WHILE awaiting his execution, Ridley wrote a “Last Farewell” to his persecuted fellows in prison and in exile. “Farewell, O thou little flock of the high heavenly pastor Christ . . . thou spiritual house of God, thou holy nation, thou won spouse.”
His language was not always so temperate. The polemics of Tudor debate drove even the gentlest to write in the style of a ranting pamphleteer. “O London, London,” he wrote to his own diocese, whose clergy had now returned to Rome, “Thou wicked and bloody see . . . thou whorish drab!”
The brave resignation with which the Oxford martyrs faced their terrible deaths concluded lives of fierce antagonisms and supple manoeuvring. To survive King Henry VIII’s tantrums and unpredictable moods, they had to be as wise as serpents. Never until the final condemnation was their course clear cut. A notorious episode that had threatened Archbishop Cranmer and his chaplain, Ridley, came to be known as the Prebendaries’ Plot.
This conspiracy reveals the murky world of 16th-century church politics. A group of conservative prebendaries at Canterbury, taking advantage of the King’s growing reaction against Protestant reform, conspired to bring charges of heresy against Archbishop Cranmer. In this, they were influenced by John London, a debauched and perfidious canon of Windsor. Also complicit in the plot was the Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner.
The plotters, however, mistimed their coup by a whisker. Henry unexpectedly swung back in support of his reforming archbishop. The prebendaries were discredited, and Cranmer was confirmed in his opinion of cathedral clergy. “Loitering lubbers” he called them. “They are neither learners nor teachers, but good vianders . . . who have spent their time in much idleness and their substance in superfluous belly cheer.”
Henry VIII’s oscillation between reform and tradition stretched the nerves of his bishops, leaving them guessing from one day to the next which way the wind was blowing. Ridley believed that the only way to ensure a future reformation of the Church was to obey the king’s will, even if that meant having to dissemble.
He said as much to Edward Crome, who, in 1546, was compelled to recant after attacking the mass in a sermon preached at St Paul’s Cross. Ironically, it was Ridley whom the King appointed to examine Crome — which he did, although agreeing with the preacher’s views, if not his timing. At the same time, Henry was discussing privately with the King of France a plan to replace the order of mass with a service of holy communion.
Ridley came to believe that the presence of Christ’s body and blood in the eucharist was spiritual, not corporal. His change of mind was gradual, during his time as Vicar of Herne.
“Farewell, Herne, thou worshipful and wealthy parish,” he wrote in his “Last Farewell”. “I must acknowledge me to be thy debtor for the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, which at that time I acknowledge God had not revealed unto me.”
The revelation was assisted by his study of the early Fathers (Chrysostom, among others). Cranmer later claimed that it was Ridley’s change of position on transubstantiation which moved him in the same direction.
Ridley was, to begin with, a reluctant fighter. Like Cranmer, he would probably have preferred to be left to pursue an academic career in Cambridge — “Farewell, Cambridge, my loving mother and nurse,” he wrote. Nor was he at first a reformer. His zeal for the faith came first; his belief in the need for church reform followed gradually. His depth of learning and clarity of thinking impelled him along a path which, as long as Mary Tudor was on the throne, could lead to only one end.
The Revd Adrian Leak is an Hon. Assistant Priest at Holy Trinity, Bramley, in the diocese of Guildford
Nicholas Ridley was born in about 1502 to a family of well-established Northumbrian gentry. He was educated in Newcastle and Cambridge. At Cambridge University, his career advanced rapidly, culminating in the Mastership of Pembroke Hall. In 1538, he was appointed Vicar of Herne, Kent, Chaplain to Archbishop Cranmer, and a prebendary of Canterbury Cathedral.
During Edward VI’s reign, he was recognised as one of the leading reformers, and was appointed Bishop of Rochester; in 1550, he was translated to the see of London. On the accession of Queen Mary, he was arrested and tried for heresy. He was burnt at the stake in Oxford, alongside Hugh Latimer, on 16 October 1555.