marking the site in
Oxford where Thomas
Cranmer had been put
I had mentioned in the previous post that Mary was savoring her revenge on Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. Cranmer had not only supported Henry in his divorce from Mary’s mother, Katherine of Aragon, but he had, as Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of England, annulled the marriage which brought disgrace on both Katherine and Mary. Mary was no longer Princess of Wales, nor even princess, but no more than a bastard daughter of the King, the Lady Mary. For twenty years she was without rightful title, honors, or prospects for a royal marriage. For twenty years she was harassed because of her loyalty to her mother and to her Catholic faith. And while Henry was responsible, it was at Cranmer’s doing. She not only would have her revenge, she would make him pay, toying with him as a cat might toy with a rabbit before killing it.
Mary came to the throne on July 19, 1553—twenty years and two months after Cranmer had annulled her parents’ marriage and changed the course of her life. On September 14, of that year Cranmer was ordered to appear in Star Chamber where he was accused of treason for having supported Lady Jane Grey as Queen against Mary’s claims. He was remanded to the Tower of London as a prisoner. When Mary came to the throne, Cranmer had advised other Protestant leaders to flee England but he himself determined to stay and fight for his reformation. Cranmer was tried at the London Guildhall for treason—along with Lady Jane Grey, her husband, Lord Guildford Dudley and two of Dudley’s brothers. He—and they—were found guilty and sentenced to death. But Mary had other plans for her one-time nemesis than a traitor’s beheading. In March 1554 Cranmer, along with Protestant bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, both of whom refused to conform to the old religion, were confined in the Bocardo Prison in Oxford where they were to be tried for heresy. The punishment for heresy was far more dreadful than treason: being burned alive rather than being beheaded. Cranmer and the others were allowed to sit and ponder their destiny in the Bocardo for seventeen months before being brought to trial. All this time, Cranmer was still Archbishop of Canterbury—Mary not having deprived him of his See, though having entrusted the primate’s normal duties (such as her coronation) to Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester and her Lord Chancellor. The trials of the three accused heretics began in September 1555 and all three were found guilty. Ridley and Latimer were executed almost immediately after their trials—on October 16th 1555. Cranmer was brought to the site of the judicial murders and forced to watch as his two faithful collaborators were burned alive at the stake for their Protestant faith. It was only the following month, November 1555, that he was officially deprived of his See. But Mary did not act quickly. Indeed she toyed with him—he was moved from the Bocardo to the home of the Dean of Christchurch, the Oxford Cathedral and College. Here he was treated not as prisoner but as a guest. A variety of Catholic academics visited him and debated with him over issues of papal authority, Eucharistic doctrines, and purgatory. Cranmer submitted to the authority of the Queen and accepted Catholic doctrine. He attended Mass and asked for sacramental absolution. But then on February 14, 1556 he was defrocked from the clergy and sent back to prison. Being defrocked left him vulnerable to capital punishment and ten days later a royal writ for his execution on March 7th was sent to the Mayor of Oxford. Cranmer issued a recantation of his Protestant faith, accepting papal supremacy, purgatory, transubstantiation, Eucharistic Sacrifice and the doctrine that outside the Catholic Church there is no salvation. He fully repudiated any Lutheran or Zwinglian doctrine. The writ for his execution was put in abeyance. By Canon Law, having recanted his heresy, he was to be spared. But that would not satisfy Mary’s jealousy to make him suffer. He was to die and it was to be by burning. He was told to prepare a final statement affirming his Catholic faith that he was to proclaim from the pyre before it was set alight. He did so. But on March 21st when he was taken to the same site where Ridley and Latimer had been burned five months earlier, he departed from the prepared text, repented of his recantation of Protestantism, and cast his right hand into the fire first—his penance for having signed the recantation with that hand. As the flames rose around him he called “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit…I see the heavens open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” This second phrase is taken from the martyrdom of Stephen in Acts 7.
It is unfair to try to sum up a life as complex as Thomas Cranmer but there are certain themes that emerge. He was an ambitious man and while one aspect that that ambition was to advance the faith in which he believed, religious zealotry does not explain it all. There was a certain duplicity in him. He concealed both his having a wife and his Protestant leanings from King Henry knowing that his ideas would lead him, under Henry, at least to removal from office and possibly to the stake for his understanding of the Eucharist, of Masses for the Dead, of purgatory, and of the intercession of the saints. Indeed, despite his personal beliefs, he had supported the Six Articles in 1539—articles that articulated a very Catholic understanding of the Sacrifice of the Mass as well as confession, clerical celibacy, and other Catholic perspectives. Moreover, in addition to the duplicity there was certain instability to Cranmer’s faith. He was no original thinker or even a critical thinker; he began with Luther’s theological position but over the years moved towards a more radical Swiss Protestantism without ever really understanding either position in depth. Faith to Cranmer was more a matter of intellectual stimulation, or even titillation, than inner experience. When Edward came to the throne, he could express his Protestant views and indeed create a magnificent liturgy that celebrated that theology, but he also was disloyal to Henry’s wishes regarding the regency and broke his oath to the old King regarding as to how the Kingdom was to be administered and how the succession to the Throne was to be arranged during the minority of the new King. When Mary came to the throne he did not flee even though he advised others to do so, but his recantation of all he had worked for and done for twenty-three years in a desperate hope to save his life, shows a certain lack of spine. Only when he realized that he was damned either way did he stand up for his Protestant principles. I don’t think he was insincere, but I think for Cranmer faith was more a matter of intellectual assent than personal commitment. He has been made a hero, the closest thing they can manage for a saint, by the evangelical wing of the Church of England but in fact I think there was less to Cranmer than meets the eye. He was too vacillating to be a hero; a martyr yes, but a most reluctant one. It cannot be denied however that he was a master of the English language, second only to Shakespeare in the ability to create elegant and pithy phrases that draw from the depths of the human heart and can make the soul soar. All in all, while he was most talented he was no better a man than many—most—of the bishops of his day, Protestant or Catholic, a climber, a theoretician, a man of ideas more than deeds, a disappointment. He was not a bad man but he lacked a certain compass that a man of faith would have. When you think about it, a self-indulgent narcissist wearing the crown and a sycophantic dilatant wearing the miter was no way to begin a Church. But then they didn’t begin the Church of England—it was an ancient Church going back into mists of early Romano-Britain—and its rich heritage would sustain it even through the troubled times of Henry and Edward and Mary. And to be fair, Thomas Cranmer contributed to that rich heritage by the magnificent Prayer Book that he created to replace the beautiful but archaic rites that had preceded it. All in all then I think we have a man whose moral compass kept pointing towards power rather than towards true north and who was more articulate than intellectual, a man of his time rather than a man for the ages, but no worse than many of his contemporaries and better than most.