Thomas Cranmer

The Life And Martyrdom Of Thomas Cranmer

The Sower 1881:

The archiepiscopal see of Canterbury can boast of a long list of names, representing some of the most eminent divines and scholars our country has produced; yet few of its illustrious occupants have so worthily and so honourably discharged their important functions as Thomas Cranmer did in the days of Henry VIII and Edward VI. Holding that responsible post at a very critical period in our history, when England was in a state of religious transition, Cranmer nobly and wisely used his influence to forward the progress of those principles that have their foundation in the Word of God; and, although perseverance in such a cause was sure to be rewarded with contempt and opprobrium, yet the heroic archbishop defended and maintained the principles of the Reformation with a zeal and courage that excites our highest admiration. In the drama of the English Reformation Cranmer played a conspicuous and important part. Under Henry VIII his position was both difficult and dangerous. His royal master possessed a fickle and ungovernable temper, that often found expression in stakes and scaffolds. Papists and Protestants were alike to Henry if they crossed his projects and thwarted his designs. Cranmer had some narrow escapes from sharing the fate of More and Cromwell; but the King seems to have had a feeling of affection towards his archbishop that never permitted the Papal party to execute its malicious designs against the good man; so that his valuable life was spared in order that our country might have the benefit of his learning and ability during the days of Edward VI, when the Reformation made considerable progress in these realms.

In the quiet village of Aslackton, in Nottinghamshire, Cranmer was born. At a very early age he was sent to school, and subsequently he entered Cambridge University, where he soon distinguished himself as a student of no mean ability; and, after a time, he was chosen fellow of Jesus College. Cranmer’s arrival at this seat of learning was simultaneous with the famous revival of letters that immediately preceded the Reformation. Imbued with the spirit of the age, the student from the Midlands drank eagerly at the fountains of antiquity. At length, however, Luther appeared; and Cranmer, who was a close observer of events, watched the movements of the redoutable monk with intense interest. About this time he married, and consequently had to forfeit his fellowship; but, on the death of his wife, who lived but a short time, the masters of Jesus College reinstated him. Being regarded as one of the first scholars of the University. Cranmer received the post of examiner to those who were desirous of taking degrees. In this office he acted with firmness, and allowed no one to become doctor in divinity who was not thoroughly acquainted with his Bible. This principle, which Cranmer so rigidly enforced, aroused much opposition, especially amongst those friars and monks whose ignorance of the Scriptures was so general. Here the eminent man remained, holding examinations, delivering lectures on theology, and watching with no ordinary interest the current of passing events; and yet maintaining a reserve and shyness that carefully avoided public fame and shunned popular applause; when the plague broke out with raging fury that caused Cranmer, with many others, to flee. It was through this unforeseen occurrence that the future archbishop came into prominence.

It was under the roof of a relation that resided at Waltham Abbey that Cranmer found shelter after his flight from Cambridge. Here he was hospitably entertained by Mr. Cressy and his family. During the period he sojourned here the King and his court visited Waltham, and two of Henry’s chief advisers, Fox and Gardiner, were guests of Cranmer’s host. This occurred when the notorious “divorce question” was agitating the nation and absorbing the attention of the lawyers, statesmen, and canonists of the day. This subject, consequently, was the theme of conversation at Mr. Cressy’s supper table, and at length Cranmer was asked to give his opinion of the case. At first he spoke very reluctantly about it, saying that he had not studied the question. Believing, however, that the constant delays of the Papal court were quite unnecessary, Cranmer suggested a more speedy solution of the problem. Let the question be debated by the divines and universities, who must be guided in their decision by the Word of God. This was the sum and substance of Cranmer’s proposal, which was related to the King on the following day. The idea pleased Henry, who sent for Cranmer, approved and adopted his scheme, received him into favour, and, on the death of Warham in 1530, elevated him to the archiepiscopal see of Canterbury. Such a high post under a monarch like Henry was accompanied with many perils. This king had had many servants who had been subservient to his wishes to the disadvantage of the nation, and whose blind obedience to their monarch had involved England in many troubles. No matter, however, how faithfully they had served him, or how many years they had been his secret accomplices in the many wrong deeds he had committed; yet, one after the other, as their master tired of their persons, they were removed by a sudden stroke, to give place to other men. But Cranmer, although he accepted this high office, was no mere courtier who fawned upon the King and implicitly obeyed his behests. He was no Wolsey. Conscientiously desiring to discharge his many duties as in the sight of God, this eminent archbishop sometimes incurred the wrath of Henry, and on several occasions, narrowly escaped with his life.

During the brief reign of Edward, Cranmer was the most conspicuous among those worthies who assisted in the work of establishing the Gospel in our land. His ability and energy, his learning and piety, were unreservedly employed in the cause of the Reformation, and his zealous efforts were crowned with such success that very sanguine hopes were entertained that permanent victory was near at hand. How suddenly, however, were these hopes blasted! In the year 1553 Romanism again returned to power with a vigorous determination to uproot and extirpate those principles for which Cranmer, Ridley, and their associates so industriously toiled. The archbishop was speedily thrown into the Tower, where he remained until the Queen and privy council decided to remove him to Oxford to dispute with the Romish doctors and divines of that seat of learning. Much time was spent in these discussions, but it is very questionable whether any solid advantages accrued to either party.

At length on the 12th of September, 1555, a court of special commissioners, under the presidency of Dr. Brooks, Bishop of Gloucester, was held in St. Mary’s Church to try the case of Thomas Cranmer. After the noble prisoner had protested against the authority of the Pope in the realm of England, the Bishop of Gloucester delivered a very eloquent and studious oration. Dr. Martin followed the president. At the conclusion of the speech of the latter, who was one of the Crown commissioners, Cranmer said, “My lord, I do not acknowledge this session of yours, nor yet you, my mislawful judge; neither would I have appeared this day before you, but that I was brought hither as a prisoner. And therefore I openly here renounce you as my judge, protesting that my meaning is not to make any answer, as in a lawful judgment (for then I would be silent), for only that I am bound in conscience to answer every man of that hope which I have in Jesus Christ, by the counsel of St. Peter; and lest by my silence many of those who are weak, here present, might be offended.” When these examinations were brought to a close, Cranmer was cited to appear in Rome within eighty days; and this command he was willing to obey if the Queen would only send him. But, instead of a journey to Italy, he was kept in close confinement until the expiration of the term, when he was declared a contumacious and incorrigible “heretic.”

On February 14th, 1556, in the choir of Christ Church, Oxford, another court was held, with Thirleby, Bishop of Ely, and Bonner, Bishop of London, as presidents. Being entrusted with the power of depriving and degrading Cranmer, these judges speedily proceeded to execute their orders, and then delivered him over to the secular power.

During the archbishop’s long incarceration, which lasted nearly three years, the Romish doctors and divines of the university did not cease to vex and harass him with their entreaties and arguments. Summoning to their aid every artifice they could employ, they left no stone unturned to cause Cranmer to deny the Gospel. For a considerable length of time their zeal and perseverance had no apparent effect; Cranmer was immovable. Still, however, they argued and discussed; sometimes they offered money and a restoration of the high offices he had previously held; in short, all that craft and ingenuity could devise did they use against the heroic prisoner. At length, too, the day came when Cranmer yielded, and appended his name to a paper in which he asserted his recantation of the truths of the Gospel. As an inducement to sign this paper his enemies had offered life and liberation; but, when he had complied with their wishes, he was still kept a prisoner, and arrangements were made for his execution. Although the news of Cranmer’s recantation was highly gratifying to the Queen and her councillors, yet they were determined on his death. Instructions were accordingly given to Lord Williams of Thame, Lord Chandos, Sir Thomas Bridges, and Sir John Brown to be present at Oxford on the 21st March, 1556, to superintend the arrangements for the burning of the venerable archbishop; and Dr. Cole was also commanded to prepare a sermon for the occasion.

On the appointed day, Cranmer, escorted by the mayor and alder-men of the city and their officials, was conducted out of prison to St. Mary’s Church, there to make a public confession of his recantation. Can we not imagine how the doctors and priests chuckled in anticipation of hearing the most conspicuous leader of English Reformation publicly declare his abjuration of its glorious principles? Can we not, also, believe that this spectacle would fill with tears the eyes of those who had had opportunities of hearing the heroic martyr forcibly enunciate the truths of the Gospel and fearlessly expose the errors of Rome? Doubtless many an earnest and silent prayer was offered up on behalf of Cranmer, that he might be enabled on this occasion to contend stoutly for the Truth.

The church was crowded. On a platform, erected in front of the pulpit, Cranmer, attired in a bare and ragged grown with a square cap on his head, stood, and there awaited the arrival of Dr. Cole. At length the preacher arrived and delivered his sermon, severely reproving Cranmer for his folly and obstinacy in departing from the Church of Rome. Referring to his recantation, Dr. Cole concluded his discourse with these words:—

“Brethren, lest any man should doubt of this man’s earnest conversion and repentance, you shall hear him speak before you; and therefore I pray you, Mr. Cranmer, to perform that now which you promised not long ago; namely, that you would openly express the true and undoubted profession of your faith, that you may take away all suspicion from men, and that all men may understand that you are a Catholic indeed.”

All eyes were now turned upon Cranmer, who, with tears in his eyes, now commenced to address the large assembly. To Dr. Cole’s invitation to declare his belief in the Catholic faith, Cranmer at once responded in these words:—“I will do it, and that with a good will. Good people, my dearly beloved brethren in Christ, I beseech you most heartily to pray for me to Almighty God, that He will forgive me all my sins and offences, which are without number, and above great measure. But yet one thing grieveth my conscience more than all the rest, whereof, God willing, I intend to speak more hereafter. But how great and how many soever my sins be, I beseech you to pray to God of His mercy to pardon and forgive them all.”

He then knelt down and said the following prayer:—

“O Father of heaven, O Son of God, Redeemer of the world, O Holy Ghost, Three Persons and One God, have mercy upon me, most wretched caitiff and miserable sinner. I have offended both against heaven and earth, more than my tongue can express. Whither then may I go, or whither shall I flee? To heaven I may be ashamed to lift up mine eyes, and on earth I find no place of refuge or succour. To Thee, therefore, O Lord, do I run; to Thee do I humble myself. O Lord my God, my sins be great, but yet have mercy upon me for Thy great mercy. The great mystery that God became man was not wrought for little or few offences. Thou didst not give Thy Son, O Heavenly Father, unto death for small sins only, but for all the greatest sins of the world, so that the sinner return to Thee with his whole heart, as I do at this present. Wherefore have mercy on me, O God, whose property is always to have mercy; have mercy upon me, O Lord, for Thy great mercy. I crave nothing for mine own merits, but for Thy name’s sake, that it may be hallowed thereby, and for Thy dear Son Jesus Christ’s sake.” He then concluded with the Lord’s Prayer.

Rising from his knees, Cranmer then addressed the large concourse of people. “Every man,” said the veteran Reformer, “good people, desireth at the time of his death to give some good exhortation, that others may remember the same before their death, 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. It is a heavy cause to see that so many folk dote upon the love of this false world, and be so careful for it, that of the love of God, or the world to come, they seem to care very little or nothing. Therefore this shall be my first exhortation, that you set not your minds overmuch upon this deceitful world, but upon God, and upon the world to come, and to learn to know what this lesson meaneth which, St. John teacheth, that the love of this world is hatred against God.”

After having desired the people to loyally serve their King and Queen, and with a few pointed words of advice to the rich, Cranmer closed his address with these words:—

“And now I come to the great thing which so much troubleth my conscience, more than anything that ever I did or said in my whole life, and that is the setting abroad of a writing contrary to the truth; which now I here 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 and papers which I have written and signed with my hand since my degradation, wherein I have written many things untrue. And forasmuch as my hand hath offended, contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished; for when I come to the fire it shall be first burned. As for the Pope, I refuse him as Christ’s enemy and Antichrist, with all his false doctrine. As for the sacrament, I believe as I have taught in my book against the Bishop of Winchester, which my book teacheth so true a doctrine of the sacrament, that it shall stand at the last day before the judgment of God, where the Papistical doctrine contrary thereto shall be ashamed to show her face.”

Cranmer’s auditors were thunderstruck. The sting of his speech was in its tail, and his enemies fumed and stormed in blind rage. Instead of an expected renunciation of the Gospel, the heroic martyr had dared to avow his determination to stand by its hated doctrines. Proceeding to speak more largely upon his detestation of the Papacy, a tremendous uproar ensued, and Dr. Cole’s voice was heard above the noise, exclaiming, “Stop the heretic’s mouth and take him away.” Tearing him from the platform, the enraged friars and priests led him to the spot where Latimer and Ridley had bravely suffered a few months previously. His enemies plied him with questions and entreaties to induce him to recant, but to no purpose. Being bound to the stake by an iron chain, the fires were then kindled, when the martyr thrust his right hand into the furious flames, crying out, ”This unworthy right hand!” “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” were words that were often on his lips. In the fire he appeared to remain motionless until life was extinct and Cranmer was no more.

Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) was a Protestant Reformer and martyr. Not only did he contribute to the establishment of the Church of England under the reign of Henry VIII, but also drew up the first doctrinal (Thirty-Nine Articles) and liturgical structures (Book of Common Prayer) for the new Church. He was burned at the stake under the reign of Queen Mary I.