Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556)

Thomas Cranmer was born 2 July 1489  at Aslacton, Nottinghamshire. His father was an honest country gentleman who spent most of his time in sports of hunting, fishing, hawking, and military exercises. From him the boy learnt how to  ride, hunt with a hawk, fish, use a bow, and generally to exercise for the benefit of his health. Among his favourite past times was to walk and climb a hill behind the home where he could sit and meditate. His formal education was, however, poor, having as a tutor a parish priest, Ralph Morice, who was ignorant and severe with the boy.  About 1504 he was sent to Cambridge  by his mother ( his father having died) where he made many friends and in 1511 was elected  a fellow of Jesus College. He became a Doctor of Divinity in 1523. Having married at 23, he forfeited his fellowship at Jesus College according to the regulations of the time. But his wife and child having died, the next year he was elected once again and held the post for several years.

 It was about this time that he began to study the foreign writers including Erasmus, before  returning to Buckingham (later Magdalene) college to teach. Here his lectures excited some and upset the traditionalist clerics who, as usual, ranted and raved. He was nicknamed the “hostler” for a while as he was living in the Dolphin hostel at the time. Later they called  him the  `Scripturist` because of  his passion for reading and quoting the Scriptures.

Cranmer`s life took an important turn now and he became deeply focussed for some three years on his reading and understanding of just about any book he could lay hands on, including that of Luther that had recently been published. In particular he sought the truth of God`s word and was convinced  that the only infallible source was the Scriptures. Honours meanwhile followed – in a short space of time he was made  doctor of divinity, professor, university preacher and examiner. In the latter role he weaned off many half hearted monks who sought elevation in the ministry as he insisted that “Christ sendeth his hearers to the Scriptures, and not to the church”, the faint hearted complained it was too difficult and withdrew in anger ( at their own shortcomings ?). At this time his colleagues included Latimer, Stafford and Bilney.

Whether serendipity or predestination we shall never know, but because of plague in Cambridge, Wolsey was visiting relatives, the Cressy family, at Waltham Abbey when Henry and his entourage stopped for the night. Secretary Stephen Gardiner and Bishop Fox stayed with the Cressy`s and were most surprised to meet their  old friend from Cambridge university. In the course of supper the conversation turned to the divorce problem during which Cranmer remarked that they were attacking the issue from the wrong angle.

You should not cling to the decisions of the church. There is a surer and shorter way which alone can give peace to the king`s conscience. … The true question is this – what says the word of God ? If God has declared the marriage  of this nature bad, the pope cannot make it good. Discontinue these interminable  Roman negotiations.  When God has spoken man must obey.  …. consult the universities; they will discern it more surely than Rome.”

“The word of God  is above the church” , was the principle that Cranmer expounded and it framed  the whole of the Reformation  in just eight words.

At Greenwich shortly after Henry met with Gardiner and Fox who retold of their discussions with Cranmer. Henry was excited at the prospect of having an alternative means to achieve his divorce and immediately sent for Cranmer, who had gone to Nottingham in the meantime. Cranmer was somewhat distressed that he had been involved in the matter and reluctant even when pressed by the king. Cranmer was then requested to give a written opinion for which purpose he was lodged with the Earl of Wiltshire (the father of Anne Boleyn – sometimes called Bullen, whom Cranmer thus met.)  There followed the consultation with the universities throughout Europe for their decision as to the Word of God and Henry`s desire for a divorce. Cranmer`s fortune was made.

On the death of Archbishop Warham on 23 August 1532, Cranmer was appointed to the See of Canterbury. Throughout Henry VIII`s reign Cranmer was a trusted member of Henry`s government although he did not get involved in the machinations of papist Stepehen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester.   However, he continued good service to Henry in dealing with his succession of marriages, divorce etc. On the reforms, as injunctions were raised so he had them promulgated and in many ways simply kept his head down choosing concilliation  rather than confrontation. Cranmer published his revised Breviary in 1538 and  with the appearance in 1537 of Matthew’s Bible and the Great Bible in 1539 the services were to be led in English. This was one of the most important developments in Anglican worship.

Cranmer came into his own in the reign of Edward VI, where as godfather, councillor and tutor he exercised great influence over the boy king`s upbringing. In particular he encouraged interest in the evangelical and protestant church which became an obsession with the king. During the coronation sermon Cranmer referred to the boy-king as “a new Josiah who was to reform the worship of God, destroy idolatry, banish the Bishop of Rome and remove images from the land.” During Edward`s short reign the laws about the burning of dissidents and alleged heretics were swept away and the atmosphere became by far more tolerant. Cranmer was now able to introduce radical changes which he had been nurturing  for this moment – a much more Scriptural worship that had the Romish superstitions removed.

Cranmer’s preliminary steps were the publication of the Book of Homilies on 31st July 1547 together with The Order of Communion on March 1548. In due course he issued  The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments. This placed  all the church services  in one volume. Not wishing to force confrontation, quite a large amount of the  Romish liturgy was retained and he only selectively omitted elements  such as those that implied a doctrine. But there was no pleasing all the people and complaints arose that he had not done enough. Thus in 1552 a second Prayer Book was published which was influenced by the German and Swiss church practices. In this he was  as advised by Martin Bucer (1491-1551) who had removed to Cambridge when he was forced to leave Strasbourg in 1549. As a result of the revised work altars became communion tables, prayers for the dead were deleted and eucharistic vestments banned, while the Communion Service was modified. The confessional-box  form of forgiving sins was discontinued, and remission of sins through gospel-preaching was adopted. Images of saints and particularly of the virgin Mary were also removed. The common people were thus encouraged to become familiar with the prayer-book and a simpler religion, in English.

The untimely end of the young Edward VI brought an entirely different set of issues, with the reign of Queen Mary (r1553-8), a staunch Catholic who was married to Phillip of Spain. in 1554. She reversed everything and returned to the bloody persecution, imprisoning, and burning at the stake many Reformers. Among these was Thomas Cranmer burned at Oxford as a heretic. The charges brought against him were mainly about the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper as he stated them to be in his book, A Defence of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament. Essentially about the validity of transubstantiation he demonstrated and believed  that Christ was present in spirit and not in bodily form professed by Rome.

Cranmer was deposed and cast into the Tower for nearly two and a half years where he was constantly berated and promised many things if he recanted. The usual rigmarole of degradation took place and Cranmer was subject of a two hour sermon ( tirade) to which he responded by speaking of the pope as the Antichrist.  On 10 March 1554 Cranmer was sent prisoner to Oxford, along with Ridley sometime Bishop of London, and Hugh Latimer, sometime Bishop of Worcester, There they were to debate with assorted professors of the universities, on the usual catch all topics of : transubstantiation; the matter of the real presence of Christ, and the sacrifice of the mass.  The debate, rather the tirade and constant interruptions to anything they tried to say, took place from 7-10 April with the inevitable finding that they were heretics. In the interim until his death Cranmer was surrounded by
Catholic place men who cajoled and whispered to him to recant  such that he did eventually sign some papers presented to him with the possibility that the Queen might relent . But there was no hope, Mary was determined that Cranmer would burn and no amount of recanting was going to stop that taking place.

On 21 March 1556   Cranmer faced up to his executioners very much  regretting his actions and repented. At the appointed place he exhorted the people in the normal way but then gave his retraction of earlier statements that he had made. This was the reason for his declaration  “Because my right hand hath offended, it shall first be burned.” Thus when taken to the place of execution, and the fire was lit, he held his hand in the flames to be burnt first. As his body was consumed  he was  heard repeating over and over again  “This unworthy hand, this unworthy hand.”

Cranmer`s last words.

And now I come to the great thing, which so much troubleth my conscience, more than any thing that ever I did or said in my whole life, and that is the setting abroad of a writing contrary to the truth; which now here I renounce and refuse, as things written with my hand, contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and written for fear of death, and to save my life if it might be; and thatis., all such bill, and papers which I have written or signed with my hand since my degradation; wherein I have written many things untrue. And forasmuch as my hand offended writing contrary to my heart, my hand shall fast be punished there-for; for, may I 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,

“And as for the sacrament, I believe as I have taught in my book against the bishop of Winchester, the which my book teacheth so true a doctrine of the sacrament, that it shall stand at the last day before the judgment of God, where the papistical doctrine contrary thereto shall be ashamed to show her face.”