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Hugh Latimer

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Date October 14, 2003

JOHN REES-EVANS (Wolverhampton)


A person’s life may be looked at from an almostinfinite number of different angles. But when I look at Latimer’s life, what Isee ahead of anything else is a life-story that seems to have been written toprove, beyond question, that God is sovereign over all affairs of men; thatnothing can resist His will and that when the appointed time of blessing iscome to a nation, He acts decisively.

In order that we should see as great a transformation as it is possible toimagine in a man’s life, that it should be abundantly clear that theReformation was the work of God – an act of grace and nothing connected toman’s schemes and good intentions – it was God’s will that Hugh Latimer shouldbegin his life with the most unpromising of prospects, spiritually speaking.

There is controversy about Latimer’s birth date. Some estimates are as early as1485, but it would seem that the most compelling arguments point to his beingborn around 1490 or 1491, in Thurcaston in Leicester. His father was a yeomanwith a small farm. Despite his limited means, he was at the same time generousand careful with what little he had. He was able to send Hugh to a local schooland then, at age 14, up to Cambridge. Latimer was an exceptional scholar; whilestill an undergraduate he was chosen as a fellow of Clare Hall. A few monthslater in January 1510 he obtained the degree of Bachelor of Arts. He took hisMaster of Arts in July 1514; and some years after, obtained his Bachelor’sdegree in Divinity, probably in 1521 around the age of 30.  During his time in Cambridge, Latimer wasconsidered remarkable for his "sanctimony of life" [Strype: Eu. Mem.III, p.368], his conscientiousness, and studious habits. However, in his ownwords, he was "as obstinate a Papist as any in England". He was sozealous and fervent, and such a bitter opponent of the Reformation that hiswhole oration, when he was made Bachelor of Divinity, was against PhilipMelancthon and his ideas. Melancthon was an eminent continental Reformer, whowould later take the lead from Luther when he died in 1546.

Latimer thought the Reformation such an unprecedented evil that he declaredthat the day of judgment and the end of the world must soon be approaching:

"What lengths might not men be expected to run," he asked, "whenthey began to question even the infallibility of the Pope?"

The likeness between the Apostle Paul and Latimer prior to their conversions isstark; neither were men who did things by half measures. The violence and vehemencewith which Paul opposed God’s true elect, all the while thinking himself to beacting in God’s name, were mirrored by Latimer’s public furious onslaughts ofthose true believers who had come to see that the Church had so distinctlydeparted from the knowledge of God and needed to be reformed.

A contemporary of Latimer’s who had witnessed his attack on Melancthon had, twoyears before, procured himself a copy of Erasmus’s Latin New Testament. Thisman was Thomas Bilney. He bought the book, not to meditate on the Word of God,but was rather allured to it by the elegance of the Latin. That simplepurchase, however, was foreordained to be a vital link in the chain ofReformation history in England.

While admiring the Latin, Bilney chanced upon 1 Timothy 1:15: "It is atrue saying and worthy of all men to be embraced, that Christ Jesus came intothe world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief," as Bilney translatedit. By this verse Bilney’s eyes were opened; he saw the futility of works: ifPaul, whose salvation even the most bigoted papist would not question, wassaved while a sinner and, moreover, the chief of sinners, then salvation couldonly be something freely given, something to be received by faith alone. Thevanity of striving for salvation by the empty merit of one’s works was madeplain to Bilney and from that moment he came to trust to Christ’s merit alonefor his salvation.

Bilney saw in Latimer sincerity and honesty, and considered that his zeal forpopery might be attributed to a lack of knowledge. I imagine that Bilney saw inLatimer the parallels with Paul and prayed that in like manner Latimer’s zealmight be turned, as Paul’s was, to God’s glory. Bilney approached Latimer afterhis attack on Melancthon and humbly asked whether he might be allowed to make aprivate confession to Latimer of his own new-found faith. Latimer agreed. Hesays:

"To say the truth, by his confession I learned more than before in manyyears. So from that time forward I began to smell the Word of God, and forsookthe school-doctors and such fooleries."

Those that understand nothing of grace would be surprised to learn thatfollowing Latimer’s conversion he did not cease doing good works but ratherincreased. He spent his available time now going around with Bilney visitingprisoners and the sick in Cambridge. He was kind and compassionate with thosehe met, and sometimes involved himself deeply with their problems. On oneoccasion he found a woman in gaol who had been accused by her husband ofmurdering their baby. Latimer visited the poor woman many times with Bilney andbecame convinced of her innocence. But, as with all the Reformers who paid forour country’s freedom from Rome so willingly with the service and sacrifice oftheir lives, Latimer’s compassion did not extend only to prayer; it drove himto action also. Once, having just preached to King Henry VIII, he petitionedfor this woman’s pardon directly to the King’s face and was granted it.

As David’s loyal service in defending and protecting the flock he tended as aboy would foreshadow God’s entrusting him with His people; when he would beanointed king over Judah, so I see this matter of Latimer with this wronged andbetrayed woman. I see it as a model of how Latimer would petition the King ofkings for the liberty of the English elect from their bondage and spiritualcaptivity. Let us look at how Latimer would accompany his faith in God’s mercy,with faithful action.

As soon as Latimer gave up his zealous popery he became a more zealousProtestant. He began preaching in the University pulpits with such plainness,frankness, sincerity, honesty and openness that "None" according toBecon, Cranmer’s chaplain, who traced his own conversion to Latimer’spreaching, "None, except the stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart, wentaway from it without being affected with high detestation of sin, and movedunto all godliness and virtue."

Latimer preached in a completely new and unknown style. His sermons arestriking in their simplicity, and powerful and challenging. He preached withequal sincerity whether he addressed the laity in English or the clergy inLatin. His method represented a revolution in preaching the Word, for no longerwould he allow the Gospel to be shrouded in mysteries and riddles that could bedeciphered only by the initiated elite; but he presented the Gospel at its facevalue, and expounded doctrines with simple illustrations that engaged thehearts and minds of even the least gifted of his listeners.

To give an example; with respect to original sin he illustrates it like this:

"Suppose the king should, purely of his own good will and benevolencechoose to favour a simple man who has no possessions of his own, with athousand pounds of lands, to him and his heirs on this condition: that heshould be the chief captain and faithful defender of the town of Calais,against our enemies the French.

"The man accepts the charge, promising to be faithful. But, in time, hebecomes closely acquainted and familiar with the French, and they offer him agreat sum of money if he will agree to their coming in to occupy the town andpossess it for the crown of France. The man agrees to neglect his duty to repeltheir agreed invasion, and Calais is taken.

"Now the English king hears of this invasion and comes with a formidableforce, and overcomes the French and regains hold of Calais. He then orders aninquiry to discover who was the traitor and finds it to be his very own captainthat has betrayed him. So the king discharges the man of his office and takesback the thousand pounds of possessions from him and his heirs."

"Yes, truly," Latimer argues, "the said captain cannot denyhimself but that he had true justice, considering how unfaithfully he behavedhim to his prince, contrary to his own fidelity and promise. So likewise it wasof our first father Adam."

As we might expect, Latimer’s uncompromised convictions attracted fiercepersecution. The Bishop of Ely banned him from preaching in the university. Buthe was not silenced altogether: he obtained permission to preach in the Churchof the Augustine Friars, for this was exempt from episcopal jurisdiction. Hisenemies were not content with this, though. Charges of heresy were made againsthim and he was called up more than once to appear before Cardinal Wolsey andTunstall, Bishop of London. Those accusing him in his trial, however, provedthemselves comparatively ignorant of popish doctrine and appeared foolishagainst Latimer’s defence. Cardinal Wolsey judged that the allegations againsthim were merely personal and frivolous and, after gently admonishing him,restored Latimer’s licence and gave him authority to preach throughout England.

But this verdict may easily have been otherwise. Only months before, Bilney hadbeen burnt for upholding an identical profession of faith to Latimer. Bilney’srole had been fulfilled however, his gift to our nation had been bestowed andGod had decreed that nothing should delay his reward. For Latimer however themission was just beginning.

In 1529 Cranmer, a hitherto unknown scholar, had come to the fore by suggestingto courtiers, who relayed the idea to the king, that the grave and publicquestion of Henry VIII’s desire to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon,should be referred to a commission of theologians at the universities. Althoughthe Reformation was purely a merciful act of God’s grace toward us, it standsto reason that the changes that needed to be effected to bring about a climatein which we would have free access to God’s Word, and that that Word should befreely preached, necessitated the severance of Antichrist’s hold over our land.For the Pope claimed not only to be our spiritual head, but also temporally tohave pre-eminence. Necessarily then, the Reformation must needs have a temporalor political element.

For many years England had been a high priority on Rome’s agenda for dominationover Christendom. At times it had appeared that Rome was losing her grip:notably, in Wycliffe’s time when he successfully demonstrated, with the King’sand Parliament’s authority, that there cannot be two temporal rulers in Englandand proved that the annual tax England paid Rome should be dropped.

But Rome ever schemed to consolidate her hold over us. When Arthur, eldest sonof Henry VII and heir to the throne, died without issue 6 months after marryingCatherine, the loyal papist, Rome’s designs looked like being frustrated.Catherine was an aunt to Emperor Charles V; her influence as wife to theEnglish king would be a great victory for Rome. Now that the heir was dead theopportunity was lost – unless it could be engineered that she should marry thenew heir Henry, her deceased husband’s brother. But the teaching of the Churchwas clear: such a union was unlawful. However, Rome has a means of rising aboveher own laws; the pope, being infallible, cannot decree anything false. It wasa simple matter then for Pope Julius II to issue a bull to sanction themarriage. Thus Rome thereby regained this influence when Henry marriedCatherine and succeeded the throne in 1509.

But the king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: heturneth it whithersoever He will (Proverbs 2:1). It transpired that by 1527Henry wanted to be rid of his wife. It is not easy to judge why. Certainly heexpressed fears that his repeated failure to beget a son from his brother’swife may have been God’s judgment against the contentious union. It is moreoften felt, however, that his desire to annul this marriage stemmed from hispassion for Anne Boleyn. Whatever the truth is, one thing is clear: the King’scaprice would be a very significant instrument of God’s gracious will forEngland.

It would be over this question that Cranmer, who supported the king’s position,though not his motives or actions – these were not his to judge – but believedthe king’s marriage to have been not legitimate from the start; it was in thisthat Cranmer would gain Henry’s favour and within four years would reluctantlyaccept the office of Archbishop.

Latimer had returned to Cambridge and continued steadfastly to preachuncompromisingly, thereby continuing to give offence to his enemies. However,that God’s irresistible will should be done, Latimer’s enemies were enervatedand lacked a strong voice. Always he was vindicated from their malicious andspiteful charges.

In 1530 he was selected as one of twelve of "the best learned men indivinity within that university" to go up to London, by the king’scommand, to judge whether certain books were heretical and should beprohibited. Following the consultation was a royal proclamationK

 . . . inhibiting all English bookseither containing or tending to any matters of scripture."


Of course, Latimer disagreed strongly with thisverdict, and wrote to the king on 1st December, 1530, pleading: "for the restoringagain of the free liberty of reading" the Word of God. Latimer tells theking that of the 24 members, 12 from each university, he was one of "threeor four that would have had the scripture to go forth in English" had theynot been overcome by the majority.

Latimer favoured the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine anddespite his overt opposition to papistical falsehoods he gained the King’sfavour while in London and was made a royal chaplain. It is interesting to notethat while Latimer and Cranmer shared the view that the royal marriage shouldbe annulled, Tyndale maintained the opposite view, voicing it very publicly inhis Practice of Prelates. Interestingly, Tyndale’s work was, while he lived,all but opposed by the king, whereas Cranmer and Latimer’s advancement toever-increasing influence was, humanly speaking, attributable to Henry VIII’sfavour, under God.

Latimer, despite having opportunity to preach often in London, soon grew wearyof court and the king offered him a benefice at West Kington, in Wiltshire.Needless to say, he again found himself much afflicted here for he could do noother than preach the Word diligently. Such men in all ages are targets. In hisage, Latimer attracted an endless bombardment of fiery darts. Again he wascalled to trial, this time on charges serious enough to put him into the handsof Convocation. Guilty, he was imprisoned and excommunicated, but by the king’sintervention he was absolved. Yet again, he preached, offended and was pulledup before Convocation. But, by this time Thomas Cranmer had been consecratedArchbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer found no fault with Latimer, but on thecontrary recognised him to be allied to the very same cause of Reformation.They were confounded and put to shame that sought after Latimer’s soul: theywere turned back and brought to confusion that devised his hurt. For, quiteapart from punishing Latimer, Archbishop Cranmer orchestrated that Latimershould preach before the king on all the Wednesdays of the following Lent,1534.

Time does not permit a detailed look at the remaining twenty-one years ofLatimer’s life – each year of which, however, deserves close inspection.However, I hope to have demonstrated how convincingly God’s chosen man wasclearly ordained to the calling by God – constant threat, persecution andformidable opposition could count for nothing then in such a context.

Knowing this, it is not surprising then that the following year Latimer wouldbe advanced to the dignity and degree of a bishop, into the See of Worcester.The following year he was appointed to preach to the very bitterest and mostpowerful of his enemies, before Convocation.

This extraordinary opportunity was seized upon by Latimer to engage with theGospel’s enemies head on. He confronted his old oppressors boldly, so publiclyand unequivocally reproving their abuses and in no uncertain terms demandingReformation.

He asked Convocation for an account of the good that they had done: what hadthey done to prosecute their great and august responsibilities toward the electand the spiritual profit of the kingdom?

"What went you about?" he asks. "What would ye have brought topass?" he demands. He answers the question himself, articulating theirheinous neglects and itemising many of their crimes specifically. But this isno bitter recrimination: he is correcting them in order to exhort them tofulfil their rightful duties. His words are timeless:

"Go ye to, good brethren and fathers, for the love of God, go ye to; andseeing we are here assembled, let us do something whereby we may be known to bethe children of light. Let us do somewhat, lest we, which hitherto have beenjudged children of the world, seem even still to be so. . . . Now, it lieth inus, whether we will be called children of the world, or children of light.

"Wherefore lift up your heads, brethren, and look about with your eyes,spy what things are to be reformed in the church of England. . .

On this occasion Latimer had the chance to address these leaders for only aboutan hour. He was of course limited in what could be said in so short a time. Andyet his challenge had been made. Over the course of the next twenty years Godwould propel men to the fore who would take up this call. Tyndale, Coverdale,Rogers and such men would give England the written truth, God’s Word; Latimerand others would preach that Word; and God willing, next time we shall see howCranmer would consolidate all these gains in the Articles, the Prayer Book andin licensing England’s first Authorised Bible.

There is much more to say of Latimer’s gift to his people; notably in thehomilies he authored. But let us conclude with Latimer’s prescription forReform. In a day when God’s ministers see fit to be entertainers, publicrelations officers, commentators and suchlike, it is fitting to heed Latimer’sexhortations to the minister. Likening a prelate to a ploughman, Latimer says:

"You will ask me, whom I call a prelate? A prelate is that man, whatsoeverhe be, that hath a flock to be taught of him; whosoever he be that hath cure ofsouls. And well may the preacher and the ploughman be likened together: first,for their labour of all seasons of the year; for there is no time of the yearin which the ploughman hath not some special work to do. . . . And then theyalso may be likened together for the diversity of works and variety of officesthat they have to do…. He hath first a busy work to bring his parishioners toa right faith . . . to a faith that embraceth Christ and trusteth to Hismerits; a lively faith, a justifying faith; a faith that maketh a man righteouswithout respect of works. . . . He hath then a busy work, I say, to bring hisflock to a right faith, and then to confirm them in the same faith: now castingthem down with the law, and with threatenings of God for sin; now ridging themup again with the gospel, and with the promises of God’s favour: now weedingthem, by telling them their faults, and making them forsake sin; now clottingthem, by breaking their stony hearts, and by making them supplehearted . . .apt for doctrine to enter in: now teaching to know God rightly and to knowtheir duty to God and their neighbours: now exhorting them, when they knowtheir duty, that they do it, and be diligent in it…. They have a continued workto do."

This was the teaching by which the church in England was reformed. But itshould not be mere history to us. Latimer’s words transcend the boundaries oftime. These words, to us, were written in his blood, for he would pay for themwith his life. On 16th October 1555 he lit such a candle, by God’s grace, ashas never been put out. Therefore, we ought to hear him. Amen.

The Gospel Magazine, September October 2003. Editor, Edward Malcolm

By permission


"Five English Reformers," J.C.Ryle,(Banner of Truth), contains a fine brief biography of Hugh Latimer.

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