Thomas Cranmer – a brief history

Cranmer was burnt at the stake on the 21st March, 1556 at Oxford. The day was said to be overcast and stormy.It is generally accepted that Thomas Cranmer was born in Aslockton, on 2nd of July 1489. He was the second son of Thomas Cranmer and Agnes Hatfield. His father Thomas Cranmer was the son of the first Cranmer holder of the Manor, Edmund. Edmund married Isabelle de Aslockton (Aslakiston),who was heiress to the Manor, in 1460.

Thomas spent the first fourteen years of his life in Aslockton and worshipped at Whatton church (Aslockton at that time being a Chapelry and having no church of its own). Legend has it that he would sit on the prospect mound (Cranmer`s Mound) and listen to the bells of St. John of Beverley in Whatton. Little more is known of his early life although Professor Diarmaid MacCullough of Oxford University suggests that he was educated at the collegiate grammar school at Southwell Minster.

His father died in 1501 when Thomas was 12 years of age. Two years later his mother sent him to Jesus College, Cambridge, where in his early years Thomas studied the works of John Dun Scotus (1266 – 1308) a philosopher-theologian. The study of Scotus and other philosophers reflected Cranmer’s careful and thoughtful approach to problems.

He became a fellow of Jesus College in about 1511, although his fellowship was suspended when he married (Black) Joan, said to be the daughter of the proprietor of the Dolphin Inn. However, Joan died in childbirth within a year and Thomas resumed his fellowship. At Jesus College, Cambridge he earned his Bachelor of Divinity and was ordained in 1523, immediately went on to study for his doctorate. Thomas lectured in Divinity and was appointed an examiner at Jesus College.

Thomas may have been destined for quiet scholarship had it not been for the fact that he whilst staying in Waltham Abbey, Essex, he met Gardiner and Edward Fox who were both counsellors to Henry VIII. Through this chance meeting Thomas came into contact with Henry VIII and was to be an integral part of the great events to come.

By 1530 Cranmer was Archdeacon of Taunton, subsequently he was consulted as to the validity of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He concluded that, as she was considered a relative, they were unlawfully married. He was sent to Germany to consult with Lutheran Nobility on the subject and whilst he was there he met and fell in love with Margaret, niece of Andreas Osiander, a prominent Lutheran theologian. Although, as a priest Cranmer had taken a vow of celibacy, his reading of the scripture (especially the fact that the apostles were married) convinced him that marriage was permitted and he and Margaret married and it remained a secret for several years.

In 1533 Henry appointed him Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer pronounced Henry’s marriage to Catherine void and that to Anne (Boleyn) to be valid. Subsequently, he pronounced the marriage to Anne to be void, allowing Henry to marry Anne of Cleves only then to announce that marriage unlawful. Whilst it would be easy to view Cranmer as self-serving, it must be remembered that he believed, on his reading of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, that the King was God’s appointed ruler. Despite his continued obedience to Henry, Cranmer pleaded for clemency (albeit in vain) for Thomas More and John Fisher who as loyal Roman Catholics refused to accept Henry as the supreme head of the English Church. By 1536, the Church in England was severed from Rome. Cranmer`s theology was largely Lutherian, whilst Henry continued to insist on a non-papal Catholic (Anglo-Catholic) Church. Despite the difference in theology Henry still liked and admired Cranmer and summoned Cranmer to minister to him on his deathbed.

The Church in England become more Protestant when Edward VI ascended to the Throne. It was during this freer climate that Cranmer wrote the Book of Homilies, the Forty-two Articles and the most enduring Book of Common Prayer.

When Edward VI was dying, Cranmer was persuaded, much against his better judgement, to sign a document prepared by the King, designating Lady Jane Grey as his successor. The attempt to place her on the throne failed and Mary Tudor became Queen. Cranmer was charged with treason and sedition and committed to the Tower of London. Mary pardoned him for those crimes but he was rearrested and taken to Oxford charged with heresy. To save his life he recanted his opinions. However, when called upon to recant openly, he refused and withdraw his recantations. An eyewitness account reports then when asked to publicly recant he answered (showing his hand);
‘This was the hand that wrote it, and therefore shall it suffer first punishment.’

The eyewitness went on to say:
“Fire being now put to him, he stretched out his right hand, and thrust it into the flame, and held it there a good space, before the fire came to any other part of his body; where his hand was seen of every man sensibly burning, crying with a loud voice, ‘This hand hath offended’. As soon as the fire got up, he was very soon dead, never stirring or crying all the while.”

Gregg Redford