Thomas Cranmer was, by all accounts, the least willing yet most involved reformer in the political turmoil of his day. His largely unwilling proximity to power in 16th century England brought forth the full bloom of the Protestant Reformation that began as a bud through John Wycliffe. Given England’s rise to a world superpower soon after Cranmer’s death, the English influence all over the globe brought Protestant teachings to almost every continent with a legacy that is still evident today.
Thomas Cranmer was born on July 2, 1489, the second son of Thomas and Agnes Cranmer, in Aslacton, England. His father, Thomas Sr., was a lower-ranked member of the gentry class. This only afforded him to endow property his eldest son, John. Therefore, Thomas and his younger brother were destined for the church. Young Thomas achieved acceptance at Cambridge in 1503. For reasons unknown, he worked on his Bachelor’s degree for almost 8 years. In 1510, he was elected to a fellowship at Jesus College, but soon afterward was forced out after he married a relative of his landlady. While married, he scraped together a living by teaching at Magdalene College.
His wife died during childbirth soon after their marriage. Jesus College restored him to his fellowship soon after his wife’s death. He officially entered into the church and immediately threw his weight into his studies. He became one of the outstanding theologians of his time, and a man of immense learning. Interestingly, he regularly met with a group of scholars whose discussions centered around the theological problems raised by Martin Luther. Among this group of scholars were William Tyndale (1 year younger than Cranmer), Robert Barnes, and Thomas Bilney. These very men were to soon be the leaders of the English Reformation, and they were actually dubbed “Little Germany.”
Cranmer would have been satisfied for his ambitions to remain academic, but it was not to be. From 1527 onward, King Henry VIII sought to justify his desire to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry Anne Boleyn. In 1529, this controversy swept up the unwitting Cranmer. Henry heard of Cranmer while visiting the countryside close to where Cranmer was staying at the time, and subsequently summoned him for an interview. Cranmer accepted a commission to write a propaganda treatise in the king’s interest, with the caveat that he would only defend it with arguments from Scripture, the Fathers, and the decrees of general councils. Upon the completion of the treatise, Cranmer was called to defend it before the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, who on the whole endorsed his conclusion. However, this was not the highest of the tribunals in front of which Cranmer would stand, and he eventually met with the pope.
In 1532 he was sent to Germany as an ambassador to the emperor Charles V, but with instructions to establish contact with the Protestant princes. While in Germany, he made the acquaintance of Andreas Osiander, who held a more moderate theological position midway between Luther and the old orthodoxy. This appealed to the naturally cautious Cranmer. Further, Osiander’s niece Margaret appealed even more strongly than Osiander’s theology to a man who had too long remained in celibacy. Cranmer married Margaret in 1532; concurrently, his theological views further changed in the direction of the Reformed opinions.
In 1533, after a long and complicated rise to the inner workings of the King’s court, he was appointed the Archbishop of Canterbury via a papal bull financed by King Henry VIII himself. This was controversial to say the least, with Cranmer being relatively unknown prior to this ascendancy. While in this position, he was all but forced to preside over the divorce/remarriage parade of King Henry, with culminated in Cranmer’s presiding over Catherine Howard’s execution for treasonable unchastity. Though it is hardly in doubt that Cranmer simply did was he was told, it is uncertain whether or not his private opinions agreed or contradicted his public decisions.
Most importantly, his position as Archbishop gave him the necessary influence to shape the Church of England in the direction of Protestantism. He was, by then and before King Henry VIII even died, a convinced Reformer. In cooperation with Thomas Cromwell, Cranmer promoted the publication of an English Bible, and made the Bible’s availability compulsory in all of the parishes by 1538. By 1538 he openly rejected the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and advocated for the marriage of the clergy (by then his marriage to Margaret had come from being unacknowledged to fully recognized). Cranmer was also heavily involved in forming the liturgy of the newly formed Anglican Church, completing the Book of Common Prayer in 1547. He guided the religious revolution through his learning and diligence. The Church of England owes to him the beauty of its liturgy, displaying that Cranmer was as much of a poet as he was a theologian.
With the chaos caused by Edward VI’s (King Henry VII’s only son) death in the background, Cranmer’s position became fatal for him. Cranmer saw the rise of Mary I, the great-niece of Henry, to the throne of England. Mary’s marriage to the Catholic King of Spain and her Catholic government saw Cranmer condemned in November of 1553. Mary’s accession temporarily destroyed the English Reformation, and Cranmer was put on trial for treason. Mary pushed Parliament to reenact the laws that enabled the secular arm of the state to burn heretics. Cranmer was moved to the city of Oxford, the hub of the Counter-Reformation, for trial. During the trial, Cranmer stoutly defended himself against the charge of departing from his early positions on the sacraments and the papacy. In a ceremony designed for humiliation, he was degraded from his position and offices and handed over to the state.
But, this was not enough for Mary’s government. The burning of the “arch-heretic” Cranmer would be more useful he if he could be made to renounce his errors, so Mary began the process of trying to break him. He was forced to witness the martyrdom of Hugh Latimer, and was temporarily removed from prison while government agents were sent to try to stir up his doubts. Cranmer, 66 years old and in his weakened state, eventually signed five so-called recantations, with his sixth recantation an abject rejection of his whole religious development.
The Government had hoped that the publication of these recantations would wreck Protestantism in England. Moreover, on March 21, 1556, Cranmer was taken out to be burned, being first required to make his recantation public. The proximity of his death, however, restored Cranmer’s faith and dignity. With nothing to lose and everything to gain (Luke 9:24), he shocked his enemies by disavowing his recantation and emphatically reasserting that the pope’s power was usurped and transubstantiation untrue. With one blow, Cranmer undid all that the government propaganda had achieved and restored heart to the fledgling Reformers. Then he went his death. In the heart of the University of Oxford, he steadfastly held his right hand, which “had offended” by signing the false recantations, into the flame until it was consumed. This brave and dignified end made an impression that sealed the Reformational vision into the hearts of Englishmen.