Frith: His Final Year
Dr. Herbert Samworth
RETURNS TO ENGLAND
1532, Frith returned to England. There was speculation he came to
assist the Prior of the Reading Monastery to escape to the European
mainland. Regardless of the exact reason, he was arrested as a vagrant
and because he would not identify himself, he was put into prison.
After nearly starving to death, Frith finally requested to see Leonard
Cox, a schoolmaster and friend from college days. Cox was amazed
to find a supposed vagabond capable of conversing fluently in Latin
and Greek and managed to secure his release.
it became known that Frith was back in England and the authorities
began a search for him. Frith and the Prior managed to evade the
spies for a time, but before they could secure passage to return
to the European mainland, they were recognized and imprisoned in
the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Thomas Cromwell, the Lord Chancellor,
managed to have Frith kept in the Tower of London as a prisoner
of the Crown. By this means, Frith was kept from the control of
John Stokesley, the newly appointed Bishop of London.
following months, Frith was busy writing tracts that defended liberty
of thought. He was convinced that people should not be coerced against
their will. These tracts include A Letter unto the Faithful
Followers of Christ's Gospel and A Mirror or Glass to Know
continued to write against the existence of Purgatory. In his book
against the teachings of More, Fisher, and Rastell, Frith issued
a challenge that if his book did not answer the questions definitively,
he welcomed a response. More and Fisher ignored this challenge,
but John Rastell, More's brother-in-law, replied to Frith. In his
book, A Bulwark against Rastell, Frith wrote in such a
convincing manner that Rastell was won completely to the Evangelical
faith. John Bale added that he never wavered and continued to uphold
the true faith until his death.
WRITINGS ON THE EUCHARIST
the next production of Frith's pen brought more serious charges
against him. To write against the doctrine of Purgatory was serious,
but now Frith attacked the doctrine of transubstantiation or the
teaching that the elements of the Lord's Supper actually become
the body and blood of the Lord. Frith adopted the basic position
of Oecolampidus and Zwingli who believed the Lord's Supper was a
memorial of the Lord's death. They denied the real presence of the
Lord in the Eucharist. This belief was against the Roman Church's
teaching regarding the Mass and its efficacy.
his ideas about the Eucharist with a number of his friends. One
of them asked him to put these teachings in writing because he was
unable to follow Frith's arguments without a manuscript to guide
him. Frith was reluctant to do this but his friend's importunity
won him over. Unfortunately a copy of what Frith wrote fell into
the hands of Sir Thomas More before the end of 1532.
More had resigned the post of Lord Chancellor in May 1532 because
of his disagreement with Henry's divorce, he remained very interested
in the course of the English reforming movement.
At the time
when Frith's manuscript came into his hands, More was preparing
to write against Frith's teaching on Purgatory. Recognizing that
the doctrine of the Eucharist, or the Mass, was of greater importance,
More set aside his work on Purgatory and began a rebuttal of Frith's
teaching. However, More was concerned lest what he wrote would reach
the public. His official reason was that it would cause confusion
among those who were not capable of discerning theological differences.
However, the true reason was that More's treatise was very weak
theologically and he did not wish Frith to see it. More had his
work printed privately and the circulation was limited.
Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, examined Frith on December
26, 1532, Frith knew nothing of More's book. Gardiner had been Frith's
tutor when Frith had been a student at Cambridge University. Despite
the radical differences in belief between the two men, Gardiner
treated Frith kindly in an effort to win him back to the Catholic
faith. When Gardiner reproached Frith for writing against the Sacrament
of the Mass, he held a copy of More's book before him but would
not permit him to read it.
the Tower, and with some difficulty, Frith managed to secure a copy
of More's book and set about to answer it. Before he had finished
the work, Frith received a letter from William Tyndale exhorting
him to remain true to the faith. Although Tyndale was unaware that
Frith had written on the subject of the Eucharist, he warned Frith
not to meddle with the doctrine as it would cause division. Already
in the Protestant ranks, there had been disagreement at the Colloquy
of Marburg in 1529 when Luther rejected Zwingli's interpretation
of the Eucharist. Tyndale was concerned that this could lead to
a fracturing of the Protestants. Tyndale believed that nothing should
be written on the subject until Frith's case was decided.
letter came too late to guide Frith in his first treatise, he made
ample use of it in his Answer to Sir Thomas More. Although
Frith respected Tyndale highly, he had already stated his beliefs
on the Eucharist in writing and could not withdraw them.
In his second
book on the Eucharist, Frith not only denied the doctrine of transubstantiation,
he went further and stated that even if it were true, the doctrine
should not be maintained as an essential article of faith. He argued
that denying that the elements of the Eucharist become the body
and blood of the Lord could condemn a person. However, what could
condemn him was the absence of Christ from his heart due to his
unbelief. Frith treated the belief of transubstantiation as indifferent.
One could believe the doctrine as long as no idolatry was attached
to the Church Fathers in proof of his position. Despite not having
access to his books, he was able to quote them accurately and in
context. He was convinced that More did not have the support of
the Church Father but followed the Eucharistic teachings of "certain
new fellows" such as John Duns Scotus and other scholastic
theologians. Frith's Answer to Sir Thomas More was smuggled
out of the Tower of London and across the English Channel to Antwerp,
although it was not printed until after his death.
It is nearly
impossible to overstress the impact that Frith's teaching on the
Eucharist had on the official teaching of the Church of England.
He was the first Englishman to address the doctrine and seek to
explain it in a systematic way. Although at the time of Frith's
imprisonment, Thomas Cranmer was not of Frith's persuasion, he later
adopted Frith's point of view. Frith's teaching received official
acceptance in the Communion Office in the 1552 edition of the Book
of Common Prayer. Indeed, we can go so far as to say that the
Marian martyrs went to their deaths for holding John Frith's view
of the Eucharist. Such was the impact that this little work of sixty
three folio pages, composed secretly in the Tower of London and
smuggled to Antwerp, had on the English Reformation.
TRIAL, CONDEMNATION AND DEATH
In the meantime
Frith was 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 was kept busy writing tracts to
encourage those who were facing difficult times. They included 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. The titles of the books demonstrate
Frith's personal courage and his attempts to support those who were
facing imminent death.
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 held these erroneous doctrines but
nothing was being done about it.
VIII ordered Cranmer and Cromwell to arrange a trial for Frith.
Although both men sought to save him, it soon became apparent that
Frith would have to stand trial before 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 and 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 sought to leave England before.
Apparently 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
At the end
of May, Tyndale addressed another letter to Frith. It was a foregone
conclusion 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:
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. 
20, 1533, Frith appeared before Stokesley, Gardiner, and 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.
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.
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 to persuade Frith and Hewet to recant
but they were unable to persuade them.
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."
was in his thirtieth year when he died. How much more he could 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 liberty of conscience and the doctrine
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.
courage and example of John Frith spur us to live faithfully for
the Lord in these days!
1. John Foxe, Acts and Monuments, Volume 5, New York: AMS
Press, 1968, p.132.