Nicholas Ridley was born circa 1500, in either in Northumberland or Durham. He was sent to school at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. After his initial schooling, he went to Cambridge and later moved to Oxford.
He later went to study in Paris, because the university there was the premier place for the study of Scholastic theology. Apparently, Ridley was not satisfied with what he found in Paris and returned home.
Soon after his return home, he was called to be chaplain to Henry VIII and was soon made bishop of Rochester when Henry Holbeach was transferred to the bishopric of Lincoln. Francis Godwin and John Foxe give differing accounts of his appointment to the Rochester. At any rate, he did not maintain this post for long. He was soon appointed as bishop in London.
He was a devout papist still at this time, but the light began to shine upon him when he read the work of Bertram concerning the sacrament of the Lord’s Table. He slowly began to realize that the teaching of the Reformers accorded with Scripture and with the writings of the Church Fathers.
He was an extremely zealous preacher. He never let an occasion to preach pass him up. Besides that, while he lived with family at Fulham, he read to them daily, prayed with them and lectured out of the New Testament. He was zealous to help his family memorize large portions of Scripture.
Ridley was much like Daniel. His enemies sought for something to accuse him of, but his life was so upright and holy, that they were unable to find anything to blame him of.
He was very committed to prayer and contemplation. He would arise every morning, and as soon as he was dressed he would spend an hour and a half in prayer. He would then begin to read and study. He did this till 10 o’clock. Then he gathered family together for a time of common prayer. After lunch, he frequently played a game or two of chess. This was his only form of recreation. He would then return to his studies unless he had visitors or guests to attend to. Every day at 5, he met again together with his family, or whoever was at home with him for an hour of prayer. He would have dinner after the afternoon prayer. He would then return to his studies until his bedtime of 11 o’clock.
He was noted to have been an exceptionally meek and kind individual. He was never known for partiality or favoritism, even toward family. He worked very diligently, but with much meekness and gentleness to win over papists to the Reformed faith. Indeed, Bonner’s mother (Bonner was the cruel papist archbishop of London that Ridley replaced) was his daily guest at meals and Ridley addressed her “Mother.” He frequently also entertained Bonner’s sister, Mrs. Mungey and her daughter.
Ridley’s condition was comfortable and safe for quite some time. However when Edward VI died, things changed. Prior to Mary’s ascension to the throne, Ridley had preached a sermon against her in favor of Jane. Once Mary came to the throne, she had Ridley imprisoned. She removed him from his bishopric and reinstated Bonner. He was transferred to the Tower of London.
But soon he was moved to Windsor and then to Oxford with Cranmer and Latimer. They were locked up in a prison known to the common people as Bocardo. In one of his letters, Ridley called Bocardo a college of ex-bishops.
After some time of confinement there, an order came down that there should be a disputation between Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer on one side and the Doctors of Divinity from Cambridge and Oxford on the other side. Ridley was assigned to discuss the sacrament of the Lord’s Table, particularly whether he subscribed to the doctrines of the Mass and Transubstantiation. He merely asked for some time and his books to prepare. He was denied both. He was given the charge to defend his position on Saturday, and the disputation was to be held on Tuesday.
The debate was mostly a sham. His opponents constantly interrupted him, changed the subject and hurled insults and accusations against him instead of reasoning and arguing. Cranmer and Latimer received the same treatment. The whole purpose of the debate seemed simply to be to rile up the public’s anger against Ridley and the two others. On Friday the judgment came down that if he were not willing to recant, he would be condemned a heretic. Having refused to recant, he was returned to his place of confinement, where he again was given the chance to recant. The same was done to Latimer and Cranmer.
Ridley was confined in the house of an Irish mayor. This man’s wife was a waspish woman and an extremely devoted papist. She felt that the worse she treated Ridley, the more meritorious it was for her. For whatever reason, the man of the house let his wife have her cruel way with Ridley. Ridley endured all the ill-treatment with much patience and contentment as appears from his correspondence during this time. He remained in this home from April 1554 until September 1555.
At this time, he was taken by the commissioners of Cardinal Pole, the Pope’s legate. They required him to answer several theological questions relating to his previous defense of the Reformed view of the Lord’s Table, as well as some points regarding the Pope’s authority.
Ridley wrote out a lengthy response replete with Scripture and citations from the Church Fathers. When the time came to present his paper, he was not allowed to read it, and only a line or two was actually read out loud. The couple of lines read aloud were condemned as heretical. Ridley informed his accusers that the lines they had just condemned as heresy were sayings of the Fathers. Latimer was baited the same way.
The result of this second dispute was even further excommunication. Ridley was turned over to the civil authorities
On the 16th of October he suffered martyrdom, with Latimer at the stake. They were led out to a ditch on the north side of the city behind Balliol College. The custom of the day was that a sermon be preached at an execution. This day, however, Dr. Smith (who had recanted during Edward’s reign) made a speech that was nothing more than a bitter invective against the two Reformers. The wood pile for Ridley was clumsily assemble, the result of which was, that Ridley suffered for a very long time before the flames finally killed him. As he was burning, Latimer said to him, “Be of good comfort Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle by God grace in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”