The Martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer, 1556

Thomas Cranmer was Archbishop of Canterbury and the guiding hand behind Henry VIII’s religious Reformation. The Reformation was a process which continued throughout the 1530s and 40s. Edward VI died six years after succeeding Henry. His half sister, Mary, became queen in 1553 and reversed her father’s innovations. Those, like Cranmer, who were strongly identified with Henry’s policies were heretics in her eyes. Cranmer was a cynical careerist and, paradoxically, a devout Protestant. Nonetheless he had no compunction about lying and prevaricating in the three years prior to martyrdom in 1556. Only when facing the actuality of execution did Cranmer repudiate the Catholic faith. His martyrdom came on the 21st March 1556, in Oxford.

Cranmer provided a convoluted religious justification for Henry’s divorce from Mary’s mother, Catherine of Aragon, in 1533. This justification was exquisitely wounding for Mary as her mother’s marriage was declared to be ‘against the law of God’. Mary immediately became illegitimate. Cranmer was appointed Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury in the same year, which very much looked like a reward to Mary. Cranmer was appointed Archbishop, by the Pope, whilst already intellectually conflicted and veering towards evangelical Protestantism. This was made blatantly obvious by becoming Archbishop as a married man.

In marrying Margarete in Nuremberg, Cranmer defied four or five centuries of legislation in the Western Church extending celibacy from monks to secular priests: it was clearly a principled decision, which showed he had embraced evangelical reformation…2

Cranmer’s implementation of the Reformation was brutal. Many devout Catholics were executed (addendum one) if they didn’t accept Henry as Supreme Head of the Church of England. Henry replaced the Pope with himself. The physical structure of the Catholic church was destroyed and looted. Monasteries, church lands, tombs, relics, abbeys were all obliterated. The dissolution of the monasteries provided Henry with the historic wealth of the Church. This capital was used to reward courtiers as well as making Henry wealthier so that he could pursue his foreign policy more effectively. There was therefore more than a simple religious motivation underlying the Reformation.

Cranmer’s Reformation authorised English in religious services and parish Bibles, which became available for the first time. Prior to Cranmer such Bibles were repressed with translators being executed. This attacked the fundamental traditions of Catholicism.

In the reigns of Henry and Edward, Cranmer’s Protestantism was mainstream. With royal support it was his opponents who were risking their lives leading to many executions. The accession of Mary brought a reversal to this state of affairs. Cranmer and his acolytes were now persecuted. Those persecuted included bishops and noblemen as well as those lower in the social scale. There were a large number of martyrdoms3 in Mary’s reign, which meant no-one could be in any doubt as to what was entailed. Martyrdom was excruciating.

Christianity is founded on martyrdom. There is a huge corpus of detailed martyrdom stories embedded in the Christian ethos. The Christian concept of Heaven incorporates the idea that dying for one’s faith guarantees entry to eternal happiness with God. All of this explains why many Christians felt that martyrdom was an endorsement of their faith and not a punishment. The devout were quite likely embrace martyrdom as an opportunity. This wasn’t Cranmer’s position. He repudiated his Protestantism in a vain attempt to escape the flames (addendum two: part one).

It was customary for those accused of heresy to be offered the opportunity to recant. If the recantation was deemed sincere they didn’t suffer execution. Cranmer’s recantations were not deemed to be sincere. Each of his four recantations were more comprehensive. If Queen Mary hadn’t personally loathed Cranmer he would have been freed from the burden of heresy. But she hadn’t forgotten his part in her mother’s humiliation and to his shock he was sentenced to death by burning. As he’d watched his friends die in exactly that way he was jolted into an authentic Christian response. He recanted his recantations (addendum two: part two).

Cranmer’s final statement of faith, two hours prior to his death, praised Protestantism as the only true religion. His sincerity was undeniable. From a Protestant point of view Cranmer’s martyrdom couldn’t have been better. It was witnessed by large numbers of people, who were keen reporters of this notable event. Cranmer’s forcing his hand into the flames burning it first,4 provided Protestants with a wonderful visual aid for their anti-Catholic propaganda.

Cranmer was expecting eternal life in Heaven. No matter how excruciating Cranmer’s pain was, he felt it was purely temporary and irrelevant in relation to an eternity with God. Cranmer met his ordeal with serenity and composure, defying Roman Catholic priests who were at his side. Cranmer belatedly became a perfect Protestant martyr.

Addendum one: historical bias

By using the concept ‘executed’ the claim is they should have accepted Henry as Supreme Head of the Church of England. Using the concept ‘executed’ here is denying the Christian accolade of martyrdom for the avowal of faith. Queen Mary promptly put that ‘right’ when her own executions against Protestants began.

Addendum two: Cranmer’s attempt to save his life and final recantation

Cranmer realised that he would never get a pardon without submission to the Pope so he said

Part one

I, Thomas Cranmer, doctor in divinity, do submit myself to the catholic church of Christ, and to the pope, supreme head of the same church, and unto the king and the queen’s majesties, and unto all their laws and ordinances.

More recantations followed until the day of his execution when he retracted all of them as false:

Part two

… the great thing that troubleth my conscience more than nay 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…. 

See also

The account of Cranmer’s martyrdom in Foxes Book of Martyrs

1 Mary, of course, declared them to be martyrs.

2 MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Thomas Cromwell p. 206. Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

3 During Queen Mary’s reign, 1553-8, 383 people burned at the stake at locations across England. Executions were deliberately spread round the country to increase fear.

4 He was going to his death by being burned at the stake but insisted that the hand that was guilty of such shameful sin must burn first. Jesus said “It is better to lose a limb than for your whole body to go to hell,” and Cranmer took him at his word.


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