FRITH (or Fryth), JOHN (c. 1503–1533), English Reformer and Protestant martyr, was born at Westerham, Kent. He was educated at Eton and King’s College, Cambridge, where Gardiner, afterwards bishop of Winchester, was his tutor. At the invitation of Cardinal Wolsey, after taking his degree he migrated (December 1525) to the newly founded college of St Frideswide or Cardinal College (now Christ Church), Oxford. The sympathetic interest which he showed in the Reformation movement in Germany caused him to be suspected as a heretic, and led to his imprisonment for some months. Subsequently he appears to have resided chiefly at the newly founded Protestant university of Marburg, where he became acquainted with several scholars and reformers of note, especially Patrick Hamilton (q.v.). Frith’s first publication was a translation of Hamilton’s Places, made shortly after the martyrdom of its author; and soon afterwards the Revelation of Antichrist, a translation from the German, appeared, along with A Pistle to the Christen Reader, by “Richard Brightwell” (supposed to be Frith), and An Antithesis wherein are compared togeder Christes Actes and our Holye Father the Popes, dated “at Malborow in the lande of Hesse,” 12th July 1529. His Disputacyon of Purgatorye, a treatise in three books, against Rastell, Sir T. More and Fisher (bishop of Rochester) respectively, was published at the same place in 1531. While at Marburg, Frith also assisted Tyndale, whose acquaintance he had made at Oxford (or perhaps in London) in his literary labours. In 1532 he ventured back to England, apparently on some business in connexion with the prior of Reading. Warrants for his arrest were almost immediately issued at the instance of Sir T. More, then lord chancellor. Frith ultimately fell into the hands of the authorities at Milton Shore in Essex, as he was on the point of making his escape to Flanders. The rigour of his imprisonment in the Tower was somewhat abated when Sir T. Audley succeeded to the chancellorship, and it was understood that both Cromwell and Cranmer were disposed to show great leniency. But the treacherous circulation of a manuscript “lytle treatise” on the sacraments, which Frith had written for the information of a friend, and without any view to publication, served further to excite the hostility of his enemies. In consequence of a sermon preached before him against the “sacramentaries,” the king ordered that Frith should be examined; he was afterwards tried and found guilty of having denied, with regard to the doctrines of purgatory and of transubstantiation, that they were necessary articles of faith. On the 23rd of June 1533 he was handed over to the secular arm, and at Smithfield on the 4th of July following he was burnt at the stake. During his captivity he wrote, besides several letters of interest, a reply to More’s letter against Frith’s “lytle treatise”; also two tracts entitled A Mirror or Glass to know thyself, and A Mirror or Looking-glass wherein you may behold the Sacrament of Baptism.
Frith is an interesting and so far important figure in English ecclesiastical history as having been the first to maintain and defend that doctrine regarding the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, which ultimately came to be incorporated in the English communion office. Twenty-three years after Frith’s death as a martyr to the doctrine of that office, that “Christ’s natural body and blood are in Heaven, not here,” Cranmer, who had been one of his judges, went to the stake for the same belief. Within three years more, it had become the publicly professed faith of the entire English nation.
See A. à Wood, Athenae Oxonienses (ed. P. Bliss, 1813), i. p. 74; John Foxe, Acts and Monuments (ed. G. Townshend, 1843–1849), v. pp. 1-16 (also Index); G. Burnet, Hist. of the Reformation of the Church of England (ed. N. Pocock, 1865), i. p. 273; L. Richmond, The Fathers of the English Church, i. (1807); Life and Martyrdom of John Frith (London, 1824), published by the Church of England Tract Society; Deborah Alcock, Six Heroic Men (1906).