The Oxford Martyrs: Thomas Cranmer – Archbishop of Canterbury

Thomas Cranmer - c. 1545 - Gerlach Flicke - National Portrait Gallery - London

Thomas Cranmer – c. 1545 – Gerlach Flicke – National Portrait Gallery – London

Thomas Cranmer, the first archbishop of the Church of England, the founder of the English Book of Common Prayer, the scholar, the politician, the man of great accomplishments and great faults; Cranmer strikes us as a very human man. He led the church of England under both King’s Henry VIII and Edward VI. As he grew in learning and accomplishment he began to speak out against the excesses of Catholicism, transubstantiation, and the forbidding of marriage for the clergy. He pulled the strings for Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley to place them in their high positions, he introduced radical reforms that altered church life and ideas about authority in the church, and ultimately created such a flowing stream of reformation doctrine in England that even the fires of Queen Mary I could not put them out.

Born in Aslacton, Nottinghamshire in 1489, Cranmer attended the University of Cambridge. He achieved his Bachelor of Arts by 1512 and his Doctor of Divinity by 1526. He, like many of the intellectuals of his day, got involved with a that little group of fellows at the White Horse Tavern that included Latimer, Ridley, Tynedale, and others who read and consumed Luther’s works coming out of Germany. It was under this influence that he started to develop new ideas that went against the grain of typical church doctrine. He felt that the clergy ought to marry and he did just that. He married a local girl that he had met named Joan. As a result he lost his fellowship at Cambridge “but was re-elected on the death of his wife a year later.” (A Cambridge Alumni Database) After his reinstatement, Cranmer served in a number of ecclesiastical offices.

He became Archdeacon of Taunton in 1529 and made a friend in King Henry VIII. Henry found Cranmer a worthy ally in his quest to free himself from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. (Elton) As a result Henry sent Cranmer abroad to Bologna and Rome itself to plead his case for royal divorce. (A Cambridge Alumni Database) Changes in religious opinions stirred up in part during his debates in the White Horse Tavern started to take shape during Cranmer’s trips abroad. Church historian Marrs believes that “Cranmer experienced with the school itself a move away from medieval scholasticism; between 1511 and 1516 Cranmer shifted to a lifelong devotion to the ‘new learning’….[that] energized Cranmer’s subsequent theological work.” (64) This change expressed itself in Cranmer’s work and subsequent actions abroad on mission for the king.

Thomas Cranmer - Stained Glass - Emmanuel Chapel - Emmanuel University

Thomas Cranmer – Stained Glass – Emmanuel Chapel – Emmanuel University

“In 1532 he was sent to Germany, officially as ambassador to the emperor Charles V but with instructions to establish contact with the Lutheran princes.” (Elton) Henry VIII, ever trying to make allies for himself, sent Cranmer who he could trust. Cranmer’s time in the Holy Roman Empire would speed up his theological development and define him for the rest of his life. In the midst of the Lutheran territories, Cranmer started developing an opinion against transubstantiation and against other Roman Catholic defended doctrines. Andreas Osiander, one of Cranmer’s Lutheran contacts, invited the ambassador to his home and they discussed many theological topics, including transubstantiation and most likely marriage for priests and other reformed opinions. During this time, Cranmer met Margarete, a relative of Andreas at dinner one night. As they got to know each other, they fell in love. Cranmer, who at this point would have been in an overall reformed orientation in his theology decided he would not do as the corrupt priests who took mistresses did. He married her within the year.

Back in England, Cranmer started to work more and more openly toward the reformation. King Henry VIII appointed him Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533. Though his marriage had happened, he kept it quiet and pulled all the strings of political expediency to remain in King Henry’s favor. As a result, Cranmer made a few questionable decisions. He supported the king through his various marriages and the executions of his former wives. One historian Macaulay comments, “We do not mean…to represent him as a monster of wickedness. He was not wantonly cruel or treacherous. He was merely a supple, timid, interested courtier—that which has always been represented as his distinguishing virtue.” (Woodhouse 390) Indeed, Cranmer was a King’s man. Paul Ayrris points out that “Of all the doctrines which Cranmer espoused, the one which is most difficult to understand is his doctrine of the Royal Supremacy.” (9) This doctrine is perhaps best typified as a prince whose godly leading and character encourages religion and repels the influence of Rome. One quote that Ayrris picks out of Cranmer to support his argument is Cranmer’s statement:

All Christian princes have committed unto them immediately of God the whole cure of all their subjects, as well concerning the administration of God’s word for the cure of souls, as concerning the ministration of things political and civil governance. (Thomas Cranmer, 1540, Answers quoted in Ayrris)

Cranmer’s reformation ideas here centered around political power. No longer should the papacy govern the affairs of the king, but the king ought to govern in righteousness.

Thomas Cranmer’s most significant contribution to the Reformation in England, without a doubt, was the first and second edition of the Book of Common Prayer (1549 and 1552). As England became a protestant nation, priests in churches across the country could not communicate a strong central message. He worked with Martin Bucer and other foreign theologians to craft a reformed view of the Eucharist. He also continued the effort for reform with the Forty-two Articles of 1553 (Elton). Thanks to the work of Cranmer, Ridley, Latimer, and others Church of England emerged as a distinctly protestant institution, not only politically, but now religiously as well.

The Book of Common Prayer - Thomas Cranmer - 1548 - The University of Sussex

The Book of Common Prayer – Thomas Cranmer – 1548 – The University of Sussex

Theology in the Church of England today is a mishmash of beliefs stemming from Reformed conservatism, high church Catholicism, to neo-orthodox liberalism. Indeed the word Anglican or Episcopal has become practically useless in determining one’s theological bent. Yet, even today, the one thing that unifies Anglicanism is its well-developed liturgy first put into place by Cranmer.

In a post on Reformation 21, church historian Carl Trueman wrote about a Muslim girl who had come to an Anglican service at King’s Chapel in Cambridge, England. This church was not known for reformed orthodoxy by any means. Yet, Trueman recounts how rich the liturgy remained a means of communicating the truths of the Christian faith:.

So what exactly had she witnessed, I asked myself? Well, at a general level she had heard the English language at its most beautiful and set to an exalted purpose: the praise of Almighty God. She would also have seen a service with a clear biblical logic to it, moving from confession of sin to forgiveness to praise to prayer. She would also have heard this logic explained to her by the minister presiding, as he read the prescribed explanations that are built in to the very liturgy itself. The human tragedy and the way of salvation were both clearly explained and dramatized by the dynamic movement of the liturgy. And she would have witnessed all of this in an atmosphere of hushed and reverent quiet.

In terms of specific detail, she would also have heard two whole chapters of the Bible read out loud: one from the Old Testament and one from the New. Not exactly the whole counsel of God but a pretty fair snapshot. She would have been led in a corporate confession of sin. She would have heard the minister pronounce forgiveness in words shaped by scripture. She would have been led in corporate prayer in accordance with the Lord’s own prayer. She would have heard two whole psalms sung by the choir. She would have had the opportunity to sing a couple of hymns drawn from the rich vein of traditional hymnody and shot through with scripture. She would have been invited to recite the Apostles’ Creed (and thus come pretty close to being exposed to the whole counsel of God). She would have heard collects rooted in the intercessory concerns of scripture brought to bear on the real world. And, as I noted earlier, all of this in the exalted, beautiful English prose of Thomas Cranmer.

….here is the irony: in this liberal Anglican chapel, the hijabi experienced an hour long service in which most of the time was spent occupied with words drawn directly from scripture. She heard more of the Bible read, said, sung and prayed than in any Protestant evangelical church of which I am aware – than any church, in other words, which actually claims to take the word of God seriously and place it at the centre of its life. (“What the Hijabi Witnessed (and What She Didn’t”)

Without a doubt, Cranmer’s legacy continues to the modern day. Like Ridley, Cranmer headed up the effort to have Lady Jane Gray the successor to Edward VI in July of 1553. As a result, when Queen Mary I took the throne and launched her Counter-Reformation, Archbishop Cranmer would be stripped of his title and throne in prison for treason and heresy. Cranmer watched under duress while his friends Ridley and Latimer were burned at the stake together. Queen Mary did not merely want to get rid of Archbishop Cranmer, she wanted to break his spirit and effect a recantation such that all England would conform to re-Catholicism. Elton relates that “The government had every reason to hope that the publication of Cranmer’s defection would wreck Protestantism in England.” (“Thomas Cranmer- Archbishop of Canterbury”) Cranmer broke down and he recanted. But unable to live with himself, Cranmer recanted his recantation.

Archbishop Cranmer's Execution in Oxford - John Foxe - Acts and Monuments - 1563

Archbishop Cranmer’s Execution in Oxford – John Foxe – Acts and Monuments – 1563

On rainy and unpleasantly cold day on March, 21 1556, Cranmer was taken out into the flames to be burned alive. He said a prayer “I have offended both against heaven and earth, more than my tongue can express…O Lord my God, my sins be great, but yet have mercy upon me for thy great mercy…I crave nothing for mine own merits, but for they name’s sake, that it may be hallowed thereby, and for thy dear Son Jesus Christ’s sake.” (Foxe’s Acts and Monuments quoted in Mayer) He thrust his hand into the flames that wrote his recantation saying, “’This hand which signed the cursed document will be the first to suffer.’ Then he stepped into the flames himself and died.” (Calhoun).

Today we remember Cranmer as father of English Protestantism. His legacy, for the last 460 years has been a source of great inspiration and comfort to many. His liturgy can be heard in the churches of the Anglican Communion across the globe and he served as an example of how one could use their power and influence to steer the direction of the Reformation in their country. That is why we honor him.

Ayris, Paul. “Thomas Cranmer and His Godly Prince: New Evidence from His Collections of Lawe.” Reformation & Renaissance Review: Journal of the Society for Reformation Studies 7.1 (2005): 7–41. Print. Retrieved at Westminster Theological Seminary.

Calhoun, David. “Lighting a Candle: The English Reformation.” Reformation and Modern Church History. Spring 2006. Covenant Theological Seminary. Web. 17 Oct 2015.

“Cranmer, Thomas.” A Cambridge Alumni Database. Cambridge University. Web. 17 Oct 2015.

Elton, Sir. Geoffrey R. “Thomas Cranmer: Archbishop of Canterbury.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 17 Oct 2015.

Marrs, Daniel. “Real Presence, Spiritual Presence: Assessing Thomas Cranmer S Appropriation of St. Ambrose’s Eucharist Doctrine.” Anglican Theological Review 97.1 (2015): 53–74. Print. Retrieved at Westminster Theological Seminary.

Meyer, Carl S. “Cranmer’s Legacy.” Concordia Theological Monthly 27.4 (1956): 241–268. Print. Retrieved at Westminster Theological Seminary.

Trueman, Carl. “What the Hijabi Witnessed (and What She Didn’t).” Reformation21. August 2013. Web. 17 Oct. 2015.

Woodhouse, H F. (Hugh Frederic). “Character of Cranmer.” Anglican Theological Review 45.4 (1963): 389–396. Print. Retrieved at Westminster Theological Seminary.


5 thoughts on “The Oxford Martyrs: Thomas Cranmer – Archbishop of Canterbury

  1. Pingback: John Knox: Rebel of Scotland and Father of Presbyterianism | Continuing Reformation

  2. Pingback: Peter Martyr Vermigli: Reformer of Europe | Continuing Reformation

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