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 Issues | Church History | Nicholas Ridley


Nicholas Ridley by G W Bromiley
Ridley - the Scholar

Nicholas Ridley was one of those three confessor-bishops whose names are linked indissolubly with the English Reformation. Of the three, Cranmer had the widest sphere of opportunity, and if he lacked the most conspicuous gifts of leadership, he had nevertheless his own capacities which allowed him to exploit many of the advantages of his position. Latimer was an older man. As a contemporary writer put it, “He came earlier in the morning, and was the more ancient workman in the Lord's vineyard." Latimer was no great scholar, but he was a moral preacher of singular power, able to catch the ear both of those in high places and also of the common people. Ridley himself was the youngest of the three, but in many ways he was also the most talented. He excelled not only as a scholar, but also as a diligent and forceful ecclesiastic, and by his activity and learning he came to be recognized in his own day as perhaps the foremost champion of the Reformation movement.

The date of Ridley's birth has been a subject of some speculation, but it coincided more or less with the beginning of the century. Like Cranmer, but unlike Latimer, he came of noble parentage. He belonged, however, not to the more secure and prosperous Midlands, but to the wilder Border territory of Northern Northumberland. The name Ridley probably derived from Riddle and ultimately from Ryedale, and it seems likely that the family had descended from the same stock as the Scottish Riddles of Glenriddle. Like all Border families the Ridleys were distinguished for energy and courage, but it must not be thought that they were only rude and untutored warriors. Ridley’s uncle, Dr. Robert Ridley, made quite a continental reputation as a theologian, being a Doctor of Divinitv both of Cambridge and of Paris. A cousin, too, Dr. Lancelot Ridley, became quite an eminent churchman in the time of Edward VI, being the author of several devotional commentaries on the New Testament.

The father of Ridley was a third son, and Nicholas himself a second, so it was perhaps only natural that he should be trained for a professional career. He learned his first letters at Newcastle-on-Tyne, and he showed such promise that his uncle paid for his further education at Pembroke College, Cambridge, which he entered in 1518. Not a great deal has been recorded of Ridley's life at this time, but Dr. Turner, who studied with him, has paid tribute to his “memory and manifold knowledge of arts and languages” and his strength “in confuting or overthrowing any false argument”. During the long years of his theological apprenticeship Ridley attained a fine mastery of the Fathers, and in his farewell letter he remembered with affection “the orchard of Pembroke Hall . . . where I learned without book almost all Paul's epistles, yea, and, I ween, all the canonical epistles, save only the Apocalypse.”

Ridley graduated Bachelor of Arts in 1522. His obvious talents marked him out for a scholastic career, and he remained at the University. His fame had spread to Oxford, for in 1524 he was elected to a fellowship at University College. For reasons not disclosed Ridley refused the honour, and he gained his reward when he was elected Fellow of his own College in the same year. It is just possible that this decision had some bearing on his future theology, for Cambridge was the main centre of Lutheran influence during the twenties. On the other hand Oxford was not entirely without its champions of reform, and Ridley had sufficient independence of judgment not to owe his opinions merely to the influence of others.

Ridley continued his studies and received the Master's degree in 1525. Following the example of his uncle, he crossed over to Prance in 1527, studying divinity first at Paris and later at Louvain. The Sorbonne had long been acknowledged the mistress of all the divinity schools of Europe, but by the sixteenth century it had passed its prime, and Ridley was not greatly impressed. The disputations there he later referred to scathingly as “Sorbonical clamours”. It is worth noting, however, that almost alone amongst the first English reformers Ridley had a first-hand acquaintance with continental theology. He must also have been introduced in far more vivid fashion to the Lutheran controversies which now agitated the Church.

The visit to France was of some length, for only in 1530 did Ridley return to Cambridge. On his return he took up his career as College Fellow and as Reader to the University, and he climbed steadily and surely in the years which followed. He became Junior Treasurer of Pembroke in the year of his return, and Senior Proctor three years later. In 1534 he was required to sign the decree renouncing the Papal Supremacy, and this lie did in company with almost all leading churchmen and scholars. In this same year he graduated Bachelor of Divinity, and he was also appointed Chaplain of the University and Public Orator.

In the meantime Thomas Cranmcr had been appointed, much against his will, to the Archbishopric of Canterbury. Conditions at this time were on the whole favourable for cautious reforms, and Cranmer was anxious to secure the assistance of as many able and like-minded men as possible. To what extent Ridley was now committed to Reform it is difficult to say. Fox speaks of him as formerly “blind and zealous in his old ignorance”, and this is true to the extent that Ridley had not yet won through to the Reformed doctrine of the Lord's Supper. On the other hand, it seems likely that he already had leanings to reform in other directions, and that it was for that reason as well as his conspicuous ability that Cranmer marked him out for prefermcnt. Be that as it may, Cranmer chose him as his own chaplain in 1537, a step which was the beginning of a long and profitable association broken only by Ridley's prior martyrdom in 1555. And in 1538 Cranmer appointed Ridley to his first cure, “the worshipful and wealthy parish” of Herne.

The institution to Herne meant a partial interruption of Ridley's university career, for, notwithstanding the custom of the time, he devoted himself conscientiously to parochial work. Not unnaturally, he distinguished himself chiefly as a preacher, and his sermons attracted quite considerable numbers. In the farewell letter Ridley stresses the fact that he “preached the Word of God there, not after the popish trade, but after Christ's Gospel”, a statement which plainly indicates that he had already some understanding of the evangelical doctrines. On the other hand, he acknowledges sadly that he was Herne's “debtor for the doctrine of the Lord's supper, . . . at that time not revealed unto me” - a plain testimony that during the years of his active ministry there, and possibly right up to his resignation of the benefice in 1549, he had not yet attained to the truth upon this question.

The ministry at Herne interrupted his University career, but it did not altogether terminate it. In 1540 Ridley achieved what must have been one of his sweetest ambitions when he was called to the mastership of Pembroke. At the same time he was awarded a Doctorate in Divinity, his outstanding merit as a theologian thus receiving official recognition. After the manner of the time he retained his benefice while holding the new office. Indeed, his whole career at this time had something of a dual aspect. On the one hand, he maintained contact with the world of scholarship by his supervision of Pembroke; on the other, he continued to rise in the ecclesiastical order, being appointed chaplain to Henry VIII in 1540, and receiving prebends in Canterbury and Westminster in 1541 and 1545. The passage of the Six Articles in 1539 had not formed any obstacle to his progress, partly because he was not then greatly affected by the points at issue, and partly because he enjoyed the patronage of Cranmer, who still stood high in the personal favour of the King. It was becoming obvious that sooner or later Ridley would attain to the episcopate, and in 1547, shortly after Henry's death, his nomination to the see of Rochester ended the first phase of his career.

Surveying the years of study, we may discern one or two outstanding points which will help us in our estimate of his life and work. First, there can be no doubt as to his ability as a scholar. Both his contemporaries and biographers testify to his “dexterity” and the “singularity of his wit”. Second, the thoroughness of his theological education ought not to pass unnoticed. Ridley did not give himself to his books with quite the reckless ardour of his younger contemporary, Jewell. Indeed, he could find time to join Dr. Turner in exercise “with the how and at hand-ball”. But he studied diligently nonetheless, and apart from his progress through the Cambridge schools he had the advantage of an acquaintance with the methods and learning of Paris. Believing that his memory was weak, Ridley “used for the most part to gather out notes of his reading”, and the value of this system proved itself when under very adverse conditions he could still make so good a showing in the Treatise on the Supper and the Oxford Disputation.

A third point is the comparative poverty of Ridley's written contribution to theology. Not only was he no self-confident novice, but he had no desire to write merely for writing's sake. Almost all the works preserved belong to the last two or three years. They were called forth by controversy, and they touched only one or two especially important issues. Like Cranmer, Ridley was well equipped as a scholar, but he had no ambition to be a constructive or speculative thinker. By temperament he was a man of action rather than of words, by calling a minister of the Word rather than an original writer. One incidental result is that it is difficult to trace the historical development of his Reformed adherence. Like Cranmer, he probably moved over to Protestantism slowly, although in the matter of the Supper he does not seem to have passed through a Lutheran stage, but to have gone directly from Romanism to the Reformed or Calvinistic position. A final point deserves brief mention. The long apprenticeship as a scholar determined to a large extent the quality of Ridley's work as a diocesan bishop. It contributed to an even greater extent to the decisiveness of his work as a theological father of reformed Anglicanism.


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