Thomas Cranmer was one of the most influential religious leaders during the English Reformation. The influence of Thomas Cranmer spanned the reigns of three monarchs – Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I. During the reign of Mary, Cranmer was put to death.
Cranmer was a Fellow of Jesus College. However, he also served as chaplain to the Earl of Wiltshire, the father of Anne Boleyn. Once Henry got the divorce he wanted, he married Anne. This gave the Earl of Wiltshire a higher profile at Court and Cranmer was dragged along with this. The academic was offered the position of Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533. In an era when few dared to oppose a decision of the king, Cranmer accepted.
Now one of the leading religious figure in the land, Cranmer started to develop his religious views. He wanted to see Protestantism embedded in England – a view more extreme that Henry in 1533. However, Cranmer kept on the right side of Henry by preaching his unswerving support for monarchical absolutism, which he justified by his support for the doctrine of divine right of kings. Along with Thomas Cromwell, Cranmer worked out marriage proposals and divorces when required by Henry.
Over the next years of Henry’s reign, Cranmer and the king developed a very close relationship. Cranmer’s impact on society was marked. He was the major Protestant factor in Henry’s Council; Cranmer sponsored the Great Bible in 1539 and composed the English Litany in 1545. Cranmer survived the attempts by some conservatives to end his influence both in the direction religious policy was going in England and his relationship with the king. They failed on both. Cranmer had one simple but very powerful aid on his side – the support of the king.
The trust Henry put in Cranmer was seen in his will. When he died, Edward VI was too young to rule. Therefore a Council of Regency was established, which had already been selected by Henry. Those conservatives who had unsuccessfully tried to undermine Cranmer were excluded from it. Cranmer was in it.
In June 1553, Edward VI gave his agreement to Cranmer’s ‘42 Articles’. These became the backbone of the ‘39 Articles’ that were introduced in Elizabeth’s reign in 1563.
Edward died in 1553. His will, signed by Cranmer, stipulated that Lady Jane Grey was to succeed him. Instinct ‘told’ those in government and the English people, that the real heir to the throne was Mary. The tragic last few days in the life of Lady Jane Grey and the recognised legal succession of Mary led to the fall of Cranmer.
The new queen, a staunch Roman Catholic who made her allegiance to the Pope very public, had Cranmer charged with treason for his part in the plot. In fact, it was Cranmer’s belief in divine right that ensured that he signed the king’s will that condemned him to the Tower of London in November 1553. It is probable that this was his only involvement in the ‘plot’.
His public execution was meant to have shown to all that Mary would not tolerate dissent. However, the manner of Cranmer’s execution – he thrust into the flames his writing hand (he had to sign his recantations) and kept it in the flames unto the end – made a deep impression on many.