Biography of Thomas Cranmer, First Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury

Life and Legacy of the Architect of Anglicanism

Thomas Cranmer
Thomas Cranmer (1459-1556), Archbishop of Canterbury, 1546 (1902. From a painting in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Print Collector / Getty Images

Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556) was a leading reformer in the Church of England and the chief architect behind Anglicanism. His life, legacy, and fate were entangled with those of several English monarchs. King Henry VIII (1491-1547) appointed Cranmer the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury. During the reign of King Edward VI (1537–1553), Cranmer completed his most famous works, the Book of Common Prayer and the Book of Homilies. Under Mary Tudor (1516-1558), Cranmer was accused of heresy and treason, imprisoned, tried, and finally burned at the stake.

Fast Facts: Thomas Cranmer

  • Known For: English Protestant Reformer, martyr, theologian, architect of Anglicanism, and Archbishop of Canterbury during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary I 
  • Born: July 2, 1489 in Aslockton, Nottinghamshire, UK
  • Died: March 21, 1556 in Oxford, UK
  • Parents: Thomas Cranmer and Agnes Hatfield
  • Spouses: Joan (first wife) and Margaret Osiander (second wife)
  • Education: Jesus College, Cambridge; University of Cambridge
  • Published Works: Book of Homilies (1547); Book of Common Prayer (1552); Articles of Religion (1553).
  • Notable Quote: “My very foundation is only upon God’s Word, which foundation is so sure that it never will fail.”

Early Life

Cranmer was born in Aslockton, the second son of a low-ranking Nottinghamshire squire. He underwent a long and rigorous education at Jesus College in Cambridge, where he was ordained to the priesthood and became a Fellow by 1523.

As a man of serious scholarship, Cranmer developed into an exceptional theologian. His desire to end papal authority in England moved him to begin meeting together with other biblical scholars, including William Tyndale, to consider the religious reforms of Martin Luther and others taking place in Europe at the time. The group was given the name “Little Germany.”

Soon, Cranmer was pulled into the politics of the day and began a long career in service to English royalty. Because he believed in total obedience to his sovereign, he sometimes compromised his principles. But in the end, Cranmer’s convictions would cost him his life.

Secret Marriage

Before Cranmer was ordained a priest, he married a woman named Joan, the daughter of a local tavern keeper. Within a year, she died in childbirth. Later, in 1532, Cranmer married Margaret Osiander, the niece of a Lutheran reformer. But because of the complicated political and religious conditions in England at the time, Cranmer was forced to keep this marriage a secret for many years.

Thomas Cranmer
Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) was the Archbishop of Canterbury during the reigns of the English kings Henry VIII and Edward VI. The Print Collector / Getty Images

Archbishop of Canterbury

In 1529, Cranmer became embroiled in the affairs of King Henry VIII. For a couple of years, the king had been seeking a way to be freed from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. When Henry VIII learned that Cranmer believed he had a right to divorce Catherine, the king summoned the theologian and ordered him to devote himself to writing up a Scripture-backed treatise in support of his right to a divorce.

As work on the treatise progressed, the aging Archbishop of Canterbury passed away in August of 1532. Seizing the opportunity, King Henry appointed Cranmer the new archbishop by March of the following year. Although he was reluctant to assume the office, Cranmer obliged the king and did as he was expected. He immediately annulled the king’s marriage union with Catherine, and, a short time later, performed the marriage of Henry to Anne Boleyn.

Cranmer believed in royal absolutism—that the king was God’s chosen instrument to lead his nation and church. Often during King Henry VIII’s reign, Cranmer, who felt it was his duty to obey the king, was forced to support policies and perform actions that he did not personally approve.

Old Book of Common Prayer
Old Book of Common Prayer (1792). 221A / Getty Images

Progressively More Protestant

As archbishop of the Church of England, Cranmer grew increasingly more Protestant in theology. In cooperation with Thomas Cromwell, he promoted the publication of an English Bible and had it put to use in parish churches. Although he rejected the traditional Roman Catholic belief in transubstantiation, Cranmer held to the doctrine of the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.

With the death of Henry VIII in 1547, his young son Edward VI (who was only nine at the time) ascended the throne of England. Thus, Cranmer was able to exercise considerable influence over the king’s education and spiritual development. He also took the lead role in directing doctrinal matters and reconstructing worship in the Church of England.

Under Edward VI, Cranmer became the leading organizer of the English Reformation and founder of Anglicanism. His Book of Common Prayer was revised in 1552 to a decidedly more Protestant nature. It eventually developed into the official liturgical service book of the Church of England and the fullest expression of faith and identity of the Anglican Church.

Cranmer also wrote a creed for the church (Forty-Two Articles of Religion) later called the Thirty-Nine Articles which set forth the doctrinal positions of the Church of England. He published his Book of Homilies, requiring the clergy to emphasize Reformed doctrines in their sermons, including the supremacy and sufficiency of Scripture and justification by faith alone. In addition, he removed celibacy as a requirement for the priesthood and opened the Communion cup to laypeople.

Thomas Cranmer at the Traitor's Gate
'Thomas Cranmer at the Traitor's Gate' (1926) by Frederick Goodall. The Print Collector / Print Collector / Getty Images

Martyr’s Death

In the summer of 1553, when Catholic Queen Mary I (Mary Tudor) began her reign, Cranmer’s good fortune was reversed. Mary abolished the use of the Book of Common Prayer, restored medieval Catholic services, and accused all Protestant leaders who remained in England at the time of heresy and treason. Under her relentless anti-Protestant campaign, Cranmer was imprisoned, tried for treason and heresy, declared guilty, and excommunicated.

After spending nearly two years in prison and enduring a long and tedious trial, Cranmer grew weary and depressed. He became convinced that he should submit to the Queen and renounce his Reformed beliefs. Hoping to escape execution, Cranmer signed confessions stating, "I confess and believe in one holy, catholic visible church; I recognize as its supreme head upon earth the bishop of Rome, pope, and vicar of Christ, to whom all the faithful are bound subject."

But the effort was useless. Cranmer would still be burned at the stake. On the day of his death, he renounced his earlier confessions, saying, "I come to the great thing that troubleth my conscience more than any other thing that I ever said or did in my life … All such bills which I have written or signed with my own hand [are] untrue." Cranmer continued, "And as for the pope, I refuse him as Christ’s enemy and antichrist, with all his false doctrine. And as for the sacrament…"

Mid speech, Cranmer was dragged away to be burned alive. As the flames leaped around his feet, Cranmer stretched down his right hand—the hand that had signed the confessions—into the fire and said, "This hand hath offended." He held it there until it had burned to a stump. As the flames engulfed him, Cranmer prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!" He died a martyr’s death on March 21, 1556, in Oxford.

The Burning of Thomas Cranmer
The Burning Of Cranmer, 1556, Color plate from Pictures of English History, published by George Routledge & Sons (c1850). Print Collector / Getty Images

Uncommon Legacy

Two years after Cranmer’s death, Elizabeth I (1553-1603) ascended the throne of England. She reinstated Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer and reset the church back on its Protestant course. 

Perhaps more than any of his works, the Book of Common Prayer reveals Cranmer’s outstanding theological judgment and skillful use of English. Not only has it become a classic of English literature, but it also contains some of the most beautiful prayers and liturgies in Christendom.

Cranmer wrote the Book of Common Prayer for the whole nation. He envisioned both clergy and laypeople, and all classes of society, holding the book in hand, hearing and reading it for spiritual nourishment and worship. And, indeed, that is what it has provided for millions of Christians for more than four centuries. 

Sources

  • Pocket Dictionary of Church History: Over 300 Terms Clearly and Concisely Defined (p. 47).
  • Pocket Dictionary of the Reformed Tradition (p. 39).
  • “Cranmer, Thomas.” Who’s Who in Christian history (p. 179).
  • The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed. rev., p. 431).
  • 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (p. 374).
  • “Courage When It Counted.” Christian History Magazine-Issue 48: Thomas Cranmer & the English Reformation.
  • “Unmatched Masterpiece.” Christian History Magazine-Issue 48: Thomas Cranmer & the English Reformation.