Saint of the Week: Thomas Cranmer

Cranmer was to be last week’s saint, since his memorial was on Wednesday, March 24. But I kept doing other things in the evening and reading systematic theology during my spare time at work.

Thomas Cranmer was born July 2, 1489, and was burned at the stake on March 21, 1556. He studied at Jesus College, Cambridge, receiving a Master of Arts in 1515 having received a classical education in his Bachelor’s degree but focussing on Continental humanists, including Erasmus, in his Master’s degree. He was also a lifelong collector of books by the mediaeval Scholastics. In 1526 he received his Doctorate of Divinity.

Throughout the 1520s, he was involved in the intellectual discussion and dispersion of Lutheran ideals and ideas amongst the scholars of Cambridge.  In 1526, he entered the King’s service on an embassy to Spain, and in 1527 put his able hand to the task of annulling Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

In 1531, while Cranmer was still working on the annulment with some other scholars who were instrumental in finalising the ideas involved in 1534’s Act of Supremacy, he met Simon Grynaeus, a Swiss humanist and Zwinglian.  Grynaeus and Cranmer were to become friends, thus strengthening Cranmer’s later relationship with the Swiss and Strasbourg reformers.

1532 marked Thomas Cranmer’s presence in the Holy Roman Empire as ambassador.  In Germany he saw firsthand the Protestant Reformation in action.  During his time in the German court of Charles V, Thomas Cranmer moved further into the Lutheran camp.  In October of this same year, Thomas Cranmer received a letter appointing him Archbishop of Canterbury, due no doubt to his work on the King’s annulment, given how few ecclesiastical positions he had yet held.

Nevertheless, despite opposition from various parties in England, Cranmer sought to spread Reformation ideals in the English church, especially after 1534.  In the following years of Henry’s reign, the work of Reform moved slowly in England, although Cranmer appointed reformers such as Hugh Latimer to important positions, and the King commissioned the Great Bible.

The spread of worship in English, however, was not moving apace until Edward VI’s reign when the people would receive the sacrament in an English service.  Nonetheless, at this time Cranmer produced an English translation of the Litany in 1544.  This Litany includes prayers for God to deliver His people from “the tyranny of the bisshop of Rome and all his detestable enormyties”.

In 1547, Henry VIII died and was succeeded by his nine-year-old son Edward VI.  Now worship in the vernacular was able to take off.  The first liturgical text produced by Thomas Cranmer was the Litany,  with the publishing of the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549.  This was followed by a second Prayer Book of 1552.

Thomas Cranmer also worked to produce a Book of Homilies (the present form also has homilies of John Jewel [15222-1571]) in accord with Reformation teaching for use in churches to instruct the people on various subjects such as reading the Bible, how to gain salvation, against whoredom, and the like.  This Book of Homilies was not approved by the Bishops until 1547.

The Reformation was able to spread during Edward’s reign through the media of the Book of Homilies, the Book of Common Prayer, and the English Bible.

And then in 1553, Edward VI, a sickly teenager, died.  His older sister Mary succeeded him.  Mary was a Roman Catholic.  Under her reign, the Reforms of Edward were suppressed and the Church of England returned to communion with the Church of Rome.  The tables were turned, as any reader of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs knows — no more Carthusian abbots were drawn and quartered in London’s streets.  Instead, the Protestants were to feel the flames of the stake.

Thomas Cranmer had, during Henry’s reign, come to the belief that the monarch was the rightful head of the church, and that it was contrary to his role as a bishop to counter the monarch’s headship — hence the lack of a BCP under Henry, who was not in the Reformation for religious but economic, political, and legal reasons.  Finding himself under a Catholic monarch, Thomas Cranmer was in a bit of a sticky position.

On March 20, 1556, Thomas Cranmer watched in Oxford as Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were burned at the stake for heresy.  He proceeded to sign fourteen copies of his recantation of the heresies of Martin Luther with some Spanish friars standing by.

On March 21, Cranmer was escorted to St. Mary’s Church where his public recantation was to take place.  And there, Thomas Cranmer, like Latimer and Ridley before him, played the man, declaring, “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–”  Here Cranmer was interrupted and taken away to be burned.

As Cranmer burned, he thrust his right hand into the flames, holding there and saying, “This hand hath offended,” for that hand had signed his recantations.  And so Thomas Cranmer, crafter of the Book of Common Prayer passed from this life to the next.

His greatest contribution of all time was no doubt the BCP.  Tune in sometime after Easter for some thoughts on its awesomeness.

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2 thoughts on “Saint of the Week: Thomas Cranmer

  1. […] I am indebted to the folks at Wikipedia and the following website: http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/Litany1544/Exhortation&Litany_1544.htm.  Also, while refreshing my memory about Cranmer I ran across this blog post, which neatly summarized key aspects of his life and contributions: https://thepocketscroll.wordpress.com/2010/03/28/saint-of-the-week-thomas-cranmer/ […]

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