in the next issue how Master Ridley did indeed play the man in the harsher ordeal that awaited him.
Bibliography Foxe’s Book of Martyrs by John Foxe Masters of the English Reformation by Marcus Loane The History of the Reformation by J. H. Merle D’Aubigne
Knights and footmen, spearmen and archers. Watch as swords are swung, maces are shaken and axes waived in the largest Medieval Reenactment. The Battle of Grunwald was fought in Poland by the Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania against Teutonic Order of Crusader Knights.