Thomas Cranmer is mostly remembered today for his wise and beautiful crafting of The Book of Common Prayer, one of the masterpieces of the English language. Few remember the beauty of his death. His were turbulent times, when integrity tottered on the Protestant-Catholic divide. While we do not repudiate Catholicism as did Cranmer, one cannot help but admire his final act of courage, coming as it did just when he seemed to be at his weakest. This article first appeared in Christian History. —The Editors
The morning of March 21, 1556, broke with dark skies and fierce rain. At 9:00 A.M. Thomas Cranmer, recently archbishop of Canterbury, loyal servant of Henry VIII, and champion of the new Protestantism, was escorted from his cell. It had been a tumultuous three years.
Beginning in July 1553, as King Edward VI of England approached death, Cranmer had become fatally involved in royal politics. Though he resisted long and hard, he was finally forced by the dying king and others to support Protestant Lady Jane Grey as the new sovereign—even though this struck at custom, statute law, and the will of Henry VIII. After Edward died, Lady Jane Grey was proclaimed queen but was deposed nine days later, and Mary (Henry's daughter by Catherine of Aragon and a devout Catholic) triumphantly entered London.
With Mary's accession, the English Reformation began to unravel. Cranmer's embittered enemy Stephen Gardiner became chancellor. Cardinal Reginald Pole replaced Cranmer as archbishop of Canterbury. Parliament repealed the pro-Protestant acts of Henry VIII and Edward VI and made Protestantism a heresy. Mary's government began a relentless campaign against Protestants.
Cranmer in the meantime, charged with treason, was imprisoned in November 1553. His trial was a pretext; the queen and her advisers wanted to destroy him and his credibility completely for his long-standing Protestantism.
With Reformers Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer, Cranmer was moved in March 1554 to Oxford to stand trial. In September 1555, after an enfeebling imprisonment, Cranmer was subjected to a long, tedious trial at which he tried to defend his views. The foregone verdict was reached after many technical hurdles, and in February 1556 he was subjected to a ceremony carefully designed to humiliate.
Cranmer was degraded from his episcopal and priestly offices. He was forced to wear canvas and cotton garments, mimicking the rich and costly vestments he had worn as archbishop. The pallium, the symbol of his archbishopric, was stripped from his back. The chalice, which had been placed in his hands, was pulled away. The Gospels and Epistles were taken from him; his priestly tunic and stole were stripped from his body. A barber shaved his head, and the tops of his fingers, where he had been anointed, were scraped clean.
Yet Mary's government wanted more. The burning of the archheretic would be even more useful if he would renounce his errors in public, and so a number of means were used to break Cranmer down.
Mental harassment (perhaps even physical torture), a long trial, and a lonely imprisonment all took their toll. So did the fear of death, as Cranmer himself later admitted. But Cranmer's mind was in utter confusion about how to reconcile his longstanding royal absolutism, which required obedience to his queen, and his personal beliefs. A weary and depressed Cranmer was convinced that he was required to submit even to a Catholic sovereign, which is really all his first four recantations say. In the fifth, however, he completely buckled:
"I, Thomas Cranmer, anathematize every heresy of Luther and Zwingli … I confess and believe in one, holy, catholic visible church … I recognize as its supreme head upon earth the Bishop of Rome … Pope and vicar of Christ, to whom all the faithful are bound subject … " He went on to affirm the seven sacraments, including transubstantiation. He concluded, "I beg and pray God to deign of his goodness to forgive me the faults I have committed against him and his church." His humiliation was complete.
It wasn't enough. Queen Mary and Cardinal Pole believed Cranmer must be punished for all the havoc he wreaked. He would be burned at the stake after making one more profession of his faith.
One more recantation
Leaving his cell that overcast morning, he told his jailer if anyone doubted his recantation's sincerity, his signed recantation would leave no doubt, and he handed 14 copies to his jailer. Hidden in his shirt were both the Catholic and Protestant versions of his final speech.
The weather moved the formalities preceding the burning indoors. The procession chanted psalms as it slowly moved through the rain to St. Mary's Church. At the church, Cranmer was led to a stage facing the pulpit. There, clothed in a square cap and thread-bare clothes, he was required to stand and listen to Henry Cole, provost of Eton at Oxford, preach.
Cole spoke of Cranmer's crimes and of God's mercy. He also emphasized the need for Cranmer's death—to recompense the death of John Fisher, a Catholic martyr, decades earlier. Tears streamed down Cranmer's anxious face as Cole preached. Cole looked at Cranmer and concluded, "I pray you, Master Cranmer, that you will now perform [what] you promised long ago, namely, that you would openly express the true and undoubted profession of your faith."
Cranmer knelt with the congregation in prayer; then he rose and put off his cap. He drew out a piece of paper and began to read. He thanked the people for their prayers and exhorted them in four points: to care less for this world and more for the next, to obey their sovereigns out of the fear of God, to do good to all people, and to be concerned for the poor.
Then he said, "And now, forasmuch as I am come to the last end of my life, whereupon hangeth all my life past and all my life to come … I shall therefore declare unto you my very faith how I believe, without any color or dissimulation."
His opening words were of the Nicene Creed, and those immediately following started off as expected then took a turn: "I come to the great thing that troubleth my conscience more than any other thing that I ever said or did in my life, and that is the setting abroad of writings contrary to the truth, which here now I renounce and refuse, as things written with my hand contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and written for fear of death and to save my life if it might be—and that is all such bills which I have written or signed with my own hand since my degradation, wherein I have written many things untrue. And forasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished; for if I may come to the fire, it shall be first burned."
Loud murmurs sped through the congregation, but Cranmer continued, "And as for the Pope, I refuse him as Christ's enemy and anti-Christ, with all his false doctrine. And as for the sacrament—"
A dignitary shouted at him to stop. Cranmer boldly continued, saying that his writings "teacheth so true a doctrine of the sacrament that it shall stand at the Last Day before the judgment!"
Cole shouted out, ordering Cranmer taken away. Cranmer was dragged from the stage. But it was Cranmer as much as the friars who rushed to the stake; they had a hard time keeping up with him. When they reached the stake, the friars threatened him and warned him to repent, but Cranmer knelt on the bare ground and prayed. Then he rose, put off his outer garments, and finally stood in a long shirt that touched his bare feet, his long, white beard reaching to his chest.
He clasped the hands of friends standing nearby and bade them farewell. He was bound to the stake with a steel band around his waist. The fire was kindled at his feet, and quickly the flame leapt up. Cranmer stretched out his right arm and hand into the flame and held it there as he said, "This hand hath offended." Only once did he withdraw it to wipe his face, and then he returned it until it had burned to a stump.
He stood straight as long as he could, ringed in fire, saying, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!" He then collapsed and was consumed in flame. Rain continued to fall softly, and gently cleansed his ashes.
Mark Galli is editor of Christianity Today and author of God Wins, Chaos and Grace, A Great and Terrible Love, Jesus Mean and Wild, Francis of Assisi and His World, and other books.
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