21 March 1556 – The Burning of Archbishop Cranmer

On this day in 1556, Thomas Cranmer, former Archbishop of Canterbury, was burnt at the stake in Oxford for heresy and treason. Martyrologist John Foxe gives the following account of his death:

“With thoughts intent upon a far higher object than the empty threats of man, he reached the spot dyed with the blood of Ridley and Latimer. There he knelt for a short time in earnest devotion, and then arose, that he might undress and prepare for the fire. Two friars who had been parties in prevailing upon him to abjure, now endeavoured to draw him off again from the truth, but he was steadfast and immoveable in what he had just professed, and before publicly taught. A chain was provided to bind him to the stake, and after it had tightly encircled him, fire was put to the fuel, and the flames began soon to ascend. Then were the glorious sentiments of the martyr made manifest;—then it was, that stretching out his right hand, he held it unshrinkingly in the fire till it was burnt to a cinder, even before his body was injured, frequently exclaiming, “This unworthy right hand!” Apparently insensible of pain, with a countenance of venerable resignation, and eyes directed to Him for whose cause he suffered, he continued, like St. Stephen, to say, “Lord Jesus receive my spirit!” till the fury of the flames terminated his powers of utterance and existence. He closed a life of high sublunary elevation, of constant uneasiness, and of glorious martyrdom, on March 21, 1556.”

His execution was actually unlawful. Why? Because he had done what was asked of him, he had recanted and repented of his Protestant beliefs, and he had accepted the authority of Mary I and The Pope. He recanted four times, but it was not enough. On the day of his execution, Cranmer was expected to recant again at the University Church, Oxford, but, instead he used the opportunity to renounce his recantations and reaffirm his reformist faith:

“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 here I 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 or 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 first be burned.

And as for the Pope, I refuse him as Christ’s enemy, and antichrist, with all his false doctrine. And 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 in the last day before the judgment of God, where the papistical doctrines contrary thereto shall be ashamed to show their face.”

He was quickly dragged from the pulpit to the stake where, as Foxe records, he did put his right hand into the flames. Cranmer is now known as one of the Oxford Martyrs, along with his friends and colleagues Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer. Their deaths are commemorated by the Martyrs’ Memorial, which was erected in the 19th century at the south end of St Giles in Oxford, and the cross on the road that marks the spot where they died. The memorial inscription 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”

You can read more about Thomas Cranmer in The Unlawful Execution of Thomas Cranmer and The Life of Thomas Cranmer.

Notes and Sources

  • Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, p236, Chapter on Archbishop Cranmer

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