Thomas Cranmer

The English ecclesiastic Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) was the first Protestant archbishop of Canterbury.

Thomas Cranmer was born in Aslacton, Nottinghamshire, on July 2, 1489, the son of a village squire. He went to Cambridge University at the age of 14; though of indifferent scholarship, he received a bachelor's degree in 1511 and a master's degree in 1514. He also received a fellowship at Jesus College and seemed well on the way to an ecclesiastical career when, at 25, he abandoned his fellowship and married Black Joan of the Dolphin Inn at Cambridge. Very little is known of this girl, who died, as did his child by her, within a year of their marriage. Cranmer then returned to his former way of life. His fellowship was restored, and by 1520 he had been ordained a priest and become a university preacher. Five years later he received the degree of doctor of divinity.

A chance meeting in August 1529 with two members of King Henry VIII's administration led to Cranmer's employment in the royal service; he worked toward obtaining the annulment of Henry's marriage with Catherine of Aragon. In January 1532 he was sent as ambassador to the court of Emperor Charles V at Ratisbon and at Nuremberg. At the latter town he made two acquisitions: Lutheran sympathies, if not convictions, and a young German wife, Margaret, a Lutheran and a niece of the prominent Lutheran scholar Andreas Osiander.


Protestant Archbishop

Within a year of his appointment as ambassador, Cranmer was recalled and nominated for the office of archbishop of Canterbury. He knew that this appointment was given him in return for his future annulment of the King's marriage. The bulls of his appointment to the See of Canterbury were obtained, under compulsion and with great speed, from Pope Clement VII by March 1533, and Cranmer was consecrated archbishop on March 30. On May 23 he concluded the trial of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon by declaring the marriage to have been invalid. On May 28 Cranmer publicly adjudged Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn in the previous January to have been lawful; and on June 1, Whitsunday, he anointed and crowned her as queen of England in Westminster Abbey.

For the rest of his life Cranmer was a major instrument in establishing royal supremacy in spiritual matters as in temporal affairs and thus destroying the independence of the English Church. In 1536 he presided over a commission of bishops and divines which met at Lambeth Palace, his London home. This commission published the Ten Articles, a statement of the beliefs of the Henrician Church, which it was hoped could be accepted by Lutherans as well as Catholics.

On May 15, 1536, Anne Boleyn was condemned to death for treason by reason of her adultery. Her execution was postponed for 2 days, however, in order that Cranmer might declare her marriage to Henry invalid and thus bastardize their daughter, Elizabeth. On the day Anne died, Cranmer granted Henry a dispensation to marry Jane Seymour despite their consanguinity.

Disputes and negotiations over religious beliefs and practices filled these years. In 1539 Cranmer opposed the Act of the Six Articles; he believed the act was too Catholic despite the fact that Henry VIII himself had drawn up the final text. He helped, however, to put together the religious work known as the King's Book, although much of its content was contrary to his beliefs. His overwhelming Erastianism stifled his opposition to this book and allowed him to approve its use in his diocese.


Liturgical Plans

In the last years of Henry's reign Cranmer's beliefs gradually became more Protestant, and his enemies at court sought to have him deposed, if not condemned, for heresy. Nevertheless, Henry, apparently well aware of all this, protected him and allowed him to develop the liturgical plans that were to bear such famous fruit. Cranmer published the English Litany in 1544 and the First Book of Common Prayer in 1549 during the reign of King Edward VI. A more Protestant version of the latter work, the Second Book of Common Prayer, was issued in 1552, and it proved to be the foundation of, and the most lasting formative influence in, the Church of England. A. G. Dickens (1964) calls it "a devotional asset ranking second after the English Bible," and it exerted a most powerful influence on the development of the English language. Finally came the Forty-two Articles of Religion, which received royal approval a month before Edward's death in 1553. Cranmer and others had worked on these articles for many years, and they were the prototypes of the famous Thirty-nine Articles established in Queen Elizabeth's reign.

With the accession of Queen Mary, there remained for Cranmer, who had so injured her and her mother and had been so prominent in promoting the destruction of the Catholic Church, only imprisonment and death for heresy. Despite his recantations of his heretical views he vigorously affirmed his Protestantism as he was burned at the stake on March 21, 1556.


Further Reading on Thomas Cranmer

A thorough biography is Jasper Ridley, Thomas Cranmer (1962). See also Francis E. Hutchinson, Cranmer and the English Reformation (1951), and Theodore Maynard, The Life of Thomas Cranmer (1956). For background material A. G. Dickens, The English Reformation (1964; rev. ed. 1967), and J. J. Scarisbrick, Henry VIII (1968), are useful.

Additional Biography Sources

Gilpin, William, The life of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, London: Printed for R. Blamire …, 1784.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid, Thomas Cranmer: a life, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.

Thomas Cranmer: churchman and scholar, New York: Boydell Press, 1993.