September 12 – The trial of Archbishop Cranmer


On this day in Tudor history, Thursday 12th September 1555, in the reign of Queen Mary, the trial of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, opened in Oxford.

The archbishop stood accused of heresy, but he did not recognise the authority of the court. He gave intelligent answers to his accusers, but they did him no good. He ended up being burnt at the stake in 1556 and becoming one of the famous Oxford Martyrs.

Find out more about what happened at his trial, and what happened next…

Find out more about Thomas Cranmer in these videos:

13 things you probably didn’t know about Thomas Cranmer –
This unworthy right hand – The end of Thomas Cranmer –


On this day in Tudor history, Thursday 12th September 1555, the trial of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, began in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin at Oxford. Cranmer stood accused of heresy, being charged with two main offences, or doctrinal errors: repudiating papal authority and denying transubstantiation, i.e. denying the miracle of the eucharist.

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, Bishop of Gloucester and papal legate, sat. Below him sat Dr Martin and Dr Storey, Queen Mary I’s commissioners (or proctors) and doctors of the law.

Martyrologist John Foxe writes of how Archbishop Thomas Cranmer “came forth of the prison to the church of St. Mary, set round with bills and glaves for fear he should start away”, bills and glaves being weapons. He describes the archbishop as being “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.”

The archbishop knelt, “both knees towards the west”, and recited the Lord’s Prayer, and then rose and recited the Creed. According to 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 then when Martin asked “And not of the Church”, Cranmer replied “No, 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 the archbishop’s answers to all of their objections, 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. He was burned at the stake on 21st March 1556.

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