England,  ER,  Western Europe

The Death of Thomas Cranmer

Thomas Cranmer Photo Credit- National Portrait Gallery
Thomas Cranmer Photo Credit- National Portrait Gallery

Thomas Cranmer had made many enemies in his tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury.  He had played a major role in the divorce of Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII so Henry could marry Anne Boleyn.  Rome had failed Henry, so he broke with Rome and made Thomas Cranmer his chief churchman.  It had been a long road for the young man born to a family of modest means.

Thomas Cranmer was born in 1489 to Thomas and Agnes Cranmer, a moderately wealthy family but certainly no aristocrats.  He went to Jesus College, Cambridge and gained a Bachelor and Masters of Arts.  He lost his fellowship because he was not ordained, but took vows in 1520 and regained it.  He became a Doctor of Divinity in 1526.

In 1527, he began working with Cardinal Wolsey on the King’s Great Matter and had the idea of polling the opinions of academics throughout Europe instead of concentrating on Rome.  The plan was approved, and in 1529 Thomas was dispatched to the universities of Europe to get their opinions on the King’s marriage.  It was during these travels, Cranmer came into contact with other religious reformers especially Simon Grynaeus, Huldrych Zwingli and the author of the Nuremberg reforms, Andreas Oisander.  Also, on his travels he meets Oisander’s niece, Margarete, and fell for her.  Instead of taking Margarete as a mistress, he married her.  This was a done in secret as it was very much against his vows of celibacy as a priest, however, the Lutheran teachings he was exposed to allowed clergy to marry.

In 1531, the Boleyn family secured his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury.  This was as much as surprise to him as it was to the rest of England.  Cranmer had held small roles in the church previously, but was never thought of as a candidate for Archbishop.  The price for his appointment was called in when in 1533 Anne Boleyn found herself pregnant.  The marriage to Catherine of Aragon had not been officially annulled yet.  The court was opened on May 1,1533 and under Thomas’ leadership the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon was found invalid thirteen days later.  The fact that Henry had already secretly married Anne in January was not withstanding.  The court also found that the Mary Tudor, the daughter of Catherine and Henry, was illegitimate.  That was a slight the future Mary I would never forgive.

Thomas remained the Archbishop throughout the turbulent reign of Henry VIII and survived the storms and Henry wavered between reform and more orthodox Catholic practices.  When Henry died on January 28, 1547, Cranmer held his hand and affirmed him as dying in the faith of Christ.  He described Henry as “the kindest of princes”, a description others would be hard pressed to agree with.  On January 31, 1547, Cranmer was one of the executors of Henry VIII’s will which named Edward Seymour as Lord Protector of the boy king, Edward VI.

Under Henry’s successor and son, Cranmer helped moved the English church further into reform.  The Book of Common Prayer was developed and backed by Parliament under the the Act of Uniformity in 1549.  Much of the Book of Common Prayer was influenced if not directly written by Cranmer.  It is unknown who else helped him write, but Cranmer is given credit for editing and the overall structure of the book.

Thomas Cranmer after Henry VIII's death. His beard symbolized morning for the old King. Photo Credit- Chris Skidmore
Thomas Cranmer after Henry VIII’s death. His beard symbolized morning for the old King. Photo Credit- Chris Skidmore

Unfortunately for the cause of reform, Edward VI was a sickly child and died in 1553.  There was a coup to put Lady Jane Dudley nee Grey on the throne, but she was overthrown after nine days and replaced with Mary Tudor, who became Mary I.  Mary had remained an ardent Catholic and hated the cause of reform.  She also held a personal grudge against Thomas Cranmer as she blamed him for pronouncing her parent’s marriage invalid and her as illegitimate.  It was time to settle the score.  The funeral of Edward VI was done in accordance with the Book of Common prayer, but the old hard line Catholics were being restored to their positions.  Rumors went around that Cranmer authorized mass to be said in Canterbury Cathedral.  He retorted, “… all the doctrine and religion, by our said sovereign lord king Edward VI is more pure and according to God’s word, than any that hath been used in England these thousand years”.  Those were fighting words to the new regime.

In September 1553, Cranmer was taken to the Tower of London under the charge of treason.  He was tried and convicted two months later, but instead of being executed he was sent to Bocardo prison to be put on trial for heresy along with fellow bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley.  He was not executed because he still was technically and archbishop.  In December 1554, that honor was revoked by Rome and now he was fair game to be killed.  In a surprising turn, Cranmer recanted and  reputed his former reformist beliefs.  He “rejoiced to be returning to the Catholic faith”.  This was all supposed to save his life as in Canon Law if he recanted, his life would be spared.  This was not enough for Mary.  She wanted blood.  Whether Cranmer knew this or not is not known, however, on the the date of his final recantation at University Church he gave way.   He recanted his recantations and reaffirmed his beliefs in the reformed church of England.  He declared that his hand would burn first since it had written the recantations.  Then declared, “And as for the pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy, and Antichrist with all his false doctrine.”  He was dragged from the pulpit and his fate was sealed.

Thomas Cranmer was marched out to burn at the stake on March 21, 1556.  As he promised, he plunged his right hand in the heart of the flames calling it an “unworthy hand”.  His last words were “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit… I see the heavens open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”.  Mary had her pound of flesh.


Sources available on request.