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Thomas Cranmer (1489 – 1556) was the archbishop of Canterbury during the reigns of the English kings Henry VIII and Edward VI. He is credited with writing and compiling the first two Books of Common Prayer which established the basic structure of Anglican liturgy for over four centuries and influenced the English language through its phrases and quotations. After Queen Mary reunited the Church of England with the Roman Catholic Church, he was executed in 1556 for heresy.
Cranmer was an influential theologian, arguably being the co-founder (with Richard Hooker and Matthew Parker) of Anglican theological thought. He helped build the case in favor of Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Cranmer guided the English Reformation in its earliest days. Following the death of King Henry, Thomas Cranmer became a key figure in the regency government of King Edward VI.
He is credited with writing and compiling the first two Books of Common Prayer which established the basic structure of Anglican liturgy for over four centuries and influenced the English language through its phrases and quotations. Cranmer was an important figure in the English Reformation which denied papal authority over the English Church.
After Queen Mary reunited the Church of England with the Roman Catholic Church, he was executed in 1556 for heresy. Cranmer was later celebrated as a martyr in Anglican culture, particularly through the works of John Foxe. His impact on religion in the United Kingdom was profound and lasting.
Cranmer was born in 1489 in Aslacton, now Aslockton, near Nottingham. Details of Cranmer's early life are scarce. His parents, Thomas and Agnes (Hatfield) Cranmer, were from the lesser gentry and had only enough wealth and land to support their eldest son upon their death. Due to this lack of land, the scholarly Thomas and his younger brother entered the service of the church. Cranmer went to Jesus College, Cambridge in 1510. He lost his fellowship when he married Joan, the daughter of a local tavern-keeper. Cranmer was able to continue his studies and was ordained in 1523 following his wife's death during childbirth. He went on to earn a bachelor's degree of divinity and soon after he took his doctor's degree in divinity.
It is often thought that King Henry's infatuation with Anne Boleyn led him to seek a way to annul his existing marriage. However there is good evidence that Henry made the decision to end his marriage with Queen Catherine because she hadn't delivered a surviving male heir. What-ever the reason, Henry and his ministers applied for an annulment from the Vatican in 1527. The initial response was not favorable.
The following year, an outbreak of sweating sickness forced Cranmer to leave Cambridge for Essex. There he came to the attention of the family of Anne Boleyn, who found Cranmer a willing advocate for the annulment of the king's marriage from Catherine of Aragon. Cranmer became involved with the case as a researcher. Cranmer, Bishop Edward Foxe, and others compiled the Collectanea Satis Copiosa (the sufficiently abundant collection) in 1530, giving legal and historical precedent of cases such as Henry's, allowing the king to build an academic case to break with Rome. His work became known to the king and Cranmer was sent as part of the embassy to Rome in 1530. He was given the position of Archdeacon of Taunton.
In the matter of the annulment, the embassy failed. No progress seemed possible. Anne and her allies wished simply to ignore the Pope; but in October 1530 a meeting of clergy and lawyers advised that Parliament could not empower the archbishop to act against the Pope's prohibition. Henry was determined to bully the bishops. The king finally resolved to charge the whole English clergy with praemunire in order to secure their agreement to his annulment. Praemunire, which forbade obedience to the authority of foreign rulers had been around since the 1392 Statute of Praemunire, and had been used against individuals in the ordinary course of court proceedings. Now Henry, having first charged the Queen's supporters, bishops John Fisher, John Clerk, Nicholas West and Henry Standish and archdeacon of Exeter Adam Travers, then decided to proceed against the whole clergy. Soon after, the Convocation of 1531 voted £100,000 to the king in order to avoid the penalties of praemunire, and accepted Henry as Supreme Head of the church with the saving clause "so far as the law of Christ allows." While all this was going on, Cranmer was removed from the annulment controversy and sent to the continent.
In the summer of 1531 the king sent Cranmer to the Holy Roman Empire as sole ambassador to the Emperor. He was also to obtain the removal of some restrictions on English trade. At Nuremberg he became acquainted with Lutheran scholar Andreas Osiander. Both men were convinced that a true reform of the Church needed to take place, but neither knew what the new Church should look like. The bond between these two men was strengthened when Cranmer again married, this time in secret. His bride, Margaret, was Osiander's niece. Cranmer accompanied the Emperor on his crusade against the Turks. In August of 1532, archbishop William Warham died, and King Henry arranged for Cranmer to become the next Archbishop of Canterbury.
The new Archbishop had been selected solely because the king felt Cranmer could provide legitimation of Anne Boleyn's expected child. By January 1533 King Henry found out that Anne was pregnant.
This added urgency to the matter of the King's annulment and they were married by the end of the month. On March 30, 1533, Cranmer was appointed archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer held no major position in the Church at the time of this elevation and he had no desire to accept the position. Never-the-less, the papal bulls of confirmation were dated February and March 1533, and the consecration took place on the 30 March of that year. Cranmer brought his wife Margarete, with him when he became Archbishop but kept her presence secret, even from the king, so as not to be seen breaking the rules on clerical celibacy.
In May, Cranmer declared the marriage of Henry to Catherine of Aragon void and Anne Boleyn his lawful wife. Anne was then crowned in Westminster Abbey by Cranmer. Pope Clement VII responded to the marriage by excommunicating both Henry and Cranmer from the Roman Catholic Church. In September, the new queen gave birth to Henry's second daughter Princess Elizabeth, Cranmer was made her godfather.
The birth of the Church of England continued, as well. Consequently, also in 1533, the Act of First Fruits and Tenths transferred the taxes on ecclesiastical income from the Pope to the Crown. The Peter's Pence Act outlawed the annual payment by landowners of one penny to the Pope. This Act also reiterated that England had "no superior under God, but only your Grace" and that Henry's "imperial crown" had been diminished by "the unreasonable and uncharitable usurpations and exactions" of the Pope.
In case any of this should be resisted the Reformation Parliament passed the Treasons Act 1534 which made it high treason punishable by death to deny Royal Supremacy. Finally in 1536 Parliament passed the Act against the Pope's Authority which removed the last part of papal authority still legal; this was Rome's power in England to decide disputes concerning Scripture.
That same year, the queen miscarried a boy. The king decided that Anne had to be removed. A fictional case against her was created involving charges of adultery and other offenses. Cranmer, who still would have been an unknown priest at Cambridge if not for Anne, saw that she was doomed and claimed that he had been mislead by her. He refused to come to her defense. Cranmer declared Henry's marriage to Anne to be void, like Catherine's before her, and she was executed 19 May 1536.
Later that year, the popular revolt known as the Pilgrimage of Grace in Northern England in October came as a shock to the king's court. For the first time, Roman Catholicism was seen not simply from a religious point of view, but rather as treason against the state. The fear of another revolt was strongly felt by King Henry and Cranmer. This fear caused them to target as "superstitious" any religious practices that brought together large numbers of people. For this reason, pilgrimages, saints' days, and the display of relics were banned. The shrines of Walsingham, St Thomas Becket, and others were looted to raise money for the defense of the kingdom. It was felt certain that an army loyal to Rome would soon invade. More money was needed and the monasteries were the next target. At the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which he himself had little to do with, Cranmer was given various former church properties, such as the former Cluniac nunnery at Arthington.
The following year three German divines, Francis Burkhardt, vice-chancellor of Saxony, George von Boyneburg, doctor of law, and Friedrich Myconius, superintendent of the church of Gotha were sent to London. For some months they held conferences with the Anglican bishops and clergy. The Germans presented as a basis of agreement a number of Articles based on the Lutheran Confession of Augsburg. Bishops Tunstall, Stokesley, and others were not won over by these Protestant arguments. The discussions took place in the archbishop’s palace at Lambeth and the bishops did everything they could to avoid agreement. They were willing, indeed, to separate from Rome, but their plan was to unite with the Greek church, not with the evangelical Protestants on the continent. On the "Abuses" (viz., private Masses, celibacy of the clergy, invocation of Saints) the bishops would not give way. These customs were thought by Stokesley and others to be essential, because they were also practiced in what was at that time called the Greek Church. Opposite this view, Cranmer himself favored a union with the Germans. It was a confused issue for some of the bishops:
- The bishop of Chichester, driven in one direction by the bishop of London and in the opposite by the archbishop of Canterbury, was much embarrassed, and did not know which way to turn. His decision was for (the bishop of London). The...Doctors at this period...felt it incumbent upon them to cross all Europe for the purpose of finding in the Turkish empire the Greek rite, which was for them the Gospel
The German doctors had nothing more to propose and finally King Henry, unwilling to break with Catholic practices, dissolved the conference.
Seeing and hearing the Lutheran doctors on his own soil had given Henry pause. At the end of 1538, a proclamation was issued, among other things, forbidding free discussion of the Sacrament and forbidding clerical marriage, on pain of death. Henry personally presided at the trial of John Lambert in November 1538 for denying the real presence. At the same time, the king shared in the drafting of a proclamation giving Anabaptists and sacramentaries ten days to get out of the country.
The Six Articles of June 1539 was an Act of the Parliament of England which reaffirmed the general national leaning towards Catholicism. The articles reaffirmed six key Catholic doctrines such as transubstantiation, clerical celibacy and the importance of confession to a priest and prescribed penalties if anyone denied them. Penalties under the act ranged from imprisonment and fine to death. However, its severity was reduced by an act of 1540 which retained the death penalty only for denial of transubstantiation, and a further act limited its arbitrariness. The Six Articles were opposed by the secretly married Cranmer. The reforming bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Shaxton resigned their sees in response to the act and thereafter spent time in custody. Many other arrests under the Act followed. Cranmer, it is said, laid low.
While Cranmer opposed the action of the Six Articles, he supported a new translation of the Bible. With Thomas Cromwell, the king's chief minister, Cranmer oversaw the translation of the Bible for the laity. He felt strongly, however, there should be only one edition of the Bible in English, one authorized and overseen by the Church and State.
The Great Bible of 1539 accomplished that goal. Although called the Great Bible because of its large size, the book was known by several other names as well. It was called the Cromwell Bible, since Thomas Cromwell directed its publication. It was also termed the Cranmer Bible, since Thomas Cranmer wrote the 1540 preface. Cranmer was also credited as being the man who convinced the king to commission this authorized version. The Great Bible would be in use until it was superseded as the authorized version of the Anglican Church in 1568 by the Bishops' Bible. The last of over 30 editions of the Great Bible would appear in 1569. Cranmer’s preface would also be included in the front of the Bishops' Bible.
Cromwell had supported King Henry in disposing of Anne Boleyn and replacing her with Jane Seymour, who gave birth to a male heir, Edward VI. His downfall was the haste with which he encouraged the king to re-marry following Jane's premature death. The marriage to Anne of Cleves in 1540, a political alliance which Cranmer and Cromwell had both urged on Henry, was a disaster. Cranmer would marry Henry to, and then divorce him from, Anne of Cleves in short order. Cromwell was arrested in May. Cranmer turned his back on Cromwell almost as quickly as he had on Anne Bolyen. Cromwell was executed later that year, Cranmer was spared.
When Henry had his marriage to Anne of Cleves annulled on July 9, 1540, rumours swirled that Catherine Howard was pregnant with the king's son. Their quick marriage just a few weeks after the divorce from Anne, on July 28th, 1540, reflected Henry's lifelong urgency to secure the Tudor succession by begetting healthy sons. Henry was rapidly nearing the age of 50 and expanding in girth. The Reformation had cost him much of the goodwill of his people and he was then suffering from a number of ailments. Matters would grow worse for the king, as Catherine found her marital relations unappealing. She was not pregnant upon marriage, and became repulsed by her husband's grotesque body. Still, preparations for any signs of pregnancy (which would lead to a coronation) were in place. By late 1541, Catherine's marital indiscretions rapidly became known thanks to John Lascelles, a religious reformer whose sister, Mary Hall, was a chambermaid and witnessed some of Catherine's youthful liaisons. Motivated by the growing threat to reform from conservative Catholicism, Lascelles presented the information to Cranmer.
Cranmer, aware that any precontract with a man would invalidate Catherine's marriage to Henry, gave Henry a letter with the accusations against Catherine on November 2, 1541, as they attended an All Souls' Day mass. Henry at first refused to believe the allegations, thinking the letter was a forgery, and requested Cranmer further investigate the matter. Within a few days, corroborative proof was found, including the confessions issued from two men after they were tortured in the Tower of London; as well as a love letter written distinctively in Catherine's handwriting to one of them. Catherine was arrested on 12 November. Her pleas to see Henry were ignored, and Cranmer interrogated her regarding the charges. Even the staunch Cranmer found Catherine's frantic, incoherent state pitiable saying, "I found her in such lamentation and heavyness as I never saw no creature, so that it would have pitied any man's heart to have looked upon her."  He ordered the guards to remove any objects that she may use to commit suicide. Catherine's was executed at on 13 February 1542.