Hugh Latimer

We now have easy and affordable access to the work of one of the greatest preachers of the Protestant Reformation in England, Hugh Latimer, who was born some time after 1490 at Thurcaston in Leicestershire, the son of a yeoman farmer, and burnt at the stake in Oxford on 16th October 1554. You can buy a representative selection from his sermons, edited by Arthur Pollard and published by the Carcanet Press (ISBN 1 85754 458 7) for less than £8.00. It would be money well spent - firstly, and less importantly, because it enlarges the historical sense. We have a vivid if indirect impression, in these sermons, of the congregations Latimer addressed over the years - cagey, conservative fellow-clergy, rich and touchy London citizens, the boy King Edward VI with his counsellors and courtiers, and the Duchess of Suffolk at her castle on the Lincolnshire wolds, with her household and tenant farmers. Secondly, this is a direct way of apprehending the absolute conviction of truth, the sense of restored revelation, which beginning with Luther, continuing with William Tyndale, and passing on through the life, work and witness of Latimer, Ridley, Cranmer and others, lent increasing impetus from their side to the recovery of a fervent Bible-based Christianity, to state control over weakened and impoverished national Churches - and to the tearing apart of the Universal Church, the tragic loss of charity, the demonisation of fellow Christians.

If the devotional and liturgical practice of our faith may be compared to a garment handed down from generation to generation, our Anglican one is now mended and patched. We accept much of the Catholic tradition which Latimer rejected - such as the use of visible images (from stained glass to icons) and Latin anthems. We would also hesitate to accept his typically protestant claim for the primacy of preaching over sacramental worship:

I told you before of Scala coeli (the ladder of heaven): I would you should not forget it. The steps thereof are set forth in the tenth to the Romans. The first is preaching, and then hearing, then believing, and last of all salvation. Scala coeli is a preaching matter, I tell you, and not a massing matter. God’s instrument of salvation is preaching. Here I move you, my lords, not to be greedy and outragious in enhancing and raising of your rents, to the minishing of salvation...

In this sermon, preached on 5th April 1549, Latimer is addressing the young King and his courtiers, appealing to them not to think of nothing but profit (now it seemed that the spending of their money as it had been spent - on masses for the dead, pilgrimages etc. - had no part in their salvation). He wants them ‘to exercise the office of salvation, in the relieving of scholars’, in effect, in the training of preachers. And how prophetic his preaching was.

Pollard’s introduction to the Carcanet selection quotes a passage from his last sermon to the King which insists not only on the spiritual equality of rich and poor but on neighbourly charity:

The poorest ploughman is in Christ equal with the greatest prince that is. Let them therefore have sufficient to maintain them… A plough land must have sheep; yea they must have sheep to dung their ground for bearing of corn… They must have… horses to draw their plough… And kine for their milk and cheese, which they must live upon and pay their rents… Therefore, for God’s love, restore their sufficient unto them.

Even in this short selection, the whole state of society at every level is reflected. Latimer is passionately concerned for social justice and for a workable community. And he is also assured of the divine source of healing for society. We see in his sermons the substance of that ‘full, perfect and sufficient, sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction’ of which the Prayer Book speaks. His meditation on Christ’s passion in the Seventh Sermon before King Edward is as powerful and challenging to our imagination, in its depiction of the agony endured by Christ at Gethsemane (to Latimer, this was a worse pain than the crucifixion itself), as the picture painted by John Donne in his last sermon, ‘Death’s Duel’. Undoubtedly though, Latimer’s own duel with death, and the famous words to which it gave rise (‘Be of good cheer, 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’) exhibits the extremes of heroism, both physical and spiritual.

Robert Cockcroft
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 4th November 2000