Thomas Cranmer is believed to have been born on 2nd July 1489 at Aslockton, Nottinghamshire, into a family of minor gentry. His father died when he was only 12, after which he was sent to a grammar school, possibly at Southwell. At the age of 14 he was admitted to
although he took eight years to gain his BA degree. His MA took less time,
being awarded in 1515. Cambridge
He married shortly after graduating, although little is known about his wife except that her name was Joan and that she died in childbirth. By marrying, he had to give up his fellowship at Jesus, but this was restored to him after her death.
By 1520 Cranmer had taken holy orders and was awarded the degree of Doctor of Divinity in 1526. This was a time when the Protestant Reformation was getting into full swing, and clerics were faced with the dilemma of whether to ally themselves with the reformers or the traditionalists. Cranmer shows every sign of having resisted the call of the evangelicals in his early years as a priest, even writing in condemnation of Luther and in support of the papacy.
King Henry and Queen Catherine
In 1517 Cranmer was recruited by Cardinal Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor, to undergo a diplomatic mission to
, and on
his return he was granted a half-hour audience with the king, Henry VIII. Henry
was anxious to have his marriage to Queen Catherine annulled, and it is
significant that, following this meeting, Cranmer began to advocate this
outcome among his colleagues at Spain . Cambridge
Henry’s efforts at persuading the Pope to allow an annulment became bogged down in all sorts of legal difficulties, but it was Cranmer who, in 1529, came up with the idea of approaching matters differently, namely by canvassing the views of theologians throughout Europe and building a consensus view in Henry’s favour, although this plan was not particularly original. However, when it was brought to King Henry’s attention it received royal approval and Cranmer was now seen by the king as a valuable ally. Cranmer was also in high favour with the family of Anne Boleyn, sometimes lodging at the home of her father.
Cranmer’s efforts in support of the king’s “great matter” were extensive and occupied him for several years. They included many diplomatic missions to
and elsewhere, and the translation and editing into plain English of documents
that supported the cause. These focused on two main issues, namely whether it
was lawful for a man to marry his brother’s widow (which is what Henry had
done) and whether the Pope had the right to declaim on this matter. Rome
For Cranmer personally, two important things were happening. One was that he was developing a remarkable skill in writing plain and effective English, and another was that he was gradually losing his theological conservatism. As he began questioning papal authority he made new contacts with the religious reformers.
In 1532 Cranmer was sent on a lengthy mission to Germany where he met some important Lutheran reformers and married a relative of one of them, thus showing his conversion to the Protestant view that priests need not be celibate. He left his wife behind in
to travel to ,
and while there he learned that King Henry had, much to his surprise and alarm,
chosen him to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer returned to England
in January 1533. Italy
Anne Boleyn, who was already pregnant, married Henry in a secret ceremony shortly after Cranmer’s return, although the latter was not involved.
Archbishop of Canterbury
Thomas Cranmer was duly appointed as Archbishop by the Pope, but he immediately stated that his first loyalty was to the king. As Archbishop, he set in train the legal process by which the annulment could be ratified. Everything was pushed through at speed so that Queen Anne could be crowned and her baby, when born, would be both legitimate and unchallenged as Henry’s heir, should it be a boy (which was not the case, the baby being the future Queen Elizabeth I).
Cranmer then got to work to put in place the institutions that signalled the split from
and the creation of the Church of
England. There were all sorts of legal and political difficulties to be
overcome, as well as theological ones, but Cranmer was happy to concentrate on
the latter and leave the former to Thomas Cromwell, who had succeeded Wolsey as
the king’s chief minister. Rome
Cranmer was shocked when Anne Boleyn was arrested and sent to the
, especially as
he had heard her confession and had no reason to suspect her of being guilty of
anything, and he was personally on very good terms with the Boleyn family. However, he had no choice but to go through
the motions of declaring her marriage invalid and Elizabeth a bastard. Tower
Cranmer’s relationship with the king was always an uneasy one, given that Henry had declared himself to be head of the Church of England but was, of course, not a theologian. Henry was surprisingly conservative in his religious views, which at times led to difficulties. One problem was over Henry’s “Act of Six Articles” of 1539, one of which re-affirmed that clergymen should be celibate. This led to Cranmer’s wife being forced to flee the country.
After the execution of Thomas Cromwell, Cranmer was thrust into the political maelstrom, and he had the unpleasant duty of informing the king that his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, had been unfaithful to him. Whereas the charges against Anne Boleyn had almost certainly been false, those against Queen Catherine seemed to be much more justified, and it was Cranmer who obtained her eventual confession.
During the rest of Henry’s reign, Cranmer was in almost constant conflict with the conservatives in the Church, with various plots being hatched against him. However, when Henry died, on 28th January 1547, Cranmer was there to ensure that no Romish last rites were performed.
King Edward VI
Cranmer was closely allied with Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, who now became the real power in the land as Lord Protector of the boy king, Edward VI. Cranmer was now able to push ahead with reforming the Church of England without fear of royal opposition. He also needed to ensure that the Anglican Church did not follow the Lutheran pattern. He had already worked on producing elements of a new liturgy during Henry’s reign, but he now felt free to develop a complete “Book of Common Prayer”, first issued in March 1549 and revised in 1552, that would set the seal on the shape of Anglicanism for centuries to come. Apart from its religious importance, the Book is a masterpiece of English literature, containing many passages of great beauty that are clearly derived from Cranmer’s skill as a writer of prose.
Cranmer also worked hard to establish the principles of canon law, resulting in the publication of the “forty-two articles” of Anglican belief in 1553 (later amended, in 1563, to the “thirty-nine articles” that still apply today).
Needless to say, he also attracted much opposition, both from those of the Catholic persuasion and those who wanted the reforms to go much further. These latter included some Anabaptists and Unitarians whom Cranmer condemned as heretics and who were burned at the stake.
Queen Mary I
Edward VI only reigned for six years, dying on 6th July 1553 at the age of 15. Cranmer was involved in the plot to prevent his Catholic sister, Mary, from becoming queen, the plan being for the protestant Lady Jane Grey to be declared queen. However, on Edward’s death the people rallied behind Mary, and the protestant reformation was halted, at least for the time being.
Cranmer was soon arrested, and a long period of imprisonment and trial followed, with Cranmer at first refusing to recant his protestant views, then doing so. His trial for heresy took place at
, alongside those
of fellow bishops Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer. On 16th October
1555 Cranmer was forced to watch the execution, by burning, of Ridley and
His own execution took place on 21st March 1556, after he had been forced to sign a recantation of all his protestant beliefs. However, it was clear that he was deeply troubled by this, and one of his final acts was to declare that his recantation was false and that his right hand, which had signed the document, would be the first part of him to burn. Witnesses stated that this was what actually happened.
Thomas Cranmer is one of the three “martyrs” commemorated by the Martyrs’ Memorial in
but his lasting legacy is the Church of England that was largely his design,
and the Book of Common Prayer which, whatever one’s beliefs, is still one of
the abiding treasures of 16th century writing in English. Oxford
© John Welford