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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

II. Reformation Literature in England

§ 9. Hugh Latimer

The increasing stress laid upon edification made itself felt not only through the press, but even more through the pulpit literature of the day, which showed a great facility of expression and a command of genuine emotion not reached before. Medieval oratory, at its best, did not, and could not, equal it, because it was impossible, in the earlier days, to combine these two elements to the degree possible at the reformation. Even just before the reformation, bishop Fisher’s sermons—perhaps the best of their time and delivered by a most saintly man—did not reach the same force and directness of speech, the vivid personal appeal, the command of an audience, to which many later sermons attained. In its sudden rise to excellence, the sermon of the day may, indeed, be compared with the drama: both were affected by the growth of the language, and also by a movement of thought able to wield that language with greater power; both suffered, at a later date, from an excess of fancy, beginning to appear even in Latimer’s Sermons on the Card (December, 1529). Among popular preachers, John Longland, bishop of Lincoln (1521–38) and chancellor of Oxford, had a great reputation; so, upon the other side, had John Hooper, afterwards bishop of Gloucester, whose sermons upon Jonah, before Edward VI, were vigorous in denunciation and fearless in reproof. But the reputation of all these capable preachers, speaking, as they did, to a generation tolerant, or even avaricious, of sermons, was overshadowed by the greater name of Hugh Latimer.

Latimer, the exact year of whose birth is uncertain (1485–91), took his bachelor’s degree at Cambridge in 1510, and his bachelorship of divinity in 1524. As crossbearer (1522) to the university and as Fellow of Clare he had some academical position. Up to 1524, he had opposed the new teaching, and, in his “act” for B.D., had attacked Melanchthon. But, after that discourse, Thomas Bilney, desiring to influence him, chose him as confessor and, as a penitent, gained him over to his own views. Together, they spent their days in works of mercy; in the evening, they, with Robert Barnes, Stafford and others, met at “The White Horse” for reading and discussion. “Little Germany,” as the place was called, became a centre of influence in the university, and remained so until an abusive sermon of Barnes, preached in St. Edward’s church on Christmas Eve, 1525, brought danger upon the “Germans.” Hitherto, Wolsey had been very tolerant and, although urged by the bishops to take steps against heresy at the universities, had refused to do so. But Barnes, who, like Latimer, had come under Bilney’s spiritual influence, had not learnt reverence or discretion, and in this sermon he had attacked Wolsey with violence. Taken to London and examined before Wolsey, he agreed to recant; after this he was imprisoned for three years and then escaped to Germany. The incident scattered the band of Cambridge scholars and was a crisis in their history. It not only brought them into disrepute, but lent bitterness to their words and writings.

When Barnes preached this celebrated sermon, he had exchanged pulpits with Latimer, who, although he had just been inhibited by the bishop (West) of Ely, could still preach in the exempt chapel of the Augustinian priory. The trouble caused Latimer, also, to be called before Wolsey, who appreciated his good qualities and his sound old-fashioned learning, and allowed him to return to Cambridge with a general licence to preach, signed by the cardinal himself. The incident shows the attitude taken by those in high authority towards reform; but the bitterness of preachers like Barnes and the scurrility of some pamphleteers made it hard to maintain this attitude. Up to this time, the movement in England had been mainly based on learning and was distinctly English. In spite of the names of Lutherans and Germans loosely given to them, and of their sympathy for German writers, these Englishmen, as yet, owed little to foreign influence. But increasing intercourse gradually brought about a closer unity of opinion: few English theologians became Lutherans, but some became Zwinglians and other Calvinists. Latimer, however, may be taken as representing the earlier and more characteristic stage of the movement. He attacked specially those abuses which Erasmus had satirised—indulgences, pilgrimages, veneration of images; upon the positive side, he laid stress upon the life and example of Christ, and help up a high ideal of conduct. But he did not move of his own accord to any revolutionary conception of the church, to any assertion of individual liberty, or to an attack upon the doctrine of the sacraments, although that was the central topic of his examination at his trial (1555). Even then, however, he leaned mainly upon Cranmer’s book, and confessed that he had only been of his final opinion for some seven years.

His boldness during the trial, and his determination, both for himself and in inspiring others, was a strange contrast to the timidity of some of his earlier Cambridge friends. His arguments were, however, less forceful than his example: he referred again and again to “my lord of Canterbury’s book” for proof of his assertions; and discussion of the one subject—that of the pope’s supremacy—upon which he would have liked to enlarge, was refused him. The Conferences between him and Ridley (published in 1556) give a pathetic picture of their imprisonment.

  • The number of the “criers under the altar” must needs be fulfilled. Pardon me and pray for me: pray for me, I say: pray for me, I say. For I am sometimes so fearful, that I would creep into a mousehole; sometimes God doth visit me again with His comfort. So He cometh and goeth, to teach me to feel and to know mine infirmity, to the intent to give thanks to Him that is worthy, lest I should rob Him of His duty, as many do. Fare you well.
  • These were his words to Ridley. To another prisoner, wavering in the peril of death, he wrote:
  • If any man perceive his faith not to abide the fire, let such an one with weeping buy his liberty, until he hath obtained more strength, lest the gospel by him sustain an offence of some shameful recantation. Let the dead bury their dead. Let us that be of the lively faith follow the Lamb wheresoever He goeth.
  • Clearly those were not mistaken who had seen in the great preacher an underlying strength of manliness, inspired by piety, as the foundation of his character.