A Protestant Understanding of England's Martyrs

A Protestant Understanding of England's Martyrs
AP Photo/Frank Augstein

Hidden in the northern suburbs of Oxford are the last traces of a path first trodden by multitudes of country folk hurrying to see the burning of the Protestant martyrs Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley on October 16, 1555, and trudging home afterward.

For some years I lived very close to this track, and after dark I would imagine all those figures bustling past in their gray-and-brown homespun, their hands hard as oak from work in the fields, and wonder whether they had gone to cheer or to mourn, and whether they had seen what they expected to see.

They certainly had not seen what the authorities hoped they would see. The monarch who had ordered Latimer and Ridley burned alive, poor unhappy Queen Mary, has a good claim to the title of founder of the Church of England. Without her dogged and stupid persecutions, I doubt very much that this ramshackle, leaky, doctrinally vague old craft would ever have floated at all. It doesn't work in theory—only in practice, like so many English things. Nothing has ever bound it together half so firmly as these gruesome human bonfires, rather obviously encouraged by Mary's consort, Philip of Spain.

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