Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury

Born: July 2, 1489

Aslockton, Nottinghamshire, England

Died: March 21, 1556

Oxford, Oxfordshire, England (Age 66)

Cranmer in History

Thomas Cranmer was born into a minor family of England's gentry class that seems to have been a fairly conservative one, with a number of his relatives taking up careers in the orthodox Catholic church. For this reason, many people may find it hard to believe that Cranmer would be the leading member of the reformist faction of his generation. Cranmer himself was also heading in the direction of service to the church and he received his BA (1511) and MA (1515) from Jesus College, Cambridge. However, after Cranmer had graduated, he committed the first of a number of rebellious acts against the church: he was married. Going against canon law, which strictly stated that members of the clergy must remain celibate, Cranmer married a girl by the name of Joan, severely damaging his prospects of becoming an ordained minister. Only after Joan died during childbirth (along with the child) was Cranmer able to be ordained. It is almost a certainty that he would not have been allowed to enter the church if he were still married. Despite this act of liberality, it appears that, for all intensive purposes, Cranmer remained a faithful Catholic for a majority of the 1520s. It is only when he took up the cause of King Henry VIII, who was desperate to attain an annulment of his marriage to his wife Catherine of Aragon so that he may marry his new love Anne Boleyn, that he became a noted reformist and avid opponent of the Pope (who many now referred to as simply the bishop of Rome to show that he no longer had any power in England). Cranmer was constantly used as an envoy to Spain, Italy and other places on the continent to attempt to convince as many powerful men as possible to support the "king's great matter," as it had come to be called. He was assigned to go to universities throughout Europe to ask the advice of learned theologians on the matter and even published two essays (along with the help of his research team) pertaining to the case that stated, firstly, that the marriage was never valid because of Catherine's previous marriage to the king's late brother Arthur and, most significantly, that the Pope had no authority in England because the king was the absolute ruler and answered only to God.

Cranmer's methods were, unsurprisingly, questioned by a number of conservative members of the clergy, including Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, the man who would turn out to be Cranmer's most significant rival in the battle between reform and traditional faith. In addition to all his supposed heresies against the Pope and church, Cranmer had, once again, broken the clerical law of celibacy and took a wife, Margaret, while he away in Germany on business in 1532. Although the king was in favor of breaking with Rome for his own personal needs, he was still considered to be a religious conservative (especially compared to Cranmer) and, for this reason, Cranmer was forced to keep his wife a secret. This same year, though, Cranmer was rewarded for his loyal services on the annulment case by being created Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest honor in England's church. Quite obviously, the king place Cranmer in this position because he knew that he would do his bidding without question. By early 1533, Henry and Anne (who was now pregnant) were secretly married and the king's marriage to Catherine was considered (at least in his eyes) null and void. With Anne now on England's throne and her father Thomas, Earl of Wilthire, and brother, Lord Rochford, now in places of high power and influence (all three were staunch reformists), Cranmer had every reason to be satisfied with the reformations progress. To make matters even more agreeable, Thomas Cromwell (yet another reformist) had taken over the role as top adviser to the king which was left open by the death of Cardinal Wolsey (who could not attain the annulment) in 1530. With England officially separated from Rome, Cranmer and Cromwell worked on promoting loyal Catholics into signing the Act of Succession, basically a document that forced them to acknowledge Henry as the supreme head of the English church (above even the Pope) and that the children he conceived with Anne were to be regarded as the rightful heirs to the throne, bastardizing Mary, his only child with Catherine. The document caused a great deal of controversy within England and highly influential men such as Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More, along with a large number of others, were executed when they refused to sign it.

Additionally, the monasteries and abbeys throughout England were gradually being dismantled and stripped of their lands and possessions, severely angering the common people, particularly in the north, by far the most conservative area of the nation. By 1536, huge problems were occurring for Cranmer. First, Queen Anne was executed for supposedly engaging in affairs with a number of men (including her own brother), eliminating the powerful allies that Cranmer possessed in the Boleyn family. Secondly, the people of the north were finally fed up with the reformation and the destruction of their religious houses and began the rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. Cranmer and Cromwell topped the list of the evil ministers that wanted to see dead. Luckily, the rebellion was swiftly put down with brutal force (resulting in mass executions of men, women and children alike). The Protestant cause, however, received a huge blow in 1540 when Cromwell was convicted of treason and executed, most likely because of his proposed marriage between Henry VIII and Anne, sister of the Duke of Cleves, whom the king was immediately repulsed by. Cranmer had been against the match, thinking that it would not work out, and, for this reason, was received kindly by the new queen Katherine Howard (the marriage to Anne of Cleves was quickly annulled). With Cromwell gone though, conservatives such as Stephen Gardiner and the Duke of Norfolk, uncle to the new queen, were free to re-enter the fold. The conservatives made vast efforts to eliminate Cranmer, accusing him of heresy. Although the king allowed the conservatives to question Cranmer on the charges, he had not forgotten the important services the archbishop had performed for him in the annulment proceedings and gave him a ring to show that he supported him. When Cranmer appeared before his accusers (1543), he immediately showed them the ring and they were forced to admit defeat.

Cranmer remained a highly influential figure and crusader of the Protestant cause throughout the remainder of Henry VIII's reign and was beside the king when he breathed his last breath in January 1547. He was succeeded by his nine-year-old son, Edward VI, an avid protestant even at his young age, and Cranmer was able to fully acknowledge the most liberal of his reformist beliefs: the Archbishop finally revealed to all that he indeed had a wife and child; he spoke out about his disbelief of the Eucharist (that God's body and blood were represented by the bread and wine given out at mass); and he even grew a beard to further show his separation from the orthodox church (members of the clergy were expected to stay cleanly shaven). In addition, Cranmer made sure that he maintained a high place in both secular and clerical events by befriending Edward Seymour, maternal uncle of the new king and now Duke of Somerset, who now acted as protector of the realm during his nephew's minority. In 1549, Cranmer published the Book of Common Prayer, a guide to worshiping within the new church of England, which turned out to be his crowing achievement and was re-released in edited forms in 1552 and 1559. Cranmer continued to be a leading figure throughout Edward VI's six year reign, furthering the Protestant cause and doing all he could to eliminate those who stood in his way (several conservatives were burnt for heresy and Bishop Gardiner was thrown in prison). The Edwardian regime was slowly beginning to break down though with Somerset's execution (which was not a completely terrible event for the reformation) and the declining health of the king himself. Since Edward VI did not want his sister Mary, a staunch conservative, to succeed him, he settled the succession on Lady Jane Grey (a protestant), a descendant of Henry VIII's younger sister Mary.

When the king died in June 1553, both Cranmer and John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland (who had succeeded Somerset as protector) rallied behind Jane. However, Mary was simply too popular and the people threw their support behind her. Jane was only able to reign as queen for nine days before being deposed, imprisoned and (the following year) executed. Northumberland attempted to resist but was ultimately captured and executed. Cranmer, who was now an enemy of the new regime, chose to stay in England (unlike many other reformists who fled to the continent) and was subsequently imprisoned and stripped of his lands. Over the next three years, Cranmer was kept in constant confinement. Several of his fellow reformists were burnt at the stake and the archbishop no doubt feared for his own life. Attempts were made to reconcile him with the old faith. He was made to attend mass and forced to sign a series of humiliating submissions to show his loyalty and devotion. However, Cranmer's enemies would ultimately not accept these (rightfully so, considering they were completely false) and the archbishop was convicted of treason. In March 1556, at the age of sixty-six, Thomas Cranmer was burnt at the stake. Witnesses claim that he first put his hand into the fire, claiming that it deserved punishment for signing the submission documents. Even though Mary and the conservatives had the upper hand in the short term outlook, Cranmer is regarded to this very day as a protestant martyr, who died standing up for what he truly believed in, while "Bloody Mary" and her cohorts are looked at as some of the biggest tyrants in England's long history. Therefore, though the man died, his work had already set the stage for England to become a protestant nation and, as soon as Mary died, work began to repair that status.

Cranmer in Shakespeare

Appears in: Henry VIII

Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, is portrayed in a very positive light in Henry VIII. He is regarded with much respect by the king but is thoroughly despised by some of the more conservative members of court, with Stephen Gardiner being his biggest opponent. Gardiner goes so far as to accuse the Archbishop of heresy and he is forced to appear before a group of lords and clergy to defend his actions. The king gives Cranmer a ring to show that his support is behind him. When Cranmer arrives to face his accusers, he is first made to wait at the gate with common pages and stable boys before finally being let in. These actions greatly anger the king, who later chastises the lords for their treatment of an archbishop before forcing them to make peace with one another. Before this though, Cranmer defends himself admirably before the lords and puts them in a difficult situation when he shows them the king's ring. Cranmer actually ends the play, at the baptism of Princess Elizabeth, by giving a prophesy that the new-born will grown up to be a powerful leader but will die a childless virgin. In reality, Cranmer was not accused of heresy by Gardiner and the lords until 1543, ten years after Elizabeth's birth. Additionally, some critics may find it ironic that, for all Cranmer's prophetic powers, he makes no mention of his own fiery end.


Make a Free Website with Yola.