It was a cold, frosty February morning. Saturday 9th February 1555 to be precise. For many of the people in Gloucester that morning it was just a normal market day. Traders and their customers from the city and throughout the county of Gloucestershire had gathered, as they did twice a week, every week, to buy and sell their wares. But on this particular Saturday the crowd was even larger than normal, numbering some 7,000 people. Many had come because they had heard news that an execution was to take place, a burning at the stake no less. Some had gathered out of idle curiosity, wondering what it might look like for a man to be burnt alive. Others had a more personal reason to assemble, drawn perhaps by love or hatred of the victim.
For this was no ordinary execution. This wasn’t some ordinary petty thief or hardened criminal. The victim today was to be a distinguished churchmen, an eminent theologian, and a beloved pastor. The victim today was John Hooper, Bishop of both Gloucester and Worcester.
Many of the assembled throng would have known Hooper personally and would no doubt have been shocked by the tragic figure that Hooper presented that morning as he was led from his friend’s house in a borrowed gown, using a staff for support. He had spent the last seventeen months in close confinement in Fleet prison where the poor standards had caused a rapid deterioration in his health.
The stake had been placed close to the cathedral. As Hooper walked to his place of execution, he was seen to be smiling, surprising to some who had known him since he was generally known for his severity. From time to time he looked up to the skies. Arriving at the stake, he knelt and prayed for some thirty minutes.
His prayer was interrupted when a representative of the queen placed a book on a stool in front of him. The box contained a full pardon from the queen, which, if he made a full confession, could be his. Hooper refused, and shouted out twice, “if you love my soul, away with it!”
Hooper continued his prayer, concluding with the words, “O Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit; thou hast redeemed me, O God of truth. Lord, have mercy on me; Christ, have mercy upon me; Lord, have mercy upon me.”
Hooper was stripped to just his shirt, which he tucked between his legs. The guards moved forward to fasten him to the stake around his neck, waist and legs, but Hooper told them that he had no doubt that God would give him the strength to withstand the flames, so he was simply fastened around his waist.
Reeds were brought for the fire, and Hooper indicated where they should be put in order to start the fire. Faggots were used to kindle the fire, but unfortunately were wet and took a while to flame. When the flames did start the wind blew them away from Hooper, leaving him only mildly burned.
A second fire was started but similarly failed.
Finally a third fire was started with rather more strength. Hooper’s body underwent gruesome disfigurement. Hooper cried out, “Lord Jesus, have mercy upon my soul!” until he lost the ability to speak. He beat his breast until he was unable to do so any more.
Finally, after forty five minutes in the flames, Hooper quietly died.
Hooper’s horrifically gruesome yet brave death clearly leaves us many questions to ponder. Most significantly, how does the situation arise where one of the country’s leading churchmen is so hideously executed. Indeed, he was by no means the only one, as we will hear about in the coming weeks.
Hooper was born in Somerset around 1495, during the reign of Henry VII. Little is known of his early life, but it is thought that he entered Merton College, Oxford, in 1514 at the age of nineteen. On completion of his degree, Hooper may have become a monk, first at the Cistercian Monastery of Old Cleve in Somerset, and then at another Cistercian monastery in Gloucester. He left the monastic life, however, and seems to have taken a post at Oxford University.
It seems to be around this point in his life that Hooper began to embrace the new Protestant ideas that were flowing from mainland Europe. Hooper has written that it was as a consequence of reading the writings of Zwingli as well as commentaries on Paul’s letters in the New Testament that led to his conversion. From this point Hooper became renowned for his Protestant ideas.
It was whilst working at Oxford that his religious ideas first got him into trouble. A known supporter of the Reformation, he was forced to leave the university in 1539, whereupon he became steward and chaplain to Sir Thomas Arundel.
Whilst working for Arundel his ideas once again brought him difficulty. Arundel wrote to Bishop Gardiner, a senior figure in the church and the royal court, and asked him to “do his chaplain some good.” Gardiner found he couldn’t alter Hooper’s views, however, and he was sent back to Arundel.
Soon after, Hooper began to fear for his life, and fled to Europe, where he spent the next nine years, initially in Strasbourg, then Bale, and finally Zurich. No doubt this was a time of intellectual and spiritual development for Hooper, whose Protestant views were reinforced by spending time with many of Europe’s leading reformers. Around 1546 he also married a noble Burgundian lady named Anna de Tzerclas.
Meanwhile in England, enormous changes were taking place within the Church. Although Henry had nominally made a Break from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534 and established himself as Head of the Church of England, his was only a nominal Protestantism, an expedient used to shore up his own power and finances, and of course, enable him to divorce his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon.
When he died in 1547 and Edward VI succeeded to the throne, the Church of England begun to take on a considerably more Protestant nature. Hooper initially observed these changes from afar, nevertheless excited that his home country was finally the rejecting the Catholicism that he considered so corrupt, and was embracing Protestantism. Hooper decided that it was his duty to return home to support the Protestant Reformation in England. He arrived in in London in May 1549.
Since Edward was only nine when he became king, England was governed by a regency council, initially led by his uncle, Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset.
Soon after Hooper’s arrival in London, he was appointed Chaplain to Somerset. He established himself as a leading Protestant figure, and preached twice a day drawing huge crowds.
In 1550 Hooper was nominated to become Bishop of Gloucester. This immediately led to controversy, since Hooper refused to accept the position. Specifically he refused to take the oath that bishops traditionally took at their consecration on the grounds that it was unscriptural. He also refused to wear the bishop’s vestments, believing them to be a remnant of the Catholic tradition.
Hooper was sent to prison, since his grounds for rejecting the post were technically a breach of the 1549 Act of Uniformity. Eventually a compromise was reached. Hooper agreed to wear the vestments on certain public occasions, and the objectionable words in the oath were struck out by the king. Hooper was released from prison and consecrated Bishop of Gloucester on March 8th 1551.
Hooper proved to be a very active bishop and took to preaching throughout his diocese at least three or four times a day. He was soon made Bishop of Worcester in addition to Gloucester.
Hooper was concerned about the state of the clergy in his diocese, who he regarded as both ignorant and hostile to the doctrines of the Reformation. He drew up a list of fifty Articles that he required every minister to agree to.
The laity in his diocese also proved troubling to Hooper. In one instance Sir Anthony Kingston, a leading citizen in Gloucester, was called to appear before Hooper on a charge of adultery, and was severely reprimanded. He replied with abusive language and violence. Hooper reported the case to the Privy Council who fined Kingston the enormous sum of £500.
This particular incident had a happy ending, however, since Kingston, inspired by Hooper’s teaching, gave his life to Christ and subsequently counselled Hooper on the morning of his execution.
The situation for Hooper changed significantly in July 1553 when Edward VI died. He was succeeded by his Catholic half sister Mary, who quickly made it her mission to rid England of its Protestantism, and restore the country to Catholicism.
Hooper was renowned as one of the leading champions of Protestant ideas, and was warned by his friends that he was likely to be in danger. He refused to flee the country, however, saying that he was called to this place and vocation.
On 29th August Hooper appeared before Mary’s council, and on 1st September he was sent as a prisoner to Fleet Prison, where he remained until his execution.
So what was it that Mary found so unpalatable about Hooper’s ideas?
Hooper had always been a key proponent of Protestant ideas. In particular he believed in the central importance of the Bible as the source of God’s Holy Word, and felt that any religious ideas that were not, in his words, ‘duly and justly supported by the authority of God’s Word,’ were contrary to Christian teaching. This placed him in direct opposition to the Catholic idea of the primacy of the Pope.
Hooper also believed very strongly that justification can only come about by faith in Jesus Christ, and not by works.
Another crucial element of his belief was that communion is a remembrance and commemoration of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Central to this was his opposition to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, which suggests that the bread and the wine in some sense become the body and blood of Jesus.
Ultimately he was condemned to death for believing that priests should have the right to marry, and for denying the doctrine of the transubstantiation of the bread and wine.
As we have seen, right up to the point of the fire being lit when he was at the stake, Hooper refused to acknowledge the truth of Catholic doctrine. He was willing to die for his beliefs. He saw the Catholic tradition as deceitful, dishonest, and actually opposed to the true Christian message of the sufficiency of Christ’s death on the cross for the salvation of mankind. He believed that Catholic doctrines were leading people away from a true, Biblically-based Christianity, which would only result in the condemnation of the souls of ordinary people. This was, quite literally, a life or death scenario for Hooper.
So what lessons are there for us to learn from John Hooper, Bishop of Gloucester and Worcester?
Hooper’s bravery, his dedication to Biblical Christianity, and his willingness to hold to these views, even in the face of a particularly gruesome death should certainly make us stop and think.
How much importance do we place on the teaching of God’s Word in the Bible? Do we think that the Word of God is of primary importance in our lives? Do we share his passion for studying God’s Word, for listening to what it is saying to us, and for sharing it with others?
Do we share Hooper’s conviction that the only way to enter God’s kingdom is through trusting in the sufficiency of Christ’s death and resurrection?
These are the truths that Hooper stood for, and ultimately, gave his life for. Would we have the courage to stand firm against powerful opponents threatening us with death? Is ours a faith that could hold up against prison, torture and execution?
Perhaps more prosaically, is our trust in God of sufficient strength that whenever we face difficulties or challenges in our lives our first instinct is to call out to God for support and guidance, to place our trust in him to stand with us in the face of hardship, and to commit our futures to him?
Certainly food for thought as we move through this period of Lenten reflection.
Listen to audio of this talk here (from 36:54).