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"
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
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
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!"