Thomas Cranmer

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Religious figures and leaders

Part of the series on

Anglican Communion
'focus of unity':
Archbishop of Canterbury
'instruments of communion':
Lambeth Conferences
Anglican Consultative Council
Primates' Meeting


English Reformation
Apostolic Succession
Episcopal polity


Henry VIII
Thomas Cranmer
Elizabeth I
Richard Hooker

Liturgy and Worship

Book of Common Prayer
High Church · Low Church
Broad Church
Oxford Movement
Thirty-Nine Articles
Book of Homilies
Saints in Anglicanism

Thomas Cranmer ( July 2, 1489 – March 21, 1556) was the Archbishop of Canterbury during the reigns of the English kings Henry VIII and Edward VI. He is credited with writing and compiling the first two Books of Common Prayer which established the basic structure of Anglican liturgy for centuries and influenced the English language through its phrases and quotations. Cranmer was an important figure in the English Reformation. He was one of the first Anglican martyrs: he was burned in 1556 for heresy. He is commemorated by the Church of England on March 21. The Episcopal Church in the United States of America commemorates Cranmer with the other Oxford Martyrs on October 16.

Early years (1489–1533)

Cranmer was born in 1489 in Aslacton, now Aslockton, near Nottingham. His parents, Thomas and Agnes (Hatfield) Cranmer, were from the lesser gentry and had only enough wealth and land to support their eldest son upon their death. Due to this lack of land the scholarly Thomas and his younger brother entered the service of the church.

A plague forced Cranmer to leave Cambridge for Essex. Here he came to the attention of Henry VIII, who was staying nearby. The King and his councillors found Cranmer a willing advocate for Henry's desired annulment from Catherine of Aragon and he became involved with the case as a researcher. He and Foxe compiled the Collectanea Satis Copiosa (the sufficiently abundant collection) in 1530, giving legal and historical precedent of cases such as Henry's, allowing the King to build an academic case to break with Rome. Cranmer was sent as part of the embassy to Rome in 1530, and in 1532 he became ambassador to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

Cranmer met his second wife Margarete, relative by marriage of the Lutheran scholar Andreas Osiander, while spending the summer of 1532 in Nuremberg.

Archbishop under Henry VIII (1533–1547)

An oil painting of Thomas Cranmer by Gerlach Flicke (1545) - National Portrait Gallery, London
An oil painting of Thomas Cranmer by Gerlach Flicke (1545) - National Portrait Gallery, London

By January 1533 Henry found out that Anne Boleyn, the woman he wanted to marry, was pregnant. This added urgency to the matter of the King's annulment and they were married in secret by the end of the month.

On March 30, 1533, Cranmer was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury after the death of Warham. Cranmer was chosen as Henry believed that he would support his policies and find solutions to his problems. This appointment by Henry, in spite of the Pope's refusal to consent, shows that he had given up the hope of getting consent for an annulment from Rome.

Cranmer brought his German wife Margarete with him when he became Archbishop but kept her presence quiet so as not to be seen breaking the rules on clerical celibacy.

In May, Cranmer declared the marriage of Henry to Catherine of Aragon void and Anne Boleyn his lawful wife. In doing this, Cranmer went directly against the Pope's command. In September, Anne gave birth to Henry's second daughter Princess Elizabeth. Cranmer was the godfather.

Under Henry, Cranmer was able to push through the reforms that led gradually to the reform of the Church of England. This included writing the 10 Articles, which stated the reforms but also showed a politeness that Cranmer possessed because he didn't want to offend anyone. For example he didn't say that transubstantiation was incorrect, but that there was a possibility that it might be.

In 1538, he condemned the views of John Lambert when he denied transubstantiation. Lambert was burnt at the stake, but Cranmer later came to adopt his views.

Cranmer also opposed Henry VIII's 6 Articles, which reaffirmed clerical celibacy.

At the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries Cranmer was given various former church properties, such as the former Cluniac Nunnery at Arthington.

Cranmer greatly admired Henry and on his death declared he would not shave his beard again as a sign of mourning.

Archbishop under Edward VI (1547–1553)

A Portrait of Thomas Cranmer by Unknown Artist - Lambeth Palace, London
A Portrait of Thomas Cranmer by Unknown Artist - Lambeth Palace, London

On Henry's death in 1547, Cranmer became an indispensable advisor to his son and successor, Edward VI, who, as a child, had been brought up with Protestant views.

During Edward's reign, Cranmer set about the completion of his great liturgical work begun during Henry's reign. He produced an English language liturgy with a Protestant character. The Book of Common Prayer (BCP), as it came to be known, was heavily influenced by continental theologians, such as Peter Martyr, Martin Bucer (both of whom he invited and hosted in England), and by Hermann of Wied (Archbishop of Cologne, whose Consultatio was the source of a good number of elements of the new book). Cranmer was responsible for the first two editions of the BCP. The first edition in 1549 was comparatively conservative in appearance, though full of Cranmer's inimitable prose. The second edition in 1552 was more radically Protestant, greatly toning down the sacrificial element in the eucharist, removing prayers for the dead, and removing many ceremonies, including the admixture of water with the wine at Communion, the exorcism, the putting on of the chrysom robe and the triple immersion in baptism. The current official BCP of the Church of England was produced in 1662.

Cranmer also encouraged the destruction of images, in imitation of the followers of John Calvin and Zwingli, describing these latter activities as 'jolly musters'.

Concerned about the need for good Reformed preaching and the lack of literate clergy he compiled and wrote the first Book of Homilies, as well as the 42 Articles that summarise Anglican doctrine. These, in general, led the Church of England in a more Protestant direction. Cranmer also published Defence of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ in July 1550, which propagated the new doctrine about the Eucharist. He testified at his trial (September 1555) that he had written this book seven years earlier in 1548. The 39 Articles were another of his works, and were based on the 42 Articles. Adopted during the reign of Elizabeth I, they are still recognised as part of the Anglican heritage to which clergy in some of the national churches in the Anglican Communion vow to swear allegiance.

Final years (1553–1556)

Cranmer’s martyrdom, from John Foxe’s book (1563)
Cranmer’s martyrdom, from John Foxe’s book (1563)

Edward VI died in 1553, to be succeeded by his half-sister, Mary I. Mary was the daughter of Henry’s first wife ( Catherine of Aragon), a Spanish princess, and was brought up in the Roman Catholic faith. In line with her Catholic beliefs, she began, so far as she felt able, the process of restoring the old religion. Inevitably, this had a profound effect on Cranmer and the institutions of church and state with which he was inextricably associated.

Stained glass window depicting martyrdom of Cranmer, Ridley. and Latimer - Christ Church (Episcopal), Little Rock, Arkansas
Stained glass window depicting martyrdom of Cranmer, Ridley. and Latimer - Christ Church ( Episcopal), Little Rock, Arkansas

He was first charged and convicted of treason for his part in supporting Lady Jane Grey as Queen, but Mary spared his life. Mary had resolved to have Cranmer tried for heresy. He remained in prison until she brought these charges in February 1556. But because the negotiations for reunion with Rome were not yet complete, Cranmer remained archbishop during this time. In November 1554 Cardinal Pole, the Papal legate, came to receive England back into the Catholic fold. Pole was appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1556. Meanwhile, Cranmer, weakened by more than two years in prison, made several recantations affirming his belief in transubstantiation and papal supremacy. He said later that he did this in order to avoid execution. Despite this, which should have absolved him under Mary’s own Heresy Act, Cranmer was sentenced to death by burning.

According to John Foxe, on March 21 1556, Cranmer was brought in procession to St. Mary’s Church in Oxford where he was to make a public statement affirming his recantation. Instead, Cranmer withdrew his recantation and denounced Catholic doctrine and the Pope from the pulpit, reportedly stating, "And as for the Pope, I refuse him, as Christ's enemy and Antichrist, with all his false doctrine." After this Cranmer was taken to be burned at the stake.

Then was an iron chain tied about Cranmer and fire set unto him. When the wood was kindled and the fire began to burn near him, he stretched forth his right hand, which had signed his recantation, into the flames, and there held it so the people might see it burnt to a coal before his body was touched. In short, he was so patient and constant in the midst of his tortures, that he seemed to move no more than the stake to which he was bound; his eyes were lifted up to heaven, and often he said, so long as his voice would suffer him, "this unworthy right hand!" and often using the words of Stephen, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit", till the fury of the flames putting him to silence, he gave up the ghost.

This is confirmed by an account by a Catholic observer known only as J.A.

Bishops Ridley and Latimer had earlier been burned at this place on October 16, 1555. These three martyrdoms in Oxford are commemorated with the Victorian Martyrs' Memorial.


Cranmer is commemorated as a martyr by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on March 21.

Fictional Portrayals

Cranmer has appeared as a character in several plays and movies that depict the Tudor period. He is a supporting character in William Shakespeare's Henry VIII and Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons; in the film version of the latter, he was played by Cyril Luckham. He was also portrayed by Bernard Hepton in the famed TV miniseries, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970).

Retrieved from ""