The Execution of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer – 21st March 1556

Posted By on March 21, 2012

On this day in history, 21st March 1556, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was burned at the stake in Oxford for heresy. His 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.

On the day of his execution, Cranmer was ordered to make a final public recantation at the University Church Oxford. He agreed, but after praying and exhorting the people to obey the King and Queen, he renounced his recantations and professed his true 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 out of the pulpit and taken to the stake. Martyrologist John Foxe describes what happened next:-

“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.”

If you visit Oxford, do visit Martyrs’ Memorial, which you can find outside Balliol College at the intersection of St Giles’, Magdalen Street and Beaumont Street. The memorial commemorates the “Oxford Martrys”: Thomas Cranmer and his friends and colleagues, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer, who were all burned as heretics in Oxford. If you walk down nearby Broad Street, you will find a cross in the road which marks their execution spot. The inscription on Martyrs’ Memorial 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’s arrest, imprisonment and execution in my article from last year – The Unlawful Execution of Thomas Cranmer – 21 March 1556 – and more about the man himself in my 2 part series – The Life of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and The Execution of Thomas Cranmer.

Notes and Sources

  • Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, p236, Chapter on Archbishop Cranmer
  • Wikipedia page on Martyrs’ Memorial, Oxford

7 thoughts on “The Execution of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer – 21st March 1556”

  1. Marilyn R says:

    What I find very disturbing is the length of time he, and others, had to wait for death, knowing very well what their terrible fate would be. In March 1554 he and the bishops Latimer and Ridley were imprisoned in Oxford to await trial; they were found guilty and he was forced to witness the burning of the bishops chained back to back in Broad Street in October 1555, which must have greatly unhinged his mind. When his day finally came –21st March 1556 – he was 66 years old.

  2. Esther says:

    Can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Mary had Cranmer treated as a traitor instead of as a heretic. IIRC, recantation didn’t block punishment for treason the way it worked with heresy … and I don’t know what is worse. The punishment for traitors (hanging, drawing and quartering) could last quite a long time if the victim was not dead from the hanging at the time of the drawing and quartering (as happened to some of the Babington conspirators)

    1. WilesWales says:

      I undersand! The Babbington execution turned out to be so awful that even Elizabeth I was criticized for it. She had instructes Richard Toctliffe (sp?), her chief torturer, etc. to make “special” arrangements for this one. From what I remember, he was to be castrated, hung, the cut down while he was still alive, disemboweled (sp?), and while living drawn and quarterd.

      I also remember reading that Cramner had thrown his hand first in the fire, and died as a true martryr.

      I, once again, agree with Esther on this one. Being drawn and quarted is preferable to burning, and I can understand Anne’s most horrible fear when she was told she was to die by beheading or burning, and how she begged for the King’s mercy, as he although the swordsman from Calais was ordered even before her trial, the law for a woman, at that time, was burning.

      It brings back memories and pictures in my mind as to those who jumped from the Twin Towers. In the days of Mary, burning at the stake was also present smoke so the burning took a long time (and possibly long enough for the person to die from smoke inhalation before the complete body was burned), but at the Twin Towers is was a gas fire of which they were in the Tower that was falling, and had the choice of a gas fire which has no smoke and the body just melts with excructiating pain, or jumping. I would jump, I think, as I would either have a heart attack on the way down, or (as I am a one time recovery person) just had it all end in less that a second.

      I can only imagine what terrible and horrible fright Anne must have been suffering. I also believe it was quite cruel for her to tell her that with which to begin. Thank you! WilesWales! P.S. Need to look up the Book of Martyrs by Foxe now! Thank you, Claire!

  3. miladyblue says:

    I wonder if there could have been some measure of vengeance, at least in Mary’s mind, for this treatment of Cranmer. There are some things to consider:

    1. Cranmer rose to power and influence, thanks to Anne Boleyn.
    2. It was Cranmer who declared Katharine of Aragon’s marriage to Henry invalid, making Mary herself a bastard.
    3. Cranmer was perhaps the highest ranking of the Boleyn faction left standing after Anne’s execution, and was a further “unwholesome” and “heretical” influence on Henry.

    I wonder if there were other reasons, that were at least valid in Mary’s view, for this execution. Even after Anne’s death, Mary was still in disgrace, and treated badly by her father. Could she have believed that Cranmer influenced Henry to keep her from her rightful place in the succession, out of loyalty to Anne Boleyn and Anne’s daughter?

    All in all, a very sad ending to a decent man.

    1. WilesWales says:

      There is no question that Mary was indeed human, and that she was treated worse after the innocent execution of Queen Anne. Mary knew she would “have” to marry and have a children in order to keep Elizabeth from the Act of Succession. She must also have been resentful of her separation from her mother and was not even allowed to be near her mother when she died in early 1536. So, yes, I do believe their was a lot of revenge with regard to this manner. Also, what better “heretic” to be burned and to make her power known by this awful burning. She even was reported, despite Elizabeth having her father’s bright red hair, to have been resentful of Elizabeth’s mother’s eyes.

      I do agree, with miladyblue that this was a very sad and vengeful ending to a very decent man. I have often wondered as to what Anne’s last confession was made to him. I know that there were two, one with witnesses, and then a very private one that left Cramner exhausted. Thank you! WilesWales

  4. Emma says:

    I agree that Mary had a deep personal dislike of Cranmer but I think that she would have had him executed even if this was not the case. She was desperately trying to rid the country of ‘heretics’ so that England could be totally reconcilled to the Catholic church.

    Cranmer was a good man with a strong relgious faith that supported him at the end. May he rest in peace.

  5. Dawn 1st says:

    I honestly think, that no matter how many times he recanted, or try to convince Mary that he was her loyal subject, she would have had him executed on some pretext or another, he had been one of Anne’s men, and I don’t think she could ever forgive him of that, no matter what he did.
    A cruel, unecessary end, I only hope he was one of the lucky ones who were rended unconscious by the smoke before the flames reached him. R.I.P.

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