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Execution of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer

60 second histories
by: Squaducation date: 21 Mar

The Execution of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer  -  

March 21st 1556.  


The first half of the sixteenth century saw a massive upheaval in the Church with the spread of Protestantism – the ideals of the German cleric Martin Luther. Nowhere was this more keenly seen than in England where successive monarchs swayed the country one way then another. Henry VIII, a staunch Catholic, employed an increasingly Protestant Archbishop in the final years of his life. Edward VI’s reign was characterised by a complete shift to the teachings of Luther followed by Mary I who was even more devoutly Catholic than her father, Henry VIII, gaining her the sobriquet ‘Bloody Mary’ for the number of heretic Protestants she burnt. The accession of Elizabeth I in 1558 saw religious tolerance slowly turn to more fundamental Protestantism. Anyone living between the 1530s and 1580s must have despaired at what they were supposed to believe, so fast were the changes and counter-changes.


Thus it was that Thomas Cranmer emerged in this part of our island’s story. Born on July 2nd 1489 in Nottingham he was the second son of Thomas and Agnes. His father, in the lowest ranks of the gentry, had only enough land to give some to his eldest brother. It was assumed he would go into the clergy and he won a fellowship at Jesus College, Cambridge in 1510. However when he married the daughter of the local tavern, The Dolphin, he was forced to give up this role and instead took a job teaching at Buckingham College, later re-named Magdalene College. When his wife died in childbirth he was re-accepted by the college, dedicated himself to his studies and was accepted into holy orders in 1523. He became one of the outstanding theologians of his day.  


He was forced away from Cambridge by an outbreak of the plague, or sweating sickness as it was called then, and travelled to Waltham in Essex. It was here that he came to the attention of the King, Henry VIII, who was staying nearby. He was talking to two of Henry’s closest associates – Stephen Gardiner and Edward Fox - and was introduced to the King himself. Henry found Thomas to be a willing and accomplished advocate for his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and he was told to forget all other duties and work for the King on this ‘Great Matter’. He was sent to Rome in a group in 1530 to plead the case. In 1532 he became the ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and became the Archdeacon of Taunton and chaplain to the King, amongst others. 


He was then sent to Germany to learn about the Lutheran movement and it was while he was here that he met Andreas Osiander, the Lutheran reformer. He took to his ideals as he also took to his niece, Margaret, as he married her later in 1532. He had to hide this fact until 1548 when it became legal for priests to marry. Rumours that he carried her around in a chest with air holes drilled into the side have never been proved. 


In August 1532 the aged Archbishop of Canterbury, William Wareham, died. Although for a couple of months the See was allowed to lie dormant so that the King could gain the revenues from it, it became clear that, with the divorce question foremost in the minds of all the Royal Court, a new appointment needed to be made. The only other candidate, other than Cranmer, was Stephen Gardiner. He had fallen out of favour with the mercurial King however and Cranmer was installed on March 30th 1533.


Once the Pope had approved him he declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon void as she had been married to Arthur, his brother, and as such the marriage should never have been allowed in the first place. Four months later he married Henry to Anne Boleyn. In 1536 he then declared that marriage invalid due to her infidelity and then Anne of Cleeves’ in 1540 and finally Catherine Howard’s.


Cranmer was very skilled in politics. His enemies tried to destroy him and convict him of heresy but Henry liked and trusted him. Unlike others in the Royal Court he was not greedy or devious and he sought nothing for himself. He had done well for the King. He had also pleaded for the lives of Thomas More, Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell, all unsuccessfully.


Cranmer had also pushed through reform of the Church in England. With the help of Thomas Cromwell they had created the opportunity to publish the first complete bible in English, translated by Myles Coverdale. A copy of this was put in every church, chained to the pulpit for all to read. Cranmer was also responsible for the Book of Common Prayer first published in 1549. A second edition of this was produced in 1552.


The death of Edward VI in 1553 was though the beginning of the end. He supported the candidature of Lady Jane Grey as Queen but after her reign lasted just 9 days and Mary I took over, his position was doomed. He was immediately arrested for treason, after supporting Lady Jane. Stephen Gardiner, a previous foe after being overlooked for the title at Canterbury and now released from prison, was appointed Lord Chancellor and Reginald Pole was sent to Canterbury as the new Archbishop.


His trial for treason was only a pretext for his complete destruction as a Protestant heretic. Mary I and her Catholic sympathisers were going to use Cranmer to dismantle the reform movement in England. The acts of her father, Henry VIII, and half-brother, Edward VI, were repealed and the law to burn heretics was re-introduced.


Along with the Bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, Cranmer was imprisoned in Oxford in 1555. A long trial started in September that year with Cranmer now weak from his incarceration. In October he was taken to watch the burnings of Latimer and Ridley and on February 14th 1556 he was finally found guilty and handed over to the state. They wanted him to recant what he had done and indeed he made 5 recantations saying that the believed the Pope was the head of the Church and that he was wrong about the whole Protestant movement. Before his execution it was thought it would be a good idea to make him repeat these in public. Thus on March 21st, as he was taken to his execution, he was forced to say all this again. As it was raining his execution took place in St Mary’s Church, Oxford. Cranmer was put in the pulpit. Now spurred on, as he had nothing to lose and perhaps to regain an inner peace, he recanted his recantations. He denied the power of the Pope and the idea of transubstantiation, the belief that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ after the blessing by the priest at Mass. He said he was sorry for saying he did not believe in Protestantism and that he would hold his right hand in the fire first, “This that hath offended” referring to the hand that had signed the documents. 


He was quickly pulled from the pulpit and hurried to the centre of Oxford to be burnt. The damage had been done however and Mary I, however much she tried, never managed to purge the country of heretics. The following is an anonymous eyewitness account of his death on that rainy Saturday, 21st March.


Mary had good cause to dislike Cranmer. Not only was he the premier Protestant in England, he also annulled her parents’ marriage and subsequently married King Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn.

But that I know for our great friendships, and long continued love, you look even of duty that I should signify to you of the truth of such things as here chanceth among us; I would not at this time have written to you the unfortunate end, and doubtful tragedy, of Thomas Cranmer late bishop of Canterbury: because I little pleasure take in beholding of such heavy sights For although his former, and wretched end, deserves a greater misery, (if any greater might have chanced than chanced unto him), yet, setting aside his offenses to God and his country, and beholding the man without his faults, I think there was none that pitied not his case, and bewailed not his fortune, and feared not his own chance, to see so noble a prelate, so grave a counsellor, of so long continued honor, after so many dignities, in his old years to be deprived of his estate, adjudged to die, and in so painful a death to end his life. I have no delight to increase it.

But to come to the matter: on Saturday last, being 21 of March, was his day appointed to die. And because the morning was much rainy, the sermon appointed by Mr Dr Cole to be made at the stake, was made in St Mary’s church: whither Dr Cranmer was brought by the mayor and aldermen, and my lord Williams: with whom came divers gentlemen of the shire, sir T A Bridges, sir John Browne, and others. Where was prepared, over against the pulpit, a high place for him, that all the people might see him. And, when he had ascended it, he kneeled him down and prayed, weeping tenderly: which moved a great number to tears, that had conceived an assured hope of his conversion and repentance….

When praying was done, he stood up, and, having leave to speak, said, ‘Good people, I had intended indeed to desire you to pray for me; which because Mr Doctor hath desired, and you have done already, I thank you most heartily for it. And now will I pray for myself, as I could best devise for mine own comfort, and say the prayer, word for word, as I have here written it.’ And he read it standing: and after kneeled down, and said the Lord’s Prayer; and all the people on their knees devoutly praying with him….

And then rising, he said, ‘Every man desireth, good people, at the time of their deaths, to give some good exhortation, that other may remember after their deaths, and be the better thereby. So I beseech God grant me grace, that I may speak something, at this my departing, whereby God may be glorified, and you edified….

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 written 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.’

And here, being admonished of his recantation and dissembling, he said, ‘Alas, my lord, I have been a man that all my life loved plainness, and never dissembled till now against the truth; which I am most sorry for it.’ He added hereunto, that, for the sacrament, he believed as he had taught in his book against the bishop of Winchester. And here he was suffered to speak no more….

Then was he carried away; and a great number, that did run to see him go so wickedly to his death, ran after him, exhorting him, while time was, to remember himself. What they said in particular I cannot tell, but the effect appeared in the end: for at the stake he professed, that he died in all such opinions as he had taught, and oft repented him of his recantation.

Coming to the stake with a cheerful countenance and willing mind, he put off his garments with haste, and stood upright in his shirt: and a bachelor of divinity, named Elye, of Brazen-nose college, labored to convert him to his former recantation, with the two Spanish friars. And when the friars saw his constancy, they said in Latin to one another ‘Let us go from him: we ought not to be nigh him: for the devil is with him.’ But the bachelor of divinity was more earnest with him: unto whom he answered, that, as concerning his recantation, he repented it right sore, because he knew it was against the truth; with other words more. Whereby the Lord Williams cried, ‘Make short, make short.’ Then the bishop took certain of his friends by the hand. But the bachelor of divinity refused to take him by the hand, and blamed all the others that so did, and said, he was sorry that ever he came in his company. And yet again he required him to agree to his former recantation. And the bishop answered, (showing his hand), ‘This was the hand that wrote it, and therefore shall it suffer first punishment.’

Fire being now put to him, he stretched out his right hand, and thrust it into the flame, and held it there a good space, before the fire came to any other part of his body; where his hand was seen of every man sensibly burning, crying with a loud voice, ‘This hand hath offended.’ As soon as the fire got up, he was very soon dead, never stirring or crying all the while.

His patience in the torment, his courage in dying, if it had been taken either for the glory of God, the wealth of his country, or the testimony of truth, as it was for a pernicious error, and subversion of true religion, I could worthily have commended the example, and matched it with the fame of any father of ancient time: but, seeing that not the death, but cause and quarrel thereof, commendeth the sufferer, I cannot but much dispraise his obstinate stubbornness and sturdiness in dying, and specially in so evil a cause. Surely his death much grieved every man; but not after one sort. Some pitied to see his body so tormented with the fire raging upon the silly carcass, that counted not of the folly. Other that passed not much of the body, lamented to see him spill his soul, wretchedly, without redemption, to be plagued for ever. His friends sorrowed for love; his enemies for pity; strangers for a common kind of humanity, whereby we are bound one to another. Thus I have enforced myself, for your sake, to discourse this heavy narration, contrary to my mind: and, being more than half weary, I make a short end, wishing you a quieter life, with less honor; and easier death, with more praise.

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