A Setter-Forth of Christ’s Glory’: Remembering the Life and Martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer
As a Calvinistic Baptist I owe a significant debt to early Anglicanism. My seventeenth-century forebears learned much of their Reformed theology from Reformed ministers in the Church of England. It was there that they were nurtured on the spirituality of the Reformation. In the earliest days of that state Church no figure exercised as great an influence as the 'reluctant martyr', Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), the first Reformed Archbishop of Canterbury.1
Kenneth Brownell, an American who is pastoring in the U.K., has argued that Thomas Cranmer's influence on the English-speaking Protestant world has been greater than that of any other figure except his contemporary, John Knox (d. 1572.), and the eighteenth-century preachers George Whitefield (1714-70), John Wesley (1703-91) and Jonathan Edwards (1703-58). 'Few men,' Brownell writes, 'did more to shape English Protestant spirituality and to drive into the soul of a nation the fundamentals of Protestant Christianity.' 2
Nevertheless, unlike these other figures, Cranmer is not at all an easy person to study or to understand. Brownell's article bears witness to this: it is entitled 'Thomas Cranmer: Compromiser or Strategist?' What kind of man was Cranmer really? Was he an astute politician who accommodated himself during the reign of Henry VIII, who made him Archbishop of Canterbury, until such time as he could promote church reform without obstruction? Or was he a man out of his depth during the reign of Henry VIII, a man simply trying to stay alive as best as he could?3This writer sees him as one who eventually fully shared the common agenda of the other Reformers in Western Europe at the time, namely the Reformation of the Church.4
Early Life, 1489-1532
Cranmer was born on July 2, 1489, the son of Thomas and Agnes Cranmer, members of the lower gentry. His early schooling was not entirely satisfactory, but that did not prevent him from entering Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1503 at the age of 14. Here Cranmer was in his element. He was, as Brownell reminds us, 'fundamentally an academic.'5Or as Geoffrey W. Bromiley has, put it: 'To look at Cranmer is to see first the face of a scholar.' 6He became one of the most learned men of his age. His reading knowledge of foreign languages, both ancient and modern, included Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, as well as French, Italian and German. He was thus able, for instance, to translate the Hebrew Old Testament into Latin for his own personal use. In 1510 or 1511 Cranmer was elected a Fellow of Jesus College after having taken his B.A. degree there. And it was around I520 that he became a priest.7
Evangelical Christianity came to Cambridge near to the time that Cranmer became a priest. During the early 1520s the Protestant cause was centred in meetings at the White Horse Inn in Cambridge, led by such figures as Robert Barnes (1495-1540) and Thomas Bilney (c 1459-1531).[8Scholars writing on the English Reformation in the past have tended to place Cranmer within this group.
However, as Diarmaid MacCulloch has noted in his exhaustive study of Cranmer, this really amounts to a posthumous bestowal of membership. There is no concrete evidence to place Cranmer inside this circle of early Reformers.9
It was a conversation in 1529 with an important churchman, Stephen Gardiner (1483-1555), the Bishop of Winchester, that changed Cranmer's entire life. One of the topics of discussion on this occasion was what was quaintly termed the 'Privy Matter' of King Henry VIII (1491-1547), namely his attempt to divorce Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), his first wife. Catherine, a Spanish princess, had initially been married to Henry's older brother Arthur, but Arthur had died in 1502 of what was then called 'consumption', which in this case was probably pneumonia. Henry was subsequently married to Catherine to maintain an alliance between England and Spain against France. After five unsuccessful pregnancies, Catherine gave Henry a daughter, Mary (1516-58). But Henry desperately wanted a son. He feared that, if he died without a son, England would be plunged again into a fratricidal dynastic war like the one of the previous century known as the Wars of the Roses. This war had lasted on and off for thirty years (1455-85) and had only ended when his father, Henry VII (1457-1509) wrested the crown from Richard III (1452-1485) at the Battle of Bosworth (1485).
A special papal dispensation had been granted to allow Henry to marry his brother's widow, but now Henry felt that this marriage was under God's curse, because he could not have a son. And the more Catherine miscarried (she had a number of miscarriages after Mary's birth10) the more Henry became convinced of the validity of his perspective. So began his quest for divorce in 1527.11
The Pope, Clement VII (1478-1534), though, was unwilling to grant Henry's desire for a divorce. The reason was simple. In 1527 Clement had unwisely sided with the French against the Spanish. The Spanish ruler Charles V (1500-58) – also the Holy Roman Emperor before whom Martin Luther (1483-1546) had stood at the Diet of Worms – had sent an army into Italy and sacked Rome. Clement had been forced to barricade himself in one of his castles. Catherine of Aragon was Charles' aunt, and there was no way that the Pope was going to anger Charles again by shaming his aunt in the face of the whole of Roman Catholic Europe. So the Pope and his legate in England, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (1475-1530), stalled for time.
By 1529, Henry was losing patience. In the previously mentioned conversation between Cranmer and Gardiner Cranmer had suggested that the case of Henry's divorce be put before the universities of Western Europe for the academics to judge its merits. Henry heard of this proposal, loved it, and ordered Cranmer to draw up a treatise defending the rightness of his position. Cranmer went to live in London, and there he drew up a document that supported Henry's right to divorce.
Cranmer was subsequently made a chaplain to the King as a result of this treatise. He went from being an obscure scholar to being an up-and-coming player on the scene of national politics. In 1532 he was sent to Germany to represent Henry's case before Charles V. While Cranmer was on the continent, word reached him of the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Warham. Cranmer was summoned home by the king to succeed him.
Cranmer served Henry faithfully as his Archbishop. He was a strong supporter of royal supremacy throughout his career. 'He believed,' in the words of historian Jasper Ridley, 'that his primary duty as a Christian was to strengthen the power of the King'.12
Disobedience to a royal command was only permissible if carrying out the command involved a violation of one of God's laws. His view of church government was thus thoroughly Erastian (the doctrine of state supremacy over church affairs). This would cause him much heartache in his career.13
Therefore Cranmer actively participated in Henry's divorce of Catherine. This led to the formal break of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church and the declaration of Henry as the supreme head of the Church in England (known as the Act of Supremacy) in 1534. Catherine's daughter Mary neither forgot nor forgave Cranmer for his involvement in her mother's being divorced. Although Cranmer was not involved in the marriage of Henry to his second wife, Anne Boleyn (c. 1501-36), whom Catherine of Aragon once described as 'the scandal of Christendom' 14, he did crown her queen in 1533.15
Only three years later he presided over a second royal divorce. Anne had given birth to the child who would become Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603), and then to a stillborn child, whereas Henry was still desperately seeking a son. Convinced that he had been wrong to marry Anne, he divorced her on trumped-up adultery charges and had her executed. It is noteworthy that Cranmer did seek to save Anne Boleyn from the executioner.
Later Cranmer also presided over Henry's divorce of Anne of Cleves (1540) and his divorce of Catherine Howard (1542).
The fall of Anne Boleyn was a severe blow to Cranmer, for Anne was a keen supporter of the Evangelical cause. That Cranmer was an Evangelical in his sympathies by this time is seen from a letter he wrote on April 27, 1535 to Arthur Plantagenet (died 1542), Viscount Lisle, an uncle of Henry VIII. Cranmer told Lisle that 'the very papacy and the see of Rome' is to be detested, since papal laws have 'suppressed Christ'; they have set up the Pope as 'a god of this world', and they have 'brought the professors of Christ into such an ignorance of Christ.' 16
The fall in 1540 of another key figure in the government, Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540) provoked a further crisis for Cranmer, for Cromwell too had been a firm supporter of the cause of the Reformation. Cromwell's fall meant a triumph for the foes of the Reformed truth. These enemies were chiefly Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester, and Thomas Howard (1473-1554), the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, 'the most powerful and implacable conservative among the leading lay nobility'.17Gardiner and Norfolk secured the passage of what are known as The Six Articles (1539). Among other things, these reinforced the traditional doctrine of transubstantiation, clerical celibacy, and auricular confession. With this swing towards traditional Roman Catholicism, Cranmer the Evangelical was in danger. Yet he survived. Why?
One clear reason is that King Henry genuinely liked him. In Christopher Catherwood's words: 'Henry found in Cranmer a rare man: someone he could actually trust.' 18A second reason was that Henry was not a traditional Catholic in his views.19By 1543 he had all but rejected purgatory, and could look back on a career of destroying shrines and images with pleasure that he had done God's will. He also refused to believe that confirmation, unction, and ordination were sacraments.20And yet, it is important to note that he never accepted justification by faith alone. Now with the passage of the Six Articles Henry required clerical celibacy of all ministers in England. Cranmer acquiesced by sending his wife away to the continent. This leads to a third reason why Cranmer survived. Simply put, he compromised. His compromising can be clearly seen in the sending of his wife back to the continent and in his approval of the execution of the Lutheran preacher, Robert Barnes. There is evidence that Cranmer was an unwilling player in all of this, but that does not remove his guilt.21
The last years of Henry's reign (he died early in 1547) were indeed a see-saw battle between the traditionalists and the Evangelicals. But when Henry died, he left the Evangelicals, especially in the person of Edward Seymour (1500-52), Duke of Seymour, the uncle of his son, the future King Edward VI (1537-1553), in an unassailable position to take the reigns of government.22
'Tudor Church Militant'
When Edward was crowned king by Cranmer on February 20, 1547, he was reminded by the Archbishop that God was giving him a spiritual sword as well as a temporal sword with which to rule. He therefore urged the young monarch to remember that he was 'God's vice-regent and Christ's vicar' within the realm of England. He was to ensure that 'God (was) truly worshipped, and idolatry destroyed, the tyranny of the bishops of Rome banished ... and images removed. These acts be signs of a second Josiah, who reformed the church of God in his days.' 23There was now no hiding where Cranmer stood.
By the end of 1547 the Evangelicals around Edward, who were being led by Cranmer, had, amongst other reforms, enshrined the doctrine of justification by faith alone in the Church's official statements. Clerical marriage had been approved. Key Continental Reformers had been invited to come to England to help in the Reformation there, men such as the Strasbourg Reformer Martin Bucer (1491-1551), who went to Cambridge, Pietro Martire Vermigli (Peter Martyr, 1500-62), who went to Oxford, and Jan Laski (1499-1560), a Polish Reformer. And in line with the aims of the Reformation throughout Europe, the worship of the church had been reformed. Cranmer's work with regard to the latter is probably best seen in The Book of Common Prayer of 1552, which was intended to be the 'basis of reformed Protestant worship',24and which, as Peter Toon has recently noted, is 'a near perfect embodiment of the principle of justification by faith.' 25
Cranmer's Reformation Theology
One gets a marvellous insight into the heart of Cranmer's Reformed thought by looking at two of his written prayers. First consider one of his so-called 'Collects'. In the context of Christian worship the Latin term collecta, from which we get the English word, refers to the 'collecting' together of the various prayers of the congregation into a single prayer.26
Such prayers, whose origin lies in late antiquity, are marked by brevity and unity of thought. In the Anglican tradition as crafted by Cranmer they generally have five parts. They normally invoke God the Father, though some do call upon the Lord Jesus. There then follows a clause which makes mention of a divine attribute. There is a specific petition or two. Generally following the petition(s) is the purpose for which petition is made. Concluding the collect is an ascription of honour to Christ, whose merits alone can obtain an answer to the request of his people.27
Of the seventy Collects in the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, Cranmer himself wrote about twenty-four, which are rightly described as 'remarkable pieces of devotion.' 28
Here is the Collect to be prayed on the second Sunday in Advent. Blessed Lord, which hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; grant us that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them; that by patience, and comfort of thy holy word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.29
Cranmer's stress in this Collect is a major aspect of his thinking about Holy Scripture, namely its utterly vital importance as a touchstone of truth and wisdom as well as its unique usefulness as a means of grace. Here those who came to worship in the Reformed Church of England were being invited to learn the Bible and meditate on its life-giving riches that they might derive from this meditative reading the patience and comfort, i.e. strength, to embrace God's salvation in Christ. As Cranmer once declared elsewhere:
Dost thou not mark and consider how the smith, mason, or carpenter or any other handy-craftsman, what need soever he be in ... he will not sell nor lay to pledge the tools of his occupation ... for then how should he get a living thereby? Of like mind and affection ought we to be towards holy scripture. For as mallets, hammers, saws, chisels, axes and hatchets be the tools of their occupation, so be the books of the prophets and apostles, and all holy writ inspired by the Holy Ghost the instrument of our salvation.30
This explains Cranmer's efforts for much of his time as Archbishop of Canterbury to get the English Bible into the hands of the common person in England. As J. I. Packer rightly points out in this regard: 'To make the Church of England a Bible-reading, Bible-loving church was Cranmer's constant ideal.' 31The ultimate fruit of this Bible-reading, Bible-loving church was Puritanism, and, of deep interest to this writer, the Calvinistic Baptist movement.
Then consider this portion of a prayer from the Communion service in which Cranmer trumpets forth that salvation is by Christ alone:
Almighty God our heavenly Father, which of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ, to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption, who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world, and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memory of that his precious death, until his coming again; hear us O merciful Father we beseech thee...32
The declaration that Christ's death is 'a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction' for sin undercuts the entire theological edifice of medieval Roman Catholicism. This is because that edifice, with its understanding of the mass as a re-sacrifice for sin, both for the living and for the dead in purgatory, with its indulgences and rosaries and pilgrimages, was built on the supposition that humanity can do something to earn salvation. But Cranmer was convinced that all human endeavours to make atonement for our sins and gain merit in the eyes of God are utterly futile. Due to the fact that, in Cranmer's words elsewhere, 'all men be sinners and offenders against God, and breakers of his law and commandments, therefore can no man by his own acts, works, and deeds ... be justified and made righteous before God.' 33Christ's peerless death is alone sufficient to appease the wrath of God against human sin and to cleanse from all unrighteousness those who put their trust in him.34
Little wonder then that Cranmer was of the conviction that salvation by Christ alone and justification by faith alone:
is the strong rock and foundation of Christian religion: this doctrine all old and ancient authors of Christ's Church do approve: this doctrine advanceth and setteth forth the true glory of Christ, and suppresseth the vainglory of man: this whosoever denieth is not to be reputed for a Christian man, nor for a setter forth of Christ's glory, but for an adversary to Christ and his gospel, and for a setter forth of men's vainglory.35
Here Cranmer identified what lay at the heart of the Reformation. The one side relied solely on the all-sufficiency of Christ's death. He calls each individual in this camp 'a setter forth of Christ's glory'. The other side, which denied this biblical truth, Cranmer is convinced cannot be described as Christian, but must be seen as opposed to Christ and 'a setter forth of men's vainglory'. Within a year or so of the publication of the 1552 edition of the Book of Common Prayer the unbridgeable gulf between these two sides would plunge England and Cranmer personally, into turmoil and bloody strife.
Queen Mary I and England's 'Reign of Terror'
Edward VI died in 1553 of what is usually thought to have been tuberculosis, though some recent scholarship has argued that he died of bronchopneumonia which had led to septicemia.36It is now clear that before his death he sought to ensure that the Reformation that his reign had initiated would survives.37He thus changed the order of succession away from both his half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, to a cousin, Lady Jane Grey (1537-54), the grand-daughter of Henry VIII's sister Mary. For nine days after the death of Edward, Jane was Queen. But Edward's 'dreams of founding an evangelical realm of Christ' foundered; his sister Mary seized power in a coup d’état and reigned as Mary I.38
Mary had been raised a fervent Roman Catholic, and she passionately believed that if she eliminated the core leadership of the Evangelicals, the rest of England would docilely follow her back into the embrace of the Roman Church. She was wrong.
Estimates as to how many she burned have varied. Recent studies have identified 283 who were martyred. They ranged from bishops to brewers and barbers, from prominent preachers to teenage girls.39Her brutal persecution, for which there was no precedent in England, ultimately discredited Roman Catholicism. When she died in 1558 of ovarian cancer, and her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth came to the throne, there was no popular regret for the reality that the realm would now be Protestant.
'God ... Grant That I May Endure to the End'
Cranmer had signed Edward's 'devise for the succession', which would have placed Jane Grey on the throne. Mary was determined that he would pay for this and also for his role in her father's divorce of her mother. She did allow Cranmer to give Edward a Protestant funeral,40but once that had been done, he was arrested. The charge was based on his involvement in the proclamation of Jane Grey as queen. He was sent to the Tower of London on September 13, 1553. Two months later he was tried for treason and convicted.41Mary loathed him; there was no possibility of a reprieve. He spent six months in the Tower of London. Then, in April 1554, Cranmer was taken to Oxford where he was subjected to a mock six-hour debate in the Church of St Mary the Virgin. On this occasion he had little real opportunity to defend his views.
Even though Cranmer had been convicted, he languished in Oxford's Bocardo prison. Ultimately only the Pope could pass sentence on him, since he had been appointed Archbishop by the Pope. It was thus not until September 1555 that Cranmer faced trial with a papal representative in England. The trial was designed to secure Cranmer's admission of guilt and to give him no opportunity to defend his views. The trial devastated Cranmer. On December 4, 1555, Cranmer was formally excommunicated by Pope Paul IV (1476-1559).
Adding to his depression was the martyrdom of two of his fellow bishops, Hugh Latimer (c.1485-1555) and Nicholas Ridley (c.1500-1555). They were burned at the stake on October 16, 1555 in what is now Broad Street, Oxford. It was on this occasion that Latimer uttered those well-known words: 'Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.' Latimer died fairly swiftly, but the burning of Ridley was, to use the words of Peter Brooks, 'an unusually vile affair', for the wood piled around him was freshly cut and thus only smouldered. He was in conscious agony till the very end, and at one point he was heard to pray: 'I cannot burn! Lord, have mercy upon me!' Cranmer was compelled to watch their deaths from the roof of the Bocardo prison.42
Meanwhile Cranmer was tortured and forced to undergo what today we would call brain-washing sessions at the hands of a Spanish friar, Juan de Villa Garcia.43By such means a recantation was obtained in which Cranmer completely repudiated the theology of the Reformation that had motivated him as a Reformer. It was probably Villa Garcia who wrote the recantation and had Cranmer sign it.44
I, Thomas Cranmer,' the recantation read, 'anathematize every heresy of Luther and Zwingli ... I confess and believe most surely in one holy and catholic visible church, outside which there is no salvation; and I recognize as its supreme head upon earth the Bishop of Rome, whom I admit to be summus pontifex, Pope and Vicar of Christ, to whom all the faithful are bound subject. Now as regards the sacraments, I believe in and worship in the sacrament of the Eucharist the true body and blood of Christ, most truly without recourse to any trope or figure of speech contained under the species of bread and wine, the bread being changed and transubstantiated by divine power into the Redeemer's body, and wine into his blood. And I believe in the other six sacraments ... and hold that which the whole Roman church holds and declares. 45
Another recantation was to follow, in which he asked forgiveness for what he had done against the realm of England by being the 'cause and originator' of Henry's divorce of Catherine of Aragon, which was confessed to be the seed-bed for all that followed in Henry's reign, the bloodshed and the emergence of heresy.46These private recantations, though, were not enough for the authorities. Cranmer was informed that he would have to give a public recantation on the day of his being burnt by fire on Saturday, March 21, 1556.
That Saturday was a cold, wet, windy March morning. Cranmer was taken from the Bocardo prison to the Church of St Mary the Virgin where he was placed on a raised platform in the full view of all who were there. He was once again berated for his heresies and then given the opportunity to speak where it was expected that he would repeat his earlier recantations. But by God's grace he was enabled to speak what he truly believed.
Cranmer began with a prayer in which he confessed his sins and expressed his confidence in God's mercy.47Then followed what was expected to be his public recantation. It began with exhortations to the audience which included one to obey 'your King and Queen, willingly and gladly, without murmuring or grudging',48but it ended in a way that was utterly unexpected.
And now, for so much as I am come to the last end of my life, whereupon hangeth all my life passed, and my life to come, either to live with my master Christ for ever in joy, or else to be in pain for ever, with wicked devils in hell; and I see before mine eyes presently either heaven ready to receive me, or hell ready to swallow me up: I shall therefore declare unto you my very faith, how I believe, without any colour or dissimulation: for now is no time to dissemble, whatsoever I have said or written in times past.49
After stating his belief in 'every article of the Catholic faith' and 'every word and sentence taught' in the Scriptures he continued, though deadly pale, but with, as McCulloch puts it, 'a surge of energy': 50
And now I come to the great thing that so much troubleth my conscience, more than any thing that ever I did or said in my whole life: and that is, the setting abroad of writings contrary to the truth; which now here I renounce and refuse, as things written with my hand, contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and written for fear of death, and to save my life, if it might be; and that is, all such bills, which I have written or signed with my hand since my degradation: wherein I have written many things untrue. And forasmuch as my hand offended, writing contrary to my heart, my hand shall first be punished therefore; for, may I come to the fire, it shall be first burned. And as for the Pope, I refuse him, as Christ's enemy and Antichrist, with all his false doctrine... 51
His opponents reminded him of his recantation. He responded, 'Always since I lived, I have been a hater of falsehood, and a lover of simplicity, and never, before this time, have I dissembled,' and he began to cry.52
He then literally ran to the stake in what is now Broad Street with the Spanish friar Villa Garcia running after him trying to get him to recant once again. The Spanish friar continued trying to get him to recant all the way to the stake, but Cranmer was steadfast. In fact, when he was chained to the stake and the wood set on fire, he stretched out his arm, and, we are told,
put his right hand into the flame, which he held so steadfast and immoveable ... that all men might see his hand burned before his body was touched ... oftentimes he repeated, 'his unworthy right hand', so long as his voice would suffer him; and using often the words of Stephen, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit', in the greatness of the flame he gave up the ghost.53
A few months before his martyrdom, Cranmer had written a letter to Peter Martyr – it may well have been the last letter he ever wrote.
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 shew 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. So that we may say with Paul, 'When I am weak, then am I strong; and if I must needs glory, I will glory in my infirmities, in prisons, in revilings, in distresses, in persecutions, in sufferings for Christ.' I pray God to grant that I may endure to the end.54
God gave him the enduring grace for which he prayed.
The account of Cranmer's martyrdom is not one of unbroken triumph, but rather recounts a victory being snatched out of the jaws of defeat. In some respects Cranmer appears a very ordinary man, one with no taste for violent death. But in his final hours God's grace enabled him to endure to the end and we see that what Cranmer had taught as an Evangelical, namely, that salvation is wholly the Lord's work, was emphatically shown to be true in his final hours.55