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.
Thomas Cranmer was born on July 2nd, 1489. He was educated at Cambridge University and stated a career as an academic. Cranmer joined a group of intellectuals who met at the White Horse Tavern to discuss issues of the day. Those around him at the tavern were sympathetic to Martin Luther and Cranmer may have spent the rest of his days as an academic if it had not been for his involvement in the divorce of Catherine of Aragon by Henry VIII. It is said that it was Cranmer who suggested to the king that he should get the theological support of the Protestant universities of Western Europe in his quest for a divorce. They would give the king the relevant arguments to present to the court when it came to assessing his right to a divorce. It was this suggestion that was to propel the academic into a world of high politics.
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.
While serving Edward, still as Archbishop of Canterbury, Cranmer made a huge impact on English society. Cranmer was highly influenced by the European Protestants and wanted the English Church to move in that direction. Cranmer was primarily responsible for the First Prayer Book, which was written in English and in June 1549 became the only legal form of worship in the land as a result of the 1st Act of Uniformity. Those at the extreme side of Protestantism and Catholicism were unlikely to accept any compromise on any level but the act was written so that it had some appeal to the large majority of people in England. Ironically it was a European Protestant, Martin Bucer, who criticised the First Prayer Book. As a result of this, a Second Prayer Book was introduced in November 1552 – the result of the 2nd Act of Uniformity.
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’.
In March 1554, Cranmer had to defend his religious views against a delegation appointed by Convocation. His views were declared heretical. A great deal of pressure was placed on Cranmer to recant his beliefs and declare his support for Catholicism. This Cranmer did in private – he made four partial and two complete recantations. On March 21st, 1556, Cranmer was to do the same in public. This he refused to do and he was burned at the stake as a heretic on the same day.
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.
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