The Life and Death of Thomas Cranmer

Poor Thomas Cranmer. He thought he’d been doing a good thing, establishing the Anglican church, instituting all sorts of reforms, and clawing his way up to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. But all you need to screw it up was one slightly crazed Catholic with an axe to grind and suddenly you find yourself strapped to a pyre on a fine spring morning.

Cranmer was born into a well-to-do family in Nottinghamshire in 1489. As he was a younger son, he couldn’t expect to inherit much, so he was put on the path to a clerical career. He spent eight years studying at Jesus COllege, Cambridge, focusing on the work of the humanists for his master’s degree, which he received in 1515. Eventually he studied theology and was ordained.

Cranmer was dragged into Henry VIII’s annulment proceedings in 1529 by Cardinal Wolsey. Cranmer was the one who suggested canvassing university theologians throughout Europe to get their thoughts on the validity of Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon. Henry liked the idea and Cranmer was appointed a member of the team sent to gather said opinions. Many of the scholars agreed that Henry had the right, as king, to exercise supreme jurisdiction in his realm, so Rome had no say in the case.

Early in 1532, Cranmer was appointed ambassador at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor (Katherine’s nephew, so…awkward). While on the Continent, Cranmer had ample time to see the effects of the Reformation, and he met and became friends with the leading architect of the Nuremberg Reforms. By the summer, Cranmer had begun to shift towards decidedly Lutheran ideals.

Under the guidance of Anne Boleyn, Henry appointed Cranmer Archbishop of Canterbury in October 1532, so Cranmer left the Emperor’s court and returned home. He was consecrated on March 30, 1533, while he was in the midst of the annulment proceedings, which were now rushed due to Anne’s pregnancy and her secret marriage to Henry in January. By May, Cranmer pronounced judgment that Henry had never been married to Katherine, and he validated Henry’s and Anne’s marriage. In September, he baptized their daughter, Elizabeth.

Cranmer’s next task was to set about creating a new church for England, a project that was sadly interrupted when he was forced to hear Anne Boleyn’s last confession and pronounce her marriage null and void shortly before her execution in 1536. Cranmer acted as a go-between with the Lutheran princes, attempting to form both a political and religious alliance, but certain aspects of the new Anglican church struck the Lutherans as being too Catholic, and talks broke down.

Cromwell’s execution left Cranmer pretty much as Henry’s most trusted advisor for the remainder of his life. He even acted on behalf of the king when Henry left London on a progress in 1541. Unfortunately, being in such a prominent position has its hazards, and before long several conservative clergymen started gathering evidence to use against Cranmer. They eventually denounced him to the king, who refused to act against him. He eventually clued Cranmer in on the conspiracy against him, and although Cranmer took the opportunity to humiliate those involved, he did eventually forgive them and even continued to use their services.

Throughout the 1540s, Cranmer quietly instituted minor reforms in the church, but after Henry’s death in 1547 and the accession of his devoutly Protestant son, Edward, all caution was thrown to the wind. Cranmer began attacking monasticism and the worship of theological images, and he started moving away from the notion of transubstantiation. Under his leadership, the English church adopted the Book of Common Prayer, rejected transubstantiation, and accepted clerical marriage. He developed the liturgy for the ordination of priests, revised canon law, and formed a statement of doctrine that would eventually become the Forty-Two Articles.

Things probably would have continued apace, but then Edward died in 1553, and his half-sister Mary came to the throne. Mary was devoutly Catholic and the daughter of Katherine of Aragon, the very woman whose marriage Cranmer had dissolved. Needless to say, she wasn’t a fan. After Mary’s accession, Cranmer warned many of his friends to flee the country, though he chose to stay and publicly stuck to his Protestant guns. He was eventually put on trial for treason in 1553, found guilty, and condemned to death. He cooled his heels until March 8, 1554, when he and other leading reformers were sent to Oxford to await a second trial for heresy. They were left there until SEptember 12, 1555. The other reformers were tried and burnt at the stake on OCtober 16, as Cranmer was forced to watch.

In his final months, Cranmer was removed from prison and placed in the house of the Dean of Christ CHurch, where he was treated as a guest and given the opportunity to debate theology with a Dominican friar. Cranmer eventually accepted the authority of the queen and recognized the pope as head of the church. It was not enough to save him. His execution was set for March 7, prompting Cranmer to start issuing a whole bunch of Catholicism, yay!-style recantations, which did not satisfy Mary. In his last days, Cranmer realized how pointless all this was and recanted his recantations, publicly reaffirming his belief in Protestant ideology and basically calling the pope a con man. He was burned at the stake on March 21. Although he didn’t make it, his church eventually did, under Elizabeth I, who restored the Church of England’s independence from Rome and adopted Cranmer’s prayer book.

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