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The Marian Martyrs

April 2006 | by Robert Oliver

On 21 March 1556 Thomas Cranmer, lately Archbishop of Canterbury, was burned at the stake in Oxford. Queen Mary I hoped by this execution to deal a final blow to the Protestant cause in England. In fact she committed a major political blunder.

Cranmer was the most prominent of Mary’s victims, a scholar with a European reputation. He was, however, an unlikely hero. Naturally timid, he had shown serious inconstancy in the last months of his life. Strangely, in the end, this only enhanced the drama of his death and highlighted the savagery of the Romanism that had been restored in England.

Political problems

Cranmer, a don at Cambridge, came to prominence around 1530 through his involvement in Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. The sole surviving child of that marriage was a daughter Mary – and the only previous attempt to put a woman on the throne of England had led to civil war.

The King, desperate for a son, determined to end his marriage to Catherine. But marriage law was subject to the church courts and an annulment had to be secured from the pope.

Some twenty years earlier a previous pope had granted a dispensation to allow the marriage to take place (needed because Catherine had already been married to Henry’s elder brother Arthur). Henry now argued that he had broken divine law by marrying his dead brother’s widow and that the lack of a male heir was God’s judgement on his disobedience.

From the mid-1520s Henry had been increasingly infatuated with one of the ladies of the court, Anne Boleyn. Henry ordered his Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, to seek an annulment of the marriage from Pope Clement VII.

However, the dispensation from the earlier pope made it very difficult for Clement to declare that Henry was, after all, living in sin. To complicate matters, the pope was at the mercy of Catherine’s nephew – the Emperor Charles V, whose armies were rampaging through Italy at this time.

The distracted pope played for time, but by 1529 Henry’s patience was almost gone. He claimed to be a loyal son of the church and had defended its teachings against those of Martin Luther, but now felt that he was being serious let down by the machinations of Rome.

Answers in the Bible

In 1529 Cranmer was unexpectedly thrown into the company of two former Cambridge dons – Stephen Gardiner, a royal chaplain; and Edward Fox, Henry’s almoner. In conversation with them Cranmer remarked that he had not studied the King’s marriage problems, but that the answer lay not in canon or church law but in the Bible. Instead of wasting time dragging the case through the church courts, therefore, theologians should be consulted.

The conversation was reported to Henry, who exclaimed, ‘that man hath the sow by the right ear!’ He demanded to meet Cranmer, who had come to the conclusion that the King had a good case. Henry used him to present his case to foreign universities.

In 1532 William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury and a papal supporter, died and Henry nominated a reluctant Cranmer as his successor. Since Parliament had legislated that the case must be settled in an English court, it fell to the archbishop to declare that Henry’s marriage was invalid and that he was free to marry again.

Inevitably, Catherine saw Cranmer as one of her worst enemies. It was her daughter Mary who was to exact revenge many years later.


Henry was now declared Supreme Head of the Church of England and Cranmer (who had an extreme view of royal authority) supported him. It was a curious relationship. Henry must have suspected Cranmer of Lutheran leanings which were abhorrent to him. Cranmer had many enemies and the capricious old king could have struck him down at any time – but in fact loyally supported him.

Henry died in 1547, with Cranmer at his bedside urging him to trust in Christ. The new king was a nine-year-old boy, Edward VI. Cranmer’s moment had come. He promoted church services in English, and successive liturgies revealed the growing impact of the Reformation on English church life.

Under the influence of Bishop Ridley, Cranmer abandoned the Roman Catholic doctrine of the mass – which taught that the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is a sacrifice in which the bread and wine are changed into Christ’s body and blood. Instead he adopted a Calvinistic doctrine of the Supper, which teaches a spiritual presence of Christ received by faith.

He encouraged preaching. Able men such as Hugh Latimer and John Bradford had a roving commission to preach throughout the country.

Lady Jane Grey

Sadly Edward VI, a delicate youth, died in the summer of 1553. His councillors, foreseeing his death, tried to prevent the accession of Princess Mary – an accession required by the will of Henry VIII. That will had been reinforced by an Act of Parliament and only Parliament could change its terms.

Cranmer was aware of this when he was summoned to attend the dying king and was asked to support a proposal to replace Mary by Lady Jane Grey, Edward’s cousin. At first he refused, but trapped by his doctrine of royal supremacy he gave way – knowing that Mary’s accession would end his life’s work.

The attempt to make Jane queen failed and Cranmer faced a charge of treason as well as heresy. With other conspirators he stood trial and was condemned to death as a traitor. But the death penalty was not then carried out. Mary wanted time to make an example of the heretic who had annulled her mother’s marriage.

Together with Ridley and Latimer he had to face a succession of debates and then a heresy trial with the inevitable death sentence. But since Cranmer had been appointed archbishop with the approval of an earlier pope, only the pope could pass sentence. So while Ridley and Latimer were burned in October 1555, Cranmer had to wait. He was compelled to watch his friends die and then taken back to prison.


Jasper Ridley, a recent historian, writes, ‘The authorities now proceeded to treat Cranmer in a manner worthy of expert interrogators in the secret police of a modern totalitarian state. They combined the most harsh and subtle physical and psychological cruelty with kindness and better treatment’.

Under this regime Cranmer crumpled. He finally agreed that he had been misled and asked to be received back into the communion of the Roman church. He wrote a series of recantations.

This was not the outcome for which Mary had hoped. It was usual for a heretic who recanted to be received back if he had not recanted before. The Queen and her advisors decided that he must die anyway – and that his weakness should be used to discredit the Protestant cause.

The execution was to go ahead, but first Cranmer must make a public statement of his heresy.

A troubled conscience

The scene for this ceremony was set in the University Church at Oxford. Cranmer was brought before a crowded congregation. After professing his faith in Christ and his repentance for his sins, he declared, ‘I come now to the great thing which so much troubleth my conscience more than anything that ever I did or said in my life.

‘And that is the setting abroad of a writing contrary to the truth, which now I here renounce and refuse as things written with my hand contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and to save my life if it might be’.

He went on to renounce the pope and his doctrine, and in particular the Roman doctrine of the mass. He declared the pope to be Antichrist. He was not allowed to finish, but was hurried to the stake. But before he died he threw a copy of his speech into the crowd. He died plunging his right hand into the flames, crying, ‘This unworthy right hand!’

Final stand

Mary’s government found that the events of this day rebounded on them. They published Cranmer’s recantation documents, but news of what had happened on the day spread widely. It began to be rumoured that the recantations themselves were forgeries produced by Spanish friars. The archbishop’s final stand for the doctrines of the Reformation eclipsed his recent recantations in the popular mind.

By the time of Cranmer’s death it was becoming apparent that burning prominent people was not having the desired effect. Protestantism was not being wiped out. There were even cases of people claiming that they were converted as they watched the sufferings of the martyrs.

It was increasingly apparent that the Queen and her advisers could not be trusted to tell the truth. Mary’s Spanish husband neglected her and yet involved England in a war in which she found herself fighting the French and their ally, the pope!