Reformation Martyrs

English Reformation

In the English Reformation the nature of the dispute was not about personal opinions and personal beliefs. Our English Reformers appealed to the Primitive Church of the first five centuries to demonstrate where in doctrine and practice the Medieval Church had diverged. So their appeal to the early Christian Fathers relates to the particular theological and ecclesiastical points of controversy between Rome and the English Church.

They used the Fathers in two ways. First, they used them negatively, to prove the absence of Roman doctrines and practices from the Primitive Church. Secondly, they used them positively, to promote the right interpretation of Holy Scripture and demonstrate a scriptural way of life for the Church. This was the wide context of that movement, which for the English Church was not concerned to create something new in Church or religion.

The concern was for correction and restoration, not innovation – for the continuity on English soil of that apostolic faith and order that characterized the Primitive Church. Such a concern had implications that locked monarchy, parliament and Church into a political and religious struggle that produced a crop of martyrs. As the Denver consecrations have shown, when the faith and the Church is at risk there will be those who rise up to defend her.

Martyrdoms were frequent on both sides, men dying for religious principle rather than personal opinion. Henry VIII was particularly ruthless in establishing himself as head of the Church in place of the Pope. Oaths of allegiance were required and those who would not unreservedly acknowledge the King as such were executed. The Carthusian monks in London were the first casualties in 1535 the year St Thomas More and Bishop Fisher were also martyred.

John Frith

On our Anglican side controversy was centred, though not exclusively, on the doctrine of transubstantiation. In 1533 there was the martyrdom of John Frith, an almost unknown scholar whose thinking later influenced the reform leaders. He first suggested to the Church of England that dogmas could not be equally binding. In consequence Anglicanism made a distinction between fundamental articles of belief necessary to salvation, and non-fundamental articles. He wrote a learned and lucid refutation of the doctrine of transubstantiation. Cranmer later used many of his references and deductions.

His point against transubstantiation was not disbelief in the Real Presence. Frith could not accept that the substance of the bread and wine is changed into the flesh and blood of Christ. Scripture or tradition cannot prove it. To appreciate the dilemma we must appreciate how degraded and materialistic was the general opinion of the Mass at that time. Frith makes a distinction between a doctrine of the Real Presence and explaining it in terms of transubstantiation. Andrew Hewitt, a poor tailor, said at his trial that he ‘thought as Frith thought.’ Both went to their martyrdom at Smithfield.

The Marian Persecutions

The most severe persecutions came when Mary ascended the throne. After her marriage with Philip of Spain, in July 1554, in the following November Cardinal Pole became the Queen’s legate and by the end of the month reconciliation with Rome was complete. Pole revived the ancient heresy laws in January 1555 and in February the first four martyrs came before the commissioners. John Hooper, Bishop of Gloucester; John Rogers, Canon of St Paul’s and Vicar of St Sepulchre’s, London; Laurence Saunders, sometime Vicar of Coventry; and Dr Rowland Taylor, parson of Hadleigh, in Suffolk.

They were all condemned for denying transubstantiation and were sentenced to be burnt ‘in the place where they had ministered’, to terrify their parishioners into renouncing the opinions they had learned from the condemned teachers. But it had the opposite effect. The condemned divines went to their deaths so bravely that the bystanders were deeply affected. They felt that such courage proceeded from an ardent conviction that the doctrines for which they suffered were true.

Bishop Ferrar, of St. David, was burnt in the market place of Camarthen on March 30, 1555. Bishop Gardiner hoped that those five examples would terrify the people into submission and appease the appetite of the court. During Mary’s reign the total burnings were 286: 128 in London diocese, in Canterbury, Cardinal Pole’s diocese 55, and the Diocese of Norwich 46. There were no burnings in the dioceses of Lincoln, Durham, Carlisle, Bath and Wells, Hereford or Worcester.

Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley

The chief place among the martyrs has always been given to Archbishop Cranmer, and Bishops Latimer and Ridley, because of their prominent work in guiding the reforms of Edward’s reign and framing the English service-books. No one had power to condemn the archbishop and metropolitan except the Pope, because he had been appointed by papal bulls. All three prelates had been imprisoned in the Tower but were brought to Oxford in 1553, so that Roman Catholic divines could confute their doctrine publicly. Cranmer was initially imprisoned for treason in objecting to the succession of Mary. Mary had not forgiven him for the part he played in the divorce of her mother Katherine.