“We will reform the English Church to the utmost of our ability and give our labour that both its doctrines and laws will be improved after the model of holy scripture.” – Thomas Cranmer (writing to John Calvin)
Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) was an English Reformer who, while often overlooked amongst his peers, played a dramatic role in the reformation efforts in the English church under its most famous King, Henry VIII. Cranmer played a crucial role in the English church during its break with the Roman Catholic church and helped establish further reforms throughout the English Church. His liturgical writings like The Book of Common Prayer, have been used within the Anglican church for over 400 years.
Born in Arselacton, Nottinghamshire on July 2, 1489 to financially modest parents, Thomas Cranmer was surprisingly well-educated through his early years (John Foxe). He studied at Cambridge University, earning his Bachelor's Degree, and undertook training for the preisthood in the Catholic Church in 1523. He then went on to study at the newly formed Jesus College, where he married. Since priests were required to undertake a vow of celibacy, he lost his position at Jesus College. Later, his wife died during childbirth so Cranmer returned to Jesus College, became an ordained priest, and earned his Doctorate of Divinity in 1526.
Early Reformed Tendencies
One of Cranmer's roles while at Jesus College was to interview applicants for the Doctor of Divinity program. Cranmer became known for his interview style, breaking from tradition to question the applicants' knowledge of Scripture, rather than their knowledge of church tradition and early church fathers. He was equally loved by those who were pushed into deeper study of God's word and hated by those who did not value the emphasis placed upon a study of the Bible.
Influence With The King
During 1529, in the providence of God, Cranmer was able to dine with two of King Henry’s closest advisors as they discussed Henry’s desire to divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. Cranmer suggested that instead of seeking approval from Rome for the divorce, a consensus from the leading theological minds within England, might find within Scripture, the King’s right to divorce Catherine.
While discussing the matter of his desire to divorce, Henry’s advisors mentioned Cranmer's idea to the King, who responded “I want to speak with him, so send for him immediately. He seems to have the answer to the problem. If I had known of this plan two years ago it would have saved me much money, and I would have been rid of this anxiety” (Foxe’s Book of Martyrs). Upon arrival in London to meet with the King, Cranmer did his best to pass on the meeting, but was ultimately summoned. Cranmer challenged King Henry to submit to the Scriptures as interpreted by the professors of Theology in England, to which the King agreed, asking Cranmer to provide his thoughts upon the matter also.
Cranmer was sent as the King's ambassador to present the findings of the council to Pope Clement VII. Upon presenting their findings, that they believed the Bible taught that the King was free to divorce Catherine, the Pope heard their case and then "stood them up" by never returning to meet with them.
While in Europe, Cranmer visited many figures of the reformation and married the niece of Lutheran Theologian, Andreas Osiander.
Politics and the Church
On March 30, 1533, Cranmer was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. On May 23, just a couple of months later, he declared that the marriage of King Henry and Catherine of Aragon had been invalid from its beginning. Five days later, he pronounced King Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn legal.
Cranmer became very close with the King and was instrumental in forming the Ten Articles or statements surrounding the reformation of the Church of England, like Holy Communion, baptism, penance, and purgatory. These articles, written by the King, but filled with Cranmer's influence, stressed the importance of teaching people the Bible and the Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds (Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity).
Cranmer wrote a preface for one of the earliest English translated Bibles that was ordered to be placed in every Church in England, and as such began to be known as Cranmer’s Bible. Cranmer also wrote a litany which would eventually become The Book of Common Prayer, that by the King's order was to be sung in English in the churches (Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity).
Cranmer was with King Henry when he died, opting to hold the King's hand as he passed rather than provide him with last rites, as would have been customary in Catholicism.
After the King's death, Cranmer grew a beard to grieve his death and to show disrespect for the Catholic Church.
Establishing a Reformed Church
Henry was succeeded by his son Edward in 1546, who inherited the throne at 9 years of age. It was during this time that Cranmer and Edward Seymour (King Edward's uncle) sought to establish Protestant theology within the Kingdom.
King Edward was fiercely Protestant, but young and often sick, so he left most of his policy-making to his senior advisors. Cranmer worked with unabated zeal throughout this period creating the first edition of The Book of Common Prayer in 1549. Filled with liturgical prayers, readings, service plans, hymns, guides for visiting the sick, officiating weddings and funerals, The Book of Common Prayer has been used ever since by countless Christians to worship and enjoy God and his love for us through his son Jesus Christ.
Falling from Favor
After the death of Edward in 1553 at the age of just sixteen, Cranmer was now without royal protection. After a short power struggle, Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon, beheaded Edward's named successor, Lady Jane Grey (a Protestant), and took the throne of England for herself.
Queen Mary, a staunch Catholic, became known as "Bloody Mary" for her violent and aggressive efforts to restore England to Roman Catholic oversight. Cranmer’s clear Protestant position and support for the divorce from Mary’s mother, made him a top target in Queen Mary’s zealous "purification" efforts.
In 1553, after a letter defending Protestant beliefs was printed and widely circulated, Cranmer was arrested and placed in the Tower of London under charges of Treason, which were soon replaced with charges of heresy (Peter Marshall – A History of the English Reformation). Cranmer, along with other Protestant leaders were found guilty and sentenced to death.
The others were burnt at the stake, but Cranmer was remanded to undergo a second trial in Oxford where under Papal authority he was found guilty and sentenced to death (Rudolf Heinze – A New Look at the Martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer).
One of the confusing things about Cranmer, were his documented recantations of Protestant theology while awaiting his death. After three years of harsh imprisonment, Cranmer was promised restoration to his position as Archbishop if he would recant his Protestant beliefs (John Foxe – Acts and Monuments). A document of recantation for all of the articles of Protestant theology Cranmer had pioneered was placed before Cranmer, which he signed.
Immediately Cranmer’s recantations were printed and distributed throughout England heralded as a victory for those who remained committed to support the Pope and the Roman Catholic church.
Generally, recantations granted pardon from a death sentence, but in Cranmer's case Queen Mary was committed to seeing him executed.
In what was meant to be a final humiliation, Cranmer was required to give a final sermon on the day of his execution. He prepared a sermon filled with repudiations of Protestant theology and affirmations of Catholic doctrine and was approved to deliver it in St Mary’s church in Oxford on March 21, 1556.
In a public service filled with Roman Catholics and Protestants alike, Cranmer began to deliver his approved message but then broke from it and delivered the following
"And now I come to the great thing which so much troubles my conscience, more than any thing that ever I did or said in my whole life, and that is the setting abroad of a writing contrary to the truth, which now here I renounce and refuse, as things written with my hand contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and written for fear of death, and to save my life, if it might be; and that is, all such bills or papers which I have written or signed with my hand since my degradation, wherein I have written many things untrue. And forasmuch as my hand hath offended, writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished; for when I come to the fire, it shall first be burned. And as for the Pope, I refuse him as Christ's enemy, and antichrist, with all his false doctrine." - John Foxe- A History of the Lives, Sufferings, and Triumphant Deaths of the Primitive Protestant Martyrs)
Cranmer was dragged form the church and lead to the same place where his fellow Protestant leaders had been burned months before. After praying, he was fixed to the pole with an iron chain and wood was laid around him.
Refusing to recant his faith in Christ and reformed doctrine, the wood was set on fire. As the flames lapped at his body, Cranmer stretched out his right hand, with which he had signed his recantations, frequently saying, “This unworthy right hand”.
Quoting the first Christian martyr bishop Stephen (Acts 6:8 - 7:60), Cranmer cried out, “Lord Jesus receive my Spirit!” and was consumed by the flames.
Thomas Cranmer is often understood to be the conflicted, compromising reformer. Much of his story is one where he was placed in a position where boldness would not have served his purpose of furthering the reformation. But, with all that is understood, he was used by God instrumentally to reform the Church in England and to place doctrinal distinctives around developing Protestant theology. His writing has been, and continues to be used by the Protestant church for close to 500 years to grow and encourage faith in Christ all over the world.