English School 16th, Century
Portrait of Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London (1500-1555)
Nicholas Ridley
oil on panel
33.50 x 22 cm (13.1/4 x 8.3/4 in.)


Ridley, Nicholas (c. 1502–1555), bishop of London and protestant martyr, was born only a short distance away from Hadrian's Wall, near Willimontswick, to a Northumberland gentry family whose members were prominent in the life of the church, both before and during the Reformation. His father was Christopher Ridley of Unthank Hall; his mother is said to have been Anne BlenkinsopCuthbert Tunstall, bishop of London and later bishop of Durham, was a relative.

Education and evangelical conversion

Much of Nicholas Ridley's early life and career were shaped by Cambridge University—'my loving mother and tender nurse' (Last farewell, 91–2)—and his father's brother Robert RidleyRobert was Tunstall's secretary and a friend of Erasmus, but in his thinking (in keeping with the English style of humanism), classical and biblical studies were blended with medieval scholasticism. Terence professor in the faculty of arts in the first decade of the century, he was a considerable figure in the university and in the church at large, holding numerous livings in and near London and also a prebend in St Paul's. In some respects an ambivalent figure, he made strenuous efforts to combat heresy, but nevertheless encouraged the setting up of the university's first press. He was an important influence on Thomas Cranmer, and defrayed his nephew Nicholas'searly expenses at Cambridge. Until his death, most likely in 1536, Robert Ridleyprobably loomed large in Nicholas's life.

After attending school at Newcastle upon Tyne, about 1518, in his middle to late teens, the young Nicholas Ridley entered Pembroke College, which he found to be 'studious, well learned, and a great setter forth of Christ's Gospel'. At the end of his life he remembered how, within the walls of its orchard, he had learned by heart the greater part of the epistles of St Paul, as well as much of the rest of the New Testament (Last farewell, 92). His own zeal for learning was well rewarded. He received from the university every promotion that could be bestowed: including all of his degrees (BA, 1522; MA, 1525; BTh, 1537; DTh, 1541); a fellowship at Pembroke from 1524; a chaplaincy to the university in 1531; and a university professorship in Greek (from 1535 to 1537–8). Ultimately he became master of Pembroke (1540), a distinction he retained until his disgrace. He is also reported to have studied at Paris and Louvain.

With his many talents and superb connections, from the late 1530s Ridley began to receive ever more exalted attention from outside the university. In 1537 Archbishop Cranmer called him from Cambridge to be one of his chaplains, and also gave him his first cure, on 30 April 1538, by making him vicar of the 'worshipful and wealthy' parish of Herne in Kent (Last farewell, 92). As with Thomas Cranmer and Hugh LatimerRidley's re-evaluation of Christian doctrine proceeded gradually. Initially the reformers stressed the great Pauline aspiration of 'preaching Christ', and they strove to disseminate the word of God through sermons and the printing press with the aim of bringing about a deep spiritual renewal throughout society. The distracting practices that the reformers felt had grown up in the Roman church in the post-apostolic centuries had to be identified and removed through self-referencing new interpretations of scripture, against which all doctrine and practices had to be judged. Much of the received wisdom of the Catholic church (including the sacraments) had to be re-examined, and where necessary cast aside. At this early period Ridley's views concerning the eucharist were conventional (by his own later admission), though his sermons had been strongly evangelical for some time. At Herne he encouraged the singing of the Te Deum in English, not Latin. The parish 'heard of my mouth ofttimes the word of god preached, not after the popish trade, but after the Christ's gospel'. He was gratified that 'godly virtue and zeal' was kindled among his parishioners, evident in the life and works of Lady Elizabeth Fyneux (the lady of the manor) and 'many other more' (ibid., 92–3).

Problems at Canterbury

Ridley continued to adapt and expand his opinions as opportunity and circumstances allowed, in the face of resolute opposition from theological opponents and political enemies, and the complicating conservatism of the king. His arrival at Herne came at something of a high-water mark for evangelical reformers. After 1538 Henry VIII began to withdraw much of his previous support for doctrinal development, which he had backed until his supremacy over the English church was secured. The king encouraged the passage of the Act of the Six Articles in 1539, which demanded that all of his subjects believe that the natural body and blood of Jesus Christ was present under the form of the bread and wine, and that no other substance except Christ, God, and man remained in the sacrament of the altar. The six articles also stipulated that auricular confession was necessary in Henry's church. The new law, and the destruction of Thomas Cromwell that followed in 1540, applied a brake to Cranmer's long-term plans for the steady development of protestantism in England. For much of the 1540s the reformers had to be cautious in the face of continued opposition, much of it organized by bishops Stephen Gardiner of Winchester and Edmund Bonner of London.

One of the defeats that Cranmer suffered during these years concerned the refounding of Canterbury Cathedral. When the monastic foundation was dissolved in 1540 he wanted to recast the cathedral as a new seat of learning and preaching, staffed with twenty divines who would lecture their students in the sciences and tongues. Moreover, they would be gifted preachers who could bring the gospel to the people. And for the dean, who would round out and lead the chapter, Cranmer wished to have the 'most excellent' man he could find from the ancient universities, his old Cambridge friend Edward Crome (CranmerLetters, 396–7). But the new foundation, as it was actually instituted, disappointed the archbishop. Rather than a score of university-style teachers, the cathedral was provided with a dozen old-fashioned prebendaries, who were fairly divided (in accordance with the king's stipulations) between reformers and those of conservative religious opinion. Six were former monks from the old foundation, and they bitterly opposed reform. Cranmer managed to make Ridley one of the prebendaries, and he proved a valuable ally. Cranmer was also able to salvage part of his original programme in the creation of an innovative corps known as the ‘six preachers’, roving apostles of a special type who delivered sermons widely in Kentish parishes. Among them were John Scory (a former Dominican friar and future bishop of Hereford), and Ridley's cousin Lancelot. But even among the six preachers there were divisions. Two of them, Robert Searles and Edmund Shether, strongly opposed the archbishop's policies. The result was a mixed foundation that had been assembled by wrenching apart what had been one of the most glorious monasteries in Europe. On almost every issue the cathedral staff divided along doctrinal lines. To say, as one of the conservative prebendaries informed Bishop Gardiner, that 'sometimes they did not agree in preaching' was a vast understatement (LP Henry VIII, 18/2, 339).

The two Ridleys promoted the cautious reforms that Cranmer favoured, and they challenged some of the implications of the six articles. Nicholas preached that auricular confession was 'a godly mean' to bring the sinner to the priest for counsel, even though 'he could not find' its rationale in scripture. He also preached that many of the traditions of the church were but 'beggarly ceremonies' which detracted from the true meaning of Christ's sacrifice (LP Henry VIII, 18/2, 306). Not surprisingly, the two Ridleys were specially targeted by the cathedral's conservatives in 1543 in the attempt to ruin Cranmer and stop the Reformation completely, known now as the prebendaries' plot. In this they had the support of Stephen Gardiner, who heard Ridley preach and, not at all pleased, took him aside afterwards and severely admonished him. Eventually the plot failed and by the autumn the defeat of Gardiner and his supporters was assured. Had they succeeded, Ridley would probably have been swept away with Cranmer. But it is small wonder that he had little good to remember about his time in Canterbury. 'To speak of things pleasant' there, 'I dare not' (Last farewell, 93).

Eucharistic thinking

Over the next few years Ridley divided his time between Cambridge and Kent. He began a more mature assessment of the eucharist, centred on the question of the nature of Christ's presence in the supper that he had instituted. Was there or was there not any corporal presence of Christ's substance in the consecrated bread and wine? The Roman Catholic church taught that through the miraculous intervention of God, after the priest spoke the words of consecration, 'Hoc est corpus meum', the bread and wine were completely transformed into the self-same natural body that had been born of the Virgin Mary and hung upon the cross. The sacrament was an oblation offered daily on behalf of a sinful world. But the doctrine of transubstantiation had been heavily criticized by Luther and his followers from the second decade of the sixteenth century, and they deemed it improper to give the consecrated host the same honour that was due to Jesus himself. Luther argued that it was Christ's unique sacrifice on the cross that mattered for salvation, not the mass that re-enacted that one death. The bread and wine, with Christ's physical body and blood, were present simultaneously in the eucharist. After Luther's challenge a clear consensus about the nature of Christ'spresence was slow to emerge. The Act of the Six Articles represented a fairly conservative interpretation of the issue. Although the statute did not mention transubstantiation, it did support the realist understanding that the body and blood of Christ alone were present after the consecration.

Ridley's own views were drawn from his careful study of the early fathers of the church, plus some eclectic choices, including the ninth-century monk Ratramnus of Corbie, who embraced a mystical understanding of the eucharist. Ridley's inquiries ultimately led him to relinquish the realist position, and to adopt the tenet that the nature of Christ's presence was spiritual. An exact time-frame for the stages of Ridley's gradual reassessment eludes complete precision, but some of the most important thinking was carried out in the quiet of his cure. Later he would write that he was Herne's 'debtor for the doctrine of the Lord's supper' (Last farewell, 92–3). He preceded Cranmer to the belief that the eucharist represented the spiritual manifestation of Christ.

A new crisis broke in 1546, one that turned on the role of the mass in the English church. Henry's health was beginning to fail, and as Easter approached the evangelical reformers received what they understood to be new signals of support from him. In April, perhaps encouraged that the king was at last ready to enter a fresh phase of reforms, Crome preached that the mass was only a remembrance of Christ's death. He was arrested, and Bonner prepared a recantation for him to make at Paul's Cross, while Henry indicated that he wanted Crome to obey the law. But at the same time Latimerand other evangelical leaders urged Crome not to submit, and when he appeared at Paul's Cross on 9 May he announced that he would not recant. His stand triggered off a full-blown attack on the evangelicals, one that called into question the survival of the entire movement for reform. Consequently it became imperative that Crome submit, and the task of persuading him fell to Ridley. Among the ironies of the situation was that Ridley's own opinion might not have been far removed from Crome's. But vital though this issue was, personal considerations had to be pushed aside. Ridley and Richard Coxe, acting in their capacities as royal chaplains, examined Crome before the privy council. They reviewed his sermons point by point, noting every place where he had dissimulated. Ridley reminded Crome of the key strategy that all the reformers had to rely upon for the very survival of the protestant movement: their earnest obedience in doing the king's will. Crome was humiliated on 27 June at Paul's Cross, and by the middle of August Henry, who had been flirting with a rapprochement with the papacy, reversed once again, and began to make overtures to François I of France that they should work together to transform the mass into a communion service.

Henry's sudden oscillation may mark the opportunity that Cranmer and Ridley needed to move further away from the tenet of the real presence in the sacrament of the altar. When Cranmer was examined by the Marian authorities in 1555, he admitted that he had once 'believed otherwise than I do now', until Ridley 'did confer with me, and by sundry persuasions', developed from the doctors of the church, 'drew me quite from my opinion' (CranmerLetters, 218). Cranmer's thinking moved gradually in the weeks and months before the king's death, and continued to be revised into the new reign, under Ridley's guidance.

Bishop of Rochester

The sacrifices of summer 1546 meant paradoxically that the reformers were well placed to gain complete control of government when Henry died in January 1547. The accession of the young Edward VI ushered in a new era. The time of equivocation and subterfuge, which had marked the evangelical movement in its dealings with the old king, was now past, and any further hesitation ended once conservative opposition was defeated. Bishops Gardiner and Bonner were arrested by the end of the summer. Among the earliest of Cranmer's acts was to issue a Book of Homilies, long in planning, that provided suitable material for the clergy to read in their parishes when preachers were unavailable. It was an evangelical tour de force that attempted to establish that the Christian was saved by faith in God's promise of redemption and forgiveness only. Every man or woman was justified not through any efforts of their own, but through the merciful generosity of God's supreme gift. Good works were not the means of salvation, but they were the fruit of faith.

On 4 September 1547 Ridley was elected bishop of Rochester, his first episcopal see. The royal assent was given on the 14th and he was consecrated on the 25th. He found 'much gentleness and obedience' as he promoted 'the trade of God's law' (Last farewell, 93). Among his first public pronouncements as bishop was a sermon at Paul's Cross on the sacrament of the altar (now under reassessment in parliament), which attempted to find a careful balance that would distance the English church from the radical opinions of Anabaptists (who questioned the essential humanity and divinity of Christ), and the untried positions of the growing Calvinist movement. Ridley wished to 'rebuke the unreverend behaviour of certain evil disposed persons' who had spread 'railing' handbills against the dignity of the sacrament. It was 'truly and verily the body and blood of Christ, effectually by grace and spirit' (Works, 265). But the doctrine of a spiritual presence seemed new in 1547 (before the prayer book appeared), and so abstruse were the theological opinions involved that the people who crowded round the pulpit fastened upon the novel and shocking rather than on the substance of Ridley'smeaning. He tried to deflect close questioning on the nature of the presence. Any who asked in crude terms how Christ was present, Ridley argued, were 'worse than dogs and hogs' in their ignorance (Foxe, ed. Townsend, 6.241). Overall his sermon was an indifferent success which left much confusion in its wake.

None the less further encouragement for Ridley and Cranmer to move beyond the realist view of the eucharist came late in November 1547, when Martin Bucer provided evidence, previously unknown, from a manuscript copy of one of John Chrysostom'sepistles, showing that the saint had held that the bread remained after the consecration. This new evidence served to confirm Ridley's own readings in RatramnusHeinrich Bullinger was informed in September 1548 that Cranmer, following Ridley's lead, had rejected any remnant of Luther's thinking and now embraced the doctrine of the spiritual presence. The communion rite in the first Book of Common Prayer (1549) represented this view.

Elevation to London

When Edmund Bonner was finally deprived in February 1550, Ridley was translated to the see of London. Among his earliest acts was an energetic visitation of the diocese. He ordered the destruction of altars, to 'turn the simple from the old superstitious opinions of the popish mass', and their replacement with 'honest' tables that would help to instil 'the right use of the Lord's supper' as a godly meal (Works, 319–21). By the end of the year every church in the city but one had a communion table. He examined every incumbent and curate for his learning, and threatened to 'eject' those who failed to come up to the standards he required. Whenever possible he promoted reformers to livings and offices. His task was complicated by the need to ensure that the reform movement in London was kept within the frame of Edward's church. Among the challenges he faced was one presented by London's two ‘stranger’ churches for foreigners, who advocated faster and more complete changes in doctrine and practice: one congregation for refugees from France; and the other of merchants or exiles from the Low Countries and German-speaking regions. The Dutch church was led by the Polish theologian John à Lasco (Laski), who had strong links with John Calvin and represented a more aggressive and ‘hotter’ form of evangelism than anything Cranmerand Ridley ordinarily countenanced. His congregation remained seated to receive communion (in avoidance of any suggestion of idolatry), to the annoyance of Cranmer, whose prayer book specified that those 'minded' to receive should all be 'kneeling humbly upon their knees'. However, the archbishop invited Laski from Emden to provide a needed corrective against Anabaptism. For more than a year Ridley had led a series of English theologians in an effort to persuade the Anabaptist Joan Bocher to relinquish her heresies, without success. She was brought to the stake in May 1550 (Scory preached the sermon at her execution), one of only two heretics burnt under Edward's rule.

Ridley was also deeply concerned with the problems presented by John Hooper, who had been nominated in July 1550 to the bishopric of Gloucester, despite his impatience with the first prayer book. Encouraged by LaskiHooper refused to be consecrated in the episcopal vestments that he dismissed as papistical remnants. The controversy pivoted upon the issue of adiaphora, of things indifferent, or trivial questions that were not subject to a standard determination. But Hooper's stance was a serious challenge to Cranmer's authority and a deep embarrassment to Edward's government, and also ill-timed following the initial violence that had met the 1549 prayer book in some parts of the realm. Ridley reasoned with him at length but at first in vain, and in January 1551 Hooper was confined in the Fleet. A month later he let himself appear in the hated garments, in a capitulation that represented a victory for Ridley's vision of the gradual reformation of the English church, inside (and distinct from) the international protestant movement.

A new threat arose in 1553 to the continuation of the reformation of the English church. Tuberculosis was stealing Edward's life although the king was only in his sixteenth year. In the previous September Ridley and his chaplain Edmund Grindal had paid a formal call upon Mary, the king's eldest half-sister and next heir, ostensibly to ask if the bishop could preach before her, but in reality to see how amenable she was to direction, and what course the future might bring. Edward had never succeeded in extinguishing her adherence to Catholicism. The pleasant countenance she initially showed Ridley changed when she heard his request. The door of the adjoining church shall be open to you, she replied, 'but neither I, nor none of mine shall hear you'. 'Madame', Ridley countered, 'I trust you will not refuse God's word'. Her reply was devastating: 'That is not God's word now, that was God's word in my father's days'. After this painful interview Ridley accepted a consoling drink, but suddenly he berated himself for forgetting his duty: 'Surely I have done amiss' to drink where the offer of God's word 'hath been refused'. He felt as if he should shake the dust from his feet (Foxe, 1583, 1396).

Arrest, trial, and martyrdom

Convinced that the accession of Mary would overturn the reforms, Edward chose his cousin, the strongly evangelical Lady Jane Grey, as his new heir. Ridley, who had just been persuaded by the duke of Northumberland to replace the imprisoned Tunstall as bishop of Durham, did everything in his power to divert the succession. After the king died unexpectedly early on 6 July 1553, he preached vigorously in favour of Queen Jane. He proclaimed that neither Mary nor Elizabeth, who had been declared illegitimate by parliament during their father's lifetime, was eligible for the throne. It was an enormous gamble for England's religious identity, and it almost succeeded. Had Marybeen secured before Edward died, Jane might have continued without insurmountable opposition. But Mary defended her right to inherit her father's throne and revivify her mother's religion. In a little over a week she mounted a successful coup against Janeand her supporters. Ridley was one of the first to be arrested as a traitor by the new regime. Bonner was immediately reinstated as bishop of London, and Ridley's register, interrupted in the full flow of diocesan business, survives as a witness to the calamity that overtook him.

At first Ridley was held in the Tower with CranmerLatimer, and John Bradford. In March 1554 the former bishops were taken to Oxford and imprisoned in the Bocardo, in preparation for a formal set-piece trial that was meant to discredit the entire reform movement from the 1520s onwards. In the following month Ridley defiantly entered into a lengthy disputation on the meaning of the eucharist.

In the time that remained to him Ridley wrote as often as he had paper and ink. He composed a Brief Declaration of the Lord's Supper, written in simple, accessible language for the widest possible readership. Latimer's servant, Augustine Bernher, smuggled goods and letters in and out of his prison chamber, and many of Ridley's exhortations reached Grindal's hands on the continent. Ridley's Brief Declaration and other writings were printed at Emden and distributed covertly in England soon after his execution. Records of his Oxford disputation and examination were eventually printed by John Foxe in his Acts and Monuments. Whenever possible, anguished people repaired to Ridley for advice on matters of belief and how they should behave towards the new regime.

In autumn 1555 Ridley and Latimer were put on trial. The final outcome was never in doubt. When on 15 October he was degraded from his office as bishop, Ridley refused to put on a surplice, associated as it now was with his persecutors. Towards the end he remembered those who had preceded him to the stake. Of his protégé Bradford he told Bernher that he was grateful 'that ever I had such a one in my house'. John Rogers, the first to die, had been 'one of my calling' as a prebendary preacher in London. And since Grindal had escaped into exile, Ridley wished to 'make up the trinity out of Paul's church, to suffer for Christ' (Certain most Godly Letters, 72–3).

The scene of the execution of Ridley and Latimer on 16 October 1555 in Oxford is one of the most distressing and moving episodes in all of Foxe's Acts and Monuments. Unlike Latimer, who quickly smothered at the stake, Ridley suffered cruelly in the flames, while a horrified Cranmer was forced to watch, in anticipation of his own burning only five months away. Foxe's account was much revised and improved over the years. Its most famous element, Latimer's final, defiant proclamation: 'Be of good comfort 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' (Foxe, 1583, 1770), was taken from Eusebius's story of the death of Polycarp. It was added in a later edition of Foxe's great work, and it may represent a general allusion to the vast procession of martyrs who have passed through the entire history of the church, rather than the event as it actually occurred. How much of Foxe's account was literal, and how much was art, will probably never be known. Foxe's Ridley, standing at the stake, was an ageing and vulnerable man, but not too removed from earthly concerns, even as he approached a fearful death, that he forgot to give his friends small coins and nutmegs as mementoes. His contributions to the Reformation had sprung from his unwavering commitment to the truth as he perceived it. Foxe's portrait reminded his readers of the humanity that also lay beneath Ridley's proud, scholarly reserve.   DNB  Susan Wabuda