Archbishop Thomas Cranmer

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer 

1489 - 1556

Thomas Cranmer was born in 1489 at Aslockton in Nottinghamshire.  He was educated at Cambridge University where he received his BA degree in 1511.  Three years later he received his MA degree and became a fellow of Jesus College.  He married and became a reader in the monastery at Buckingham College.  However, within a year of marriage his wife died.  He was re-admitted to his fellowship at Jesus College and within three years he had become a priest.  By 1520 he had become a University preacher and in 1521 he was awarded a Bachelor of Divinity degree.  In 1526 he became a Doctor of Divinity and was appointed University examiner in Divinity.
In summer 1529 an outbreak of plague in Cambridge caused Cranmer to move to Waltham.  In August King Henry VIII visited Waltham Abbey.  The King’s secretary and other officials stayed in the same house where Cranmer was lodging and at supper on 2 August 1529 they had a discussion about the King’s proposed divorce. Cranmer asked why they wanted the Pope’s approval for the divorce instead of consulting the Scriptures, ‘If God has made this marriage sinful, the Pope cannot make it lawful’.  Cranmer said that the Universities should pass judgement on what the Scriptures said on the issue ‘they will return a sounder verdict than the pope’.  Henry took up Cranmer’s suggestion and discussions were held at Cambridge.  
This issue brought Cranmer to Henry’s attention, and when Warham, the Archbishop of Canterbury, died in 1532, Henry appointed Cranmer as his successor.  At this time England had begun to break from Rome.  In December 1533 the Privy Council declared that the Pope had no authority in England, and in spring 1534 Parliament abolished all Papal powers in England.

Cranmer’s shift from Roman Catholicism to the Reformed faith was gradual.  In 1533 he granted a licence to Hugh Latimer, who held Reformed views, authorising him to preach anywhere in the diocese of Canterbury, and in 1534 he arranged for Latimer to preach before the King.  In April he asked him to examine preachers for granting licences to preach.  In August 1535, Melanchthon, the leading Lutheran, wrote to Cranmer encouraging him in his moves towards the Reformed faith.
On 6 February 1536 Cranmer preached at St Paul’s Cross in London and during a two hour sermon he criticised the worship of images, adoration of saints, purgatory and monasticism.  In 1537 the first official English Bible was published.  This was the ‘Matthew’s Bible’ and was the work of William Tyndale, John Rogers and Miles Coverdale.

The Reformation in England suffered a setback in May 1536 when Henry VIII introduced the ‘Six articles of religion’.  These articles taught Roman Catholicism with the exception of recognising the Pope in England, and included transubstantiation, clerical celibacy, private masses for souls in purgatory and confession.  Cranmer spoke out strongly against the articles in a debate in the House of Lords.

Henry VIII died on 27 January 1547, and he was replaced on the throne by King Edward VI, who was sympathetic to the Reformed Faith.  Cranmer said that Edward’s task was to see God truly worshipped, idolatry destroyed and images removed.  Cranmer published his ‘Book of Homilies’, twelve sermons which stressed the need of faith for salvation. In November Cranmer banned private masses, especially for the dead, and allowed the clergy to marry.  In 1549 he also produced a revised ‘Book of Common Prayer’ for use in the Church of England.  This made a number of changes to the Roman Catholic form of service and was written in English rather than Latin.
Bishop Ridley of London had been removing altars in his diocese and replacing them by communion tables.  In November 1550 an order was issued to all bishops to remove the altars in their dioceses.  In July 1550 Cranmer published a book on the Lord’s Supper where he made it clear that he rejected any idea of transubstantiation, the belief that the bread and wine become the actual blood and body of Christ: ‘All that love and believe Christ Himself, let them not think that Christ is corporeally in the bread but let them lift up their hearts unto Heaven and worship Him sitting there at the right hand of the Father ... in no wise let them worship Him as being corporeally in the bread, for He is not in it’.
In 1552 Cranmer revised the prayer book.  In the revised version the funeral service omitted all prayers for the dead, reservation of the bread and wine for the sick was discontinued, and the Roman Catholic rite of extreme unction was removed.  All vestments used in the Communion service were abandoned and all traces of the mass were removed.

In June 1553 Cranmer issued a set of ‘Forty-Two Articles’ which laid out the doctrine of the Church of England.  John Knox helped Cranmer with these, which became the ‘Thirty-Nine Articles’ which is still the official teaching of the Church of England and the Church of Ireland.  
In July 1553, King Edward VI died and was succeeded on the throne by Lady Jane Grey.  When Mary became Queen, Cranmer was arrested on 14 September 1553 for speaking against the mass and for treason in supporting Lady Jane Grey.  He was found guilty of treason and condemned to be executed, but Queen Mary changed her mind and decided to have him tried for heresy.  He was moved from the Tower of London, where he had shared a cell with Bishops Latimer and Ridley, and in March 1554 he was taken to Oxford to stand trial.  His trial took place from 14-20 April after which he was condemned as a heretic.  However a long legal process was necessary to depose him as an Archbishop.  In September 1555 he was tried again by the Bishop of Gloucester acting on behalf of the Pope.

In January 1555 a Papal decree excommunicating Cranmer as a heretic reached Oxford.  However on 28 January 1556 Cranmer recanted his Reformed beliefs.  He went on to write a full submission to Mary and the Pope and attended mass.  Mary still intended to have Cranmer burnt, and on 18 March 1556 he was told that he was to be burnt the following Saturday.
The night before he was to be burnt he wrote a statement in which he said that his recantation was a lie and that ‘Forasmuch as my hand offended writing contrary to my heart, my hand shall first be punished’.  On the day of his burning he was given the opportunity to make a last recantation, instead he made a statement reaffirming his belief in the Reformed Faith which ended with: ‘As for the Pope, I refuse him as Christ’s enemy and Antichrist with all his false doctrine’.  He was immediately taken to the stake where the fire was lit and Cranmer placed his right hand in the flames.

The Burning of Thomas Cranmer - Protestant Martyr

Bishop J C Ryle wrote that ‘there is none certainly in the list of our Reformers to whom the Church of England, on the whole, is so much indebted’.  John Foxe wrote of Cranmer: ‘But especially he had to rejoice, that dying in such a cause, he was to be numbered amongst Christ’s martyrs’.


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