12 September 1555 – Archbishop Cranmer is tried in Oxford

On this day in history, Thursday 12th September 1555, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, was tried for heresy at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin at Oxford.

The court was presided over by James Brooks, Bishop of Gloucester and the representative of the Pope, and Dr Martin and Dr Storey, Queen Mary I’s commissioners (or proctors) and doctors of the law. Cranmer was charged with two main offences or doctrinal errors: repudiating papal authority and denying transubstantiation, but he refused to recognise or acknowledge the court.

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19 thoughts on “12 September 1555 – Archbishop Cranmer is tried in Oxford”
  1. Poor Cranmer, Henry V111 had loved him but that wasn’t enough to save him from the wrath of his daughter Queen Mary, another victim of an intolerant age where you were condemned for sticking to your own beliefs, I know this has nothing to do with the subject, and some people may think it’s rather frivolous, but iv often wondered why they grew their beards so long, I think it looks awful, fashion was and always will be rather strange.

  2. I find it strangely ironic that Cranmer didn’t recognize the court assembled to try him, since he ignored Katherine of Aragon’s protests concerning the court he convened to determine the validity of her marriage. The saddest thing (for me) is that Mary had him tried (and eventually punished) for heresy, not for treason

    Loyalty to a dead king never was a defense. Thomas Howard (then Earl of Surrey) fought for Richard at Bosworth; he was punished by Henry VII (although he alone was able to prove his loyalty) Empson and Dudley were obedient to Henry VII in enforcing his financial policies; to gain popularity, Henry VIII had them beheaded shortly after his accession. Dudley’s son was loyal to Edward VI and tried to enforce his will by placing Lady Jane Grey on the throne … people were loyal to the law (as passed by Parliament) as well as to the facts as they saw them (Protestants, such as Luther and Tyndale, joined Catholics in accepting that Mary, in fact, was legitimate) and secured Mary’s throne.

  3. I find Cranmer a complex and conflicted man who did his best to stand on principle in difficult and changing circumstances. When we condemn Thomas Cranmer for recanting back and forth we have to understand the changes he had lived through and implementation of those changes and how he himself had served three monarchs, howbeit, one very briefly. He had also been condemned to death for treason, in supporting actively the wrong monarch as far as the present Queen, Mary was concerned.

    I don’t fully understand the ins and outs of Beth Von Staats wonderful article on how Cranmer suffered from a kind of Stockholm syndrome and acted to please his jailers in order for better conditions or to have visitors, but I can understand how he did so, because he acted as a frail human man who was not a young man. We have to recall that prison was not normally your punishment, it was where you stayed before a punishment was handed down by a court. He was in one kind of confinement or another for a long time. His actions are tied into being psychologically dependent on his wardens. At his trial for heresy he really had nothing to gain or lose as he had already been condemned to death. What he may change is the manner of that death or gain time for a reprieve, which was unlikely as he had prompted the beliefs he now defended and led the country officially down that path, according to the charges against him. After recanting a person accused of heresy would normally be spared and placed in prison or do penance or be released. Cranmer was still condemned. Was it personal or did the authorities not believe he was sincere? At this stage his trial is only one part of his various hearings and he was also tried in Rome in his absence and then there was a public debate and final hearing. I am not surprised he went through a dark night of the soul and, no, he may have been trying to preserve himself from a terrible fate, although he could still face another terrible fate, for treason, but he was not a coward or anything else, he was a man in danger. He showed courage by saying he didn’t recognise the authority of the court as he was in danger of being pressed if he did so and didn’t plead. Margaret Clitherow suffered because she would not plead and Cranmer could not plead against laws and beliefs that he had introduced. How can you say I made this the new belief, but I am wrong? No more than anyone raised and true to the Catholic Faith could he say my prayers and reforms are wrong, but I can see how and why the Marian Government said they were as they were raised to see their Faith as right and the idea that someone else could believe and not be a threat just didn’t come into it. It was an alien idea with little debate.

    1. Cranmer was indeed a complex character and I think Henry and Cromwell’s yes man. When he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury with the approval of Rome he took an oath of loyalty to the Pope at his consecration even though he didn’t believe it or had any intention of keeping it, therefore commiting perjury? Thomas More, John Fisher and the Carthusians refusded to take the oath of Suppremacy because they didn’t believe it and suffered execution for not swearing it.

  4. Christine mentions that Cranmer was loved by Henry but that didn’t save him from the wrath of his daughter Mary. Remember, Bishop John Fisher had been Henry’s grandmother’s chaplain and confessor and Henry had no compunction about executing him when he didn’t agree with Henry. I hate to sound flippant but it seems like father like daughter as far as problem solving.

    1. Yes I agree that Cranmer was loved by Henry but that didn’t matter if the monarch or next monarch thought you were guilty of treason. I disagree that Bishop Fisher was executed because he didn’t agree with Henry Viii. He didn’t agree with him on a number of occasions, the divorce being one of them but he wasn’t punished. He didn’t agree with him at the Court in Blackfriars when his signature was forged but wasn’t punished. He disagreed over Henry’s being granted the title Head of the Church in Convocation and wasn’t punished. In fact Henry had to accept the clause which limited him, as far as the law of Christ allowed. It was only after Henry found a way around this by forcing the submission of the clergy or they would all fall like Wolsey that they agreed. Bishop Fisher was not arrested until he refused to swear the new oath to declare Henry as the Head of the Church and he plotted to invite the Emperor to invade England. This went beyond disagreements. It was only when Henry went too far for the venerable Bishop that he could no longer accept him in religious matters.

      We don’t know how Mary would have acted if Thomas Cranmer had not been guilty of high treason, because he was. It is a very difficult question to answer as to whether this was revenge on the part of Mary, but it is quite possibly part of her decision. However, it was unusual for the Government to even be involved in a trial for heresy and the state were not involved in most of them. Thomas Cranmer was a high profile Archbishop, a high profile state prisoner. This trial was of interest and significant to the crown. In addition, he was not just another person up on heresy charges, he was the person responsible for turning the entire country towards heresy and actively preaching it as far as the crown was concerned. This made him a super heretic if you will, for want of a better way of putting it, a big fish and leader of heresy. Of course, Cranmer didn’t believe he was a heretic, this is what the Marian Government and Mary believed. Now the Government could have gone the other way on this and used his many recanted statements as s coup in their favour and yes, under normal circumstances, he may have been spared the fires. I say may because, no actually it didn’t automatically save you. It defended. A persistent offender would only be given two chances and a third offence of serious heresy did not come with a reprieve. There was also the question of sincerity. In most cases it would be looked on as you being sincere, but then what if you changed your mind as soon as you were free? Naturally, many people recanted out of fear or pressure, others were sincere and remained faithful but caution was always shown on the part of the authorities. In the case of Thomas Cranmer, it is difficult to judge why he wasn’t spared although it is also very difficult to know his motivation for recanting and if he was sincere as we can’t read his mind. I doubt he was doing anything other than attempt to please the Government. There are also numerous repeated versions of the same final recanted statements which were to show everyone that he was making a full submission totally to the crown and faith and to Mary personally. This was not enough and it is this which gives us the suspicion he was executed out of revenge or at least because he was guilty of something else. This is were it becomes more complex.

      I don’t believe it was revenge because Mary could have simply had him executed for Treason. He continued to write and encourage people to rise widely for weeks after Jane Grey was arrested. He actively sought, when other Protestant clergy supported Mary to prevent her taking the throne. He had been found guilty so Mary could have had him hung drawn and quartered if she simply wanted revenge. She had the motivation for revenge, certainly, for he was the mover and shaker in her parents divorce and established the very religious laws she now reversed. However, Mary allowed him to be tried for heresy instead, giving him much more time to show he repented and to recant than after a Treason trial and herself four years almost to think about if she spared him or not. Part of this was due to the process needed to try and execute an Archbishop, to remove him from office and the case also went to Rome. There is a possibility Mary was reluctant to execute him but changed her mind. For me the oh dear bad bad Mary did it out of revenge is too simple. While there may be something of his responsibility for her enemies coming to prominence in her involvement in this case at all and his execution, but I think Mary didn’t need to even try him for heresy. His support and promoting of Jane Grey was enough to condemn him under every Treason Law going. Unfortunately for Mary she went down this route, which technically takes her out of the decision as he was tried by the Church not the state and then the state handles the execution. However, with his public trials, debates, several recanted statements and so on, the fact he was condemned even though he technically recanted, with the State closely involved, Cranmer is seen now as a victim directly of Queen Mary whose own motivation is questionable. I actually believe that raised more questions than answers and caused Mary more problems as she could easily have silenced him as a Traitor, rather than elevating him to the status of martyr.

      My reaction to Cranmer has always been conflicted as on one side he was frail and old and brave as a human being and in the end a man of conscience and faith but on the other he could be just as intolerant and he put his own preservation first. In the end it comes down to him being a human being who deserves our respect and compassion.

      1. You gave me a lot to think about. Cranmer’s situation was much more complicated than I realized. I appreciate the correction.

        1. Hello, Michael, I didn’t mean to sound as if I was correcting you, sorry for that, but you are right, these historical circumstances are often complicated by political and religious and social or even personal ideas and we find it very difficult 500 plus years later to see things clearly. We don’t have a diary or something which can tell us how Mary or someone else felt, we can only guess. I have been pondering the motivation of Mary for some time now, trying to get into the sixteenth century brain as much about this case does not fit with what we know of the others. It could be personal, it could be complicated by his other charges, it could be political theatre or a dozen other things. It could simply have been his importance in events generally. I think all assessments are valid, but there are a lot of questions I just don’t believe are possible to answer. But hey, that’s history, annoying and fascinating.

      2. No problem BQ. I was rushing out the door and realized my wording was incorrect. Replace ‘correction’ with ‘context’.

  5. I didn’t read anything about Stockholm Syndrome, but I did read that Cranmer was imprisoned so long that he had gotten frail and weak, and that’s when he gave the recantations and had to sign papers, which according to what I read he was hardly capable of reading them.

  6. The sort of treatment that was meted out to him and others would have broken anyone’s spirit eventually, he was elderly to poor man, he was the only person that spoke in Anne Boleyns defence, the recantations he made should have saved him from the flames but it appears Mary wanted this troublesome heretic out the way, embracing the Catholic faith irked at him and he said so at his execution, his right hand was thrust into the fire as he said it had sinned the most, I hope he died with his conscience clear, RIP Thomas Cranmer.

  7. The majority of those executed by Mary were for heresy. However in the case of Thomas Cranmer I believe this was revenge. If it was just heresy on his part she probably would have let him go after recanting but he pronounced the divorce of her parents and that was unforgivable. I agree with Christine: Rest in peace Thomas Cranmer.

        1. It is human nature to try to exculpate the people we like. Mary loved her father, so she wanted to blame others … and Cranmer was one of the few she could get. She was also fond of Lady Jane Grey, so (initially) Northumberland got blamed, but Jane was spared. She once was fond of Elizabeth … Henry executed people on less evidence than Mary had against Elizabeth.

  8. Esther you are right, people blamed Anne Boleyn for being the other woman in Henrys divorce case and Mary being emotionally raw had harsh treatment meted out to her by him, but she blamed it all on Anne the wicked stepmother, she still loved her father so it was far easier to blame it all on Anne for seducing her father away from her mother and believing his coldness towards her was down to her, the reality was he had been out of love with her mother for some years and was seeking to divorce her and it was her own stubbornness that incurred his wrath not anything Anne said, people do not want to blame loved ones it’s only natural, we do tend to deceive ourselves that way.

  9. Cranmer I of England (reigned 6 July 1555 – 6 April 1555) and Anne, Boleyn of England (reigned 6 April 1555 – 19 October 1555) the sons of Henry VIII of England, were both born at Beaumont Palace in Oxford, on 8 September 1555 and 24 December 1555 respectively. A plaque in Beaumont Street commemorates these events.

    1. What are you talking about. In 1555, Mary I was on the throne. Cranmer was Henry VIII’s Archbishop of Canterbury and Anne Boleyn was his second wife. There is a plaque in Beaumont Street for Beaumont Palace, but it is about the births of King Richard I (1157) and King John (1167).

    2. Dear EggStrangler, can you please confirm what events you are referring to? And as far as I recall Henry VIII only had 1 legitimate son Edward, the other Henry Fitzroy was illegitimate. Neither of them survived to adulthood.

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