Key Facts & Summary
- Cranmer abandoned his fellowship at Jesus College in order to marry his first wife.
- He became more and more interested in Martin Luther’s teachings and the Reformation.
- Although the clergy could not marry, Cranmer secretly remarried in 1532.
- In 1533, he was nominated by Henry VIII as Archbishop of Canterbury.
- Cranmer favoured the translation of religious texts (such as the Bible) into English.
- When Mary I rose to power, Cranmer was convicted of treason and executed on the ground of having attempted to modify Edward VI’s will and pass the crown to Lady Jane Grey.
- Cranmer was a controversial figure because he was the first Protestant archbishop in England.
Thomas Cranmer was born in Aslacton (in Nottinghamshire) on July 2, 1489. At the age of fourteen he was sent to Cambridge, and here, he received a sound humanist as well as philosophical training. In 1511, Cranmer was elected Fellow of Jesus College. However, he soon abandoned the position in order to pursue his love with his first wife, who died soon after given birth (Elton 2018).
Around 1520, Cranmer became increasingly interested with Mather Luther and his theological reflections: the future archbishop met up with other scholars of Luther, and their group was defined as ‘Little Germany’ (Elton 2018). Some of the people that were part of the group were William Tyndale, Robert Barnes, and Thomas Bilney (Elton 2018).
In 1523, he took orders and became one of the university examiners in theology. It was Cranmer who in 1529 suggested that the universities of Europe should be consulted on the legality of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, so avoiding an appeal to Rome for its annulment. Henry welcomed the idea and put Cranmer in charge of its execution. Cranmer defended his views before the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and formed one of a delegation sent to Rome to discuss the matter. However, some believe that Cranmer and Henry dad made a pact: if Cranmer helped him divorce from his wife, he would appoint him archbishop of Canterbury (Christian History Editors 1995).
In 1529, England was afflicted by the ‘sweating disease’ (which Anne Boleyn hd also contracted!), and Cranmer abandoned Cambridge with two pupils who were related to him, and settled at Waltham (in Essex) (Elton 2018).
In 1531, he was sent to Germany to arrange an alliance with the Lutheran princes. In 1532 he married a nice of the German Lutheran theologian Andreas Osiander, an action that was to prove awkward when, to his own surprise, he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533. As was expected, he at once declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine null and void and confirmed as valid the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. When Anne’s daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I was born, he served as godfather. In 1536 he accepted alleged evidence of Anne’s adulteries and annulled her marriage. As archbishop he did much to make possible the reading of the Bible in English and opposed the reaction that led to the Six Articles in 1539; these reasserted most points of the Catholic doctrine, including celibacy of the clergy and transubstantiation. The Litany of the English Book of Common Prayer, which was issued in 1545 and bears Cranmer’s name, is substantially the one still used in the Anglican church. Under the boy King Edward VI, Cranmer had a large share in preparing the prayer books of 1549 and 1552, as well as the Forty-two (later the Thirty-nine) Articles of 1553. His translation of the liturgy into the sonorous English of the XVI century was a masterly achievement.
Later in 1553 Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, was a staunch Catholic and came to the throne of England. Cranmer was sent to the Tower of London and convicted of treason on the ground of acquiescing in the dying of Edward VI’s will, which devised the crown to Lady Jane Grey, his youthful Protestant cousin. As a consequence, he was tried by an ecclesiastical court which convicted him of heresy, denied his of his role of archbishop, and turned him over to the civil authorities. Though he repeatedly recanted most of his Protestant views, acknowledging papal supremacy, at the last moment Cranmer recanted these recantations.
In fact, in his last speech, Cranmer states: ‘First, it is an heavy case to see that many folks be so much doted upon the love of this false world, and so careful for it, that for the love of God, or the love of the world to come, they seem to care very little or nothing therefore. This shall be my first exhortation: That you set not overmuch by this false glosing world, but upon God and the world to come. And learn to know what this lesson meaneth, which St John teacheth, that the love of this world is hatred against God. […] First, I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, &c. and every article of the Catholic faith, every word and sentence taught by our Saviour Christ, his Apostles and Prophets, in the Old and New Testament. And now I come to the great thing that troubleth my conscience more than any other thing that ever I said or did in my life: and that is, the setting abroad of writings contrary to the truth. Which here now I renounce and refuse, as things written with my hand contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and writ for fear of death, and to save my life, if it might be: and that is, all such bills, which I have written or signed with mine own hand, since my degradation; wherein I have written many things untrue. And forasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished. For if I may come to the fire, it shall be first burned. And as for the Pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy and antichrist, with all his false doctrine’ (Cranmer 1556).
When burned at the stake in Oxford, on March 21, 1556, he held out the offending right hand that had signed them, that it might be consumed first. A weak man, filled with scholarly uncertainties in a changing religious age, Cranmer found security only in the complete supremacy of the Crown over the Church.
Thomas Cranmer and Religion
Cranmer is a slightly controversial figure because he was the first Protestant archbishop in England. When Henry VIII appointed him the post of archbishop, he was travelling across Europe and delayed his journey back to England for seven weeks since he hoped Henry VIII would become impatient and assign such duty to someone else (Christian History Editors 1995). Moreover, although he was ordained as a priest, Cranmer was married twice in his life: his first wife died only after one year due to childbirth; whereas his second marriage was kept as a secret for fourteen years (Christian History Editors 1995).
Moreover, he contributed to the ‘enrichment of the national tongue’ by encouraging Coverdale’s 1539 translation of the Bible into English and making it more accessible to the audiences (Rice 1956). Since Coverdale’s edition contains a preface written by Cranmer, the book is also known as Cranmer’s Bible (Rice 1956).
However, it is under Henry VIII’s son, Edward VI, that Cranmer is truly able to put into practice his beliefs. In fact, also the King’s protector, Edward Seymour, intended to transform the Church of England into a Protestant church (Elton 2018).
[1.] Christian History Editors (1995). Thomas Cranmer and the English Reformation: Did you Know? Issue: 48.
[2.] Cranmer, T. (1556). Thomas Cranmer’s Final Speech before burning. In: Todd, H.J. (1831). The life of Archbishop Cranmer. Vol II. London: Gilber and Rivington.
[3.] Elton, G. R. (2018). Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury. Britannica.