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Thomas Cranmer 1489 - 1556
Archbishop of Canterbury
Author of the Book of Common Prayer

Almightie God, unto whom all hartes bee open, and all desyres knowen, and from whom no secretes are hid: clense the thoughtes of our hartes, by the inspiracion of thy holy spirite: that we may perfectly love thee, and worthely magnifie thy holy name: through Christ our Lorde. Amen.

-from the 1549 Book of Common Prayer

Thomas Cranmer has inspired both vilification and praise, both in his own time and today, for his role in the English Reformation. He has been harshly criticized by Catholics for being a heretic, and sometimes by zealous Protestant reformers for not being revolutionary enough.

For better or worse, he has had a profound influence on the liturgy used in a great many churches today. The prayer above, written before English spelling was standardized, is still used every Sunday in Episcopal and other Anglican churches around the world, albeit with different spellings and often with the words "you" and "your" substituted for "thee" and "thy."

Background and Education

Thomas Cranmer was born July 2, 1489 in Nottinghamshire, the son of Thomas Cranmer Senior and his wife, Agnes (Hatfield). At the age of 14, he was sent to Jesus College, Cambridge to be educated. His father had only enough land to give to his eldest son, so Thomas and his younger brother were expected to join the clergy as was the custom at the time. Upon his graduation, Thomas was given a fellowship at the college. He lost it, however, when he married the daughter of a local tavern-keeper. Within a year, she had died in childbirth and Thomas returned to the college to devote himself to study in preparation for taking holy orders, which he did in 1523.

Cranmer's studies put him in contact with continental reformed theology that emphasized the importance of both the Bible and secular authority over papal authority in governing the Church. He probably would have been content to remain at Cambridge and continue his studies, but he was forced to leave town during an outbreak of "the sweating sickness" in the summer of 1529. He retreated to Essex, where he met two of King Henry VIII's chief advisors.

In the Service of King Henry VIII

At the time Henry was desperate for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, who had failed to give him a male heir, but the Pope would not allow it. Henry's advisors were impressed with Cranmer's theological arguments in favor of the king's divorce, and they presented Cranmer to the king. Henry was also impressed, and immediately had Cranmer write a theological defense of his position, arguing that the Henry's marriage to the widow of his late brother was not legal.

King Henry sent Thomas to Rome to argue his case, and to Germany to meet with Charles V. It was in Germany that Thomas met and secretly married his second wife, Margaret, the niece of the German Lutheran theologian, Andreas Osiander. While Thomas had taken a vow of celibacy as a priest, his reading of scripture (especially the bit about the apostles having been married) convinced him that there was nothing wrong with being a married clergyman. When Thomas returned to England with not-so-encouraging news from the Pope, King Henry appointed him Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas banished his new wife, and kept the marriage secret for years, to conform to King Henry's opposition to clerical marriage.

As Archbishop of Canterbury, Cranmer pronounced Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon void. This was very convenient for Henry, who had meanwhile secretly married Anne Boleyn and conceived a child with her. Cranmer believed, based on his readings of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, that the king was God's appointed ruler of the Church. It was a belief that got him in a lot of hot water, and tested his faith repeatedly throughout his life.

In 1536, when Cranmer learned that Henry had been fornicating prior to his marriage with Anne Boleyn, he pronounced this marriage invalid, thus permitting Henry to marry Anne of Cleves. He was then forced to pronounce that marriage too invalid too on the grounds that it had been entered upon unlawfully. The truth, of course, was that Henry had simply found Anne revolting. Cranmer also played an important role in discovering details about the premarital affairs of Catherine Howard. When he wasn't busy marrying or divorcing Henry, Cranmer worked to publish an officially authorized translation of the English Bible. He began this task at a time when Latin was considered the proper language for the Bible, and owning even a part of the Bible in English was punishable by death. He also seems to have genuinely opposed King Henry's Dissolution of the Monasteries, although his interpretation of Scripture left him little room for dissent.

The Book of Common Prayer and Other Reforms

During Henry's reign, Cranmer had worked towards reform of the Church. But Henry had been much too Catholic at heart to allow much change. It wasn't until Henry's death that Cranmer was able to put into practice some of the Lutheran ideas that he had found so appealling.

During the brief reign of Edward VI, Cranmer got rid of the rule forbidding priests to marry. He brought his wife out of hiding and lived openly with her. In 1549, he produced The Book of Common Prayer, which set off a storm of controversy. Cranmer presented the view that a proper Christian Communion depends more on the heart of the practitioner than the actual bread and wine used in the ceremony. He also encouraged the public reading of the Bible by the entire congregation.

The Book of Common Prayer was largely based on the Sarum Use, a Latin liturgy developed in Salisbury in the thirteenth century and widely used in England. This was enhanced by contributions from various sources, including pre-reformation Sacramentaries of Leo I, Gelasius, and Gregory the Great, and a book on doctrine and liturgy by Hermann Von Wied, Archbishop of Cologne. It is not known exactly which parts of the prayer book Cranmer wrote himself.

Burned at the Stake

When King Edward fell from power Cranmer supported the new regent John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland. By this time Edward was suffering from tuberculosis. As his health deteriorated, Dudley persuaded the king to alter the succession in favour of his own daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey. She was declared queen three days after Edward's death. However, she was forced to abdicate nine days later in favour of Edward's half-sister, Mary Tudor.

Cranmer's brief reform movement was overturned in 1552, when the intensely Catholic Mary I took the throne. Not only was she a staunch Catholic, but she resented Cranmer for his role in her mother's divorce. She had him tried and sentenced to death for treason. The sentence was not carried out, but Cranmer was tried again - this time for heresy.

During his trial, fearing for his life, Cranmer recanted his reform views, affirming the supreme authority of the Pope and the physical presence of Christ in the bread and wine of Communion. He signed an official document renouncing his reformist views. Despite his recantation, he was again convicted and sentenced to death. By this time, he was elderly and ill, and weakened by almost two years of incarceration.

This time, Mary carried out the sentence. Thomas Cranmer was burnt at the stake on March 21, 1556. When given the opportunity to speak before his execution, he recited the Nicene Creed. Then he renounced his recantations and his cowardice, thrusting the hand which had signed the documents into the growing fire and shouting "This hand hath offended!"


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