Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury under King Edward VI and Queen Jane, was a brilliant writer and theologian, finishing the Book of Common Prayer in 1549, revising it again in 1552, and basically creating the Anglican church.
On March 21, 1556 the elderly prelate was burned at the stake on the ordered of Queen Mary — in spite of the fact he had recanted his Protestantism and acknowledged Catholic authority no less than five times.
Thomas Cranmer was found guilty of treason and condemned to death on the 13th November 1553 … In an effort to save himself, Cranmer made four recantation in January and February 1556. In these recantations, he submitted himself to his monarch, Mary I, and recognised the Pope as Head of the Church. However, Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London, was not convinced by Cranmer’s recantation so his priesthood was taken away and it was decided that he would be executed for heresy on the 7th March. A desperate Cranmer then made a fifth recantation in which he stated that he fully accepted Catholic theology and that there was no salvation to be found outside of the Catholic Church. He repudiated his Protestant theology and affirmed that he was returning to the Catholic Church. He took part in the mass and asked for sacramental absolution. This should have been the end of it. Cranmer had fully recanted, he had done what Mary I wanted and in a very public way. He should have been absolved but although his execution was postponed temporarily Mary I then set a date for it: 21st March 1556. His recantations were for nothing.
Mary’s argument for proceeding with Cranmer’s execution was that “his iniquity and obstinacy was so great against God and your Grace that your clemency and mercy could have no place with him”. However, I cannot help but wonder if Mary was influenced, knowingly or not, by a thirst for revenge. Cranmer, after all, was the man who dissolved her parent’s marriage and declared her the bastard product of incest. She was probably looking for any excuse to kill him in light of the perceived wrongs he had done to both her and the religious beliefs of her subjects. From Mary’s point of view Cranmer must have seemed to be a tool of the Devil, and thus deserved to die in flames.
The fact that Cranmer spent months recanting rather than choosing martyrdom is seen as a lack of religious and personal sincerity by some people … but not by me.
I’ll be honest; there is not a whole lot I wouldn’t do in order to avoid being burned to death. Have you ever had even a minor burn? They hurt, and they hurt with a pain that is beyond comprehension if you haven’t experienced it. I’ve had natural childbirth more than once, and an eight pound human bursting forth from my quaking loins caused less pain than the time I got a second degree burn on my finger making peanut brittle. Being burned alive would be agony beyond the telling. Thus, I cannot blame Cranmer for disseminating in order to avoid such a fate.
When Cranmer realized the terrifying death by burning was inescapable and his motive for lying had evaporated, he was quick to throw his recantation to the wind and make his real feelings known all the way to the stake. A letter by an unnamed (and probably Catholic) bystander at Cranmer’s execution recorded:
“… because the morning was much rainy, the sermon appointed by Mr Dr Cole to be made at the stake, was made in St Mary’s church … Where was prepared, over against the pulpit, a high place for him, that all the people might see him. And, when he had ascended it, he kneeled him down and prayed, weeping tenderly: which moved a great number to tears, that had conceived an assured hope of his conversion and repentance….
When praying was done, he stood up, and, having leave to speak, said, ‘Good people, I had intended indeed to desire you to pray for me; which because Mr Doctor hath desired, and you have done already, I thank you most heartily for it. And now will I pray for myself, as I could best devise for mine own comfort, and say the prayer, word for word, as I have here written it.’ And he read it standing: and after kneeled down, and said the Lord’s Prayer; and all the people on their knees devoutly praying with him….
And then rising, he said, ‘Every man desireth, good people, at the time of their deaths, to give some good exhortation, that other may remember after their deaths, and be the better thereby. So I beseech God grant me grace, that I may speak something, at this my departing, whereby God may be glorified, and you edified….
And now I come to the great thing that troubleth my conscience more than nay other thing that ever I 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 mine 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. And as for the pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy and antichrist, with all his false doctrine.’
And here, being admonished of his recantation and dissembling, he said, ‘Alas, my lord, I have been a man that all my life loved plainness, and never dissembled till now against the truth; which I am most sorry for it.’ He added hereunto, that, for the sacrament, he believed as he had taught in his book against the bishop of Winchester. And here he was suffered to speak no more….
Then was he carried away; and a great number, that did run to see him go so wicjedly to his death, ran after him, exhorting him, while time was, to remember himself … at the stake he professed, that he died in all such opinions as he had taught, and oft repented him of his recantation.
Coming to the stake with a cheerful countenance and willing mind, he put off his garments with haste, and stood upright in his shirt: and bachelor of divinity … labored to convert him to his former recantation, with the two Spanish friars … the bishop answered, (showing his hand), ‘This was the hand that wrote it, and therefore shall it suffer first punishment.’
Fire being now put to him, he stretched out his right hand, and thrust it into the flame, and held it there a good space, before the fire came to any other part of his body; where his hand was seen of every man sensibly burning, crying with a loud voice, ‘This hand hath offended.’ As soon as the fire got up, he was very soon dead, never stirring or crying all the while.”
Although that same bystander could not help but lament that Cranmer had died so horribly, “for a pernicious error, and subversion of true religion”, he could not help but note Cranmer’s “patience in the torment, his courage in dying, if it had been taken either for the glory of God, the wealth of his country, or the testimony of truth, as it was , I could worthily have commended the example, and matched it with the fame of any father of ancient time”.
For his bravery and return to the doctrine of Protestantism, Cranmer is remembered in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs as a hero of the faith, and Cranmer is still thought of as such today by many Anglicans. There is a small cobblestone cross in the middle of Oxford’s Broad Street to commemorate the spot where Cranmer and his fellow Oxford Martyrs were burned to death.
American Anglicans, AKA Episcopalians, have not forgotten Cranmer either. For example, he is commemorated in stain glass at Christ Church in Little Rock, Arkansas.
If you want more information about Thomas Cranmer’s remarkable life and his lasting effect on Anglicanism today in a concise form, I enthusiastically recommend Beth von Staat’s Thomas Cranmer in a Nutshell.