Thomas Cranmer—The English Reformer

by Aaron Dunlop

Thomas Cranmer was born on July 2, 1489. He was educated at Cambridge from the age of fourteen and in four years graduated with a B.A. In 1530 Cranmer became Archdeacon of Taunton. In 1529 Henry VIII applied to Rome for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Cranmer advocated a particular course of action through his friend Stephen Gardener the Roman Catholic Bishop and politician and won the favour of the king. In 1533, he was subsequently appointed Archbishop of Canterbury.

Cranmer is viewed by many as a compromiser because he didn’t speak out against Henry’s reckless lifestyle. By others he is viewed as a wise strategist. It was in great measure due to Cranmer as an early English Reformer that the English Church would break from the grip of the Roman Catholic Church. After the death of Henry VIII in January 1547, Cranmer began to publish his Homilies through which he promoted the doctrines of the Reformation. The Book of Common Prayer however, is the lasting memorial of Cranmer in the English Church. The first Prayer Book appeared in 1549, and throughout the reign of Edward VI, Cranmer had freedom to develop the doctrines of the Reformation in England.

When King Edward VI was dying, Cranmer signed the document by which the King designated Lady Jane Grey as his successor. After the attempt to place her on the throne failed, within days Cranmer was charged with treason and committed to the Tower of London. It was during the reign of Mary I (known as Bloody Mary because of her persecution of the Reformers), who had deposed Lady Jane Grey, that Cranmer was taken to Oxford and required to defend himself against the charge of heresy. Finally, sentence of death by burning was passed upon him. In the hope of saving his life, Cranmer recanted what he had written. Mary, whose hatred for Cranmer went back to the divorce of her mother from Henry, called on him to recant publically and a public recantation was arranged for March 21, 1556. At that time Cranmer began his prepared speech as planned but ended, to the shock of the gathered crowd, by renouncing his recantation and continuing with the words, “And as for the pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy, and Antichrist with all his false doctrine.” Cranmer was pulled from the platform and taken to be burned. As the flames engulfed his body, Cranmer was seen holding his right hand, “that unworthy hand,” out to be burned—the hand with which he had earlier denied the Reformed faith.

In a letter to his friend Peter Martyr just prior to his death he wrote,

I have learned by experience that God never shines forth more brightly, and pours out the beams of his mercy and consolation, or of strength and firmness of spirit, more clearly or impressively upon the minds of his people, than when they are under the most extreme pain and distress, both of mind and body, that he may then more especially show himself to be the God of his people, when he seems to have altogether forsaken them; then raising them up when they think he is bringing them down, and laying them low; then glorifying them, when he is thought to be confounding them; then quickening them, when he is thought to be destroying them.

The devotionals this month are taken from Cranmer’s Edwardian Homilies (1547) as edited by Rev. Colin Mercer.

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