12 September 1555 – Archbishop Cranmer tried at Oxford

University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford
University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford
On Thursday12th September 1555, the trial of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, began in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin at Oxford. He was accused of two offences, or doctrinal errors: repudiating papal authority and denying transubstantiation.

Cranmer had served Kings Henry VIII and Edward VI as archbishop, but now it was the reign of the Catholic Mary I and his ideas and the reforms he’d help make were seen as heresy.

Click here to read more about his trial.

If you want to know more about Cranmer then I’d recommend two books: Beth von Staats’s Thomas Cranmer: In a Nutshell and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Thomas Cranmer: A Life.

Picture: University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, © Copyright Mat Fascione and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/4528963

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9 thoughts on “12 September 1555 – Archbishop Cranmer tried at Oxford”
  1. I wonder what Princess Elizabeth felt upon learning the news her godfather had bedn out to death. Perhaps another reminder how tenuous her life truly was.

  2. When you read the full account of the trial and commission on Thomas Cranmer for heresy you get a better sense of where he was coming from. Yes, he would go on to make a series of recantations in order to save his life, but from what is recorded here, he was quite courageous, forthright, defiant and clear about his beliefs and the meaning of the late King’s supremacy. He also challenged the legitimacy of the court authorities, taking the risk of being crushed by weights until he did plea and recognize the court. Recantation should have saved his life, but he reverted to the heretical beliefs again, losing his right to being given penance and not punishment. His case is rather unusual as he was not just allowed more recantations the state arranged for them in public. It’s clear from a close reading of the sources that Cranmer was set up to fall into the trap as the state intended to have him incriminate himself as he had to die from the outset of the reign. Normally even Mary Tudor should be given the benefit of the doubt but she had her own reasons for revenge on Cranmer. Yes, no doubt had Cranmer made a sincere passionate renunciation of his reformed church and converted, he would have been pardoned and lived, partly in prison and maybe retirement. But even then, he was guilty of treason, having been involved in plots against Mary, the support for her parents divorce and defence of the laws that declared Mary illegitimate. Mary felt very strongly that Cranmer was the cause of much of her many years of suffering, she could have tried and executed him for treason. Cranmer admission to being guilty of heresy suited the state’s purpose, so he was tried, imprisoned and executed for heresy instead, despite recanting, probably because Mary and her council reasoned that Cranmer’s recantation was not sincere. Whatever Cranmer did he fell into a state trap, it seems that he was being set up for execution, all that was not clear during his trial was if it would be for treason or heresy. I think Mary would have preferred to execute him as a traitor, but his public affinity to the reformation suited just as well, he could be safely be despatched as a heretic, without the crown directly being involved.

  3. So, which is your Cranmer: Thomas Cranmer, Arriviste, Arch Heretic and Traitor; or Thomas Cranmer, Father of Anglicanism, Great Man of Letters and Chriistian Martyr? I keep asking myself why, of all the Tudor deaths, the death of Thomas Cranmer will move me to tears? Is it perhaps, because he is old, and frail and human? A great intellect perhaps ill suited to his elevated state? Because he was psychologically tortured , an unlikely figurehead who needed to be completely debased and destroyed and so…was? He did initiate the fall of Katherine Howard, did he not? However reluctantly, he played the game? Didn’t he? There’s this Matthew quote, “Judge not, lest ye also be judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” I like to think mine is a reason based judgment, laced with humanity and female empathy. And you?

    1. Once John Lascelles had made Cranmer aware of Katherine’s behaviour before her marriage (initially her later connections with Culpeper were not part of the charges against her), it was the archbishop’s legal duty to report what he knew, however reluctant he might have been to do so.

    2. He really didn’t have any choice in the matter. He, the Earl of Hertford and Chancellor Audley had all heard Lascelles’ claims re Catherine’s past and it was their duty to inform the king. Cranmer was just the one that drew the short straw. He was persuaded by the other two to inform the king and he did so by letter. He had no choice.

      I do think that Cranmer hoped that Catherine would just confess to a pre-contract or marriage with Dereham, that way the marriage to Henry could have been simply annulled. It might have saved her and word about Culpeper may never have got out. It’s impossible to know, but I really don’t think that Cranmer was trying to bring down the Howards or to initiate Catherine’s fall.

      1. Archbishop Cranmer was put in a dreadful dilemma when the news that Katherine Howard had a past was brought to his attention. For one thing, he and the councillors he consulted would surely have been concerned that the claims made against the queen were not made out of jealousy, out of a motive to attack or defame her, if they had any basis, then how to tell the King. He must have been seriously worried that King Henry would take the news poorly, he was after all completely wrapped up in his young wife. He must also have been worried that if an investigation showed it was not true, what could happen to him. But Cranmer had no choice as he could not withhold such knowledge without being accused of hiding knowledge that affected the marriage, the succession and its validity. To spread rumours about the queen was treason, he had to speak up to prevent this from happening as well. The behaviour was before marriage, so we are not talking about treason or hiding knowledge of treason, but any sexual relationship between Katherine Howard and another young man could have been taken seriously and a promise to marry, held as a contract. This , if verified would render the marriage to Henry unlawful. I believe Cranmer keenly felt this dilemma and was afraid to face Henry with the disastrous news, so he put the difficult story down in writing. He did not have a choice, but I don’t believe he was happy about this.

        A quick word on Katherines past, we are not talking loads of lovers here and she was not being raised to marry the King. At least one if not more historical authors believe that her so called relationship with Mannox, given her age, 12 -14 at the time, and his being in a power position as the adult and her tutor, was one of cohesion, abuse and not welcomed by Katherine. The only other named person, as far as I can remember that Katherine had a pre marital relationship with was Francis Dereham, with whom she had a long term seriously sexual relationship for up to two years. She was more mature at this time, there was something of an understanding that they may marry, but Katherine appears to have not seen Dereham as her husband. At least one historian believes Katherine was raped by Dereham. In sleeping together both compromised any future marriage. Henry Viii was fussy, he was obsessed with the legality of his marriage, the news that Katherine had a long term sexual relationship with another man would not have made this marriage a fact. News now that she may indeed have been involved may render it unlawful. However, Cranmer was in a difficult position, either way, he could not keep the news from the King.

        One also has to ask what was the motivation of the Lassells in the first place? Both were reformers, Henry Lassells was also later tried and executed for heresy. I don’t believe, however, that his involvement in this case, sealed his destiny. I don’t believe in karma. His own decisions that led to Mary Tudor as an enemy, his chosen path to be a leader in the first Protestant reformation in England, all led to his arrest in the next regime. His own principles and life path brought him to this unfortunate end, not doing his duty in the case of Katherine Howard.

        1. John Lascelles was burned at Smithfield in July 1546, but Henry VIII did not die until January 1547, so it was he, not his daughter Queen Mary, who saw him off. Henry still saw himself as a Catholic, just not a Roman Catholic, and Lascelles and his fellow Reformers were just too ‘over the top’ for the king’s taste.

  4. Globerrose

    On your comment concerning Catherine Howard you make it seem as if Cranmer was against the Howards which is as far as I know not true.Cranmer was elected to break the news of Catherine’s affairs to the king as the others Thomas Audley and Edward Seymour were afraid to anger him.The council was already aware of her dealings with Derham at this point so it was just a matter of time before everything came out.

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