Thomas Cranmer, one of the Reformation’s most famous martyrs, can accurately be described as the architect of the Church of England, and consequently of the worldwide Anglican communion. Despite this, considerably less has been written about him than other key figures of the Reformation.
Born in humble circumstances in 1489 in Aslockton, Nottinghamshire, he studied at Cambridge University and by 1520 had taken holy orders, becoming a secular (that is, not a church-based) priest. In 1526 he became a Doctor of Divinity and received a lectureship in Old and New Testament. It was at this time that Luther was generating controversy with his famous 95 theses (first nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg).
For more than 1000 years, Christendom had believed what the Roman Catholic Church had taught, that Christ’s work on the cross and all the favours of heaven belonged to the church, and that only the church could administer the benefits of heaven through its own sacramental system. These sacraments, the church had taught, were the means by which man received God’s favour or ‘grace’, without which you were destined for hell. Kings and queens, rich and poor, all had to come to the church. Heaven was entered only through its gates; truly the church had the keys to heaven and hell.
But relatively little is known about Cranmer’s position on these matters and the ‘new learning’ emerging from the continent during his three decades at Cambridge.
In 1529 Cranmer had a chance meeting with some members of Henry VIII’s court, and Cranmer suggested to them that the Church of Rome had no jurisdiction over whether or not Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon should be annulled to allow Henry to marry Anne Boleyn (the issue of the day).
Cranmer’s line of argument was not new, so he was somewhat surprised to be despatched to the continent, along with Thomas Boleyn, father of Anne, to gain support for his opinion by consulting the universities there.
It was while on the continent that Cranmer saw the turmoil that the new learning was causing and wrote to Henry about his fear of popular revolt. It is perhaps this same fear that was responsible for his cautious approach to church reforms in later life — an approach that annoyed his more zealous colleagues.
It was on a subsequent trip in 1532 that Cranmer married a niece of one of the Reformers (Osiander), Cranmer’s first wife having died. But, shortly after that, back in England, Archbishop Warham died and Henry decided, to the surprise of most, not least Cranmer, that Cranmer should be his successor.
A letter was duly despatched to the archbishop designate on 1 October ordering him to return and take up his appointment. The newly married, reluctant and bewildered Cranmer took his time on the homeward journey, undoubtedly wondering what life had in store for him now.
In the following March, 1533, he was duly consecrated and, after all the debate and prevarication of the previous years, Henry’s marriage annulment was pushed through parliament within a matter of days. Thus Cranmer, the careful academic, in a series of bold — many would say reckless — moves, became the key facilitator of England’s break with Rome.
The Cambridge don was now the Primate of the Church in England, close to the king and a member of a select group of advisors that formed the Privy Council — in effect, a senior churchman and politician, who would play a lead role in the Reformation in England.
Many saw that Cranmer was singularly unsuited to either of the newly acquired roles that destiny had thrust upon him. He prevaricated on many issues, although in some things was on the side of the Reformers. The confusing nature of these times is clearly displayed in that one of his first acts as archbishop was to send John Frith to a martyr’s death for his denial of the Catholic doctrine of the Mass.
Nonetheless, the new queen, Anne Boleyn (a powerful ally of the reform agenda), remained a close friend and loyal supporter of Cranmer. And he, in turn, undoubtedly acted as a pastor to her. So, perhaps his later failure to take action to prevent Anne’s execution is an example of a character weakness on his part?
In the days before Anne’s trial for adultery, Cranmer had been kept away from Henry and had to resort to writing a letter. Wanting to plead her innocence, while at the same time not wanting (or daring) to criticise the king, he wrote, ‘I am in such a perplexity, that my mind is clearly amazed; for I never had better opinion in woman, than I had in her; which maketh me to think, that she should not be culpable’. However Diarmaid MacCulloch suggests that, by the standard of the day, Cranmer was being wise and courageous (in Thomas Cranmer, Yale University Press, 1996, p.157).
Despite Anne’s death the evangelical cause was not lost. The Ten Articles of Religion soon appeared — the forerunner to the 39 Articles that were in use in the Church of England right into the 20th century. Significantly, they articulated the spirit of Ephesians 2:8: ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God’.
Furthermore, Cranmer was already having doubts about the sacraments, calling attention to the key question of whether the outward performance of the sacraments ‘doth justify man, or whether we receive our justification through faith’. But such reforms were always being resisted during Cranmer’s time as archbishop, and they were dangerous times for him personally. In April 1543 a report of heresy in Kent (where Canterbury Cathedral is situated) was brought before Henry.
Shortly afterwards, as Henry was enjoying a trip down the Thames in his royal barge, he came to Lambeth Bridge and called out to Cranmer, ‘Ah, my chaplain, I have news for you! I now know who is the greatest heretic in Kent’.
Henry insisted to the hapless Cranmer that there was to be an enquiry. Only Henry had decided it was to be Cranmer himself who was going to be chief investigator. What is more, Cranmer was to choose whoever he wanted to assist him in his investigation. The ‘greatest heretic in Kent’ was to investigate and pass judgement on himself!
But in November the Privy Council brought further heresy charges against Cranmer. Henry forewarned him and gave him his personal ring. Cranmer was duly summoned by his colleagues who announced he was under arrest.
Cranmer simply showed them Henry’s ring, as a sign that he was under the personal protection and authority of the king. Rushing from the chamber to escape the scene of an almost certain disaster they were met by Henry, who had arrived in person to witness the event.
A contemporary account states that ‘the lords shook hands every man with my Lord Cranmer, against whom nevermore after no man durst spurn during the King Henry’s life’. Despite their fulsome apologies, Henry had two arrested, one of whom died in prison and the other was executed.
In January 1547 Henry knew his death was near and, refusing to see any other cleric, summoned the archbishop. It is reported that, as soon as he came, the king stretched out his hand to him and Cranmer urged him to place all his hope in the mercy of God through Christ, and to give him a sign that he had done so.
Unable to speak, the king grasped Cranmer’s hand as hard as his failing strength would allow, and then breathed his last.
In February 1547 the nine-year-old Edward was crowned king, Cranmer specifically making reference to the Old Testament’s reforming king Josiah. A new Prayer Book, thought to be substantially the work of Cranmer, soon followed. It included the marriage service still used by many today. But within six years Edward had died and the Roman Catholic Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s daughter by Catherine of Aragon, was anointed queen. Cranmer was duly charged with heresy.
Under enormous pressure, after more than two years of imprisonment and deprived of contact with his friends while awaiting his burning at the stake, the 66-year-old archbishop buckled and said he wanted to return to the Catholic Church. News of Cranmer’s capitulation spread rapidly, but the sentence was not repealed.
On the last day of his life he signed 14 additional copies of his last recantation. But he was interrupted by a messenger from his sister, who had embraced the new evangelical faith. She had sent a ring and a note. It seems that this note was a turning point for Cranmer. He ambiguously commented, on reading the note, that God would finish what he had begun.
Cranmer was led to a specially prepared stand in a full and excited church. Assembled there were various dignitaries, to hear the last words of the former Primate of all England. He proceeded through his prepared text, but at the moment they expected him to repeat his recantations, he instead repudiated all that he had written ‘contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and written for fear of death … all such which I have written or signed with my hand’.
By now, Cranmer was shouting to be heard over the jeering and cheering of the congregation. In a surge of courage, a courage that had deserted him over the previous weeks, he boldly spoke out for the gospel.
He was pulled from the platform by the officials and taken through the streets of Oxford towards his place of execution, amid chaotic scenes. He there stretched out his hand into the fire for all the spectators to see. He repeated while he could, ‘This unworthy right-hand … this hand hath offended’, and the dying words of the first martyr Stephen, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit’. The contemporary accounts state that Cranmer’s countenance was serene.
The immediate effect of the scene on the crowds, on his Catholic persecutors, and, as the news quickly spread, on the English nation and wider European Christendom was sensational. Few martyrdoms have had such dramatic or lasting impact on our modern world.
But what was in his sister’s note on the very morning of his death? Was it the catalyst that effected this dramatic change in Cranmer? How had this relatively unknown, ‘ordinary’ Christian woman such a huge impact on the great Cambridge theologian, ambassador, Primate of all England and mentor to kings? It is impossible not to think that something she had written was taken up by the Holy Spirit to feed Cranmer’s soul in his hour of great need.
And what of Cranmer’s legacy? Some might see that the Church of England is a national church that has confused people as to the nature of biblical Christianity. But Cranmer’s personal journey towards a mature ‘Scripture only’ position was cut short by events outside his control, and his associated reform agenda was an unfinished one.
And it is difficult not to believe that Cranmer, despite his faults, lived true to his own understanding of Scripture in tumultuous times; and that his heart, mind and life energies were directed towards the furtherance of the gospel he had come to love. May we be able to claim as much for ourselves!
The author served for many years as an elder of Grace Baptist Church, Astley. His publications include Thomas Cranmer (Evangelical Press, 2012) and Anne Boleyn: one short life that changed the English-speaking world (Day One, 2007).