Thomas Cranmer was really an unlikely hero yet he was one of the most influential figures of the English Reformation. He was born around the year 1489 near Nottingham and enrolled at Cambridge University at the age of 14, earning a BA in 1511 and becoming a Doctor of Divinity in 1523.

Some historians say that he spent a number of years in Germany and was deeply influenced by the wave of Protestantism that was gaining momentum there while others say he spent several years studying the writings of Luther while he was in Cambridge, whatever the case may have been the work of Luther made a deep impression on Cranmer and was responsible for his conversion. One of the most telling signs of the impact Protestantism had on Cranmer was the fact that he was married even though it was illegal for Catholic priests to do so.

Cranmer was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by Henry VIII and his rise to the position was fairly unconventional. The issue at hand was Henry’s desire to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon who had been unable to produce a male heir. Henry desperately needed a male heir to stabilize the Tudor succession to the throne and he was incensed at Catherine’s inability to help the situation. Cranmer commented to someone that the king should obtain a consensus of opinion regarding the matter from the leading Universities of Europe. His comments reached the ears of the king who quite liked the idea and this set in motion a series of events that saw Cranmer being called to take up the position of Archbishop of Canterbury.

Broad Street, Oxford

One historical account, which speaks of Cranmer being in Germany at the time he was appointed to the position, describes how Cranmer smuggled his wife into England with him in a trunk with extra holes in it. Fascinating stuff considering the fact that Cranmer came back to England to take up the highest ecclesiastical office within the Catholic church.

It was Cranmer who granted Henry’s divorce from Catherine and thereafter legitimized his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Cranmer was the godfather of Henry and Anne’s daughter Elizabeth who would later be crowned Queen of England. Henry’s gift to England was to essentially get rid of Papal authority over the church and to abolish monasticism but he himself was a faithful papist to the end and never intended for the church of England to be anything other than Catholic. He just wanted it to be Catholic without the Pope.

After Henry’s death in 1547 his son Edward ascended the throne as Edward VI. Cranmer was ecstatic and at the coronation preached a sermon likening him to the biblical boy king Josiah, who brought Revival and Reformation to the Kingdom of Judah. After Edward’s ascension, Cranmer worked with Edward Seymour, the King’s uncle to slowly move the Reformation forward in England. Clergy were allowed to marry, people were allowed to partake of both the bread and wine at mass, altars were replaced with tables and the images of saints taken down. Cranmer also wrote the first common book of prayer in English rather than in the traditional Latin and this edition was improved upon in 1552. This was done so that every service could be performed in English. Cranmer also invited many of the European Reformers to come to England, attracting the likes of the great Reformer Martin Bucer of Strasbourg and others.

Unfortunately, Edward died in 1553 and though there was a valiant attempt made to retain a Protestant monarch on the throne by crowning Lady Jane Grey, the caper only last 9 days and Mary Tudor ascended the throne in all her Papal fury. One of her first acts was to throw Cranmer in prison for the role he played in Henry’s divorce from her mother Catherine and also for the role he had played in the spread of Protestantism in England.

Cranmer spent two and a half years in prison and was taken to watch the martyrdom of Latimer and Ridley from the prison roof, all in an attempt to make him recant which he eventually did. His recantation did not secure his freedom and he was brought to trial again in St. Mary’s church where he withdrew his recantation, denounced the Pope as the antichrist and committed himself to martyrdom. He was taken to the place of execution and as he reached the flames he put in his right hand first, the same hand that signed his first recantation, and said:  “my right hand hath offended, it shall first be burned”. He then collapsed into the flames.

Though Cranmer recanted in the face of pressure and persecution he ended his life as a hero, faithful to God at the very end. Proverbs 24:16 says For a just man falleth seven times, and riseth up again:” It is not how often you fall that matters but that you rise up again.  

Further Reading

  • White, E.G. (1888) – The Great Controversy
  • Wylie, J.A. (1878) – The History of Protestantism
  • D’Aubigne, Merle, J.H. (1832) – The History of the Reformation

Recommended Listening

  • The Great Courses – The Renaissance, The Reformation and The Rise of Nations – Andrew C. Fix
  • The English Reformation and The Puritans – Michael Reeves
  • The Great Courses – The History of Christianity in the Reformation Era – Brad S. Gregory