A short biography of Bishop Nicholas Ridley

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About Bishop Nicholas Ridley

Portrait of Bishop Nicholas Ridley
Portrait of Bishop Nicholas Ridley

Ridley Hall was named in honour of Bishop Nicholas Ridley, a leading Protestant theologian of the sixteenth century.

Nicholas Ridley came from a prominent family in Tynedale, Northumberland, and was born c.1500. He was educated at the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, and Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he received his Master's degree in 1525. Soon afterward he was ordained as a priest.

He spent a brief period at the Sorbonne in Paris and at Louvain before returning to England around 1529. He became the senior proctor of Cambridge University in 1534 and in 1537 was appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, as one of his chaplains. In April 1538, Cranmer made him vicar of Herne in Kent. In 1540-41, he was made one of the King's Chaplains and Master of Pembroke. In 1543 he was unsuccessfully accused of heresy, although just after his exculpation he finally abandoned the doctrine of transubstantiation.

Ridley was made Bishop of Rochester in 1547, and shortly after coming to office, directed that the altars in the churches of his diocese should be removed, and tables put in their place to celebrate the Lord's Supper. Edward VI was now on the throne and in 1548 he helped Cranmer compile the Book of Common Prayer. As Cranmer's former chaplain, Ridley was moved from Rochester to the then vacant diocese of London in 1550.

Having signed the letters patent settling the English crown on Lady Jane Grey, Ridley, in a sermon preached at St Paul's cross on the 9th of July 1553, affirmed that the princesses Mary and Elizabeth were illegitimate and that the succession of the former would be disastrous to the religious interests of England. When Lady Jane's cause was lost, however, he went to Framlingham to ask Queen Mary's pardon, but he was arrested and sent to the Tower of London.

A reflection on Nicholas Ridley

On 16th October 2019, the Principal of Ridley, Michael Volland gave this short reflection on the life of the martyr:

Podcast: A Reflection on the life of Nicholas Ridley, by the Revd Dr Michael Volland, Principal of Ridley (mp4)

Podcast Transcript

Podcast Transcript

It is the 16th of October and today is the day the Church remembers Nicholas Ridley, bishop, reformer and martyr.

As the Principal of the college named after this humble and courageous follower of Christ, it is a great privilege to reflect briefly on Ridley's life. His story is compelling, but my real aim here is to show that in his life we see something of a signpost pointing to Jesus and encouraging us to love and follow him more closely.

Ridley spent his life striving to know and love Christ. He worked tirelessly to present Jesus clearly to others, so that they might believe in him and by believing have life. There is no more fitting tribute to Ridley than to tell his story with the aim of perceiving Jesus in it, and in perceiving to believe with greater understanding and affection.

Nicholas Ridley was born in Northumberland in or around the year 1500. His family were wealthy and prominent but the area - close to the Scottish border - was wild and ungovernable. The young Ridley grew up familiar with violence and lawlessness. I spent nine years living in the North East and know the area well. I have enjoyed long days walking the places where Ridley spent his early years and have visited isolated bastel houses - essentially large stone towers into which people and livestock would hurry when bands of marauding robbers came along. There is beauty, and there is grim isolation.

Ridley's family were not going to risk their son ending his life in a scrappy defense of the family's cattle, and so Nicholas was sent to school in Newcastle, where he excelled in Latin. In 1518, the year after Luther published his Ninety-Five thesis, the young Ridley came up to Cambridge and devoted himself to a life of learning and worship at Pembroke College.

At Cambridge, Ridley became an outstanding scholar of Latin and Greek. He took his Bachelor of Arts in 1522, and remained at Pembroke to continue his studies, now focussing on Divinity and Philosophy. He took his Master of Arts in 1525 and some time after this - we have no record of the date - he was ordained Priest.

By this point, copies of Luther's works were being secretly circulated in Cambridge and sympathisers with reform were meeting at the White Horse Inn. Latimer initially opposed reform but was eventually won round by Thomas Bilney. Ridley's attitude to reform at the time is not documented, but there is little doubt that he was on the side of authority. By temperament, Ridley was hostile to the whole attitude of the reformers. The views of Bilney, Barnes and Latimer, with their criticisms of the pomp of the Church and their preaching of a simple faith, based on Scripture alone, were democratic and anti-intellectual. This did not appeal to a gifted scholar like Ridley. By instinct, Ridley was not a Protestant. But he was, by the grace of God, a person of robust character. He was humble, committed to intellectual rigour and honesty and to a quest for truth. It was this that eventually led him to a different understanding of church teaching and compelled him to work for reform.

Knowing that Ridley was not a Protestant by instinct gives us more cause to wonder at the slow but profound work of grace that God is able to bring about in a person's heart. I imagine many of the reformers were praying diligently that God would open Ridley's heart and incline him to perceive the truth in matters being given attention. I imagine that many have prayed for me over the years, that God would reveal more of himself to me - his truth, his love - and so enlarge my heart. And I imagine many have prayed for you. Let's be encouraged by the change that God wrought in Ridley, and in ourselves, in order pray for those we know and especially for those who seem far from being able to perceive or receive God's love in Christ.

In 1538, Ridley was given the living of Herne in Kent. During his ministry there, he came into possession of Bertram's Treatise on the Lord's Supper. Ridley had always believed in the literal presence of the body and blood of Christ in the eucharistic elements, understanding that this was the teaching of the Church Fathers. But Bertram's work suggested otherwise, and drove Ridley to study Scripture and the Fathers afresh. His diligent studies led him to believe that the Roman doctrine of the Mass was not scriptural, but blasphemous and dangerous, and when in 1547 he was appointed Bishop of Rochester, he began to implement reforms in doctrine and worship with great diligence and energy.

In 1550, Ridley was appointed Bishop of London. He preached regularly around his see and crowds flocked to hear him. He was eager that his hearers would apprehend Christ in his words. His life too, and particularly his gentle treatment of those who opposed him, reflected the love and grace of God.

In 1553, with the death of King Edward and the accession to the throne of Queen Mary, he was arrested on a charge of treason, and sent to the tower with Cranmer, Latimer and Bradford. The men spent nine months there, and for the last few weeks of these they shared a room. This was a gift of God in the midst of sharing in Christ's sufferings. They had encouraging fellowship and were able to go over the ground on which they would have to take their stand. They pored over the New Testament together, to see if they had missed the way in its teaching on the Lord's Supper. But in the words of a commentator, "They found that the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross was perfect, holy and good, and that God did require none other, nor that it should ever be done again."

Eventually the charge of treason was replaced with the charge of heresy. The trial took the form of an academic disputation at Oxford. There was never any doubt that the result would be condemnation and death by fire. Ridley was given the opportunity to recount the day before his execution. He refused, and on the morning of the 16th of October 1555 he walked to the stake which, like the place of the execution of our Lord Jesus Christ, was set up on waste ground outside the city wall. On the walk to the stake, Ridley is said to have run to greet Latimer and embraced him. They knelt together in prayer, and encouraged one another before Ridley gave away all his outer garments and was chained to the stake.

I was in Oxford recently, visiting Ridley Hall's sister college Wycliffe Hall. On my way back to the train station, I had time to go and look at the martyrs' memorial and, just around the corner, to visit the spot on Broad Street, marked by a brick cross in the road, where Ridley and Latimer were burned at the stake. While I was in Oxford, the sun was shining and tourists were out in large numbers. At the moment at which I came upon the unassuming cross in the middle of the road, it was surrounded by a group of teenage school children absorbed in their phones. No-one appeared to have noticed the cross at their feet. It was my apparently odd behaviour in attempting to take a photo of it that drew their attention, first to me, and then to it.

My behaviour drew attention to the cross that marked the spot where two brave followers of Jesus Christ had given their lives, just as he himself had given up his own life to open the way to life. As my behaviour drew attention to Ridley's memorial cross, so Ridley's behaviour - indeed his whole life - drew attention to the cross of Christ in which he trusted for his salvation.

Bishop Nicholas Ridley has been an example and an encouragement to Christians down the centuries, and he is an example to us today in our own walk of faith. May God grant that we might be inspired by his faithful witness to Jesus Christ, and, being inspired, let us ask God to fill our hearts afresh with his Spirit of love, joy and peace, and to give us the grace to share that love with those we meet each day. In doing so, may our lives, like Ridley's life, point to our great advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous. Amen.

College Archives

The College owns a manuscript letter of 1550 by Nicholas Ridley to Bishop Hooper on the vestments controversy (held at Cambridge University Library), along with first editions of Ridley’s publications and memorabilia. See archives for more information.

First page of Nicholas Ridley's letter to Bishop Hopper: 1550
First page of Nicholas Ridley's letter to Bishop Hopper: 1550