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On this day in history in 1556, died Thomas Cranmer.
Cranmer was a priest and politician who brought Protestantism to England, and was burnt at the stake for his beliefs.
Cranmer was born on 2nd July 1489, in Aslockton, near Nottingham, the son of the Thomas and Agnes Cranmer, of the minor gentry. He was educated at Jesus College, Cambridge and became a fellow of the college in 1510. In 1515, Cranmer married the niece of the landlady at the Dolphin Tavern, and was summarily expelled from the college for breaking the rule that fellows must remain celibate. In 1519, his wife, Joan, sadly died in childbirth, but her unfortunate demise allowed Cranmer to be readmitted to Jesus College. Cranmer went on to become a Doctor of Divinity and took Holy Orders in 1523.
In 1529, a plague forced Cranmer to leave Cambridge and reside in Essex, where he attracted the attention of Henry VIII, who was staying nearby. The king found Cranmer an eager advocate for Henry’s desired divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and he was appointed as a researcher. Together with John Foxe, Cranmer compiled Collectanea Satis Copiosa (The satisfactory and abundant collection), giving Henry an academic case for a break with the pope. In 1532, Cranmer was appointed ambassador to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. In Nuremberg, he came into contact with the Lutheran scholar Andreas Osiander, who apparently converted him to Lutheran thinking. Later that year, Cranmer married Osiander’s relative, Margarete, against the rules of the Catholic Church.
In January 1533, the king’s mistress, Anne Boleyn, became pregnant, and a divorce from his present wife became urgent. Henry and Anne married secretly, while Henry appointed Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury, in the hope that he would find a solution to the problem. Cranmer declared the marriage of Henry to Catherine of Aragon void, and stated that Anne Boleyn was his lawful wife. Cranmer used his position to instigate reforms that would eventually bring about the Reformation in England. He advocated the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and received several former church properties himself.
When Henry died in 1547, Cranmer was the natural advisor to his son and successor, Edward VI, who succeeded to the throne, aged nine years. With a young boy on the throne, Cranmer could do what he pleased in religious matters. He produced The Book of Common Prayer, an English language liturgy, with a Protestant character, toning down sacrificial elements and removing prayers for the dead. The current Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England dates from 1662, but is based on Cranmer’s original work. He also encouraged the destruction of images and, concerned about the need for Protestant preaching, wrote the first Book of Homilies. Within three years Cranmer had brought about a Protestant Reformation.
When Edward died in 1553, he was succeeded by his sister, Mary who was an ardent Catholic, and who began the process of counter-reformation. In 1556, Cranmer was removed from office, imprisoned and charged with treason. Although he was tried and sentenced, Mary spared his life, as he signed a document recanting his former beliefs. But once free from prison, Cranmer spoke up again against the counter-reformation. He was tried for heresy, found guilty, and sentenced to death by burning.
On 21st March 1556, Cranmer was brought in procession for execution, to Broad Street, Oxford, opposite Balliol College, where he denounced Catholic doctrine and papal teaching with the words “As for the Pope, I refuse him, as Christ's enemy and Antichrist, with all his false doctrine." After this, Cranmer had an iron chain tied about his waist and was secured to a stake, surrounded by wooden faggots. When the wood was kindled, he stretched out his right hand, which had signed his recantation, into the flames, so that ‘this unworthy right hand’ would be the first to be consumed by the flames. The oak door of Balliol College still bears the scorch marks of the fire used for Cranmer’s execution. [Balliol College, Broad Street, Oxford, OX1 3BJ]
MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Thomas Cranmer. A Life.
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