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 Issues | Church History | Nicholas Ridley


Nicholas Ridley by G W Bromiley
Ridley - the Bishop

<< Chapter 1

Fox has claimed quite categorically that Ridley owed his promotion to Rochester to Henry VIII (1). He infers thereby that in his closing days Henry had come to look upon the protagonists of reform with much greater favour. It appears, however, that according to the dating the appointment came only after the death of Henry, for the congé d’ élire was issued on August I, 1547, and Henry had already died in the January of that year. Fox was probably right to this extent, that Ridley had been marked out for Rochester as soon as the expected death of Longland of Lincoln made possible the translation to that see of Holbeach, the then bishop of Rochester.

Succeeding then to the diocese in the autumn of 1547, Ridley immediately applied himself to his episcopal duties with his customary energy and thoroughness. The situation was in every way favourable at this juncture. Although not always for the most creditable motives, the government of the Duke of Somerset actively supported the cause of Reform, and for geographical and social reasons the diocese of Rochester contained many who were ready to welcome the evangelical doctrines. The continued proximity of Cranmcr was an additional source of strength. It enabled the two leaders not only to support each other, but also to confer about doctrinal and practical questions.

The chief method used by Ridley as a bishop was that of preaching, and it is worth noting how much the steady reading and proclamation of the Word of God contributed to the work of reform. Fox has painted a beautiful if rather exaggerated picture of Ridley's labours in this respect. He claims that Ridley “so travelled and occupied himself preaching and teaching the true and wholesome doctrine of Christ, that never good child was wore singularly loved of dear parents than he of his flock and diocese. Every holiday and Sunday he lightly preached in some one place or another, except he were otherwise letted by weighty affairs and business, to whose sermons the people resorted, swarming about him like bees, and coveting the sweet flowers and wholesome juice of the fruitful doctrine, which he did not only preach but shewed the same by his life”, The colours are over-bright, perhaps, but the picture is not entirely fanciful, for there can be no doubt that Ridley did take seriously his office as a teacher and pastor, and he himself testified that in Rochester he “did find much gentleness and obedience”. The years spent at Rochester were not by any means easy ones for a diocesan bishop. Changes of a far-reaching character were being carried through: the abolition of superstitious customs in the Royal Injunctions; the suppression of the Chantries by Act of Parliament, the introduction of an English Communion service, and later of the first Book of Common Prayer, again by parliamentary enactment. Ridley himself had no primary responsibility for these measures, although of course he both approved them and indirectly influenced their passing. On the other hand, he and his fellow-bishops had the unenviable task of translating the measures into terms of diocesan and parochial life, often in the face of much suspicion and even hostility on the part of clergy and laity alike. The position was difficult indeed for those who, like Bonner of London and Gardiner of Winchester, were resolutely opposed to the reforms; but it was hardly easier for an enthusiast like Ridley, who against many odds laboured to an actual as well as a statutory reformation in the life of the Church. That Ridley did to a large extent succeed in this aim is proved by the fact that when Bonner was deprived and imprisoned for recalcitrance, it was he who was the obvious choice for the all-important bishopric. Ridley moved to London in 1550, and there he showed himself no less ardent and diligent than he had been in Rochester. Indeed, when he visited his diocese in the year of his enthronement, he took the initiative in many matters. For instance, in the fourth of his injunctions he required that “the curates, churchwardens and questmen should erect and set up the Lord's board after the form of an honest table”. For this instruction he was taken to task by some on the ground that the 1549 book still used the term altar, but in 1551 he received a letter from the King and Council authorizing him to make tables uniform throughout his diocese (2). The word altar was finally dropped in the 1552 book, and has not been revived in authorized revisions since. In the first injunction, too, Ridley forbade superstitious customs in relation to the Holy Communion, and in the ninth he insisted that “none maintain purgatory, invocation of saints, the six articles, beadrolls, images, rubrick primars, the justification of man by his own works, holy bread, palms, ashes, candles, sepulchre paschal, creeping to the cross, hallowing of fire or altar, or any other such like abuses or superstitions”. The promptness of the visitation reveals the energy and zeal of the new bishop, and the pronouncedly Reformed character of the articles makes it plain that his conversion in the matter of the Supper was now complete.

Ridley obviously intended to devote much of his time and energy to the overthrow of the old system. To this end he associated with him in his work many of the outstanding younger Reformers. Thus Grindal, the future Archbishop, was appointed Precentor of St. Paul's and later Prebendary of Westminster. The two martyrs, John Bradford and John Rogers, held respectively the prebends of Kentish-town and St. Pancras. In spite of this activity, however, it must not be imagined that Ridley was a fanatical and intolerant iconoclast. He had no personal animosity towards those whom he had to oppose in the interests of truth, and although he insisted upon a proper discipline in the diocese, he aimed to win his opponents by gentleness rather than to constrain them by force. Fox draws particular attention to his “gentle ordering and courteous handling” of Heath, the Archbishop of York, who was a prisoner with him for a year. Even his predecessor Bonner had occasion to know the “rare clemency” of Dr. Ridley, for during his periods of residence at Fulham he always invited Bonner's mother to dine and sup with him, reserving for her “the chair at the table's end”.

Ridley had in fact a strong sense of the need for proportion in religious matters. At this point he proved himself a true forerunner of the Elizabethan churchmen. In his dioceses of Rochester and London, for instance, he had occasional dealings with the Anabaptists, and he opposed them strongly, first because of their doctrinal errors, and second because “without any just or necessary cause, they wickedly separated themselves from the communion of the congregation”.

In London he had also found it necessary to preach against “certain evil-disposed persons” (possibly Anabaptists), who had “fixed railing bills against the sacrament, terming it Jack of the Box, the sacrament of the Halter, Round Robin, with such like unseemly terms”. The Puritan issue had hardly arisen in Edward's time, but it is noteworthy that Ridley had little sympathy with Hooper in the latter's prolonged refusal to wear a surplice in his consecration to Worcester. Shortly before Hooper's martyrdom the two men were thoroughly reconciled, and Ridley could acknowledge that they “consented together in those things which are the grounds and substantial points of our religion”. For a time, however, there had been a sharp disagreement over the matter of ceremonial, and the correlated question of ecclesiastical order and discipline.

A further point ought to be noticed. Ridley was zealous for reform, not for partisan reasons, but because he desired first and foremost the glory of God and the spiritual well-being of his people. Like Cranmer, he was particularly incensed when lie saw the wealth of the Church diverted to the pockets of avaricious nobles. He did not hesitate to speak his mind, and thanks to his influence with the King he managed to save something from the wreckage. It was largely at his suggestion that the King Edward grammar schools were founded, and three institutions for the poor owed their foundation to his efforts : Christ's Hospital for the help of the orphaned or aged, St. Bartholomew's for the relief of the sick, and Bridewell for the correction of the idle and vagabond (3). In addition to these less direct activities, Ridley applied himself to the purification of the religious life of his diocese in accordance with the general Injunctions issued at the beginning of the reign. In the visitation already mentioned, he laid stress upon the need to promote almsgiving, enjoined a full reading of the Homilies, and insisted upon a regular use of the catechism for the instruction of the young (4). He asked, too, that the clergy should move their parishioners to be diligent in church attendance and to “behave themselves reverently, godly, and devoutly in the church”. The churchwardens were charged to maintain a proper order, and in the further interests of reverence they were also “to prevent any buying, selling, gaming, outrageous noise or tumult, or any other idle occupying of youth in the church, church porch or churchyard, during the time of common prayer, sermon, or reading of the homily”. In contrast to mediaeval custom, “often and worthy receiving of the holy communion” was commended.

It is part of a bishop's office not only to instruct and direct, but also to set an example. In this respect, too, Ridley was not wanting as a pastor. In personal life he achieved a high standard of sensible and pious living. After the manner of the age Fox has left an intimate account of Ridley's domestic life. He notes first that in physical appearance he was a man “rightly comely and well proportioned in all points”. The distinguishing features of his character were a spirit of forgiveness and loyalty to his own kin. Religious exercises played an important part in his routine. He rose early and began the day with private prayer. He then retired to his study, breaking off at 10 a.m. for public worship, followed by dinner. At dinner he was no great conversationalist, but afterwards he spent some time either talking or playing at chess. The afternoon was devoted to business, and then followed another break at 5 for prayers, supper and more chess. Work claimed him again for the evening, and he normally retired at 11, bringing the day to a close with private devotions.

Ridley was careful to rule his household as well as himself, more especially when he was in residence at Fulham. It was his custom there to read daily a lecture to his family (i.e. household) at the common prayer, beginning at the Acts of the Apostles, and so going throughout all the Epistles of St. Paul”. To those who could read he gave a New Testament, and he offered small rewards to encourage them to learn off by heart such important passages as Acts 13. The 101st Psalm was another portion of Scripture to which he frequently attracted the attention of his household. In public affairs, in the life of the diocese, and in domestic matters, Ridley proved himself both a conscientious and effective bishop. He had hardly sufficient time to complete his work, but in London he succeeded so well that he was marked as perhaps the ablest of the Reformed party. In one important mission he did fail, and this failure, together with his success in other directions, made his eventual martyrdom inevitable. The failure was with the Lady Mary, whom he had occasion to visit in the autumn of 1552, when he was lodging in a nearby manor. Faithful to his calling, Ridley offered to preach before Mary, but she refused point-blank to hear “what he called God's word”, and she bitterly attacked the changes in religion for which she held Ridley to some extent responsible.

When Mary later came to the throne, Ridley's reputation as a scholar and his obvious success as a bishop pointed to him as a moving spirit and a prime agent in the movement of Reform. Indeed, had not the death of Edward intervened, the government had intended to move him to his native Durham, and in that powerful see he would have had an even greater voice in affairs, and could probably have brought more speedy reformation to the backward North. From Durham it might well have been only a step to Canterbury; but events decided otherwise, and Ridley's brief episcopal career was terminated by his martyr's passion. It was left to his disciples and successors, in circumstances far less favourable, to complete as best they could the work which he and his fellow-confessors had so magnificently begun.

(1) Works, Introduction, p. v.
(2) Works, Appendix VI.
(3) Ibid., Introduction, p. xiii, n. 1, and cf. pp. 410-11.
(4) Ibid., p. 320. The monition to almsgiving is quaintly worded: “Now is the time, if it please you, to remember the poor men's chest with your charitable alms.”

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