21 March 1556 – The glorious martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer

Cross OxfordOn this day in history, 21 March 1556, in the words of martyrologist John Foxe, Thomas Cranmer, former Archbishop of Canterbury, “closed a life of high sublunary elevation, of constant uneasiness, and of glorious martyrdom” when he was burnt at the stake in Oxford in the reign of Queen Mary I.

Cranmer’s execution was a despicable act, in that it was unlawful because Cranmer had actually recanted five times. He should have been absolved, but he wasn’t. He is now known as one of the “Oxford Martyrs” along with his friends and colleagues, former bishops Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer.

The inscription on Martyrs’ Memorial, which was erected in memory of these three in the 19th century, reads:

“To the Glory of God, and in grateful commemoration of His servants, Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer, Prelates of the Church of England, who near this spot yielded their bodies to be burned, bearing witness to the sacred truths which they had affirmed and maintained against the errors of the Church of Rome, and rejoicing that to them it was given not only to believe in Christ, but also to suffer for His sake; this monument was erected by public subscription in the year of our Lord God, MDCCCXLI.”

Rest in peace Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer.

Click here to read more about Cranmer’s execution and what led to it, and you can read more about his life in Beth von Staats’ book Thomas Cranmer in a Nutshell and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s biography Thomas Cranmer: A Life.

Image: The Cross on Broad Street Oxford marking the place where Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were burned at the stake. © Copyright Bill Nicholls and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. Geograph.org.uk.

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5 thoughts on “21 March 1556 – The glorious martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer”
  1. That was a vindictive act by Queen Mary because she had a personal grudge against him, he had helped Henry to annul his marriage to her mother, Mary should have realised he was just following her fathers orders, it was an indelible stain on her character and not worthy of a Queen.

    1. Hello Christine, I think you are right writing that sovereigns d’ be prone to forgive this kind of servile – if in this case, very cynical – persons, always to be found in their own surrounding.
      Thomas Cranmer had helped fulfil KH’s desires (to annul his wedding and so on), but soon after his master’s death, he declared that his son and heir’s views on religious matters were of the purest sort that ever existed (clearly including KH’s views 😉 ).
      After Edward’s early death, he at once supported Jane Grey’s claims.
      And, in due course, was found guilty of treason to the new government.
      Being constantly unfaithful and prompt to change your word is not enough to save your life, circumstances changing.
      What is surprising to me is that Mary Tudor did not have him executed sooner.
      He had been condemned to death as soon as 3 years previous his punishment.
      If Mary Tudor “had a personal grudge against him”, it took long before she put it in acts…
      So I’d rather say she did not much effort in order to save him.
      Surprising again that he died so old.
      The only courageous fact I know of him is that, knowing he was gonna be martyrised, he renounced his last recantations (I, of course, tell only of his recantations under Mary’s reign, not his so many changes before).
      And doing that, contradicted his previous (the last, written by his hand) abjurations.

  2. I was just wondering whether Cranmer was one of the most hated and reviled men in Christendom at that time? With the eyes of Europe watching intently, is it possible the Queen was bending to Catholic expectations of vindictive ‘justice’ for our prose -master archbishop?

  3. Can’t help feeling a little sorry for Mary. Cranmer’s ceasaro-papism allowed Henry and Edward to do what they liked with the church; he didn’t extend to her the same right. Furthermore, she could have had him tortured to death by hanging, drawing and quartering for backing Lady Jane Grey, without staining her character with an illegality. After all, Cranmer’s recantation only blocked an execution on a charge of heresy; it didn’t matter with a charge of treason.

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