Presentation by Jim Rogers on October 29, 2017

Thomas Cranmer

This presentation is about Thomas Cranmer, who was a leader of the English Reformation and Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of Henry VIII and Edward VI.  He helped build the case for Henry VIII’s annulment from Catherine of Argonne and the more I read about him, the more I realized that this was someone who was never called “Tom”, I’m sure it was always Thomas.

He was born in 1489 and his parents were of modest wealth.  We know nothing of his early schooling but he probably went to a local grammar school in his village until he was 14 and then sent to Jesus College in Cambridge.  After completing his Bachelors degree, he pursued a Masters Degree concentrating on the humanists.

It is interesting to note that shortly after receiving his Masters he was elected to a fellowship at Jesus College.  However, right after he took his Masters he married and although he was not a priest at the time, he was forced to give up his fellowship and thus his residence at the college.

Not long after this, his wife died in childbirth and Jesus College reinstated his fellowship.  He began to study theology and was ordained in 1520 and by that time, the university had named him one of their preachers.  He received his Doctor of Divinity in 1526.

He has been portrayed as a humanist who exhibited a lot of interest in biblical scholastics, which opened him to Lutheran ideas that in the 1520s were becoming more and more acceptable.  However, a study of his notes indicated that he had an antipathy toward Martin Luther, but an admiration for Erasmus.

It was in this time frame, 1527 to 1532, which Cranmer was involved in the proceedings that led up to Henry VIII’s annulment, which had become an issue in Europe as well as England since its effects bore on many countries and brought Cranmer in contact with many others who were interested in the reforms outlined in the annulment proceedings.

In 1532, Cranmer became the resident ambassador at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.  As the emperor traveled, Cranmer followed him and as he did so the passed through the city of Nuremburg – which was at that time a Lutheran city where he saw the effects of the emperor’s reformation.  He became good friends with Andreas Osiander who was the leading architect of the Nuremburg reforms, and must also have become good friends with the niece of Osiander’s wife, because he married her.  That meant Cranmer had to put aside the vow of celibacy.  Now another at this time complication in Thomas’s life was Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, to whose court Cranmer was on ambassador, because Charles was Catherine of Aragon’s nephew.  So, try as he might, Cranmer couldn’t persuade Charles to support the annulment.

Now, while Thomas was following Charles around Italy, he was informed that he was appointed the new Archbishop of Canterbury and was ordered to return to England.  The appointment had been arranged by the family of Anne Boleyn who was at that time being courted by Henry VIII.  Henry personally financed the papal documents needed to appoint Thomas to Canterbury.  These were easily acquired because the papal nuncio was under orders from Rome to please the English in an effort to prevent their final separation from Rome.

Even while all this was going on, Cranmer was working on the annulment proceedings which now required even greater urgency since Anne Boleyn had already announced her pregnancy!  Actually, Anne and Henry were married secretly on January 24, 1533 in the presence of a small group of witnesses.

For several months, Cranmer and Henry worked on legal procedures – several of which have been preserved.  Now, one of the procedures that had been agreed to required Cranmer to open his court, and on May 23rd, Cranmer pronounced that Henry’s marriage with Catherine was “against the law of God”.

So, Henry was free to marry and Cranmer validated Henry and Anne’s marriage.  He also personally crowned and anointed Anne queen and gave her a scepter and orb which were the symbols of her power.

Pope Clement VII was not pleased at this defiance but he could take no action as he was pressured by other monarchs to avoid a breach with England.  However, he provisionally excommunicated Henry unless he separated from Anne by the end of September.  But, Henry kept Anne and she gave birth to a girl, Elizabeth, who later became Queen Elizabeth I.  Cranmer immediately baptized the baby and became one of her godparents.

Now, in 1543, before the Privy Council, several conservative clergymen got together to prepare articles for presentation that attacked the reformers in general and Thomas Cranmer in particular, listing out his misdeeds since 1541.  While this was going on, parliament passed “The Act for the Advancement of True Religion”, which restricted the reading of the Bible in England to those of noble status.  And between May and August, reformers were forced to recant or give up their beliefs or they would be imprisoned.

An investigation was to be mounted and guess who was appointed chief investigator?  Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The king, to show his trust in Thomas, gave him his personal ring which was a very strong symbol to all, that Thomas was in charge.  So, with the kings support, Cranmer worked quietly to reform the church and the liturgy in particular, with his work called “Exhortation and Litargy” which survives today with some changes as “The Book of Common Prayer”, a document in the English language.  Also at this time, additional reformers were added to the House of Commons which helped solidify the reformer’s position and so the reformers became a part of the establishment – they were now a force in the government.  Support was also received from continental reformers and England became a safe haven for reformers who were fleeing Europe.

The use of English in the church service spread and because of this a need arose for a uniform liturgy and meetings were held.  In September of 1548, meetings were held that were balanced between conservatives and reformers.  After the meetings, there were debates and so parliament backed the publication of the Book of Common Prayer after Christmas by passing the “Act of Uniformity 1549”.  It then legalized clerical marriage.

Now it is difficult to determine how much of the book was Cranmer’s personal writings.  However, many scholars have been able to track down information showing that several writings and writers contributed including some Lutheran sources.

It is hard to determine who worked with Cranmer on the book, however, he is credited with editorship and the general structure of it.  Use of the book was made compulsory on June 9, 1549, but there were protests.

Well, Cranmer responded to the protests by writing to the King and he spoke at St., Paul’s defending the official church line.  A draft of his sermon at St. Paul’s is the only written example of his preaching from his entire career.  But the war wasn’t over.  On November 13, 1553, Cranmer and four others were brought to trial for treason, found guilty, and condemned to death.

Although Cranmer had made several recantations in favor of the Catholic church, on the day of his execution, he was allowed one final recantation which he opened with a prayer and then ended his sermon by deviating from the script as he denounced all his recantations and said “And as for the Pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy, and antichrist, with all his false doctrines”.  He was pulled from the pulpit and burned at the stake – his last words were “Lord Jesus receive my spirit.  I see the heavens open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” – interestingly a description of the young St. Stephen’s vision for which he was stoned to death back in the days of St. Paul.

Now just to end and close the loop, it should be pointed out that when Elizabeth I came to power in 1558, she restored the Church of England’s independence from Rome.  Thus the “Elizabethan Prayer Book” which was essentially Thomas Cranmer’s 1552 edition – a book that has guided the church for more than 400 years.

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