|Archbishop Thomas Cranmer|
The life and times of a reformation bishop|
Thomas Cranmer was born on the 2nd of July, 1489, in the village of Aslacton in the Midlands of England. He was the son of a village squire. He excelled with the longbow and was a master horseman from a young age. After a harsh early education he went up to Jesus College, Cambridge. On taking his M.A. degree, he married a Cambridge girl who died in childbirth. He returned to Jesus College and was ordained. He took his B.D. and later his D.D. He was a man of letters, studious, a lover of knowledge. It was said of him that he rose at five in the morning to begin his studies, that he read slowly, taking full notes.
He may well have remained a Cambridge Don, except that at the time a great debate had developed over the possible divorce of Henry VIII. In 1529 the Papal Legate had stalled the divorce decree against Catherine. Cranmer suggested to some of his friends that the matter should be appealed before the Divines of Oxford and Cambridge. His suggestion was passed on to the King who had him write a thesis on the matter. The King then sent him to Rome, but the Pope was too afraid of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, to grant the decree. In 1532 Cranmer was appointed Ambassador to the Court of Charles V in Germany, this time to try and win over Charles to the cause. During this time he married the niece of the Lutheran divine, Osiander. The Turks had moved into Europe and Charles led the fight against them. From this battle Cranmer was summoned back to England and in 1533 consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury.
The political scene moved ahead quickly. The divorce was confirmed, Henry was excommunicated by the Pope, the Pope's power in England was rescinded and the right of succession vested with any offspring of Anne Boleyn. Sir Thomas More and Bishop Fisher refused to take the oath of Succession. Cromwell proceeded to have their heads against Cranmer's pleas for leniency. Princess Mary, also unwilling to recognize her mother's divorce, nearly suffered the Tower, but for the plea of Cranmer to the King.
England was divided between two religious parties, both manipulated by powerful and wicked men who sought to turn the political tide in their own favour. Cranmer was the spiritual leader of the Protestants, and Stephen Gardner, Bishop of Winchester, was the leading light of the Pope's men. Henry juggled both parties to maintain a balance of power and a semblance of political stability. Thomas Cromwell, who championed National reform and the destruction of Papal power, initially had the ascendancy, and against the wish of Cranmer set about the dissolution of the monasteries and the confiscation of church land. The King and his allies shared in the plunder. The political game ran its course with the fall of Anne Boleyn from favour in 1536. Cranmer was again the only one to ask for mercy. It was probably his gentleness and integrity that secured his place in the King's heart. While others flattered and bled the coffers, Cranmer spoke and lived the truth.
Luther had nailed his Ninety-five theses to the door in Wittenburg in 1517. Cranmer gave himself to the new learning, and by 1525 he spoke openly against Papal power in England. He had certainly, by this time, moved toward the central doctrine of the Reformation - justification by grace through faith. By 1535 he was acting against Masses for the dead, prayers to saints, pilgrimages and clerical celibacy. The Ten Articles of Religion, as the first definition of the faith, gained royal assent in 1536. These were a compromise for both parties. The Real Presence in the Mass was still accepted. In 1537 he was able to promote an English version of the Bible by John Rogers. Rogers had worked from Tyndale's translation. This led to the production of the Great Bible in 1539. Cranmer still held the doctrine of Transubstantiation up till 1537, but swung towards a Lutheran view in 1538, and had finally taken over the Zwinglian position by the mid 40's.
In 1540 the political situation turned against Cranmer with the fall from power of Cromwell. Only Henry himself saved Cranmer from the plots of the men of the Old Learning. Yet, even with his limited influence, he was able to advance the cause of reform. Some holy days, shrines and relics went in 1541. He prepared his first set of Homilies to be read in church in 1543. He produced an English Litany in 1544, and an English primer in 1545. Finally he gained the reading of the Epistle and Gospel in English in 1547.
Henry died in 1547 and his son, Edward, was crowned in the following month of February. The Duke of Somerset was appointed Protector during the King's minority. He was a supporter of the New Learning and so reform moved quickly ahead. The Homilies were published, Communion in both kinds, a new form of Communion in 1548. In 1549 a new Prayer Book, created by Cranmer, was published. It was still a compromise, but Cranmer had won the debate on the central issue of the Real Presence. He published his key work on the theology of the communion in his book "A Defence of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament". Bishop Gardner, who was now confined to the Tower, began a long literary debate with Cranmer over this issue.
Political reactions to the new Prayer Book, promoted by the Old Learning Party, fuelled a number of revolts throughout the land. In the political fallout the moderates lost control. Somerset was sent to the Tower, and the Duke of Northumberland gained control. He was an unscrupulous man, further seizing the property of the church and using the Reformed banner to promote his own personal ends. Persecution of members of the Old Learning followed, with men like Gardner loosing their heads. Cranmer, although still a member of the Kings Council, was unable to stand against the excesses and so began to absent himself.
Even with the political excesses, Cranmer continued the work of reform. In 1552 he produced the Second Prayer Book of Edward VI. This corrected the faults of the 1549 book and was fully reformed. The 1662 version is very similar to it. Against the Church of Rome and the work of the Council of Trent, Cranmer produced the 42 Articles of the Reformed Faith in 1553. Again, these are very similar to our 39 Articles, although not as harsh.
Early in 1553 Edward fell ill. Northumberland sought to secure the right of succession in his daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey. Cranmer opposed this move against Princess Mary, but was forced to comply. After the death of Edward she reigned for only nine days. In July, Mary was proclaimed Queen. She now sought her revenge.
Many of the Reformers saw the danger of the times and fled England. Cranmer sent his family from the country, but remained himself. By 1554 he found himself in the Tower with the great preacher of the New Learning, Hugh Latimer, and also Nicholas Ridley. Initially executions were carried out on the grounds of treason. But these men faced the charge of Heretic and death by fire. In April the three were sent to Oxford to face the Disputation with the Divines of Oxford and Cambridge. Cranmer wrote of this, "I never knew nor heard of a more confused disputation in all my life. For albeit there was one appointed to dispute against me, yet every man spake his mind and brought forth what he liked without order. And such haste was made that no answer could be suffered to be given fully to any argument before another brought a new argument. They came not to speak the truth, but to condemn us before the truth might be thoroughly tried and heard."
With the authority of Rome again restored to England in 1555, over fifty Protestants were burnt at the stake. Cranmer faced the Holy Inquisition in September, and in November the Papal Consistory sentenced him to the stake. For over a year he was in solitary confinement and was daily counselled by two Spanish monks. In an attempt to defame the New Learning, he was offered his life and even his ministry, if he would recant. The offer was a lie. Mary was determined to break him and the Reformation. Her revenge would not be thwarted.
In February 1556, in the choir of Christ Church Oxford, he was stripped of his robes and his head was shaved as part of the ceremony of degradation. The possible saving of his life was still before him and so he finally signed a number of statements of Recantation, each stronger as the time went on. His sixth Recantation was placed before the Queen in March. She ordered his death and the publication of the Recantation. The Old Learning party sought to drive home their victory by further humiliating Cranmer on the day of his death by fire, March 21st 1556. He was taken to St. Mary's Oxford to hear his last sermon and to publicly renounce his Reformed faith. He spoke clearly to the large congregation and begged their forgiveness and particularly the forgiveness of God. "Thou didst not give Thy Son unto death for small sins only, but for all the greatest sins of the world: so that the sinner return to Thee with his whole heart, as I do here at present". Of course, the Papists thought he was speaking of his abandoning of Roman theology, but he was speaking of his recantation of Reformed truth. At the last he had regained his nerve and reaffirmed his faith. "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 anti-Christ, with all his false doctrine. And as for the Sacrament, I believe as I have taught". The congregation erupted and he was dragged from the stage.
He was taken to the stake, stripped to his undergarment and his hat removed. Before the crowd he stood, bald with a long flowing white beard. He held his friends in farewell. The fire then leapt up. "This hand hath offended" he cried, and held it above the flames until a burnt stump. "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit". And so Thomas Cranmer was caught away and those who stood by could not but see the mortal grandeur of the man and his cause. In those fires the Reformation was secured in the heart of all England.
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