Thomas Cranmer

An Early Reformer

Born in 1489 in Aslockton, England, Cranmer’s early life was far from the grandeur of the royal court. He studied for the priesthood at Cambridge University but lost his fellowship in the College of Jesus when he married.  When his wife and child, died at childbirth within a year, Jesus College at Cambridge restored the Fellowship. He was ordained as a priest and threw himself into his further studies, becoming an outstanding theologian. In 1520, he joined a group of scholars – “Little Germany” – who met regularly to discuss Luther’s new theology. William Tyndale, who would later translating the Bible into English, was also part of the group.  By 1525, Cranmer had accepted many of beliefs of other church reformers, including Luther.  It’s unlikely that many knew of his Reform convictions, being a cautious man in a country whose king and the majority of its citizens were traditional Catholics.

Henry VIII learned that Cranmer, a respected theologian, was convinced that Henry could receive an annulment to his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.  Henry directed. Cranmer to write a formal paper in the king’s interest, proposing the annulment and defending it by arguments from Scripture, the early church Fathers, and the decrees of general councils.  In 1530, he was part of a legation sent to Rome to make the case.  They failed. Even so, Cranmer remained in the king’s favor.  Henry, through Thomas Cromwell, proceeded to enact Parliament Acts to put pressure on the Pope to relent and grant the annulment. In 1531, The Convocations of Canterbury and York, the English Church’s legislative body, granted Henry VIII the title of “singular protector, supreme lord, and even, so far as the law of Christ allows, supreme head of the English church and clergy.” The action subjugated the English clergy to Henry and ended monetary payments to Rome.

In 1532, following the death of William Warham, Henry appointed Cranmer as the archbishop of Canterbury. even though he had never served as a bishop. In 1533, all ecclesiastical appeals to Rome were prohibited, which permitted the divorce case to be settled in England.
Shortly thereafter, Archbishop Cranmer declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon null and void and, two weeks later, declared his marriage to Anne Boleyn legal.   In 1534, Cromwell as able to pass the Act of Supremacy formally declaring Henry as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. His daughter Elizabeth required a second Act of Supremacy in 1559.  Those unwilling to swear an oath recognizing Henry’s position were considered treasonous and subject to execution. Sir Thomas More was one of those executed. As a consequence of the   unprecedented constitutional revolution, the entire church and clergy were now subject to royal control. papal authority ended in England, as did the country’s centuries of union with the rest of Latin Christendom.  Shortly thereafter, Cromwell and Cranmer dissolved the monasteries were dissolved and claimed their properties.  As part of a campaign to end the veneration of saints, England’s greatest saint’s shrine, to St. Thomas Becket, was destroyed in 1538.

Cranmer and Henry VIII

What became known in history as the Henrician Reformation was not a religious Reformation, but political. While Cromwell and Cranmer cautiously exploited opportunities to further Protestant religious aims in the wake of the Act of Supremacy, Henry remained a devout Catholic throughout his life and reign. Aware of the controversies between the reformers and traditional Catholics, he had Parliament pass the Six Articles Act of 1539, affirming many doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church at odds with the Protestant positions:

  1. transubstantiation,
  2.  Communion with bread alone,
  3. Clerical vows of chastity,
  4. Legitimacy of traditional votive masses,
  5. Necessity for clerical celibacy, and
  6. Necessity of maintaining the sacrament of Confession.

The assertion of clerical celibacy was especially troubling for Archbishop Cranmer.  During a 1532 journey to Germany to meet Lutheran princes as Henry’s ambassador, he met and married Margaret Osiander.  Sources differ as to whether Cranmer was able to live openly with her husband during Henry’s lifetime. She apparently lived in Germany with their children until Edward’s reign.

Henry’s concerns about division between Romans and Protestants was evident the following year with the execution of three Roman Catholics for treason and three Protestants for heresy on June 30, 1540. Following Henry’s death and the succession of Edward VI to the throne, the Act was repealed in the first Parliament of his reign (1547).


Cranmer and Edward VI

Under the reign of Edward VI (1547–1553), protestant reforms flourished. On January 28, 1547, when Henry VIII died,  Edward, age nine, succeeded to the throne.  During Edward’s minority the government was run by a council of regency, though Edward’s uncle, Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset, wielded almost supreme power as regent, with the title of protector.

When John Dudley, then earl of Warwick, soon to be duke of Northumberland). replaced Seymour and had him executed for treason, he put Edward forward at the age of 14 as entitled to all the power of Henry VII. Even so, Northumberland controlled the government. Both Somerset and Northumberland attempted to consolidate the Reformation which reflected Edward’s own intense devotion to Protestantism. Northumberland was executed for treason under Mary I in 1553.

During Edward’s reign, chantries (the practice of prayer and offering mass for the repose of the soul of a deceased person) were dissolved, priests were allowed to marry, and altars were abolished and replaced by simple tables.  Priests were not to wear elaborate vestments. the Mass was abolished and replaced with Holy Communion (the difference being that the bread and wine now only represented Christ and did not become Christ), and predestination – the belief that it was already decided if you were bound for heaven or hell – was accepted. It was not possible to buy a place in heaven through good works, donating money to the church or saying prayers. In 1552, a new Book of Common Prayer replaced Cranmer’s original 1549 version.

Cranmer and Mary I

After Edward’s death, Mary Tudor reinstated Roman Catholicism in England until her own death in 1558. Cranmer was brought to trial for heresy shortly after Mary took the throne. Cranmer had supported Lady Jane Grey (also imprisoned and executed for treason) to succeed Edward. Already hated by Mary for his position in henry VIII’s annulment of the marriage with Catherine of Aragon (Mary’s mother), Cranmer was put on trial along with two other Protestant religious leaders, Ridley and Latimer – both of whom were burnt at the stake in October 1555.

Cranmer was convicted, thrown in the Tower, and condemned to death. The practice of the Church was to give heretics a chance to recant, recognize the Catholic faith, and be freed. Cranmer confessed and recognized the Pope as head of the church. Under normal canon law, he should have been absolved and forgiven. However, Mary was unmoved and the date for his execution was set. In one last attempt to save his life, Cranmer claimed to completely dismiss the ideas of Lutheran theology and announced his “joy” in returning to the Catholic faith.  After a 14-day execution postponement, Mary decided that Cranmer truly deserved death, and scheduled him to be burnt at the stake on March 21st, 1556.  When taken to the stake, he officially renounced his previous recantations and said that he would punish his hand for writing those untrue statements by burning it first at his execution. Keeping true to his word as he placed his right hand into the flames as they swirled around him. When his right hand had burnt completely and the flames were rising up around his body, he reportedly looked up at the sky and yelled “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit…I see the heavens open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God!”