21 March 1556 – Thomas Cranmer’s martyrdom

On this day in history, 21st March 1556, Thomas Cranmer, former Archbishop of Canterbury, was burned at the stake in Oxford after being found guilty of heresy in the reign of Mary I. He is one of three Protestant bishops who were executed in Mary I’s reign and who have become known as the Oxford Martyrs: Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer.

As the flames leapt up around him at the stake, Cranmer stretched out his right hand, the hand he had used to sign his recantations, and “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!””

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

I will remember Archbishop Thomas Cranmer today. He’s a Tudor character that means a lot to me and you can read why in my article Me and Thomas Cranmer.

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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4 thoughts on “21 March 1556 – Thomas Cranmer’s martyrdom”
  1. Co-incidentally, last night I picked up the late Christopher Hitchen’s book, ‘Arguably’, which makes good nighttime fodder. In the Introduction, he talks about martyrs as ‘those willing to die for a cause larger than themselves’. He mentions that the anthem of his old party, the British Labour Party, speaks passionately of a flag that is deepest red and which has “shrouded oft our martyred dead.” He goes on, ‘Underneath my college window at Oxford stood – stands – the memorial to the Oxford Martyrs: Bishops Cranmer, Latimer & Ridley, who were burned alive for Protestant heresies by the Catholic Queen Mary.’ Such men have been honoured throughout history for their loyalty and courage.
    However this noble image has been ‘utterly degraded by the wolfish image of Mohammed Atta: a cold and loveless zombie – a suicide murderer – who took as many innocents with him as he could manage.’ It was this perversion of the idea of martyrdom which motivated Hitch in all his subsequent work. 2001 gave rather a rocket boost to Atheism and those of us who had previously just got on quietly with our lives, felt obliged to ‘come out’ and own to it.
    As for our dear old friend Cranmer, Claire writes that he had ‘written against the Bishop of Winchester’, about which I was unaware, but now begin to think that, had Queen Mary felt inclined towards some leniency, Bishop Stephen would have scotched that.

  2. Very interesting about the Labour Party, I didn’t know that, the Oxford martyr’s are justly famous for sticking to their beliefs and should be remembered for enduring this most awful of deaths, Cranmer had been one of Henry V111’s most trusted ministers and had had the job of annulling his first marriage, something which Queen Mary never forgave him for, although he had recanted previously he still did not escape the flames, and was deeply ashamed because of it, as penance he thrust his right hand into the fire and this act has gone down in history symbolic of Thomas Cranmers martyrdom, RIP the Oxford matyrs you are not forgotten, a very sad day in a grim period in England’s history.

  3. Thomas Cranmer is an enigma. He served Henry Viii faithfully, although he had trouble with traditional members of his court in the early 1540s when he was accused of heresy. However, Henry protected him and he survived. He seems to have had the King’s genuine trust and it was to Cranmer that Henry turned at the very end. He was politically active during Anne Boleyns Queenship, partly responsible for the fall of Katherine Howard in that he acted out of duty on the information presented to him and of course he pronounced the marriage of Katherine of Aragon and Henry Viii null and void. It’s always assumed that his execution was revenge for this….but without going back in time and asking Mary, this can only ever be speculation. He gave us a legacy in the original Prayer Book, incorporated in the present 1662 Prayer Book. He was active in the reforms of 1549-1551 but in 1552 he was not as fully involved as has previously been assumed with the next more radical prayer book and reforms. (A new book states evidence of this)

    Thomas Cranmer was also a hardliner when it came to his own belief in the prosecution and punishment of heresy. His own suggestion that they should be executed within two weeks of arrest was fortunately never taken up. Cranmer himself was given several opportunities to recant and he did so in order to gain better jail conditions. It has been shown in a recent study that he was pleasing his jailers as he suffered from what we now know as Stockholm Syndrome. Work in high security modern prisons has shown that this may be a wider problem in those prisons and that wardens and long term prisoners make bonds that allow for favours in return for good behaviour.

    Cranmer in the end made four public recantations although two were repeated and two official. Normally, once he recanted he should have been imprisoned, not burned, but in some cases, this may not have been so clear cut. The Six Articles for example allowed for execution, even after recanting and Cranmer had recanted before and not meant it. Repentance and sincerity also had to be part of the recantation. What if Cranmer wasn’t sincere? If this was the official opinion of the authorities, then it’s possible that is why he was executed. However, a more probable, if speculative explanation is that unlike most heresy trials, the Queen and her government were directly involved in this and other high profile cases. The majority of heresy trials were prosecuted at a local level, by local magistrates and local bishops, having been denounced locally by local people with no involvement of the Queen or her government. Cranmer was a state prisoner. Why? He had also been tried and found guilty of high treason after the Jane Grey affair. Whether personal or not Mary in this case wanted to execute Cranmer and probably wasn’t too bothered about which method was used. Although it can never be proven Cranmer’s execution could possibly have been more to do with the personal agenda of Marian political needs than martyrdom.

    We really don’t know just how lucky we are to live in a world that has finally learned that difference does not equal dangerous and were we have forced Monarchy to be answerable to the people. We have learned to be brothers and sisters, although not everyone wants that. We have also learned to openly debate our beliefs and that you cannot just execute people who have either weird or different religious, political or social beliefs. Unfortunately, in some societies we still have the death penalty. Yes, today it’s only for terrible evil crimes like rape and murder, but it’s overused and all too often innocent people suffer, while the guilty walk free. We are still afraid to trust as a society and we are also too often still living as if it is 500 years ago instead of moving on and we blame people today for what our ancestors did back then. We make too many assumptions…like only Catholics like Queen Mary and only Protestants can like Elizabeth I. Nonsense. People appreciate these Queens and accept they had good and bad sides because they have studied them in depth and not just the myths. The times that they lived in were so different that they might as well be alien planets. You persecuted someone for heresy because that was the way you dealt with something seen as a threat. You put down rebellion because it threatened your life and authority. This sort of mindset is of course rightly horrifying as are all of the deaths under Tudor, Stuart, Georgian, Medieval Monarchies…..and thank goodness we are moving away from these terrors….but the fact that even Cranmer thought heresy should be dealt with even more harshly than it was shows how frighteningly normal all this was at this time.

    1. Perhaps its time to add the Catholic Martyrs of Oxford to this memorial and call it the Memorial to the Martyrs of the Reformation, who were only given any recognition in 2008 and 2011_and even then there was resistance from the city council. Now both a combined memorial exists and one recently to four other martyrs killed together in 1589. However, they are not central and most people don’t even know they are there. Adding them to an official memorial seems appropriate. All of these men and women died horribly for their religious opinions and many did not back down. All of those who died deserve to be fully honoured and there are joint memorials elsewhere. Oxford has produced some of the cleverest people in history…..however, if they still oppose memorials to Catholic Martyrs, they obviously have little common sense. I am certain most people would welcome a joint memorial as we are meant to live in more enlightened times. May all the men and women who died for matters of faith rest in peace and let those dark days never return. Amen.

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