On this day in 1556, Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), was burned at the stake after being accused of heresy by Queen Mary I. He was the first Protestant archbishop of Canterbury and an advisor to King Henry VIII and Edward VI. He also played a major role during the English Reformation by establishing the basic structures of the Church of England.
Early years and entry into royal services
Thomas Cranmer was born in 1489 in Nottinghamshire into a family who was minor gentry. As his parents didn’t own enough land to give to all their children, Thomas joined the clergy. He then went on to Cambridge and joined a fellowship at Jesus College in 1510. However, he lost it after he married the daughter of the keeper of a local tavern. After his wife passed away in childbirth he was reaccepted by the college and focused on his studies. He entered the church in 1523 and became an outstanding theologian.
Cranmer’s entry into royal services took place in 1529 when King Henry VIII ordered him to write a propaganda treatise in order to facilitate his divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. After it was finished, Cranmer travelled to Italy to defend its argument before the Pope in 1530. Even though the discussion did not lead to any resolution on the matter, he was appointed grand penitentiary of England. Two years later, he served as an ambassador to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in Germany with the aim of becoming closer to the Lutheran princes. During this time, he made his first contact with Continental Reformers in Switzerland and married the niece of one of their leaders in spite of his priest’s orders.
Archbishop of Canterbury
In 1533, Cranmer was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by King Henry VIII. Right after it, he proceeded to declare the King's marriage to Catherine of Aragon void and married him to Anne Boleyn, who was already pregnant. During these first years, he started to introduce small reforms in the Church of England. He began to drift slowly in the direction of Protestantism and abandoned the traditional Roman Catholic belief in transubstantiation. Moreover, he showed his support for the translation of the Bible into English, which was made compulsory in the parishes in 1538, and published the first officially authorised vernacular service, the Exhortation and Litany.
After King Edward VI ascended to the throne following King Henry’s death, Cranmer was able to take full control of the Reformation of the Church. He wrote a complete liturgy, the Book of Common Prayer, and introduced several changes in the areas regarding the Eucharist, clerical celibacy and the use of images in places of worship.
Trial for heresy and execution
When King Edward passed away, the Archbishop showed his support for Lady Jane Grey as successor following the King’s wishes. Even though Lady Jane Grey was proclaimed Queen of England and Ireland, she was deposed nine days later and succeeded by the Roman Catholic Mary I. Cranmer was then accused of treason and imprisoned, thus putting a stop to the Reformation. He was then forced to sign a recantation several times to discourage his followers. Despite this, he was sentenced to be burnt at the stake in 1556. Before he died, he disavowed his recantation and stuck first his right hand, with which he had signed the document, into the fire. The Archbishop was later declared a martyr and his death is narrated in Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Throughout the centuries, his legacy has lived on within the English Church through the Book of Common Prayer, which is still considered one of the most important works of the Anglican Church.
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