In continental Europe Luther may have started the Reformation, and Calvin sustained it, but the English, relatively isolated on their island, always held continental Europe at a convenient arm’s length. Consequently when the reformation came across the channel, it followed that England needed its own reformer.
Thomas Cranmer, born in 1489 in Aslockton, in Nottinghamshire County, became the English reformer. He had both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree under his belt from Jesus College in Cambridge from 1503 to 1515. In 1520, Cambridge ordained him as one of its preachers. Henry VIII ruled England at the time of the Reformation, and first sided with the Papacy, condemning Martin Luther’s writings in 1521. Just like King Henry VIII, Cranmer initially remained loyal to the Pope. In 1523 he denounced Martin Luther, declaring him wicked and arrogant. Upon returning from a diplomatic mission in 1527 with the Archbishop, Cranmer met with Henry and heard of his desire to divorce Anne Boleyn. He suggested the College theologians (rather than the ecclesiastical court) solve the issue of the king’s marriage. This suggestion, as well as Cranmer’s rhetorical ability, appealed to Henry VIII. Cranmer wrote a treatise backing the idea, and with a bit of careful committee selection, the Theologians of Cambridge soon agreed to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
Pope Clement VII promptly declared Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn invalid. Henry, in turn, fashioned himself head of the Church of England and had all clergy take an oath of fealty to the crown, and imprisoned dissenters. In the years after this, a committee made up of various clergy and theologians penned The Institution of the Christian Man, which established the king as head of the church. Cranmer, however, did not attend the discussions but reviewed drafts and proposed improvements.
In Europe, the Reformation occurred quickly. Martin Luther published his theses, and within a decade, many noblemen followed suit, and wars broke out across Europe. On the other hand, the English Reformation developed over time, lethargically chugging along, driven mostly by Henry VIII’s political goals. Nonetheless, Cranmer gradually adopted new doctrine, and he soon morphed into a reformer. However, all throughout his life, he remained obedient to Henry’s authority.
With Henry VIII’s death in 1547 Cranmer had no more royal orders to follow, and the English Reformation took a religious turn. Nine-year-old Edward VI succeeded his father, but Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and the king’s legal guardian, transformed England into a Protestant kingdom. Cranmer took the lead in the theological changes and wrote his most celebrated work, The Book of Common Prayer, which replaced the Catholic prayer books and is still used in modern English by millions of Anglicans around the world. Similar de-Catholicization took place in churches, where the Church of England removed Catholic paintings and stained glass windows.
Edward died in 1553, leaving the Catholic Mary, Henry VIII’s daughter by Catherine of Aragon, as the obvious choice for an heir. However, Jane Grey, a protestant great-granddaughter of Henry VII, was placed on the crown by Protestant Lords fearing Mary’s ascension. She ruled England for all of nine days before Mary took over. Mary began restoring England to Catholicism. Arresting Thomas Cranmer, she sold his books to his competition. In 1555, the Pope had him put on trial for his involvement in the coup, and after a long and grueling case, he signed a recantation of Catholic doctrine, attempting to avoid execution by burning. However, the offense he had caused outweighed his repudiation and did not change his fate. On the day of his execution, March 21, 1556, he disavowed his previous surrender to the pope, saying,
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 writ 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.
With those words, Thomas Cranmer’s life and career ended at the stake. He died having seen all of his life’s achievements undone by Mary in a few short years. Caught up in a complicated time, he likely saw little hope for the Reformation, but time has shown that he did not toil in vain. Indeed, Queen Elizabeth I soon displaced Mary and continued the long English Reformation.
I’m Ian Paine. I’m half Dutch, half American, but I live in Turkey, so I guess that makes me a fifth culture kid. I’m 17, and have exactly three days, at the time of writing this, left in my junior year in high school, which is my third year with TPS. I’m interested in almost anything, but I think history has the most potential for learning, because it’d be a knowledgeable man indeed who learnt everything there is to know about the human past. Specifically, I like medieval history, in part because of knights in shining armor and castles and such, but mostly because it’s a misunderstood period, and that makes me crave information about it.
Cranmer, Thomas. Thomas Cranmer’s Final Speech Before Burning. Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature, http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/cranmerspeech.htm.
Henry VIII (r.1509-1547). The Royal Family, https://www.royal.uk/henry-viii-r1509-1547.
Simkin, John. Thomas Cranmer. Spartacus Educational, Updated 2015, September 1997, http://spartacus-educational.com/TUDcranmer.htm.
Thomas Cranmer: Genius behind Anglicanism. Christianity Today, https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/martyrs/thomas-cranmer.html.