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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15 thoughts on “21 March 1556 – The Burning of Archbishop Cranmer”
  1. Poor Cranmer, he did’nt deserve such a terrible death. I do wish Mary forgave this man in spite of everything he did to her.
    As some one who loves history and reading about christians and how they treated each other, i find it sad that they never got along.
    Yes it is true that Cranmer was a gentle man, he was brave and he was interested in bringing the reformation to England, he even tried to protect those who had protestant ideas but am afraid to say this his treatment towards the baptists/anabaptists was harsh. In fact when you read through historical books, articles and websites about the baptists/anabaptists he and other protestant reformers such as Latimer, Calvin, Luther e.t.c was no different from the catholics. What the catholics did to protestants is the same thing as what protestants did baptists. Their those that talk only about how catholic men like More, Gardiner e.t.c treated protestants yet Cranmer was no different. In 1534 when Henry viii broke away from 28 Hollanders were arrested and fourteen were put to death. According to Foxe fourteen other anabaptists were put to death in 1535. In 1538 the king appointed Cranmer to head a commission to prosecute baptists wherever they were found. He commanded that the books of the baptists were to be confiscated and burned. Reformers like Cranmer who had seen flames used by catholics to suppress religious freedom did’nt mind using the same method and even justified it against those who differed with them. Cranmer’s hands were stained with the blood of others the same way More’s hands are also stained. (J.J.Stockdale, The History of the Inquisitions, 1818,p.xxix)
    Humphrey Middleton was one of the baptists that was kept imprisoned for years during Edward’s reign. This brutal tactic was supported by Thomas Cranmer. When Cranmer pronounced his sentence against Middleton, the intrepid baptists replied, “Reverend sir, pass what sentence you think fit upon us. But that you may not say that you were not forewarned, i testify that your turn may be next”. (Evans, Early English Baptists) http://www.wayoflife.org/database/protestantpersecution.
    Cranmer never deserved such a gruesome cruel ending, Mary should have forgiven. He was a descent man who loved God, but the man had his faults, he was intorelant with baptists and that is something people should not forget.

  2. I know that the memorial is not on the exact spot of the burnings, but it does commemorate men who died in the most terrible of circumstances, and I do find it offensive that there are always people acting the fool, swigging from cans and lolling about all over the steps.

  3. “And as for the Pope, I refuse him as Christ’s enemy, and antichrist, with all his false doctrine” That was an epic speech!

    As much I learn about the Tudor period more I get conviced that everybody was extremelly brave. And more than this, die for one cause was certanly one way of life!

    But about his death I think : What goes around comes around.
    The law of life.

    Please, let’s be honest. He was not a saint. Obviously that nobody deserves die burning but… everybody knew that the court life was dangerous. A dangerous game. He himself escaped from the death lot of times with that estrange Henry’s humor.

  4. ds370 – I agree with you about both sides persecuting the other. Mary I’s moniker of “bloody” Mary should be considered a misnomer. If anyone was bloody, it was Henry VIII. Even Cranmer’s role in the events after Anne was arrested are a little difficult for me. (Clare’s book, “The Fall of Anne Boleyn”, is great in discussing Cranmer’s role). I know he was doing what the King wanted him to do in going to Anne and asking her to agree to the annulment (and of course making Elizabeth illegitimate), but he was a man of God, and society holds clergy to a higher standard. He would have served truth better had he tried to help Anne more, and as Archbishop one would like to believe that he felt serving God (truth) would have come before serving the King. I know we are weak and only human, but there were many clergy who lost their lives by not bowing to the King’s Act of Supremacy.

    1. I know, Cranmer was ultimately faithful to his beliefs by upholding his reformist beliefs and so lost his life. I only wish he could have shown that resolve where Anne was concerned and stood by her more! Even if it does no good, it would have been right..

  5. What Cranmer’s death ultimately comes down to is this – why was he burned, despite recanting his beliefs? Cranmer himself, while at the stake, apparently believed that to be his just punishment for that recantment, which should have saved his life.

    Mary was responsible, there is no getting around it. Cranmer obeyed the law, under punishment of death, to recant his heretic’s beliefs, and still she upheld his execution.

    Why? Consider their history – in Mary’s eyes, it was Cranmer, under Anne’s “spell,” who engineered the annulment of Henry and Katharine’s (her parents) marriage. As a result of that annulment, her mother, Katharine of Aragon, a very worthy, pious Princess of Spain, was cast from her rightful place as Queen of England in favor of the “wh*re” Anne Boleyn, and Mary herself, likewise a worthy, pious Princess of England, was declared a bastard, and disbarred from her rightful inheritance as Heiress to the throne.

    The annulment was couched in the most shameful of language, that the marriage of Henry and Katharine was “incestuous” and “unlawful.”

    Mary was NEVER able to face the fact that Cranmer and Anne were both used by Henry to cause her own and her mother’s humiliation and misery, simply because of the misfortune of Mary’s “inferior” gender as a potential monarch.

  6. Good old Thomas Cranmer. All things considered, he did a remarkable job of remaining true to his stated beliefs in a setting where no one survived for long without compromises and betrayals. Despite all, he comes fairly close to embodying the humanist ideal. I was raised in the Episcopal Church (the American branch of the Church of England) on the beautiful, concise, warm-hearted language of the Book of Common Prayer, much of its structure and language Cranmer’s work. Though my beliefs as an adult have followed a different path, the harmony of that language still underlies my sense of balance and sound-music in written language. Thank you, Thomas Cranmer.

  7. I hope my comments do not offend or upset anyone, as it certainly isn’t my intension, but religion is such a passionate and personal subject that it can quickly become heated in discussion…

    When I read about these high powered churchmen from this period, from either side of the Christian persuasion, although I feel sympathy for the terrible pain they suffered in their manner of death, at the same time I also remember that they too had been a part in the many deaths of others, in the same barbaric ways. These acts were justified as being ‘In the Name of God’, but to me it seems to have been done in the main for power and greed, and all the wealthy trapping it brought them by pandering to the whims of Monarchs rather than their ‘real’ duties.. If they had tended to the responsibility of their religious vows, instead of getting dragged into the dangerous machinations of the Court, they could have been a possibility their lives may not have come to such a painful end.

    Of course I can see that the higher you rose in religious orders, the more difficult it would be not to be dragged into the Polictics of Kings, and thus became entrapped. But their conviction seems very ‘brittle’ compared to the ones who really did live the religious life style, worked hard, lived meagerly and helped those who needed it, the sick and the poor, these were the Monks and Nuns, and the ones who did more good than any of the ‘High’ church men.

    In saying that Cranmer did recant to Mary, but to no purpose, she still had him executed, not really the forgiveness that’s taught by the Christian faith, or a good example to be shown by a Monarch, and for that I think it was a great shame he died like this, as at the beginning of his career I think he was one of the nicer clergy men.
    I hope he is at rest and peace.

    As for Mary, I see her as a deeply unhappy women, with a lot of medical and psychological problems to deal with, denied a normal life of love, happiness, her own children, seeing her mother abandoned and disgraced, in fear of her life, the list is endless, it is no surprise really she ended up as she did, no ‘support groups’ in those days…. Her religion was the only thing she could trust and rely on, that remain true to her, it became her entire life, it was a great pity it engulfed her so entirely that she became a zealot, causing her to make some really bad judgements. As for her title ‘Bloody Mary’ I think this stems from the ratio of the short time she reigned to the number of executions in that time…it’s just a maths thing, possibly a gender thing too, would she have been remembered like this if she had been a man!! she was no more ‘bloody’ than Kings centuries before her or after,

  8. The burnnung of Cranmer was a pity and all who didnot conform to the King and Queen’s,did they reall have a choice? NO! indeed they did’ent ,but with that said ,they stood for what they truely believed in ,what ever side of the fence you were on, as far as religion.Yes a shame none the less for all who sufferd the wrath of any, King Or Queen,there death’s were to make point ,your with me and how I veiw anything,it was there way and thats it and that all,As for Mary 1, I still say this Queen she sufferd from some, obvious mental issues. Kind Regards Baroness x

    1. Yes it was her nurture, how she was raised not to mention her surrounding. As people are bio-products of their upbringings.

  9. No matter what he did, he did not deserve this though but being in the position that he was in living in the times that he was in,what could he have done…? He would have been stuck one way or another! Rest in peace Master Cranmer!

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