Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Frith, John
FRITH, JOHN (1503–1533), protestant martyr, was born in 1503 at Westerham in Kent. During his childhood his parents went to reside at Sevenoaks in the same county, where his father became an innkeeper. He was then sent to Eton, and subsequently became a student at King's College, Cambridge, where he took the degree of B.A. in 1525. A few months afterwards he proceeded to Oxford and was incorporated a member of the university on 7 Dec. in that year, being made one of the junior canons of Cardinal College (afterwards Christ Church), at the instance of the founder, Cardinal Wolsey, who had been attracted by his learning and great abilities. During this year, while in London, Frith made the acquaintance of Tyndal, whom he assisted in translating the New Testament into English (Biog. Brit.) His success in promulgating the views of the reformers was such that the authorities of the university caused him and some of his friends to be imprisoned in the fish cellar of the college. In 1528 he was released at the request of Cardinal Wolsey, on condition that he should not go more than ten miles from Oxford. He went abroad, however, and resided chiefly at the newly founded university of Marburg, where he made the acquaintance of several reformers, particularly of Patrick Hamilton, a translation of whose ‘Places’ was his first publication. He also assisted Tyndal in his literary labours. He appears to have lived abroad about six years, and during this period to have married and had children. There is evidence that while he was in Holland the king (Henry VIII) was ready to provide for him if he would renounce his opinions, but, although in considerable poverty, he refused, and even wrote a work on the doctrine of purgatory, directed against the writings of Bishop Fisher, Sir Thomas More, and Rastell. About the middle of 1532 he returned to England, leaving his wife and family in Holland, and proceeded to Reading, where he either had business, on which he and Tyndal laid some stress, with the prior of Reading, or had expectation of receiving some relief from him. On his arrival at Reading he was set in the stocks as a rogue and vagabond, and only released at the intercession of Leonard Cox [q. v.], the schoolmaster of that town. Frith then went to London. A warrant for his arrest on a charge of heresy was issued by Sir Thomas More, the lord chancellor, and Frith endeavoured to remain in concealment. His movements were, however, closely watched; he was arrested at Milton Shore in Essex when endeavouring to escape to Holland, and conveyed to the Tower. While there he so gained the confidence of the keeper that he was occasionally allowed to leave the prison at night to ‘consult with godly men,’ and to stay at the house of Petit, a wealthy merchant and member of parliament, who was subsequently imprisoned for favouring the views of the reformers. During his imprisonment Frith formulated his views upon the sacrament. He held (1) That the doctrine of the sacrament was not an article of faith to be held under pain of damnation; (2) that Christ's natural body having the properties of our bodies, except as to sin, it was not agreeable to reason that it could be in two or more places at once; (3) that it was not right or necessary to understand Christ's words in the literal sense, but only according to the analogy of scripture; (4) that the sacrament ought only to be received according to the true and right institution of Christ, and not according to the order then used. After the succession of Sir Thomas Audley to the chancellorship, the rigour of Frith's imprisonment was much softened, and it is evident from manuscripts that the authorities were disposed to treat him with much leniency. A tailor named William Holt, under pretence of friendliness for Frith, obtained a copy of his views on the sacrament, and carried it to More, who printed a tract against Frith's opinions. Frith procured a written copy with considerable difficulty, but did not see a printed copy until his examination before the Bishop of Winchester. While in strict confinement, he wrote an able reply, when one of the royal chaplains attacked Frith in a sermon preached before the king. Frith was then, by the king's orders, examined before Audley, the Duke of Suffolk, the Earl of Wiltshire, Bishops Stokesley and Gardner, and Archbishop Cranmer, when, notwithstanding the arguments and persuasions of Cranmer, he remained firm. On the way to Croydon to be examined before the archbishop he was offered the means of escape, but declined to accept them. As Frith refused to recant, the matter was left to the determination of the Bishops of London, Winchester, and Chichester, before whom he appeared at St. Paul's on 20 June 1533. He continued to deny the doctrines of transubstantiation and purgatory, and, having subscribed to his answers, was condemned by the Bishop of London to be burnt as an obstinate heretic. Frith was now handed over to the secular arm and confined in Newgate. Although loaded with chains so that he could neither quite lie down nor stand upright, he occupied himself in writing continually until, on 4 July, he was conveyed to Smithfield and there publicly burnt. He died with great courage, reaffirming his beliefs at the stake. All contemporary writers agree as to his extraordinary abilities, his great learning, his unaffected piety, and his simple life. He was the first of the English martyrs who maintained the doctrine of the sacrament which was subsequently adopted in the Book of Common Prayer.
Frith's chief works are: 1. ‘Fruitful Gatherings of Scripture,’ 12mo, being a translation of Patrick Hamilton's ‘Places,’ n.d. [1529?], printed by William Copeland. This is printed in Foxe's ‘Acts, &c.’ 2. ‘A Pistle to the Christen Reder; the Revelation of Anti-Christ: Anthithesis wherein are compared togeder Christe's Actes and oure Holye Father the Popes,’ 1529, 8vo, black letter; printed by Hans Luft at Malborow (Marburg) in Hesse. This, one of the first anti-papistical books in English, was published under the pseudonym of Richarde Brightwell. The ‘Revelation of Anti-Christ’ was a translation from the German, whether of a book or manuscript, and by whom, is not known. 3. ‘A Disputacion of Purgatorye, diuided into thre bokes: the fyrst boke is an answer unto Rastel, which goeth aboute to proue Purgatorye by Naturall Phylosophye; the second boke answereth unto Sir Thomas More, which laboureth to proue Purgatorye by Scripture; the thyrde boke maketh answere unto my Lorde of Rochestre, which leaneth unto the Doctoures,’ without printer's name, date, or place, but believed to be printed at Marburg in 1531, 12mo; reprinted in London, 1533. This was a reply to Bishop Fisher (? title), More's ‘Supplycacion of Soulys in Purgatory’ (printed in 1529?), and J. Rastell's ‘Boke of Purgatory’ (1530), and was prohibited by proclamation in 1534 (Strype, Ecc. Mon., ed. 1822, i. 418), as were all Frith's works in the reign of Mary (Strype, Parker, ed. 1821, i. 418). 4. ‘A Letter unto Faithfull Folowers of Christ's Gospell,’ no printer's name or place (1532?); reprinted in the collected edition of 1573. 5. ‘A Myrrour or Glasse to Knowe Thyselfe,’ no printer's name, black letter (written in the Tower), 1532?, 8vo; reprinted in 1626 by Boler and Mylbourne, London, as ‘A Mirrour or Glasse to Know Thy Selfe: a briefe instruction to teach a person willingly to die.’ 6. ‘A Boke made by John Fryth, prysoner in the Tower of London, answerynge to M. More's Letter which he wrote agaynst the fyrst lytle Treatyse that John Ffryth made concernynge the Sacramente of the Body and Bloode of Christ,’ printed by Conrade Willems, Munster, 1533, 8vo; reprinted in 1546 by R. Jugge, London; by the same, 1548 (newly corrected); and 1548 by Scoloker & Seres, London (now newly revised), all in black letter. 7. ‘A Myrroure or Lookynge Glasse wherein you may beholde the Sacramente of Baptisme described,’ printed by John Daye, 1533, 8vo, black letter; republished in 1554 as ‘Behold the Sacrament of Baptism described,’ answered by More after Frith's death. 8. ‘Another Boke against Rastell, named the Subsadye or Bulwark to his Furst Boke made by John Frithe, Presoner in the Tower,’ without printer's name, date, or place, 12mo, 1533?, black letter. 9. ‘The Articles wherefore John Frith he Dyed, which he wrote in Newgate the 23 day of June 1533,’ London, 1548, 12mo, black letter. 10. ‘His Judgment upon Will Tracey of Todington in Glocestershire, his Testament,’ 1531 (printed 1535), title from Wood's ‘Athnenæ Oxon.’ i. 74 (ed. 1813).
A volume, ‘Vox Piscis, or the Book Fish,’ containing three treatises: ‘A Preparation to the Cross,’ ‘A Mirrour or glasse to know thyselfe,’ and ‘A Brief Instruction to teach a person willingly to die,’ was said to have been found in a codfish in Cambridge market in 1626, was subsequently printed by Boler and Mylbourne, and is stated in the preface to be by Frith. Ussher (Letters, Nos. 100, 101) ascribes it to Richard Tracie (see Fuller, Worthies, Gloucestershire, ed. 1811, i. 384). ‘An Admonition or Warning that the Faithful Christians in London &c. may auoid God's Vengeance,’ &c., Wittonburge, 1554, N. Dorcaster, 8vo, although it bears the name of John Knokes, is believed to be by Frith. ‘The Testament of Master W. Tracie, Esquire, expounded both by W. Tindall and John Frith,’ &c., 1535, printed at Antwerp without printer's name, in black letter, is also partially by Frith.
Frith's works were published by Foxe in 1573 as ‘The whole Works of W. Tyndall, John Frith, and Doct. Barnes, three worthy Martyrs and principall Teachers of this Church of England, collected and compiled in one tome together, beying before scattered, and now in print here exhibited to the Church. To the prayse of God and profite of all good Christian readers,’ London, fol., black letter. Another edition was published by Russell in 1631.[Wood's Athenæ Oxon., ed. Bliss, i. 74; Cooper's Athenæ Cantabr. i. 47; Foxe's Acts and Monuments, v. 6; Fuller's Ch. Hist. (Brewer), iii. 85; Cranmer's Works (Cox), ii. 246; Middleton's Eccl. Biog. i. 123; Russell's Works of Engl. Reformers, vol. iii.; Anderson's Annals of the English Bible, vol. iii.; State Papers, Dom. Henry VIII, vii. 302, 490; Archæologia, xviii. 81; Notes and Queries, 4th ser. viii. 28.]