John Frith – Part 4

FRITH’S TRIAL, CONDEMNATION AND DEATH

Meanwhile, Frith continued to be held as a state prisoner in the Tower of London. As long as he remained in this position, he was safe from Stokesley, the Bishop of London, and Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester, who wished to send him to the stake. Frith kept occupied by writing tracts to encourage those who were facing difficult times. They included Tracey’s Testament, Letter from the Tower, Mirror to Know Thyself, and others.

In addition to the above, there were other epistles including The Treasury of Knowledge, Vox Picis, A Brief Instruction to teach a Person willingly to die, and The Preparation to the Cross and to Death that have been attributed to Frith although it is uncertain if he was the author. However, the titles of the books demonstrate Frith’s personal courage and his attempts to support those who were facing imminent death.

Thomas Cranmer managed to keep Frith in the Tower of London for six months. However, Gardiner was not content to leave the situation alone. He persuaded one of the Court Chaplains to speak on the subject of the Eucharist before Henry VIII. In his message the Chaplain spoke of the troubles then engulfing England and the reason for them. He traced them back to the heretical teaching regarding the Eucharist. The Chaplain stated that even at that very time there was an individual being held in the Tower of London who taught these erroneous doctrines but nothing was being done about it.

King Henry VIII then ordered Cranmer to have Frith placed on trial. Although Cranmer sought to save him, it became apparent that Frith would have to stand trial before John

Stokesley. There was little doubt that he would be condemned. Cranmer even went so far as to arrange an informal trial at his home in Croydon to give Frith a chance to escape, but Frith refused to take advantage of this kindly offer. Many have questioned why Frith refused to escape when he had the chance to do so since he had sought to leave England before. Frith had come to the conclusion that it had been lawful for him to leave England before he had gone on record concerning his beliefs about the Eucharist. But now that he had written on the subject, it was the Lord’s will for him to defend what he had written.

At the end of May, Tyndale addressed another letter to Frith. It was a foregone con-clusion that Frith could not be saved and Tyndale wrote to encourage him to remain faithful. In the letter Tyndale encouraged Frith to look to the Lord for strength to endure the trial. Note his words:

If the pain be above your strength, remember, whatsoever ye shall ask in My Name, I will give it you. And pray to your Father in that Name, and He shall ease your pain or shorten it. 1

On June 20, 1533, Frith appeared before John Stokesley, Stephen Gardiner, and John Longland, the Bishop of Lincoln, at St. Paul’s Cathedral. There were two articles against Frith. The first dealt with his denial of Purgatory. Frith maintained that the sinner is purged through the effect of the Word of God. The second charge was more serious because Frith denied that the elements of the Eucharist, the bread and the wine, became the very or true body of the Lord. Frith maintained that a denial of this doctrine could not hurt the conscience in any way. The outcome of the trial was a foregone conclusion. Frith was declared to be a heretic and, because he would not recant, he was sentenced to death by burning.

However, Frith was not to die alone. The friend to whom he had originally addressed his treatise on the Eucharist was also sentenced to die with him. His name was Andrew Hewet and he worked as a tailor in London. He also was tried before the three ecclesiastical officials and refused to deny his beliefs. On several occasions he stated that he believed the same as Frith. When threatened with death by fire, he merely stated that he would go to the stake for his convictions.

There was one final letter that Frith wrote that is dated June 23, 1533 just eleven days before he died. He closed the letter with these words, “It is true that I lay in irons when I write this.” Gardiner sent two or three messengers in an attempt to persuade Frith and Hewet to recant but they were unsuccessful.

On July 4, 1533 John Frith and Andrew Hewet were led out to Smithfield where they were bound back to back. The fire was lit and Hewet was the first to die. During the terrible ordeal Frith remained constant. John Bale commented on his courage when he wrote, “John Frith never showed himself once grieved in countenance.”

John Frith was in his thirtieth year when he died. How much more he would have accomplished for the cause of the reformation in England is impossible to state. As it was, his contributions were great. Perhaps his two greatest were his writings on the liberty of conscience and the doctrine of transubstantiation.

But he spoke more eloquently by his death. His steadfast courage in holding firm to what he believed spoke of his constancy in the face of certain death. He had the opportunity to escape his captors and return overseas, but he chose to honor his word so that no reproach would come on those who profess that the life to come has greater value than what life on earth can provide.

May the courage and example of John Frith spur us to live faithfully for the Lord in these Days in which we live!


1 John Foxe, Acts and Monuments, Volume 5, (New York: AMS Press, 1968), p. 132.

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