Thomas Cranmer

The printing press was invented in1436, bringing new way to publish and distribute widely information and opinions One of the first books to be printed and distributed was the Bible, making it available to students, scholars and to those priests who cared to read it

Up to this time all teaching and doctrine was determined from the Pope.

n Rome the magnificent St Peter’s Basilica was yet to be built. But Pope Leo was determined to make it a reality and called on the great artists and architects of his time, including Michelangelo, to design it But such a structure would require a lot of money, so the Pope sought a means to raise it

Purgatory is part of Catholic theology. Purgatory is a place or state of suffering inhabited by the souls of sinners who are being cleansed of their sins before going to heaven. Purgatory could last a short time of for thousands of years depending on the state of the sinner

The Pope sent out his emissaries to sell Indulgences. Indulgences were certificates granting the purchaser a shorter time in Purgatory for themselves or their loved ones. Pay enough and you could skip purgatory altogether.

The German monk, Martin Luther, was by now a lecturer at the university and part of his duties was to study and teach the Bible. There he found truths that led him to be horrified by the selling of indulgences and other traditional teaching.

In Romans he read, “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed – a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’.” And in Ephesians, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Determined to have these concerns discussed he listed them as 95 Theses and nailed them to the church door in Wittenberg on 31st October 500 years ago this year. The printing press meant that copies were soon widely distributed, beginning a movement throughout Europe that became know as the Reformation.

Copies reached England where Henry VIII was king. Henry and his country were Catholics, so much so that the Pope gave Henry the title, “Defender of the faith”, a title English monarchs carry to this day.

Henry was married to Catherine, a princess of Aragon in Spain and she bore him one living child, Mary. But Henry was desperate for a male heir to his throne, a son Catherine could not give him, so he sought a means to separate from her so he could take a new wife who might give him a son

His appeals to the Pope for an annulment of his marriage found the Pope in a dilemma. If he refused Henry then he might lose England. If he granted Henry his wish he faced the likelihood of war with Catherine’s relative, Charles V of Spain along with others. The Pope took the common political procedures of courts, commissions, committees, reports and bureaucratic delays, all of which added to Henry’s frustration and fury.

Thomas Cranmer had recently graduated at Cambridge and was beginning to learn more and more of the reformation teaching, especially the idea that the Bible is the highest authority for Christian teaching and living.

One evening he dined with two of the Kings closest advisers, Gardiner and Foxe, and they discussed the king’s predicament. Cranmer was cautious: he had not really studied the issue. However, he made the observation, “The King isn’t taking proper advantage of his own power. Nobody, no other potentate, not even the pope, should have any say about what goes on within the King’s own realm. He himself under God holds the supreme government of England, in all areas, both civil and ecclesiastical.”

Foxe and Gardiner let Henry know of this way of thinking, to which Henry responded, “That man has the sow by the right ear: and if I had known this device but two years ago, it had been in my way a great piece of money, and had also had rid me out of much disquietness.” Learning that the idea came from Cranmer, Henry sent for him and subsequently Cranmer was reluctantly recruited to help secure Henry’s annulment by appealing to the views of the academics and scholars, arguing that the King, not the Pope, was the sovereign in England.

The annulment was secured and the Pope reacted in anger by excommunicating Henry and his country.

Shortly after, Cranmer was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, the most senior office in the church in England. Because this was a role in which he was supposed to be unmarried he hid his wife, Margaret in France for many years.

Henry married the already pregnant Anne Boleyn who gave birth to Elizabeth. In time Henry’s other wives were Jane Seymour, who gave him his longed-for son, Edward – to become Edward VI, then Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr.

During these years Cranmer adopted more and more of the reformed ideas and moved the Church of England, as it was now, separated from Rome, towards Protestantism and its principal teachings that salvation is by grace alone by faith alone and not by any works or the granting of any favours from the church; that truth comes from the Bible which alone sets our teachings and standards; that it is Christ who is the one perfect sacrifice to allow us to find forgiveness and cleansing from sin.

He also held, to the end, that the King or queen was the appointed head of the state and the church and should expect our obedience.

The King, in the meantime, continued to allow many of the old traditions to continue.

Throughout the country division, resistance and conflict continued along with conspiracies and threats to his life – but the power of the King protected him.

An English translation of the Bible was placed in the churches.

In 1547 Henry died, leaving his 9-year-old son Edward VI to succeed him.

He had sent for Cranmer who prayed for him and held his hand as he died. Cranmer was so moved by the death of his King that he left his beard to grow for the rest of his life

Edward reigned for 6 years and supported Reformation teaching and his Archbishop, Cranmer, who extended protestant teaching further into the church and instituted changes to the way services were conducted, produced homilies or sermons to be used by poorly educated priests and developed the Book of Common Prayer to be used in all the churches. Included in this were the 39 Articles of faith that included.

An important Catholic teaching became a major one in Cranmer’s life. this was the teaching of Transubstantiation where it is believed that at the communion or Mass the prayers of the priest converts the bread and wine into the real body and blood of Jesus. It was seen as reasonable to retain some of these elements and worship them as if worshipping Jesus himself At the Mass Christ’s body is therefore broken again and his sacrifice to atone for our sins is repeated so the participants partake of Christ’s actual body and blood and benefit from the sacrifice of his body in the elements.

Cranmer called this a “crude and monstrous fiction”. Edward died at the age of 15 and his half-sister Mary became Queen. She was devoutly Catholic and was determined to bring England and the English church back to Rome She arrested Cranmer, along with others she regarded as heretics and ordered them to recant and return to the catholic faith. she became known as Bloody Mary as she had hundreds of heretics killed, including two of Cranmer’s friends and fellow bishops, Latimer and Ridley Cranmer was made to watch as his friends died, burned at the stake. Latimer’s final words were "Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, and play the man, for we shall this day light such a candle in England as I trust by God' grace shall never be put out."

Cranmer was isolated and treated harshly and ordered to write his recantation, denying his reformed beliefs and returning to Catholicism. He wrote carefully worded documents but the Catholics saw through his wording and decided they were not good enough.  

There were 6 of these versions written, the later ones written by the Catholics for him to sign. he still believed that the sovereign was head of both the country and the church and he should sign these documents in obedience to his queen.  Did this commitment to his queen compromise him? was he a weak man who recanted out of fear in an attempt to save his life? Did he recant – and then later repent having done so?

Cranmer was put up on a platform where he was to publicly read his recantation But he produced a document and what he said was “The great thing that so much troubles my conscience more than anything that I ever did or said in my whole life, and that is the setting abroad of a writing contrary to the truth, which now here I renounce and refuse as things written with my hand contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and written from fear of death and to save my life.”

The assembled dignitaries were furious that their planned denunciation of Cranmer had backfired so dramatically They angrily dragged to him to a spot still marked in the street in Oxford where the fire had been set to burn him Cranmer determined that the hand that had signed the recantations should burn first and as he placed his hand in the flames he said, “and forasmuch as my hand hath offended, writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished.” Then, in the words of Stephen the first martyr he said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit… I see the heavens open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”

Just a few years later Elizabeth became queen. She supported protestant beliefs, saw to revisions of Cranmer’s Prayer book and the Act of Uniformity that made the Prayer Book compulsory in the Church of England where it was used consistently for over 300 years.

Cranmer’s legacy survives.

599 Modified: 30-08-2022
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