This Day in History -- Thomas Cranmer Martyred

Thomas Cranmer (1489 - 1556), the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, who placed English-language Bibles in the churches, produced the Book of Common Prayer, composed a creed, and did more than any other man (save Henry VIII himself) to produce a Protestant Church of England, and thereby form the character of the English-speaking peoples, was martyred on March 21, 1556. 

As a second son of lesser nobility, Cranmer was early destined for a career in the church.  He was educated at Cambridge and gained a fellowship at Jesus College.  He was briefly married, and lost his fellowship, but his wife died in child birth and he was reinstated. In 1520, Cranmer gathered a group of scholars and theologians, including William Tyndale, Hugh Latimer, Richard Barnes, and Thomas Bilney, to discuss Luther's reforming ideas.  The group came to be called "little Germany."

In 1529, Henry VIII asked Cranmer to write a treatise defending Henry's divorce form Catherine of Aragon.  While engaged in this work, he was housed at the estate of the Earl of Wiltshire, father of Henry's intended, Anne Boleyn.  He was then sent, in 1530, to Rome to plead Henry's case to the Pope, without much success.  In 1532, he was sent nominally as ambassador to the court of Charles V, but with instructions to liaise with the Protestant princes of Germany.  While in Nurnberg, Cranmer met the Lutheran theologian Andreas Osiander, and, ever the uncomfortable celibate, married Osiander's niece. 

In 1532, the Archbishop of Canterbury died, and Henry, who could find no one able to purchase the office at the going rate, on the recommendation of the Earl of Wiltshire, appointed Cranmer.  Cranmer duly declared Henry's marriage to Catherine void ab initio and the marriage to Anne Boleyn lawful.  Throughout his career, Cranmer continued to do Henry's bidding where it concerned his turbulent (and often deadly) matrimonial politics, and in return Henry protected the increasingly Protestant Cranmer from charges of heresy. Wanting nothing for himself, Cranmer nobly if futilely pleaded for those who fell out of Henry's favor and onto the chopping block--including but not limited to Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, and Thomas Cromwell--yet still remained in the king's good graces. 

Upon Henry's death in 1547, his 9 year-old son, Edward VI, became king under the guardianship first of his uncle, Edward Seymour, and later of John Dudley.  Both guardians were Protestants, and Cranmer was able, during this time, to set the Church of England on a firmly Protestant course.  He produced the Book of Common Prayer in 1549, and substantially revised it in 1552.  He prepared a creed, known as the 42 Articles, that was later, under Elizabeth, revised and shortened to 39 articles. 

The death of 15-year-old Edward VI in 1553, after only 6 1/2 years on the throne, finally ended Cranmer's charmed life in dangerous offices.  He was caught up in John Dudley's attempt to change the laws of succession so that Henry's Protestant great niece, Lady Jane Grey, could be queen instead of his daughter by Catherine, Mary Tudor, who was Roman Catholic.  Cranmer was arrested and charged with treason, but Mary really wanted to execute him for heresy.  She first had to get Parliament to repeal laws enacted under Henry and Edward that forbade the secular government to burn heretics.  Late in 1554, the heresy laws were revived, and Cranmer, along with Latimer and Ridley, was in mortal jeopardy.  Cranmer was forced to watch as Latimer and Ridley were burned at the stake.

The Catholics also wanted a recantation, and after long months of work, they finally achieved that goal as Cranmer signed his so-called sixth recantation, which repudiated the whole reformation.  Then, on March 21, 1556, they sent him to the stake and told him to recant orally and publicly.  But with the finish line finally in sight, Cranmer steeled himself and recanted his recantation.  He repudiated the Pope and the doctrine of transubstantiation.  He stated he would burn his right hand first, for having offended by signing the false recantations.  And true to his word, as the flames rose, he held out his right hand until it was consumed in the fire. 


With this one act of immense bravery, he undid all the Papist propaganda.  After Mary's death 2 1/2 years later, the Church of England again became Protestant, this time permanently, fixing the religious character of a seafaring nation that would later colonize North America, Australia, New Zealand, India, and many other places.