Vol I No. 7
Anglican Communion

Thomas Cranmer, His Life and Martyrdom (21st March, 1556)

by sinetortus

In the week when we recalled  the anniversary of Cranmer’s execution, it is fitting to cite a  short biography (as set out in the celebrated 11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1910-11)


THOMAS CRANMER (1489-1556)

Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, born at Aslacton or Aslockton in Nottinghamshire on the 2nd of July 1489, was the second son of Thomas Cranmer and of his wife Anne Hatfield.  He received his early education, according to Morice his secretary, from “a marvellous severe and cruel schoolmaster,” whose discipline must have been severe indeed to deserve this special mention in an age when no schoolmaster bore the rod in vain.  The same authority tells us that he was initiated by his father in those field sports, such as hunting and hawking, which formed one of his recreations in after life.  To early training he also owed the skilful horsemanship for which he was conspicuous.

At the age of fourteen he was sent by his mother, who had in 1501 become a widow, to Cambridge.  Little is known with certainty of his university career beyond the facts that he became a fellow of Jesus College in 1510 or 1511, that he had soon after to vacate his fellowship, owing to his marriage to “Black Joan,” a relative of the landlady of the Dolphin Inn, and that he was reinstated in it on the death of his wife, which occurred in childbirth before the lapse of the year of grace allowed by the statutes.  During the brief period of his married life he held the

appointment of lecturer at Buckingham Hall, now Magdalene College.  The fact of his marrying would seem to show that he did not at the time intend to enter the church; possibly the death of his wife caused him to qualify for holy orders. He was ordained in 1523, and soon after he took his doctor’s degree in divinity.

According to Strype, he was invited about this time to become a fellow of the college founded by Cardinal Wolsey at Oxford; but Dean Hook shows that there is some reason to doubt this.  If the offer was made, it was declined, and Cranmer continued at Cambridge filling the offices of lecturer in divinity at his own college and of public examiner in divinity to the university.  It is interesting, in view of his later efforts to spread the knowledge of the Bible among the people, to know that in the capacity of examiner he insisted on a thorough acquaintance with the Holy Scriptures, and rejected several candidates who were deficient in this qualification.

It was a somewhat curious concurrence of circumstances that transferred Cranmer, almost at one step, from the quiet seclusion of the university to the din and bustle of the court.  In August 1529 the plague known as the sweating sickness, which prevailed throughout the country, was specially severe at Cambridge, and all who had it in their power forsook the town for the country.  Cranmer went with two of his pupils named Cressy, related to him through their mother, to their father’s house at Waltham in Essex. The King (Henry VIII) happened at the time to be visiting in the immediate neighbourhood, and two of his chief counsellors, Gardiner, Secretary of State, afterwards Bishop of Winchester, and Edward Fox, the Lord High Almoner, afterwards Bishop of Hereford, were lodged at Cressy’s house.  Meeting with Cranmer, they were naturally led to discuss the King’s meditated divorce from Catherine of Aragon.  Cranmer suggested that if the canonists and the universities should decide that marriage with a deceased brother’s widow was illegal, and if it were proved that Catherine had been married to Prince Arthur, her marriage to Henry could be declared null and void by the ordinary ecclesiastical courts.  The necessity of an appeal to Rome was thus dispensed with, and this point was at once seen by the King, who, when Cranmer’s opinion was reported to him, is said to have ordered him to be summoned in these terms: “I will speak to him.  Let him be sent for out of hand.  This man, I trow, has got the right sow by the ear.”

At their first interview Cranmer was commanded by the King to lay aside all other pursuits and to devote himself to the question of the divorce.  He was to draw up a written treatise, stating the course he proposed, and defending it by arguments from scripture, the fathers and the decrees of general councils. His material interests certainly did not suffer by compliance.  He was commended to the hospitality of Anne Boleyn’s father, the earl of Wiltshire, in whose house at Durham Place he resided for some time; the King appointed him archdeacon of Taunton and one of his chaplains; and he also held a parochial benefice, the name of which is unknown.  When the treatise was finished Cranmer was called upon to defend its argument before the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, which he visited, accompanied by Fox and Gardiner.  Immediately afterwards he was sent to plead the cause before a more powerful if not a higher tribunal.  An embassy, with the earl of Wiltshire at its head, was despatched to Rome in 1530, that “the matter of the divorce should be disputed and ventilated,” and Cranmer was an important member of it.  He was received by the Pope with marked courtesy, and was appointed “Grand Penitentiary of England,” but his argument, if he ever had the opportunity of stating it, did not lead to any practical decision of the question.

Cranmer returned in September 1530, but in January 1531 he received a second commission from the King appointing him “Conciliarius Regius et ad Caesarem Orator.” In the summer of 1531 he accordingly proceeded to Germany as sole ambassador to the Emperor.  He was also to sound the Lutheran princes with a view to an alliance, and to obtain the removal of some restrictions on English trade.  At Nuremberg he became acquainted with Osiander, whose somewhat isolated theological position he probably found to be in many points analogous to his own.  Both were convinced that the old order must change; neither saw clearly what the new order should be to which it was to give place.  They had frequent interviews, which had doubtless an important influence on Cranmer’s opinions.  But Osiander’s house had another attraction of a different kind from theological sympathy.  His niece Margaret won the heart of Cranmer, and in 1532 they were married.  Hook finds in the fact of the marriage corroboration of Cranmer’s statement that he never expected or desired the primacy; and it seems probable enough that, if he had foreseen how soon the primacy was to be forced upon him, he would have avoided a disqualification which it was difficult to conceal and dangerous to disclose.

Expected or not, the primacy was forced upon him within a very few months of his marriage.  In August 1532, Archbishop Warham died, and the King almost immediately afterwards intimated to Cranmer, who had accompanied the Emperor in his campaign against the Turks, his nomination to the vacant see.  Cranmer’s conduct was certainly consistent with his profession that he did not desire, as he had not expected, the dangerous promotion. He sent his wife to England, but delayed his own return in the vain hope that another appointment might be made. The papal bulls of confirmation were dated February and March 1533, and the consecration took place on the 30th March. One peculiarity of the ceremony had occasioned considerable discussion.  It was the custom for the archbishop elect to take two oaths, the first of episcopal allegiance to the pope, and the second in recognition of the royal supremacy. The latter was so wide in its scope that it might fairly be held to supersede the former in so far as the two were inconsistent.  Cranmer, however, was not satisfied with this.  He had a special protest recorded, in which he formally declared that he swore allegiance to the pope only in so far as that was consistent with his supreme duty to the King.  The morality of this course has been much canvassed, though it seems really to involve nothing more than an express declaration of what the two oaths implied. It was the course that would readily suggest itself to a man of timid nature who wished to secure himself against such a fate as Wolsey’s.  It showed weakness, but it added nothing to whatever immorality there might be in successively taking two incompatible oaths.

In the last as in the first step of Cranmer’s promotion, Henry had been actuated by one and the same motive.  The business of the divorce — or rather, of the legitimation of Anne Boleyn’s expected issue — had now become very urgent, and in the new archbishop he had an agent who might be expected to forward it with the needful haste.  The celerity and skill with which Cranmer did the work intrusted to him must have fully satisfied his master.  During the first week of April, Convocation sat almost from day to day to determine questions of fact and law in relation to Catherine’s marriage with Henry as affected by her previous marriage with his brother Arthur.  Decisions favourable to the object of the King were given on these questions, though even the despotism of the most despotic of the Tudors failed to secure absolute unanimity.

The next step was taken by Cranmer, who wrote a letter to the King, praying to be allowed to remove the anxiety of loyal subjects as to a possible case of disputed succession, by finally determining the validity of the marriage in his archiepiscopal court.  There is evidence that the request was prompted by the King, and his consent was given as a matter of course.  Queen Catherine was residing at Ampthill in Bedfordshire, and to suit her convenience the court was held at the priory of Dunstable in the immediate neighbourhood.  Declining to appear, she was declared contumacious, and on the 23rd of May the archbishop gave judgment declaring the marriage null and void from the first, and so leaving the King free to marry whom he pleased.  The Act of Appeals had already prohibited any appeal from the archbishop’s court.  Five days later he pronounced the marriage between Henry and Anne — which had been secretly celebrated about the 25th of January 1533 — to be valid.  On the 1st of June he crowned Anne as Queen, and on the l0th of September stood godfather to her child, the future Queen Elizabeth.

The breach with Rome and the subjection of the church in England to the royal supremacy had been practically achieved before Cranmer’s appointment as archbishop: and he had little to do with the other constitutional changes of Henry’s reign.  But his position as chief minister of Henry’s ecclesiastical jurisdiction forced him into unpleasant prominence in connexion with the King’s matrimonial experiences.  In 1536 he was required to revise his own sentence in favour of the validity of Henry’s marriage with Anne Boleyn; and on the 17th of May the marriage was declared invalid.  The ground on which this sentence is pronounced is fairly clear.  Anne’s sister, Mary Boleyn, had been Henry VIII’s mistress; this by canon law was a bar to his marriage with Anne—a bar which had been removed by papal dispensation in 1527, but now the papal power to dispense in such cases had been repudiated, and the original objection revived.  The sentence was grotesquely legal and unjust.  With Anne’s condemnation by the House of Lords, Cranmer had nothing to do. He interceded for her in vain with the King, as he had done in the cases of John Fisher, Thomas More and the monks of Christchurch.  His share in the divorce of Anne of Cleves was less prominent than that of Bishop Gardiner, though he did preside over the Convocation in which nearly all the dignitaries of the church signified their approval of that measure.  To his next and last interposition in the matrimonial affairs of the King no discredit attaches itself.  When he was made cognizant of the charges against Catherine Howard, his duty to communicate them to the King was obvious, though painful.

Meanwhile Cranmer was actively carrying out the policy which has associated his name more closely, perhaps, than that of any other ecclesiastic with the Reformation in England.  Its most important feature on the theological as distinct from the political side, was the endeavour to promote the circulation of the Bible in the vernacular, by encouraging translation and procuring an order in 1538 that a copy of the Bible in English should be set up in every church in a convenient place for reading.  Only second in importance to this was the re-adjustment of the creed and liturgy of the church, which formed Cranmer’s principal work during the latter half of his life.

The progress of the archbishop’s opinion towards that middle Protestantism, if it may be so called, which he did so much to impress on the formularies of the Church of England, was gradual, as a brief enumeration of the successive steps in that progress will show.  In 1538 an embassy of German divines visited England with the design, among other things, of forming a common confession for the two countries.  This proved impracticable, but the frequent conferences Cranmer had with the theologians composing the embassy had doubtless a great influence in modifying his views.  Both in parliament and in Convocation he opposed the Six Articles of 1539, but he stood almost alone.  During the period between 1540 and 1543 the archbishop was engaged at the head of a commission in the revision of the “Bishop’s Book” (1537) or Institutions of a Christian Man, and the preparation of the Necessary Erudition (1543) known as the “King’s Book,” which was a modification of the former work in the direction of Roman Catholic doctrine.  In June 1545 was issued his Litany, which was substantially the same as that now in use, and shows his mastery of a rhythmical English style.

The course taken by Cranmer in promoting the Reformation exposed him to the bitter hostility of the reactionary party or “men of the old learning,” of whom Gardiner and Bonner were leaders, and on various occasions — notably in 1543 and 1545 — conspiracies were formed in the council or elsewhere to effect his overthrow.  The King, however, remained true to him, and all the conspiracies signally failed.  It illustrates a favourable trait in the archbishop’s character that he forgave all the conspirators.  He was, as his secretary Morice testifies, “a man that delighted not in revenging.” Cranmer was present with Henry VIII when he died (1547).  By the will of the King he was nominated one of a council of regency composed of sixteen persons, but he acquiesced in the arrangement by which Somerset became Lord Protector.  He officiated at the coronation of the boy King Edward VI, and is supposed to have instituted a sinister change in the order of the ceremony, by which the right of the monarch to reign was made to appear to depend upon inheritance alone, without the concurrent consent of the people.  But Edward’s title had been expressly sanctioned by act of parliament, so that there was no more room for election in his case than in that of George I, and the real motive of the changes was to shorten the weary ceremony for the frail child.

During this reign the work of the Reformation made rapid progress, the sympathies both of the Protector and of the young King being decidedly Protestant.  Cranmer was therefore enabled without let or hindrance to complete the preparation of the church formularies, on which he had been for some time engaged.  In 1547 appeared the Homiliesprepared under his direction.  Four of them are attributed to the archbishop himself—those on Salvation, Faith, Good Works and the Reading of Scripture.  His translation of the German Catechismof Justus Jonas, known as Cranmer’s Catechism, appeared in the following year.  Important, as showing his views on a cardinal doctrine, was the Defence of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament, which he published in 1550.  It was immediately answered from the side of the ” old learning ” by Gardiner. The first prayerbook of Edward VI was finished in November 1548, and received legal sanction in March 1549; the second was completed and sanctioned in April 1552.  The archbishop did much of the work of compilation personally. The forty-two articles of Edward VI, published in 1553, owe their form and style almost entirely to the hand of Cranmer.

The last great undertaking in which he was employed was the revision of his codification of the canon law, which had been all but completed before the death of Henry.  The task was one eminently well suited to his powers, and the execution of it was marked by great skill in definition and arrangement. It never received any authoritative sanction, Edward VI dying before the proclamation establishing it could be made, and it remained unpublished until 1571, when a Latin translation by Dr Walter Haddon and Sir John Cheke appeared under the title Reformatio legum ecclesiasticarum.  It laid down the lawfulness and necessity of persecution to the death for heresy in the most absolute terms; and Cranmer himself condemned Joan Bocher to the flames. But he naturally loathed persecution, and was as tolerant as any in that age.

Cranmer stood by the dying bed of Edward as he had stood by that of his father, and he there suffered himself to be persuaded to take a step against his own convictions.  He had pledged himself to respect the testamentary disposition of Henry VIII by which the succession devolved upon Mary, and now he violated his oath by signing Edward’s “device” of the crown to Lady Jane Grey.  On grounds of policy and morality alike the act was quite indefensible; but it is perhaps some palliation of his perjury that it was committed to satisfy the last urgent wish of a dying man, and that he alone remained true to the “nine days’ Queen” when the others who had with him signed Edward’s device deserted her.

On the accession of Queen Mary, he was summoned to the council—most of whom had signed the same device—reprimanded for his conduct, and ordered to confine himself to his palace at Lambeth until the queen’s pleasure was known.  He refused to follow the advice of his friends and avoid the fate that was clearly impending over him by flight to the continent.  Any chance of safety that lay in the friendliness of a strong party in the council was more than nullified by the bitter personal enmity of the Queen, who could not forgive his share in her mother’s divorce and her own disgrace. On the 14th of September 1553 he was sent to the Tower, where Ridley and Latimer were also confined.  The immediate occasion of his imprisonment was a strongly worded declaration he had written a few days previously against the mass, the celebration of which, he heard, had been re-established at Canterbury. He had not taken steps to publish this, but by some unknown channel a copy reached the council, and it could not be ignored.

In November, with Lady Jane Grey, her husband, and two other Dudleys, Cranmer was condemned for treason.  Renard thought he would be executed, but so true a Romanist as Mary could scarcely have an ecclesiastic put to death in consequence of a sentence by a secular court, and Cranmer was reserved for treatment as a heretic by the highest of clerical tribunals, which could not act until parliament had restored the papal jurisdiction.  Accordingly in March 1554 he and his two illustrious fellow-prisoners, Ridley and Latimer, were removed to Oxford, where they were confined in the Bocardo or common prison.  Ridley and Latimer were unflinching, and suffered bravely at the stake on the 16th of October 1555.  Cranmer had been tried by a papal commission, over which Bishop Brooks of Gloucester presided, in September 1555.  Brooks had no power to give sentence, but reported to Rome, where Cranmer was summoned, but not permitted, to attend.  On the 25th of November he was pronounced contumacious by the pope and excommunicated, and a commission was sent to England to degrade him from his office of archbishop.  This was done with the usual humiliating ceremonies in Christ Church, Oxford, on the 14th of February 1556, and he was then handed over to the secular power.

About the same time Cranmer subscribed the first two of his “recantations.” His difficulty consisted in the fact that, like all Anglicans of the 16th century, he recognized no right of private judgment, but believed that the state, as represented by monarchy, parliament and Convocation, had an absolute right to determine the national faith and to impose it on every Englishman.  All these authorities had now legally established Roman Catholicism as the national faith, and Cranmer had no logical ground on which to resist.  His early recantations” are merely recognitions of his lifelong conviction of this right of the state.  But his dilemma on this point led him into further doubts, and he was eventually induced to revile his whole career and the Reformation. This is what the government wanted. Northumberland’s recantation had done much to discredit the Reformation, Cranmer’s, it was hoped, would complete the work.  Hence the enormous effect of Cranmer’s recovery at the final scene.


On the 21st of March he was taken to St Mary’s church, and asked to repeat his recantation in the hearing of the people as he had promised.  To the surprise of all he declared with dignity and emphasis that what he had recently done troubled him more than anything he ever did or said in his whole life; that he renounced and refused all his recantations as things written with his hand, contrary to the truth which he thought in his heart; and that as his hand had offended, his hand should be first burned when he came to the fire.  As he had said, his right hand was steadfastly exposed to the flames.  The calm cheerfulness and resolution with which he met his fate show that he felt that he had cleared his conscience, and that his recantation of his recantations was a repentance that needed not to be repented of.

It was a noble end to what, in spite of its besetting sin of infirmity of moral purpose, was a not ignoble life.  The key to his character is well given in what Hooper said of him in a letter to Bullinger, that he was “too fearful about what might happen to him.” This weakness was the worst blot on Cranmer’s character, but it was due in some measure to his painful capacity for seeing both sides of a question at the same time, a temperament fatal to martyrdom.

As a theologian it is difficult to class him. As early as 1538 he had repudiated the doctrine of Transubstantiation; by 1550 he had rejected also the Real Presence (Pref.  to his Answer to Dr Richard Smith).  But here he used the term “real” somewhat unguardedly, for in his Defencehe asserts a real presence, but defines it as exclusively a spiritual presence; and he repudiates the idea that the bread and wine were “bare tokens.” His views on church polity were dominated by his implicit belief in the divine right of kings (not of course the divine hereditary right of kings) which the Anglicans felt it necessary to set up against the divine right of popes.  He set practically no limits to the ecclesiastical authority of kings; they were as fully the representatives of the church as the state, and Cranmer hardly distinguished between the two.  Church and state to him were one.

Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Edition, Vol VII

Cambridge University Press, 1910. (Public domain)