Signs there were of sorrow

John Foxe’s The Book of Martyrs was published in 1563. Although it contains hundreds of martyrologies, it was primarily written in memory of the more than three hundred Protestants burned under Mary I. The book was widely read in Elizabethan England. Containing famous illustrations, copies of the book were chained to churches, schools, and guildhalls, making it accessible to all.

One of the most moving of all the accounts is the description of the execution of Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley in 1555. Former bishops of Worcester and London respectively, they had exerted much influence during the reign of Edward VI, but their radical religious convictions made them enemies to the Catholic Mary 1. Condemned to death as heretics, they were taken to a stake beside Balliol College, Oxford, and burned alive. Their testaments to faith and refusal to recant made them figures of awe and admiration.

Dr. Ridley, the night before execution, was very facetious, [he] had himself shaved, and called his supper a marriage feast; he remarked upon seeing Mrs. Irish (the keeper’s wife) weep, ‘Though my breakfast will be somewhat sharp, my supper will be more pleasant and sweet.’

The place of death was on the northside of the town, opposite Balliol College. Dr. Ridley was dressed in a black gown furred, and Mr. Latimer had a long shroud on, hanging down to his feet. Dr. Ridley, as he passed Bocardo, looked up to see Dr. Cranmer, but the latter was then engaged in disputation with a friar. When they came to the stake, Mr. Ridley embraced Latimer fervently, and bid him: ‘Be of good heart, brother, for God will either assuage the fury of the flame, or else strengthen us to abide it.’ He then knelt by the stake, and after earnestly praying together, they had a short private conversation. Dr. Smith then preached a short sermon against the martyrs, who would have answered him, but were prevented by Dr. Marshal, the vice-chancellor. Dr. Ridley then took off his gown and tippet, and gave them to his brother-in-law, Mr. Shipside. He gave away also many trifles to his weeping friends, and the populace were anxious to get even a fragment of his garments. Mr. Latimer gave nothing, and from the poverty of his garb, was soon stripped to his shroud, and stood venerable and erect, fearless of death.

Dr. Ridley being unclothed to his shirt, the smith placed an iron chain about their waists, and Dr. Ridley bid him fasten it securely; his brother having tied a bag of gunpowder about his neck, gave some also to Mr. Latimer.

Dr. Ridley then requested of Lord Williams, to advocate with the Queen the cause of some poor men to whom he had, when bishop, granted leases, but which the present bishop refused to confirm. A lighted faggot was now laid at Dr. Ridley’s feet, which caused Mr. Latimer to say: ‘Be of good cheer, Ridley; and play the man. We shall this day, by God’s grace, light up such a candle in England, as I trust, will never be put out.’

When Dr. Ridley saw the fire flaming up towards him, he cried with a wonderful loud voice, ‘Lord, Lord, receive my spirit.’ Master Latimer, crying as vehemently on the other side, ‘O Father of heaven, receive my soul!’ received the flame as it were embracing of it. After that he had stroked his face with his hands, and as it were, bathed them a little in the fire, he soon died (as it appeareth) with very little pain or none.

But Master Ridley, by reason of the evil making of the fire unto him, because the wooden faggots were laid above the gorse and over-high built, the fire burned first beneath, being kept down by the wood. Which when he felt, he desired them for Christ’s sake to let the fire come unto him. Which when his brother-in-law heard, but not well understood, intending to rid him out of his pain, heaped faggots upon him, so that he clean covered him, which made the fire more vehement beneath, that it burned clean all his nether parts before it once touched the upper, and that made him leap up and down under the faggots and often desire them to let the fire come unto him, saying ‘I cannot burn’. For after his legs were consumed by reason of his struggling through the pain he showed that side turned toward us clean, shirt and all untouched with flame. Yet in all this torment he forgot not to call unto God still, having in his mouth, ‘Lord have mercy upon me’, intermeddling this cry, ‘Let the fire come unto me, I cannot burn.’ In which pains he laboured until one of the standers-by with his bill [pickaxe] pulled off the faggots above, and where he saw the fire flame up, he wrested himself unto that side. And when the flame touched the gunpowder he was seen [to] stir no more, but burneth on the other side, falling down at Master Latimer’s feet.

Some say that before he was like to fall from the stake, he desired them to hold him to it with their bills. Howsoever it was, surely it moved hundreds to tears beholding the horrible sight.  For I think there was none that had not clean exiled all humanity and mercy which would not have lamented to behold the fury of the fire so to rage upon their bodies. Signs there were of sorrow on every side.

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