Cranmer's Beautiful Moment

The little-known, last-minute act of courage and faith. /

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 Parliament repealed the pro-Protestant acts of Henry VIII and Edward VI and made Protestantism a heresy.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 ...

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