John Fryth (1503-1533)
Protestant Priest, Martyr and Writer
John Fryth (aka Frith) was an important contributor to the Christian debate on persecution and toleration in favour of the principle of Religious toleration.
He was born at Westerham in 1503 in the house that still stands at the gates of St Mary’s church (where he was later baptised). Now known as “Church Gate”, at the time it was the White Horse Inn whose innkeeper was Richard Fryth, John’s father.
Whilst he was still a child his parents moved to Sevenoaks where his father became an innkeeper. John was sent to Eton and then on to King’s College Cambridge where he took his BA degree in 1525.
From Cambridge, John Fryth was invited to become a junior canon at Cardinal College Oxford (Christ Church). This invitation came from Cardinal Wolsey who had been attracted by his learning and great abilities.
Fryth met William Tyndale in London and assisted him in translating the New Testament into English. His success in putting forward the views of the reformers resulted in the college authorities locking him in the College fish cellar.
He was released in 1528 on condition that he did not travel more than 10 miles from Oxford. However, he proceeded to go abroad – spending much of the time at the newly founded University of Marburg. He stayed abroad for about six years. Whilst abroad he married and had children.
There is evidence that whilst he was in Marburg, Henry VIII sent an envoy promising that he would provide for John Fryth and his family on condition that he would renounce his opinions. Despite the fact that he was in considerable financial difficulties he refused and proceeded to write an article against the doctrine of purgatory.
In mid-1532, John Fryth returned to England on behalf of Tyndale. He went to see the Prior of Reading but on his arrival was promptly put in the stocks as a ‘rogue and vagabond’. He was released after the intercession of the local schoolmaster.
On his release, Fryth went to London. A warrant for his arrest on a charge of heresy was issued by Sir Thomas More. Although he tried to escape, Fryth was caught and imprisoned in the Tower. He so gained the confidence of the Prison Keeper that he was occasionally allowed to leave the Tower at night to ‘consult with godly men’.
Whilst in the Tower he did his greatest work. He formulated the doctrine of the sacrament of Holy Communion which was later adopted as the official doctrine of the Church of England.
John Fryth was examined by the Archbishop of Canterbury (Cranmer) and also given the opportunity to escape to Holland. He refused. He was tried before the Bishops of London, Chichester and Winchester on the charge of heresy. He refused to recant of his views and was sentenced to be burnt at the stake as an ‘obstinate heretic’.
John Fryth died at Smithfield on 4th July 1533 still affirming his beliefs.
Back to Local Historical Figures