12 September 1555 – The Trial of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer

Posted By on September 12, 2011

Archbishop CranmerOn this day in history, Thursday the 12th September 1555, the trial of Archbishop Cranmer 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.

A ten foot high scaffold, decorated with cloth of state, had been erected in the eastern end of the church in front of the high altar and it was on this scaffold that James Brooks, the Bishop of Gloucester and representative of the Pope, sat. Below him, sat Dr Martin and Dr Storey, Queen Mary I’s commissioners (or proctors) and doctors of the law.

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was brought into the court. John Foxe describes him as “clothed in a fair black gown, with his hood on both shoulders, such as doctors of divinity in the university use to wear, and in his hand a white staff” and goes on to say that he would not doff his cap to any of the commissioners. One of the commissioners called him forward, saying, “Thomas archbishop of Canterbury! Appear here, and make answer to that shall be laid to thy charge; that is to say, for blasphemy, incontinency, and heresy; and make answer here to the bishop of Gloucester, representing the pope’s person!”, and Cranmer was brought up to the scaffold. Cranmer then doffed his cap and bowed to the Queen’s proctors but did not bow or doff his cap to Brooks. An offended Brooks asked Cranmer why he did not show him respect and Cranmer replied “that he had once taken a solemn oath, never to consent to the admitting of the bishop of Rome’s authority into this realm of England again; that he had done it advisedly, and meant by God’s grace to keep it; and therefore would commit nothing either by sign or token which might argue his consent to the receiving of the same; and so he desired the said bishop to judge of him.”

After Brooks and Martin had given their ‘orations’, Cranmer replied that he did not recognise or acknowledge this court:-

“My lord, I do not acknowledge this session of yours, nor yet you, my mislawful judge; neither would I have appeared this day before you, but that I was brought hither as a prisoner. And therefore I openly here renounce you as my judge, protesting that my meaning is not to make any answer, as in a lawful judgment, (for then would I be silent,) but only for that I am bound in conscience to answer every man of that hope which I have in Jesus Christ, by the counsel of St. Peter; and lest by my silence many of those who are weak, here present, might be offended. And so I desire that my answers may be accepted as extra judicialia.”

Then he knelt, “both knees towards the west”, and recited the Lord’s Prayer and then rose and recited the Creed. According to John Foxe, Martin asked Cranmer who he thought was “supreme head of the church of England”, to which Cranmer replied, “Christ is head of this member, as he is of the whole body of the universal church”. When Martin pushed him further, asking why he had then made Henry VIII the supreme head, Cranmer stated, “Yea, of all the people of England, as well ecclesiastical as temporal” and went on to say, “for Christ only is the head of his church, and of the faith and religion of the same. The king is head and governor of his people, which are the visible church.” He explained that “there was never other thing meant” by the King’s title.

After the commission had heard from Cranmer, they ordered him to appear at Rome “within fourscore days” to answer to the Pope. Cranmer agreed to do this and was then taken back to his prison. Cranmer was never taken to Rome but his fate was decided there on the 4th December 1555. The Pope stripped him of his office of archbishop and gave the secular authorities permission to sentence him. Cranmer’s friends and colleagues, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, who were also tried for heresy on the 12th September 1555, had already been burned at the stake on the 16th October and now Cranmer desperately tried to save himself by recanting. Between the end of January and mid February 1556, Cranmer made four recantations, submitting himself to the authority of the monarch and recognising the Pope as the head of the church, but despite this his priesthood was taken from him and his execution was set for the 7th March.  Cranmer quickly made a fifth recantation in which he stated that he fully accepted Catholic theology and that there was no salvation outside of the Catholic Church, and announced that he was happy to return to the Catholic fold. This recantation and statement of faith really should have led to him being absolved but although his execution was postponed another date was soon set. This postponement simply allowed a final, public recantation to be organised at University Church, Oxford.

On the 21st March, the day of his execution, Thomas Cranmer was taken to the church to recant in front of the waiting crowd. After opening with the expected prayer and exhortation to obey the King and Queen, Cranmer suddenly changed tack and instead of recanting he actually renounced his recantations:-

“And now I come to the great thing which so much troubleth my conscience, more than any thing that ever I did or said in my whole life, and that is the setting abroad of a writing contrary to the truth; which now I here renounce and refuse, as things written with my hand contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and written for fear of death, and to save my life if it might be; and that is, all such bills and papers which I have written or signed with my hand since my degradation, wherein I have written many things untrue. And forasmuch as my hand hath offended, writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished; for when I come to the fire, it shall be first burned. As for the pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy and antichrist, with all his false doctrine. As for the sacrament, I believe as I have taught in my book against the bishop of Winchester, which my book teacheth so true a doctrine of the sacrament, that it shall stand at the last day before the judgment of God, where the papistical doctrine contrary thereto shall be ashamed to shew her face.”

He was quickly pulled out of the church and led to the stake, where he knelt and prayed. John Foxe describes his execution:-

“Then was an iron chain tied about Cranmer, whom when they perceived to be more steadfast than that he could be moved from his sentence, they commanded the fire to be set unto him. And when the wood was kindled and the fire began to burn near him, stretching out his arm, he put his right hand into the flame, which he held so steadfast and unmovable, (saving that once with the same hand he wiped his face,) that all men might see his hand burned before his body was touched. His body did so abide the burning of the flame with such constancy and steadfastness, that standing always in one place without moving his body, he seemed to move no more than the stake to which he was bound; his eyes were lifted up into heaven, and oftentimes he repeated “his unworthy right hand,” so long as his voice would suffer him; and using often the words of Stephen,” Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” in the greatness of the flames he gave up the ghost, in the sixty-seventh year of his age.”

You can read more about Cranmer’s execution, including an eye witness account, in my article “The Execution of Thomas Cranmer”.

Notes and Sources

  • “THE LIFE, STATE, AND MARTYRDOM OF THE REVEREND PASTOR AND PRELATE, THOMAS CRANMER, ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY” from “Actes and Monuments” or “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs”, John Foxe, 1889 edition.