March 21: Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury and Martyr, 1556

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

Thomas Cranmer was the principal figure of the English Reformation and was primarily responsible for the first Book of Common Prayer of 1549 and for its first revision in 1552.

Cranmer was born in Nottinghamshire on July 2, 1489. At fourteen he entered Jesus College, Cambridge, where by 1514 he had obtained his B.A. and M.A. degrees and a Fellowship. In 1526 he became a Doctor of Divinity, a lecturer in his college, and examiner in the University. During his years at Cambridge, he diligently studied the Bible and the new doctrines emanating from the continental Reformation.

A chance meeting with King Henry VIII at Waltham Abbey in 1529 led to Cranmer’s involvement in the “King’s Affair” – the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Cranmer prepared the King’s defense and presented it to the universities in England and Germany, and to Rome. While in Germany, Cranmer associated with the Lutheran reformers, especially with Andreas Osiander, whose daughter he married. When Archbishop Warham died, the King obtained papal confirmation of Cranmer’s appointment to the See of Canterbury, and he was consecrated on March 30, 1533. Among his earliest acts was to declare the King’s marriage null and void. He then validated the King’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. Her child, the future Queen Elizabeth I, was Cranmer’s godchild.

During the reign of Edward VI, Cranmer had a free hand in reforming the worship, doctrine, and practice of the Church. But at Edward’s death he unfortunately subscribed to the dying King’s will that the succession should go to Lady Jane Grey. For this, and also for his reforming work, he was arrested, deprived, and degraded by Queen Mary I, daughter of Henry VIII by Catherine, and a staunch Roman Catholic. He was burned at the stake on March 21, 1556.

Cranmer wrote two recantations during his imprisonment, but in the end he denied his recantations, and died heroically, saying, “Forasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart, there my hand shall first be punished; for if I may come to the fire, it shall first be burned.”


I     Merciful God, who through the work of Thomas Cranmer didst renew the worship of thy Church by restoring the language of the people, and through whose death didst reveal thy power in human weakness: Grant that by thy grace we may always worship thee in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ, our only Mediator and Advocate, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

II     Merciful God, through the work of Thomas Cranmer you renewed the worship of your Church by restoring the language of the people, and through his death you revealed your power in human weakness: Grant that by your grace we may always worship you in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ, our only Mediator and Advocate, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.


1 Kings 8:54-62

Romans 11:13-24

Luke 2:25-35

Psalm 119:73-80

Preface of God the Son

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

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We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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22 thoughts on “March 21: Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury and Martyr, 1556

  1. Collect. There is just something about the collect that is not ‘Cranmer-esque’ enough. I don’t have a suggestion to improve it, but I am sure ‘that John Lavoe’ will. 🙂

    Readings. The new New Testament reading seems a bit long, but otherwise the readings seem appropriate.

  2. Henry’s struggle for the annulment of his marriage to Catherine is universally referred to as the “King’s Great Matter.” The King’s affairs are beyond the scope of HWHM.

  3. I hadn’t known that Edward VII’s naming of his first cousin once removed, Lady Jane Grey, would pave the way to Cranmer’s death, so had to get at least the first part straight from Wikipedia. “Lady Jane Grey … was an English noblewoman who occupied the English throne from 10 July until 19 July 1553 and was executed for high treason. A great-granddaughter of Henry VII by his younger daughter Mary, Jane was a first-cousin-once-removed of Edward VI. In May 1553 Jane was married to Lord Guildford Dudley, a younger son of Edward’s chief minister, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. When the 15-year-old King lay dying in June 1553, he nominated Jane as successor to the Crown in his will, thus subverting the claims of his half-sisters Mary and Elizabeth under the Third Succession Act. During her short reign, Jane resided in the Tower of London. She became a prisoner there when the Privy Council decided to change sides and proclaim Mary as queen on 19 July 1553. Wyatt’s rebellion in January and February 1554 against Queen Mary’s plans of a Spanish match was the direct cause of Jane’s and her husband’s execution. Lady Jane Grey had an excellent humanist education and a reputation as one of the most learned women of her day.[3] A committed Protestant, she was posthumously regarded not only as a political victim but also as a martyr.” I don’t see a direct connection between Edward VII’s choice and Cranmer’s death, since he “subverted the claims” of both his half-sisters, not just the Protestant one.

  4. Excellent post. What a gift the BCP is to us all! Think of the millions who have prayed the prayers, been guided in liturgy, etc.
    May light perpetual shine upon him and God rest his soul in peace and glory.

  5. ‘During the reign of Edward VI, Cranmer had a free hand in reforming the worship, doctrine, and practice of the Church’—and considering that the reform carried out gave the Church of England its dominant character for the next hundred years, and a tradition that endures to this day not only in that Church but in the Episcopal Church, despite the recent departures, the bio should say what it is. Cranmer was an Evangelical, and I would reflect that in the bio by mentioning first his belief in the fundamental Reformation principle that Scripture is the standard by which the church should judge all its work, and second his belief that the laity had a part to play in the government of the church. This was expressed not only by his belief in the royal supremacy, but in the role of Parliament, in which clergy were a small minority.

    It’s also important to make clearer that it was his evangelicalism for which he was martyred, not his (apparently reluctant) support of Lady Jane.

    It’s worth adding to the mention of the 1552 Prayer Book that it ‘remains at the heart of all Anglican liturgical forms’ (MacCulloch), but also that he intended further revision.

    Michael is right about the collect not doing him justice, especially since Cranmer’s own collects are often mentioned as the clearest examples of his genius for liturgical language. At the very least, the bio’s mention of ‘doctrine and practice’ should be added to the phrase ‘you renewed the worship of your Church’, and I hope someone will give some thought to re-writing the whole thing.

    • I would quibble with the idea that he was a pure Evangelical as the term would be used today. He’s all to often tossed around by historians to fit one or another one of the Continental Reform movements instead of having a mind of his own. His “evangelicalism” was balanced by a desire to retain those elements of the Tradition which were edifying and true to his understanding of Church History. He was more of a Melanchthon style “Protestant” than ever a Zwinglian/Karlsdat style “Evangelical.” Many of his ideas, particularly sacramental, seem to have lined up more with Calvin and Bucer rather than many modern “Evangelicals” or even evangelicals at the time.

      • I was using the term the way MacCulloch used it in the biography, referring to ‘the religious outlook which makes the primary point of Christian reference the Good News of the Evangelion, or the text of Scripture generally’. I think MacCulloch agrees that Cranmer had a mind of his own, and does a good job describing it. Some earlier historians of Cranmer have pushed him into categories which he doesn’t fit, but I think MacCulloch does him more justice than that. My guess is that MacCulloch would agree with you in aligning Cranmer with Bucer, but disagree concerning Calvin, at least regarding his sacramental ideas.

        The continuing evangelical tradition in Anglicanism and even in the Episcopal Church, at least until quite recently, was close to where Cranmer was in the wider evangelical spectrum, and I hope will still be there when the current dust settles.

  6. I appreciate Cranmer having his own day. The triple commemoration is a difficulty. Yet, I would surely not like losing the other 2 from the calendar

    • Ne’er fear. They have not been lost from the calendar. Bishop Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley are remembered together on October 16, the day they wee burned at the stake in Oxford.

  7. I was disappointed in the way the bio emphasized the political aspects of his life. I agree that his cheif contribution to the life of the church is the prayerbook and reforming work of giving the liturgy back to the people in their own language.

  8. Thomas Cranmer
    TITLE: Cranmer, it seems to me, is one who GIVES meaning to the title, “Archbishop of Canterbury.” He certainly did a lot more than “show up for the consecration”! I hope we keep that title in his case. The title “Martyr” certainly applies if his death (and recantations, I suppose,) were about something theological or ecclesiastical, not just about Lady Jane Grey. But beyond that, he was a reformer for all in the English Church (not just liturgy, procedures, or clerical matters), a theologian, a liturgical historian by the standards of that age, a spiritual guide as reflected in the shape and overall disciplines of the BCP (not just its individual prayers or forms), and more. The title can’t list everything, but it needs to broaden what it says to encompass more than getting consecrated and then getting burned (– an episcopal occupational hazard, still!).
    I defer to the comments left by others regarding the contents of the bio. All I can say is that the scope of the man and his contribution is much greater than is described here. It surprises, disappoints, and appalls me that nothing is mentioned about the Pope’s response to Cranmer’s initiative regarding Henry’s annulment and remarriage – inclining me to suspect that the write-up is trying too hard (to the point of disguising what’s basic) to remain “PC.” (Speak the truth — in love – but speak it.)
    Saying Cranmer “had a free hand in reforming the worship, doctrine, and practice of the Church” doesn’t say what he did! That is where his vision and genius come together, and the thing most people associate him with – the BCP – represents all of that, (and is not just a grab bag of felicitous and apt liturgical wordings)! I wish the bio explained something of the vision that stands behind all that, rather than just glancing off of it with vapid generalities such as “worship, doctrine, and practice” (end of explanation!). Try to find a way to say more about what he did, please!
    The phrase, “arrested, deprived, and degraded” is lost on me. I know what arrested is, and would guess “deprived” refers to removing him for the position of ABC, but I have no idea what “degraded” means beyond that. What could they do that would be “degrading” more than burning him alive?
    I did enjoy Steve’s comment on “the King’s affair. 🙂
    COLLECT: Michael and Philip are exactly right that the collect does not do justice to the commemoration. It is too small in scope, and too peripheral in its lack of depth. “Merciful,” as the opening, seems to intentionally avoid engagement with the crux of the commemoration, and restricting the “so that” to “worship” nullifies the connection of his liturgical with his much larger vision of the Christian life and hope, for individuals and the church as a whole (not to mention the nation). As the collect stands now, it misses – if not “ducks” — the mark.
    Look for an opening attribute (or Biblical self-revelation) in which God is presented in a way that profoundly connects with the Cranmer story: I think, e.g., of OT’s reconstituting life in Israel after the exile, or NT’s Pentecost vision of the Spirit at work in forming and sending the Church. Then, don’t rest content just being thankful for Cranmer and asking to do more of the same, but look through that fact-bound surface story to what God was doing THROUGH Cranmer’s ministry, with and for the WHOLE Church, the opportunity for all Christians to actually “live” the Christian life (rather than go along with the abuses, distortions and passive roles that had replaced it for laity since Constantine and the clericalization of everything). For the “so that,” look beyond simple mimicking of Cranmer’s particular activities, and pray something about living into the ultimate purposes of God for his creation, church, and people. Trinitarian closing. (The “Amen” was just right – let’s have more of that 🙂 )
    READINGS: The OT and the Psalm are excellent. The Gospel is fine. I wish it would end at 35a, with the focus on Jesus, not a tangential PS about Mary. The choice of the epistle, however, puzzles me. Why a reading about grafting gentiles into (the true, continuing, spiritual) Israel? If that’s supposed to be an implied analogy about the C of E in relation to the Roman church (or the whole Reformation in relation to the Roman church), I don’t get the analogy.
    Ephesians chapter 3 (cited below) would be a long reading, and it does mention “gentiles” – but not as a contrast or analogy. It emphasizes the efforts (including imprisonment) that were expended for the sake of offering God’s grace (and God’s mystery long hidden) to those who respond in good faith. A SELECTION from this chapter such as verses 7-21, (or the whole chapter – it reads easily and without detours,) would fit the Cranmer commemoration better than the presently selected passage.
    Eph 3:1 This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles– 2 for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, 3 and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, 4 a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ.
    5 In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: 6 that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
    7 Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power. 8 Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, 9 and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; 10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.
    11 This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.
    13 I pray therefore that you may not lose heart over my sufferings for you; they are your glory. 14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.
    16 I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.
    18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
    20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

  9. John LaVoe commented on the word “degraded.” I suspect that the word was used because it is the word which Thomas Cranmer used to describe himself. This is the final section of his speech before being burned to death:
    “And now I come to the great thing that troubleth my conscience more than any other thing that ever I said or did in my life: and that is, the setting abroad of writings contrary to the truth. Which here now I renounce and refuse, as things written with my hand contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and writ 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 mine own hand, since my [u]degradation[/u]; wherein I have written many things untrue. And forasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished. For if I may 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.”

    I realize that there has been concern here that the liturgical contributions of Thomas Cranmer are being over-emphasized, I would respectfully disagree and say that the importance of his contributions are not emphasized enough. It is hard to imagine Morning and Evening Prayer without Cranmer’s prayers: For Peace (O GOD, which art author of peace, and lover of concorde…), For Grace (O LORDE oure heavenly father, almightye and everlivyng God, whiche haste safelye brought us to the beginning of this day…), Collect for Peace (O God from whom all holy desyres, all good counsayles, and all juste workes do procede…), a collect for Aid against Perils (Lyghten our darkenes we beseche thee, O lord, & by thy great mercy defende us from all perilles and daungers of thys nyght…,) etc. even if the English has been modernized and the wording changed a bit. I cannot imagine the Holy Eucharist with the beginning collect (ALMIGHTIE God, unto whom all hartes bee open, and all desyres knowen, and from whom no secretes are hid:…). Try to imagine Rite I without the Confession of Sin (ALMYGHTIE GOD father of oure Lord Jesus Christ, maker of all thynges, judge of all men, we knowlege and bewaile our manyfold synnes and wyckednes,..). Especially now that it is Lent, try to imagine the Holy Eucharist without the Prayer of Humble Access (WE do not presume to come to this thy table (o mercifull lord) trusting in our owne righteousnes, but in thy manifold and great mercies:…). We still say the prayer following Communion: (ALMIGHTYE and everlyvyng (or everlasting, in some printings) GOD, we moste hartely thanke thee, for that thou hast vouchsafed to feede us in these holy Misteries…) A favorite of mine is a prayer which Cranmer wrote as a post-Offertory collect but is now Proper 11 (ALMIGHTIE God, the fountayn of all wisdome, which knowest our necessities beefore we aske, and our ignoraunce in asking). The biography as printed and the collects really fail to show the depth to which the liturgy of the Episcopal Church is indebted to an Archbishop of Canterbury who was burned at the stake 555 years ago.

    • I think in this case ‘degraded’ means stripped of his ordained status. Only lay people get to be burned!

    • Suzanne and Philip — Thank you for your responses to my wondering about the use of “degraded.” I do appreciate it — and each of you! –John

  10. The subtitle should be amended to “Liturgist and Martyr”, or some such. His clerical rank is not why he is honored.

    Eliminate the first paragraph, where the “headline writer” sums it up, presumably for folk too busy to read the full story..

    Line 1, second paragraph: add “at Aslockton” after “born”, and “, England,” after “Nottinghamshire”.

    Line 2, fifth paragraph: insert a new second sentence: “Thomas Cranmer was principally responsible for the first Book of Common Prayer of 1549, and for the second Book, in 1552.”

  11. I do indeed enjoy reading all the above replies. Lest we forget, Cranmer, as Luther also did, was protesting, thus the term protestant, the present at that time, items that were perceived as contrary to catholic doctrine, i.e. disordered things such as indulgences(there were items Luther presented as complaints to the Bishop of Rome). It was about reform of the one catholic church of which we all belong. Cranmer’s relationship with Lady Jane was of circumstance to her demise because of Bloody Mary and her claim to Henry’s throne. Henry was never excommunicated.

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