“A setter-forth of Christ’s glory”

The witness of Thomas Cranmer

by Michael A.G. Haykin

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, and it was in the heart of that body that they were nurtured on the spirituality of the Reformation. And 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 has argued that Thomas Cranmer’s influence on the English-speaking Protestant world has been greater than any other figure except his contemporary John Knox (c.1513–1572), and the eighteenth-century preachers George Whitefield (1714–1770), John Wesley (1703–1791) and Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758). “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 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 (1491–1547), 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?[3]

The following essay 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 by exalting Christ alone as Saviour and that faith alone was the only way to know this great Saviour.[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.”[5] Or as Geoffrey W. Bromiley has put it: “To look at Cranmer is to see first the face of a scholar.”[6] He 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 1520 that he became a priest.[7]

Evangelical Christianity came to Cambridge around the very time that he became a priest. During the early 1520s the Protestant cause was centred on meetings at the White Horse Inn in Cambridge led by such figures as Robert Barnes (c.1495–1540) and Thomas Bilney (c.1495–1531), both of whom died as martyrs.[8] Scholars writing on the English Reformation in the past have tended to place Cranmer among 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 evidence at all to place Cranmer among this group 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 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 (1486–1502).[10] But Arthur had died in 1502 of what was then called “consumption,” which in his case was probably pneumonia. Henry was subsequently married to Katherine to maintain an alliance between England and Spain against France. After five unsuccessful pregnancies, Katherine gave Henry a daughter, Mary (1516–1558). 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 (1455–1487) and had only really 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 birth[11]—the more Henry became convinced of the validity of his perspective. So began his quest for divorce in 1527.[12]

Pope Clement VII (1478–1534), however, 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 and the Spanish ruler Charles V (1500–1558)—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, and Clement had been forced to barricade himself in one of his castles. Katherine 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 papal legate in England, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (1475–1530), stalled for time.

By 1529, Henry was losing patience. Now, it happened in this conversation between Cranmer and Gardiner that Cranmer suggested that the case of Henry’s divorce be put before the universities of Western Europe for the academics to judge the merits of it. 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 and 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, in 1532. Cranmer was summoned home by the king to succeed him. Influential in this decision may well have been the woman who became his second wife, Anne Boleyn (c.1501–1536).[13]

Henry’s Archbishop

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.”[14] 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. This would cause him much heartache in his career.[15]

Cranmer thus actively participated in Henry’s divorce of Catherine, which 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—what is known as the Act of Supremacy—in 1534. Katherine’s daughter Mary never forgot, nor forgave, Cranmer for his involvement in her mother’s being divorced. Although Cranmer was not involved in the marriage of Henry to Anne Boleyn,[16] he did crown her queen in 1533.[17]

Only three years later he presided over a second royal divorce. Anne had given birth to the child who would become Elizabeth I (1533–1603), and then a stillborn child, and 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 and her subsequent execution for treason was a severe blow to Cranmer, for Anne was a keen supporter of the Evangelical cause. As Diarmaid MacCulloch has noted, she had “an informed enthusiasm for the contemporary French reform movement, and she was not afraid to draw Henry’s attention to important early works of Protestantism in English.”[18] That Cranmer was also an Evangelical in his sympathies by this time is seen from a letter he wrote on April 27, 1535 to Arthur Plantagenet (d.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.”[19]

The fall of another key figure in the government, Thomas Cromwell (1485–1540), in 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, chiefly Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester, and Thomas Howard (1473–1554), the third Duke of Norfolk, “the most powerful and implacable conservative among the leading lay nobility.”[20] Gardiner and Norfolk secured the passage of what is known as The Six Articles (1539) that, among other things, 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.”[21] A second reason was that Henry was not a traditional Catholic in his views.[22] By 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.[23] And yet, it is important to note that he never accepted justification by faith alone.[24] And with the passage of the Act of Six Articles in 1539 Henry required clerical celibacy of all ministers in England. Cranmer acquiesced by sending his wife Margaret away to the continent.[25] 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 in 1540. There is evidence that Cranmer was an unwilling player in all of this, but that does not remove his guilt.[26]

The last years of Henry’s reign—Henry died early in 1547—were indeed a see-saw battle between the traditionalists and Evangelicals. But when Henry died in 1547, he left the Evangelicals, especially in the person of Edward Seymour (1500–1552), the Duke of Somerset, the uncle of his son, the future King Edward VI (1537–1553), in an unassailable position to take over the reins of government.[27]

“Tudor Church Militant”

When Edward was crowned king by Cranmer on February 20, 1547, he was reminded by Cranmer that God was also giving him a spiritual sword as well as a temporal sword with which to rule.[28] He therefore publicly urged him 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.”[29] There 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 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, Peter Martyr (1500-1562)—an Anglicized form of Pietro Martire Vermigli—who went to Oxford, and Jan Łaski (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 prayers: miniatures of Reformation theology

Cranmer’s work in regard to the reform of worship is probably best seen in The Book of Common Prayer of 1552, which was intended to be the “basis of reformed Protestant worship,”[30] and which, as Peter Toon has recently noted, is “a near perfect embodiment of the principle of justification by faith.”[31]

One gets a marvelous insight into the heart of Cranmer’s Reformed thought by looking at some 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 “Collect,” refers to the “collecting” together of the various prayers of the congregation into a single prayer.[32] 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.

1. They normally invoke God the Father, though some do call upon the Lord Jesus.

2. There then follows a clause which makes mention of a divine attribute.

3. There is a specific petition or two.

4. Generally following the petition(s) is the purpose for which petition is made.

5. Concluding the collect is an ascription of honour to Christ whose merits alone can obtain an answer to the request of his people.[33]

Of the seventy Collects in the 1552 The Book of Common Prayer Cranmer himself wrote about twenty-four collects, which are rightly described as “remarkable pieces of devotion.”[34]

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.[35]

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.[36]

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.”[37] The ultimate fruit of this Bible-reading, Bible-loving church was Puritanism, and, of deep interest to this writer, the Calvinistic Baptist movement.

Or look at the collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity:

God (the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy), increase & multiply upon us thy mercy, that thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal that we finally lose not the things eternal; grant this, heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake our Lord. Amen.

Here, we see Cranmer’s rich sense of the Christian’s utter dependence upon God for strength and holiness, mercy and guidance in this life. It is typical of many of the collects that stress the majesty of God and the frailty of man. It also raises a disquieting though: our hold on eternity should not be taken for granted. It can only be secured by God’s grace.

Or here is the collect for Trinity Sunday:

Almighty and everlasting God, who hast given unto us thy servants grace by the confession of a true faith to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of the divine majesty to worship the unity; we beseech thee that through the steadfastness of this faith, we may evermore be defended from all adversity, who livest and reignest, one God, world without end. Amen.

Again, we see the theme of the adversities of this life and the need for grace—but set within a marvelous trinitarian prayer. This collect illustrates for us the truth that ideas have consequences: the doctrine of the Trinity, when cordially embraced by the heart, is a defence in times of spiritual danger.

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…[38]

The declaration that Christ’s death is “a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction” for sin undercuts the entire theological edifice of mediæval Roman Catholicism. For that edifice—with its understanding of the mass as a re-sacrifice for sin, both that of the living and of the dead in purgatory, with its indulgences and rosaries and pilgrimages—was built on the supposition that humanity can do something to earn salvation and that medieval Roman Catholic piety could help speed souls through the purgatory. But Cranmer was convinced that all human endeavours to make appeasement 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.”[39] Christ’s peerless death is alone sufficient to appease the wrath of God against human sin and cleanse from all unrighteouness those who put their trust in him.[40]

Little wonder then that Cranmer was of the conviction that salvation by Christ alone and justification by faith alone is, in Cranmer’s words:

[T]he 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.[41]

Here Cranmer identified what lay at the heart of the Reformation. The one side relied solely on the all-sufficiency of Christ’s death—“a setter forth of Christ’s glory” he calls each individual in this camp. 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 regarded as having tuberculosis, though some recent scholarship as argued that he died of bronchopneumonia which had led to septicæmia.[42] Before his death it is now clear that he sought to ensure that the Reformation that his reign had initiated would survive.[43] He thus changed the order of succession, away from both his half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, to a cousin, Lady Jane Grey (1537–1554), the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister Mary. For a fortnight after the death of Edward, Jane was Queen.[44] But Edward’s “dreams of founding an evangelical realm of Christ” foundered as his sister Mary seized power in a coup d’état and reigned as Mary I.[45] 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 dead 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.[46] Her brutal persecution—for which there was no precedent in England—ultimately discredited Roman Catholicism and when she died in 1558 of ovarian cancer, and her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth came to the throne, there was no popular regret at the realm becoming Protestant.

“God…grant that I may endure to the end”

Now, Cranmer had signed Edward’s “devise for the succession,” which would have placed Jane Grey on the throne. Mary was determined he would pay for this and even more for his role in her father’s divorce of her mother. Mary allowed Cranmer to give Edward a Protestant funeral,[47] but once that had been done, he was arrested. The charge for his arrest 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.[48] Mary loathed him and there was no possibility of a reprieve. He spent six months in the Tower of London, and then in April 1554 was taken to Oxford where he was submitted to a mock six-hour debate in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin and in which he had little real opportunity to defend his views.

Even though Cranmer had been convicted, he languished in Oxford’s Bocardo prison, because ultimately only the Pope could pass sentence on Cranmer, 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 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 Cranmer’s 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. Ridley asked if he could say two or three words before the sentence of death was carried out. He was told that if he was prepared to deny his “erroneous opinions,” then he would be allowed to speak. If not, he was told, “you must suffer for your deserts.” “Well”, replied Ridley, “so long as the breath is in my body, I will never deny my Lord Christ, and his known truth!”[49]

It was also 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 was heard to pray: “I cannot burn! Lord have mercy upon me!” And Cranmer was compelled to watch their deaths from the roof of the Bocardo prison.[50]

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.[51] By such means a recantation was obtained that completely repudiated the theology of the Reformation that had motivated Cranmer as a Reformer. It was probably Villa Garcia who wrote the recantation and had Cranmer sign it.[52]

“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.”[53]

Another recantation was to follow, in which he asked forgiveness for what he 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 seedbed for all that followed in Henry’s reign, the bloodshed and emergence of heresy.[54] These private recantations, and there were six in total, 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 it 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.[55] Then 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,”[56] but 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.[57]

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”[58]:

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. …[59]

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.[60]

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.[61]

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.[62]

God gave him the enduring grace for which he prayed.

Cranmer’s legacy

The account of Cranmer’s martyrdom is not one of unbroken triumph, but of 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—is shown to be true in his final hours.[63] And out of his Reformed Church came Puritanism, and from thence, the Calvinistic Baptist movement.


[1] For the term “reluctant martyr” as a description of Cranmer, see Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (London/New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 618. MacCulloch’s book is now the standard life of Cranmer. For a pamphlet summary of his book, see Diarmaid MacCulloch, Who was Thomas Cranmer? (The St. George’s Cathedral Lecture, No. 11; Perth, Western Australia: St George’s Cathedral, 2004).

[2] Kenneth Brownell, “Thomas Cranmer: Compromiser or Strategist?” in The Reformation of Worship. Papers read at the 1989 Westminster Conference (London: The Westminster Conference, 1989), 1. See also the wide-ranging reflections of MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer, 612–632 and idem, “England” in Andrew Pettegree, ed., The Early Reformation in Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 168.

[3] See also G. S. R. Cox, “Thomas Cranmer” in Approaches to Reformation of the Church (London: The Puritan and Reformed Studies Conference, 1965), 42–43.

[4] On this common perspective shared by the Reformers, see Scott H. Hendrix, “Rerooting the Faith: The Coherence and Significance of the Reformation”, The Princeton Seminary Bulletin, n.s. 21, no.1 (2000): 63–80.

[5] Brownell, “Thomas Cranmer,” 3.

[6] Geoffrey W. Bromiley, “Thomas W. Cranmer” in B. A. Gerrish, ed., Reformers in Profile (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1967), 165.

[7] Peter Newman Brooks, Cranmer in Context: Documents from the English Reformation (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1989), 2.

[8] Christopher Catherwood, “Thomas Cranmer,” in his Five Leading Reformers (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2000), 133.

[9] MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer, 24–33.

[10] See Giles Tremlett, Catherine of Aragon: Henry’s Spanish Queen (London: Faber and Faber, 2010).

[11] For details, see G. W. Bernard, The King’s Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English Church (New Haven, CT/London: Yale University Press, 2005), 3–4.

[12] On Henry’s campaign for this divorce and his reasoning about it, see Bernard, King’s Reformation, 9–26.

[13] MacCulloch, “England,” 167.

[14] Jasper Ridley, Thomas Cranmer (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962), 12.

[15] Brownell, “Thomas Cranmer,” 6–7

[16] For an overview of her life, see Marilee Hanson, “Anne Boleyn Facts & Biography Of Information” (http://www.englishhistory.net/tudor/monarchs/boleyn.html; accessed February 1, 2017).

[17] Brooks, Cranmer in Context, 24, 33.

[18] MacCulloch, “England,” 167.

[19] The Lisle Letters, ed. Muriel St Clare Byrne and selected Bridget Boland (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1985), 122. On Cranmer’s early theology, see Bernard, King’s Reformation, 506–512. A very helpful outline of Cranmer’s theological development can be found in J.I. Packer, “Thomas Cranmer’s Catholic Theology” in his Honouring the People of God, The Collected Shorter Writings of J.I. Packer, vol.4 (Carlisle, Cumbria: Paternoster Press, 1999), 238–243.

[20] Diarmaid MacCulloch, Tudor Church Militant: Edward VI and the Protestant Reformation (London: Allen Lane / The Penguin Press, 1999), 7.

[21] Christopher Catherwood, “Thomas Cranmer,” 148.

[22] For further discussion of Henry’s religious convictions, see Bernard, King’s Reformation, 228–243. Though his ruthless suppression of the monasteries makes him look anything but Erasmian, Bernard argues that Erasmian humanism “makes best sense” of Henry’s religious views.

[23] MacCulloch, Tudor Church Militant, 4–5.

[24] MacCulloch, Who was Thomas Cranmer?, 9 and 11.

[25] On his marriage, see MacCulloch, Who was Thomas Cranmer?, 5–6.

[26] Brownell, “Thomas Cranmer”, 11–12.

[27] MacCulloch, Tudor Church Militant, 7.

[28] This subtitle is from MacCulloch, Tudor Church Militant.

[29] Cited Brooks, Cranmer in Context, 39–40.

[30] Diarmaid MacCulloch, “The Myth of the English Reformation,” Journal of British Studies, 30 (1991): 7–9.

[31] Peter Toon, “Remembering Thomas Cranmer on the anniversary of his martyrdom”, The Prayer Book Society: News, blogpost for March 21, 2002 (http://pbs1928.blogspot.ca/2002/03/remembering-thomas-cranmer-on.html; accessed February 2, 2017). There were some who initially disagreed with the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, among them the Scottish Reformer John Knox (c.1513–1572), because it specified that the Lord’s Supper had to be received in a posture of kneeling, which Knox felt was a throwback to the Middle Ages, and was sinful and idolatrous. This led to Cranmer composing what became known as the “Black Rubric,” namely, a page that was inserted in the copies of the 1552 printing that specified that kneeling was not an act of adoration as the bread and wine were not the body and blood of Christ, but that kneeling was appropriate as a demonstration of humility in receiving the benefits of Christ’s cross-work. See the helpful discussion by D. M. Lloyd-Jones, “John Knox: The Founder of Puritanism” in his and Iain H. Murray’s, John Knox and the Reformation (Edinburgh/Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2011), 58–64.

[32] “collect”, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, eds. F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone (3rd ed.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 375-376.

[33] Brooks, Cranmer in Context, 57–58; D. E. W. Harrison, The Book of Common Prayer. The Anglican Heritage of Public worship (London/Edinburgh: Canterbury Press, 1946), 99–100. MacCulloch (Thomas Cranmer, 417) refers to them as “these jewelled miniatures [that] are one of the chief glories” of Anglican worship.

[34] Brooks, Cranmer in Context, 58. For easy access to these collects, see C. Frederick Barbee and Paul F. M. Zahl, compiled, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer (Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans, 1999).

[35] Barbee and Zahl, compiled, Collects of Thomas Cranmer, 4.

[36] Quoted Samuel Leuenberger, Archbishop Cranmer’s Immortal Bequest: The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England: An Evangelistic Liturgy, trans. Samuel Leuenberger and Lewis J. Gorin, Jr. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1990), 89.

[37] J. I. Packer, “Thomas Cranmer’s Catholic Theology” in his Honouring the People of God, 250.

[38] The First and Second Prayer Books of King Edward the Sixth (London/Toronto: J.M. Dent & Sons/New York: E.P. Dutton, 1910), 389, alt. I have modernized the language.

[39] Homily of the Salvation of Mankind in Parker, ed., English Reformers, 262.

[40] For a good statement by Cranmer of his understanding of the doctrine of justification, see Homily of the Salvation of Mankind in Parker, ed., English Reformers, 262–272. For reflection on Cranmer’s view, see Packer, “Thomas Cranmer’s Catholic Theology” in his Honouring the People of God, 250–254, 256; Alan C. Clifford, “Cranmer’s Doctrine of Justification,” The Banner of Truth, 315 (December 1989): 23–26; MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer, 209–213, 341–347.

[41] Homily of the Salvation of Mankind in Parker, ed., English Reformers, 266–267.

[42] MacCulloch, Tudor Church Militant, 223-224, n. 7.

[43] MacCulloch, Tudor Church Militant, 39-41.

[44] MacCulloch, Who was Thomas Cranmer?, 12.

[45] MacCulloch, Tudor Church Militant, 41. For a recent biography of Jane Grey, see Faith Cook, Lady Jane Grey: Nine Day Queen of England (Darlington, Durham: Evangelical Press, 2004).

[46] For a recent account of these martyrs, see Andrew Atherstone, The Martyrs of Mary Tudor (Leominster, England: Day One, 2005).

[47] Brooks, Cranmer in Context, 89–90.

[48] For a detailed account of Cranmer’s trial, condemnation, imprisonment, and subsequent martyrdom, see MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer, 554–605.

[49] John Foxe, Acts and Monuments (1563 ed.; repr. London, 1839), vol. 7.

[50] Brooks, Cranmer in Context, 93–94; Atherstone, The Martyrs of Mary Tudor, 93–99; David Horan, Oxford: A Cultural and Literary Companion (New York, NY/Northampton, MA: Interlink Books, 2000), 129–130.

[51] Brooks, Cranmer in Context, 97–98.

[52] MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer, 594–595.

[53] Cited Brooks, Cranmer in Context, 112.

[54] Brooks, Cranmer in Context, 113–115; MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer, 598–599.

[55] The Works of Thomas Cranmer, ed. G. E. Duffield (Appleford, Berkshire: Sutton Courtenay Press, 1964), 334–335. For a study of Cranmer’s martyrdom, see Rudolph W. Heinze, “‘I pray God to grant that I may endure to the end’: A New Look at the Martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer” in Paul Ayris and David Selwyn, eds., Thomas Cranmer: Churchman and Scholar (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 1993), 278–279.

[56] Works of Thomas Cranmer, 335.

[57] Works of Thomas Cranmer, 337.

[58] MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer, 603.

[59] Works of Thomas Cranmer, 337–338.

[60] Works of Thomas Cranmer, 338.

[61] Works of Thomas Cranmer, 339-340.

[62] Heinze, “New Look at the Martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer,” 277.

[63] Bromiley,  “Thomas Cranmer,” 188.

Dr. Michael A.G. Haykin is the Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality and Director of The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.