Hugh Latimer 1485-1555AD

Hugh Latimer 

Protestant martyr of English Reformation.

Hugh Latimer (181k) by J. C. Ryle (1868AD) pdf (145k) docx (66k) zip (47k)

HUGH LATIMER, one of the most distinguished of the English reformers, was born at Thurcaston in Leicestershire in the year 1490, some say 1491. His father was a yeoman with a “farm of three or four pounds by the year at the uttermost,” on which, according to his son’s account, he plentifully maintained “half a dozen men,” sent the young Hugh to school, married his sisters “with five pounds, or twenty nobles a piece,” and moreover, “kept hospitality and gave alms to the poor.”

Trained up in a happy country home, Latimer retained something of the yeoman and rustic all his days. He was taught by his father all manly exercises, and especially the use of the cross-bow­ “God’s gift to the English nation above all other nations”— “how to draw, how to lay his body on the bow, and not to draw with strength of arms, as other nations do, but with the strength of the body.”

About fourteen years of age he was sent to Cam­bridge, where he proved a diligent and able student. In 1509, whilst yet an undergraduate, he was chosen fellow of Clare Hall; in the following January he took his degree of B.A., and pro­ceeded to that of M.A. in July, 1514. Up to this time, and some time after this, he continued an adherent, and even a zealous adherent of the old faith—“I was as obstinate a papist,” he says, “as any in England.” Soon after this, however, he came under the influence of Bilney, who had already from his inde­pendent study of the Greek Testament imbibed the reformed doctrines. Bilney had marked the zeal of the young Romanist, especially on the occasion of his taking the degree of bachelor in divinity, when he lectured against Melancthon and his opinions. He sought his company, and by his private confes­sions of his own views and feelings, awakened a new spirit in Latimer. “So from that time forward,” he says, “ I began to smell the Word of God, and forsook the school doctors and such fooleries.” “Whereas before,” adds Fox, “he was an enemy, and almost a persecutor of Christ, he was now a zealous seeker after him.”

Latimer now began to advocate the new doctrines in Cambridge, with the same energy that he had espoused the old ones. “He preached mightily in the university, day by day, both in English and ad clerum, to the great admiration of all men, who aforetime had known him of a contrary severe opinion.” The result of Latimer’s preaching was greatly to excite the doctors and monks at Cambridge, “who flocked against Mr. Latimer on every side.” Many were touched by his stirring words, and “brought from their evil works, as pilgrimage and setting up of candles, unto the work that God commanded expressly in his holy scripture, and to the reading and study of God’s Word.”

The date of Latimer’s conversion is supposed to be about 1521. His activity became so obnoxious to “divers papists in the university,” that they made a “grievous com­plaint” against him, and he was summoned, first before the bishop of Ely, and then before Wolsey, who held a conference with him, detailed in Strype’s Memorials, and dismissed him with permission to preach such doctrines as he represented he alone preached. “If the bishop of Ely cannot abide such doctrine,” were Wolsey’s emphatic words of parting, “you shall have my license, and preach it unto his beard, let him say what he will.” Some time after this, he is believed to have preached his two remarkable sermons “On the Card”—the earliest of his sermons we possess, and in some respects, the most singular from their quaint, and keen, and plain exhortations.

When Henry VIII. began to get uneasy as to his matrimonial con­nection with Catherine of Arragon, and appealed to the universities on the subject, at the instance of Cranmer, Latimer was one of the divines appointed to examine into the lawful­ness of the connection. His decision in the king’s favour was the means of introducing him to Henry, and he was appointed one of the royal chaplains in 1530. In the following year he received also from the king the living of West Kington in Wiltshire. His reforming activity in this parish, as formerly in the university, raised up a host of enemies against him, and he was summoned before convocation, and compelled to make certain retractations, the exact force of which has been disputed. At length, however, on the accession of his friend Cranmer to the primacy, Latimer was made bishop of Worcester in 1535; and in the following year he opened convocation with two memorable sermons, in which he inveighed strongly against abuses in the church and advocated reformation, that it might be saved from destruction. He continued in his bishopric, labouring to secure such reforms as he felt urgent, till the year 1539; when Henry gave himself to the side of the reaction headed by Gardiner and Bonner, the party of the nationalists, as they have been recently called in our historical literature. The result of this was the passing of six articles, rendering it penal to deny the characteristic doctrines of Romanism, and undoing the work of the fourteen articles passed in the year 1536. Latimer resigned his bishopric, and entered into privacy. He was soon sought out, however, and “molested and troubled” by the bishops; and in 1546, before the close of Henry’s reign, he was cast into the Tower, where he remained till the new reign.

On the accession of Edward VI. he was restored to liberty, and again, and more vigorously than ever, resumed his preaching. His sermons during the whole of Edward’s “blessed” reign, became one of the chief impulses of the Reformation, that then rapidly advanced. Latimer, however, was content with the influence which he thus exercised as a preacher, and refused to be reinstated in his bishopric, although its offer was made to him at the generous instance of the House of Commons. His weak health, and disinclination for state affairs, no doubt led him to decline so flattering an offer. He not the less, but all the more, laboured to spread the light of gospel truth throughout England; preaching incessantly, now in London, now in Lincoln, now before the young king in Whitehall Gardens, as the well-known picture represents him, and now before the duchess of Suffolk at Stamford.

On the lamented death of Edward he was imprisoned, first in the Tower, and then at Oxford, along with Cranmer and Ridley. After various delays he was tried and condemned to the stake. Fox gives a pitiful and touching account of his appearance before his persecutors, wearing “an old threadbare Bristol frieze gown girded to his body with a penny leather girdle, his Testament suspended from his girdle by a leather sling, and his spectacles without a case hung from his neck upon his breast.” He suffered along with Ridley, 16th of October, 1555, “without Bocardo gate,” on a spot opposite Balliol college, now marked by a splendid martyrs’ monument.

Latimer’s character excites our admiration by its mixture of simplicity and heroism. He is simple as a child, and yet daring for the truth, without shrinking or ostentation. He is more consistent than Cranmer, more tolerant than Ridley, if less learned and polished than either. His sermons are rare speci­mens of vigorous eloquence, which read fresh, and vivid, and powerful now, after three centuries. The humorous Saxon scorn and invective with which he lashes the vices of the time are, perhaps, their most noted characteristics; but they are also remarkable for their clear and homely statements of Christian doctrine, and the faithfulness with which they exhibit the simple ideal of the Christian life, in contrast to all hypocrisies and pre­tensions of religion. In all things—in his sermons, in his reforms, in his character—Latimer was eminently practical. He con­tended for no novelty of doctrine or ecclesiastical polity, but for what he believed to be the old truth of the Church of England before it was overlaid by Romish error, and its ancient simplicities before it yielded to the spirit of avarice and the pride of power. He is not memorable, like Luther or Calvin, for the superiority of his intellectual abilities and the story of his character; but he is truly great in the simplicity, honesty, and pure-minded evangelical energy of his labours and life. [Imp. Dict. of Universal Biography 1888AD]


A Sermon before Convocation 8th June, 1536AD

2 sermons (217k) preached before Convocation on 8th June 1536AD. pdf (154k) zip (39k)

The new Parliament assembled June 8 [1536AD]; and was mainly occupied with those legislative enactments which were rendered necessary by the divorce and execution of Queen Anne [Boleyn].

On June 9, there was also assembled the first Convocation since the overthrow of the Papal Supremacy. It was a great occasion, and Cranmer, determining to make the most of it, had wisely selected Latimer to preach the opening sermon. No better choice could have been made in England; no preacher saw more clearly the many gross abuses that still remained to be reformed; no one could denounce them with happier irony or more unsparing severity. The complexion of the time called for boldness, and Latimer was not likely to err through excess of timidity. All the associations of the place would add strength to his invective. Four years before, he had stood at the bar, accused of heretical teaching; and in front of him, as he spoke, there sat conspicuous the men who had sought his life, and who were the determined defenders of those abuses that had so long tainted and depraved the religion of the country. Urged by so many impulses, the preacher rose to the greatness of the occasion; and his eloquence, bold as that of the old Jewish prophets, stirred the heart of the English nation to its very depths,

He selected as his text the parable of the unjust steward, a sufficient intimation of the character of the coming sermon. The parable naturally led him to speak of the duties of the clergy, and to inquire whether they had been faithful in discharging them or not. The time had been when Latimer ran an imminent risk of being burned for venturing to insinuate the charge of unfaithfulness against the clergy; but now the rulers of the Church, who had been chiefly in fault, must listen in silence to words such as have been but seldom uttered in the ears of Convocation. [extract from biography “Hugh Latimer” by R. Demaus, p. 189-190.]

"Sermon of the Plough" preached at Paul's Church, London, 18th January 1548AD.

Sermon of the Plough (197k) preached at Paul's Church, London, 1548AD pdf (103k) zip (33k)

With 1548 Latimer's active career as a preacher was resumed. "On January 1," says Stow, in his chronicle, "Doctor Latimer preached at Paul's Cross, which was the first sermon by him preached in almost eight years before; for at the making of the Six Articles, he, being Bishop of Worcester, would not consent unto them, and therefore was commanded to silence, and gave up his bishopric. He also preached at Paul's Cross on January 8, where he affirmed that whatsoever the clergy commanded ought to be obeyed; but he also declared that the "[true] clergy are such as sit in Moses' chair and break not their Master's commandment, adding nothing thereto nor taking anything therefrom; and such a clergy must be obeyed of all men, both high and low. He also preached at Paul's on the fifteenth and on the twenty-ninth of January."

Fortunately we know something more of this famous series of sermons than appears in the meagre summary of the simple chronicler. The last of the four has been preserved, and is well known to all lovers of English literature as the Sermon of the Plough. On the whole there is, perhaps, no better specimen extant of Latimer's style of preaching. The train of thought is more continuously sustained than in most of his sermons, while there is the same earnestness, the same honest condemnation, not of errors in opinion merely, but of sins in action, the same wit, the same quaint felicity of expression, the same power of apt and familiar illustration, the same discursiveness when any practical duty could be enforced, that mark all his best sermons. These were the virtues that charmed his audience in those days; and three centuries have not deprived them of their power to touch all honest and intelligent readers. The Sermon of the Plough has been so frequently reprinted as to be almost hackneyed; yet in a biography of Latimer it would be inexcusable to omit altogether some extracts from so characteristic a specimen of his eloquence as a preacher. [extract from biography “Hugh Latimer” by R. Demaus, p. 189-190.]