Thomas Cranmer: History, Major Facts & Accomplishments

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer is best known as the senior adviser to two English monarchs – Henry VIII and Edward VI. He played a leading role during the early years of the English Reformation. The Nottinghamshire-born religious scholar famously helped bring an end to papal power in England as well as writing the first two editions of the Book of Common Prayer which helped lay the structures (both Liturgical and doctrinal) of the reformed English Church. For his staunch opposition to Catholicism in England, he was arrested, tried and later burned at the stake for heresy by the anti-Protestant English Queen Mary I (aka “Bloody Mary”).

Fast Facts about English Archbishop Thomas Cranmer

Thomas Cranmer – the English archbishop who strived very hard to eliminate papal supremacy in England, and thus became one of the leading figures of the English Reformation. Portrait by Gerlach Flicke, 1545

Born: July 2, 1489

Place of birth: Aslacton, Nottinghamshire, England

Died: March 21, 1556

Place of death: Oxford, England

Cause of death: Burnt at the stake on the orders of Queen Mary I (aka “Bloody Mary”)

Aged: 66

Most known for: first Protestant archbishop of Canterbury

Education: University of Cambridge

Archbishop of Canterbury: December 3, 1533 – December 4, 1555

Consecration: 1533

Most notable achievement

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer is best known for his unflinching support of royal supremacy over the Church of England. As one of the leading figures of the English Reformation, he authored the Book of Common Prayers that helped establish the liturgical and doctrinal structures of new church of England. He, along with Reformers from across the continent, fought very hard to have the English monarch maintain complete jurisdiction within the realm.

For his efforts in promoting the principle of English monarchs having the divine right to rule the church as well as the state, Thomas Cranmer is sometimes regarded as the spiritual founder-father of the Reformed church in England.

Seen as a reformation martyr, the Anglican Communion commemorates him on March 21, the day he was executed. He is remembered in the calendar of saints of the Church of England with a  lesser festival.

Birth and education

Born on July 2, 1489 in Nottinghamshire, England, Thomas Cranmer was the second child of his parents – Thomas Cranmer and Agnes Hatfield. His older brother, John, inherited the family’s estate, leaving Thomas and his younger brother to pursue an ecclesiastic career.

At the age of 14, Cranmer attended Jesus College, Cambridge. Eight years later, he graduated with the equivalent of a Bachelor of Arts degree. He followed this up with a master’s degree, studying a host of humanist disciplines. He was then made a fellow of the college.

Fellowship at Jesus College, Cambridge

He would lose his fellowship after marrying a woman called Joan. To make ends meet he found a job at Buckingham Hall. After his wife’s death, Jesus College reinstated his fellowship. He would the go on to earn his Doctor of Divinity degree in 1526.

Cranmer is brought in to help with the “King’s Great Matter”

Beginning around the 1520s, Henry VIII of England was confronted with a very difficult situation as he tried to annul his marriage with his wife Catherine of Aragon. After more than a decade of trying to have a male heir to the throne, Henry had grown very frustrated, in spite of the royal couple having a female child called Mary.

Henry argued that since Catherine was originally betrothed to his older brother, Arthur, who had died in 1502, his marriage to Catherine contravened the laws in the bible (i.e. Leviticus 18-20), which forbids people from marrying/coveting their brother’s wife. Henry therefore tasked his Lord Chancellor Cardinal Thomas Wolsey to take up the issue with the Vatican and seek an amicable annulment of the marriage with Catherine. Before making the case before the Vatican, Cardinal Wolsey decided to pick the thoughts of learned scholars at Cambridge.

Henry’s impatience grew by the day. By age 34, he had abandoned any hopes of fathering a male child with Catherine of Aragon, who was 40 at the time. He was now faced with a dilemma – something that his courtiers called the “King’s great matter”. Henry VIII of England. Portrait of Henry VIII after Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1537–1562

Cranmer happened to be in the same town (Waltham Holy Cross Abbey in Essex, England) where King Henry VIII was staying in in order to escape a 1529 plague called the sweating sickness. While there, Cranmer is said to have gotten into a discussion with two Cambridge colleagues of his – Edward Foxe and Stephen Gardiner. The topic of discussion centered on the Henry’s quest for divorce from his first wife Catherine. Due to Cranmer’s sound suggestions, Foxe and Gardiner decided to have Cranmer present his plan to the king himself. The king found Cranmer’s ideas very sound and had him committed to his service.

Cranmer first served as one of Henry’s chaplains. He would later form part of the scholars from Cambridge that were selected for a diplomatic mission to Rome in 1530. In addition to being received by the pope, Cranmer and his colleagues interacted with a host university scholars and clergy across the continent in order to gather opinions on the king’s matter. The question that begged to be answered was: does the English king have supreme jurisdiction within his kingdom?

A couple of years after the Rome trip, Cranmer was appointed to an ambassador position to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. In Germany, he developed close working ties with a number of Lutheran princes as well as many other Lutheran theologians and Protestant reformers, including the Nuremberg Protestant reformer Andreas Osiander. Cranmer was very impressed by the works of Osiander.

Cranmer annuls Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon

Following the death of then-Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham in 1532, King Henry VIII appointed Cranmer to fill the vacant seat. His consecration took place on March 30, 1533 at St Stephen’s Chapel. Since the Church of England hadn’t yet severed ties with Rome, Cranmer still had to take an obligatory oath to the pope. Cranmer quickly then set about to concentrate on the annulment of the king’s marriage. By this time Anne Boleyn, the woman Henry VIII intended marrying, was already pregnant. As a result, Cranmer and the king devoted a considerable amount of time into coming out with legal procedures that they could use to help the king break free from his first wife.

On May 23, 1532, Cranmer declared the king’s marriage to Catherin void from the start. He added that the marriage went against God’s law. With that pronouncement, the king could now go ahead and marry. About a week later, Cranmer validated the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. The crowning and anointing of Anne as queen of England took place on June 1.

As expected, the papacy was absolutely livid about the decision of English king. Pope Clement VII threatened to excommunicate Henry and his bishops, including Cranmer, if they did not rescind the marriage annulment decision. Roman Catholic teaching forbids the divorce, and that a valid marriage remains intact until death.

Henry and Cranmer did not back down. The Archbishop of Canterbury was chosen as one of the godparents of Elizabeth, the king and Anne Boleyn’s daughter.

The annulment of Henry’s second and fourth marriages

Frustrated by Queen Anne’s miscarriage in January 1536, Henry began putting measures in place to have his marriage to Anne annulled. The king had also started developing a strong relationship with Jane Seymour, the daughter of Sir John Seymour (c. 1474 – 1536) and Margery Wentworth (c. 1478 – 1550). Henry and his chief political advisor Thomas Cromwell had concocted a host of stories to tarnish Anne’s loyalty to the king.

Having grown very fond of Anne, Cranmer was one of the few officials of the king that initially expressed their doubts about the allegations thrown at the beleaguered queen. However, there was nothing that Cranmer could do to save Anne Boleyn from being executed on May 17, 1536 at the Tower of London.

Cranmer was coerced into invalidating the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn on the charge that Anne Boleyn was an adulterous wife. This allowed Jane Seymour, who was already expecting a child, to tie the knot with the king. Sadly Jane Seymour passed away on October 24, 1537, a few days after the birth of the child, Edward (later Edward VI).

Henry VIII proceeded to marry his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves in 1540. That marriage ended was a fiasco as the king was not so much interested in his new wife. Again, Cranmer was called upon to annul the marriage.

Doing exactly as he was told by the king, Cranmer took part in the proceedings that found Catherine Howard guilty of treason and adultery. The king’s fifth wife was subsequently executed.

Read More: Everything You Need to Know about the Six Wives of Henry VIII of England

Reforms and contributions during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI

Archbishop Cranmer is best known as a huge advocate of the principle of royal supremacy. He demonstrated this by growing his beard following the death of Henry VIII.

By 1534, Cranmer had gone all out in declaring his support for reforms in the church. His backing and promotion of reformers in the church came despite strong appeals from religious conservative bishops who wanted to maintain papal supremacy in England.

Cranmer’s efforts were backed by the Act of Supremacy of 1534 which declared the English monarch as the head of the Church in the realm. The act in effect meant that Henry was severing ties with Rome completely. The king and his successors thus became supreme rulers of the Church of England. The Irish Act of Supremacy, which was passed in 1537, established the English monarch as the supreme ruler of the Church of Ireland.

In order to bring down tensions between the conservatives and the reformers, Cranmer instituted a compromise deal that produced the Ten Articles in July 1536. The deal covered issues pertaining to eucharist to baptism and religious images to rites and ceremonies.

Cranmer also encouraged the publication of an English Bible as part of the Protestant Reforms.

After coming out victorious in the plot (the Prebendaries’ Plot in 1543) to oust him from office, Cranmer began working on more reforms of the Church. He authorized the publication of the Book of Common Prayer, a vernacular service of intercession. The changes in the litany removed the invocations to saints.

Cranmer would aid the election of many reformers to the House of Commons in order to have his religious reform bills passed.

He constantly had to fend off attacks and plots from conservatives in the government, including Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester; Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk; and John Stokesley, the Bishop of London. Some allies of Cranmer were target and executed. Cranmer would receive support from some very influential reformers like Edward Seymour, the brother of Jane Seymour, and John Dudley, Earl of Warwick (later Duke of Northumberland).

Edward VI of England

Portrait of King Edward VI, aged about thirteen, by William Scrots

Following the death of Henry VIII in 1547, Cranmer helped in executing the deceased king’s will which instructed for a regency council to rule on behalf of the nine-year-old Edward VI, son and heir of Henry. Cranmer facilitated the appointment of fellow reformer Edward Seymour as Lord Protector of the Realm.

During the reign of Edward VI, Cranmer and his reformers dominated the affairs of the government. This was because Edward was raised a strong and devoted Protestant. The new king tended to be more supportive of Cranmer’s reform proposals than Henry VIII.

Cranmer supported efforts by Edward to give sanctuary to Protestants and reformed theologians who were fleeing persecution on the continent. Theologians like German reformer Martin Bucer, German-born reformer and scholar Paul Fagius, Italian-born reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli and Italian Roman Catholic priest-turned Protestant Bernadino Ochino were given safe havens in England. All those fleeing Protestant reformers helped fan the flames of English Reformation.

In 1547, he had helped in the publication of a Book of Homilies which contained the doctrines of the reformed Church.

The Prebendaries’ Plot

In 1543, Cranmer received King Henry VIII’s full support after he was accused of making a number of errors in the Faith, thereby making him a heretic. Those severe condemnations, which came to be referred to as the Prebendaries’ Plot, were aimed to remove Cranmer from power. The accusations were made by Catholic priests and religious conservatives who vehemently opposed Cranmer’s religious reforms. It was alleged that the plotters had conspired with Cardinal Reginald Pole (1500 – 1558) and other conservatives in exile. Many of the plotters were executed, including German Gardiner, a nephew of Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester.

The Book of Common Prayer

His greatest contribution to the Reformation came in 1549 when he worked on the Book of Common Prayer. The book would go on to be the official liturgical book of the Church of England. Cranmer was also up to the task in dealing with the negative response and ultimately the protests (i.e. the Prayer Book Rebellion) that ensued following the publication of the book.

Not even the ousting of his close ally Edward Seymour in October 1549 from the position of Protectorship could dampen his resolve to the implementation of the reforms in the church.

After years of working, Cranmer came out with a revised version of the Prayer Book in 1552. This version, which included a number of reforms, including scrapping off prayers for the dead, received more positive reviews from reformers.

It must be noted that the Prayer Book that was published during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I was in the nutshell Thomas Cranmer’s 1552 edition but without the “Black Rubric”.

Heresy trial and execution

The Trial of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer

The Trial of Thomas Cranmer (1580)

Like many Protestants and reformers, Thomas Cranmer was very concerned about having an England under the rulership of Lady Mary, the Catholic half-sister of Edward VI. Led by Dudley, the Regency Council successfully convinced Edward to exclude Mary from the line of succession. In Mary’s place, Lady Jane Grey, the king’s cousin, was chosen as the successor of the ailing king. Cranmer wholeheartedly supported the Edward’s will.

On July 10, 1553, Lady Jane Grey was proclaimed queen of England, having succeeded Edward VI. However, the teenager’s reign would only last for nine days as Mary rallied enormous support to oust Lady Jane Grey from power. With Mary in power, many members of the Regency Council were arrested and later executed, including Dudley.

Bloody Mary

For a brief period, Cranmer served in the government of Queen Mary I. However, he soon found himself in hot waters for criticizing Mary’s persecution of Protestants.

Queen Mary’s anti-Protestant stance caused a lot of Protestant Reformers to seek refuge abroad. Thomas Cranmer did not flee.  His firm support of the reforms that took place during the reign of Edward VI resulted in him incurring the wrath of new Catholic monarch. In September, 1553, he and a number of leading Protestant figures were taken into custody and imprisoned at the Tower of London. The following month, Cranmer was put on trial for treason. He was found guilty and sentenced to death.

With ousted queen Lady Jane Grey and other leading figures of Edward’s reign executed in February, 1554, Queen Mary turned her attention to Cranmer and Protestant leaders.

During his in prison, he is said to have made many recantations as he hoped to secure a royal pardon from Queen Mary. He even recognized the papacy as the head of the church. He made it known that he had returned to the Catholic faith, praying for a sacramental absolution to be granted to him. This recantations helped delay his execution.

Execution of Thomas Cranmer

Archbishop Cranmer was burned at the stake on March 21, 1556 having been accused of supporting and writing heretical works

Per the canon law, Cranmer’s recantations should have earned him a reprieve; however, Queen Mary had a strong desire to set an example of Cranmer. Therefore, his execution was to go as planned.

After making a final recantation via a letter that was published later, Cranmer was executed on March 21, 1556. Just before his execution, he made a U-turn and renounced his earlier recantations. Cranmer rejected the pope, calling him an enemy of Christians and the Antichrist.

Did you know?

Statue of Thomas Cranmer

Statue of Cranmer on the Martyrs’ Memorial, Oxford

While serving as an ambassador in Germany, he married Margarete, the niece of his close friend Andreas Osiander.

Thomas Cranmer greatly mourned Henry VIII’s death. He even grew his beard to show his grief. Soon the beard became a symbol of England severing ties with the papacy. As a result, reformers across the continent began growing their beards to communicate their rejection of papacy supremacy.

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