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Thomas Cranmer

Written by Jim Godfrey, posted on Wednesday, October 2, 2019


Illustration of Thomas Cranmer by Jim GodfreyCranmer was a prime architect of the English Reformation. His two versions of the Book of Common Prayer (1549 and 1552) helped establish a new form of Anglican worship, and his death during the reign of Mary Tudor saw him lauded as a protestant martyr


Cranmer the scholar

Thomas Cranmer was born on 2 July 1489 at Aslockton, Nottinghamshire, the son of a poor village squire. He entered Jesus College, Cambridge in 1503, becoming a fellow in 1510 but had to give up the appointment when he married his first wife, Joan. After her death in childbirth he resumed his post.

Like many Cambridge academics, Cranmer found himself in sympathy with church reformers on the continent. Being of an amiable and sensitive disposition he may well have been content to live the life of an obscure scholar, but chance and the King’s desire to end his marriage with Catherine of Aragon, were to catapult him to international prominence. During an outbreak of sweating sickness Cranmer left Cambridge for Waltham where he met two of Henry VIII’s chief advisers, Edward Fox and Stephen Gardiner, who were impressed by his theological arguments in favour of the King’s divorce.

They presented him to Henry who had him dispute with theologians from Oxford and Cambridge on the illegality in canon law of his marriage to Catherine, his brother’s widow. Cranmer earned Henry’s gratitude, but also the implacable enmity of Catherine’s supporters, including her daughter Mary.


Archbishop Cranmer

In 1532 Cranmer was married a second time, to Margaret, daughter of a Lutheran scholar. The following year Henry arranged for him to become Archbishop of Canterbury, though due to Henry’s disapproval of ecclesiastical marriages, he was forced to send his wife into hiding. This continued until the reign of Edward VI when he was able to live openly with her again.

In his role as Archbishop, Cranmer presided over the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine, the trial of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s divorce from Anne of Cleves, and the trial and execution of Catherine Howard. He also oversaw the dissolution of the monasteries, and though he was uneasy about this, he supported the King, taking the blame from those who opposed the policy.

Throughout Henry’s reign England remained essentially a Catholic country (albeit outside the control of the Pope from 1534, when Henry declared himself supreme head of the Church of England), but it was during the reign of Henry’s young son, Edward VI (educated by protestant tutors), that Cranmer was able to put in place his own version of sensible protestant reform. This included a new translation of the Bible into English, and, in 1549, the Book of Common Prayer (revised in 1552). The prayer books are regarded as Cranmer’s greatest work, combining as they do his great scholarship with a genius for the English language. Modified in 1662, his Prayer Book remains the official doctrinal standard of the Church of England and of most other Churches in the worldwide Anglican Communion.


Cranmer the Martyr

Cranmer’s reforms ended when Mary came to the throne in 1552. She blamed him for her mother’s disgrace and quickly had him tried and sentenced to death for treason. The sentence, however, was not carried out, and he was tried anew (in Oxford) for heresy. One of the judges was the Bishop of Oxford, Robert King. Under immense moral pressure Cranmer recanted, reaffirming the authority of the Pope and the real presence of Christ in the Mass.

Despite Cranmer’s recantations he was nonetheless convicted of heresy and burnt at the stake in Broad Street, on 21 March 1556, on the same spot as two other protestant bishops, Latimer and Ridley, five months earlier. In the University Church just before his death however, Cranmer dramatically withdrew his recantations. His final words at the stake, as he held out his right hand to the flames, were ‘forasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished’.


At Christ Church, Cranmer lodged briefly in the Deanery in December 1555 as respite from the town gaol, and it was in the chancel of the Cathedral that the papal sentence was read out against him on 14 February 1556. The same day he was formally stripped of his vestments in the Cathedral cloister.