Thomas Cranmer

Archbishop of Canterbury
Liturgist and Martyr

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Thomas Cranmer
Thomas Cranmer
Archbishop of Canterbury
Liturgist and Martyr

Portrait by Gerlach Flicke
Public Domain

Thomas Cranmer spent 26 years of his life at Cambridge University, first as a student, then as a fellow of Jesus College and a university preacher.

In 1529 King Henry VIII was having difficulty getting the ecclesiastical courts to cooperate with his plans. The king hoped to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon declared invalid. He engaged Cranmer to spearhead a move to refer the matter to theologians in various European universities and sent him on various embassies. Cranmer was then called home to succeed William Warham as archbishop of Canterbury, an appointment he accepted with reluctance. Cranmer had a high sense of duty to his sovereign, and in May 1533 pronounced the king’s marriage to Catherine invalid and that to Anne Boleyn valid.

Cranmer’s position enabled him to direct the course of the English Reformation. Although it seems he was not linked with those at Cambridge influenced by Luther in the 1520s, Cranmer came under the influence of reformed theologians during his 3 years in Germany. It was during this time that he secretly married Margaret Osiander.

Cranmer developed a love for the Scriptures during his time as a fellow of Jesus College. Later, as archbishop, he was instrumental in having a copy of the Bible placed in every church, and his subsequent writings show that he had a good knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures. Many of his liturgical writings found their way into the first English Prayer Book and remained largely unchanged in the 1662 book, which has been used by Anglicans throughout the world for 4 centuries.

When the nine-year-old Edward VI succeeded his father in 1547, the stage was set for the English church to take on a more Protestant flavour under the protector Somerset. Cranmer welcomed this, though without taking the first initiatives. By the time the young king died in 1553, the English church had a new Book of Common Prayer, largely of Cranmer’s composition and showing unmistakable Reformed influences. The Church allowed its clergy to marry. The Reformation in England had accelerated.

The accession of Queen Mary in 1553 quickly brought a return to Roman Catholicism, and Cranmer was arrested. He spent the last 2 and a 1/2 years of his life in prison, first in the Tower and then at Oxford. During this time he was tried for treason, then for heresy. The psychological strain was immense, and it is not surprising that he signed a number of recantations during this time. However, just before being led to the stake to be burnt as a heretic, he publicly renounced all his recantations. He told the crowd that his right arm, which had signed the recantations, would be the first part of his body to be burned. He died with his right arm held steadily in the fire. As he died he cried out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

BORN: 2 July 1489, Aslockton, Nottinghamshire, England

DIED: 21 March 1556, Broad Street, Oxford, England.