The Unlawful Execution of Thomas Cranmer – 21 March 1556

The Burning of Thomas Cranmer

On this day in history, 21st March 1556, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was burnt at the stake in Oxford. His crimes: heresy and treason. You can read the full details of Thomas Cranmer’s life and downfall in my 2 part series – The Life of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and The Execution of Thomas Cranmer – but here is a brief account of Cranmer’s last days.

Arrest and Imprisonment

Thomas Cranmer was found guilty of treason and condemned to death on the 13th November 1553 and imprisoned in Bocardo Prison, Oxford, with Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley. All three men were tried for heresy on the 12th September 1555 and Ridley and Latimer, who were found guilty at the trial, were burned at the stake on the 16th October 1555 in Oxford. Cranmer, as Archbishop, had to wait for a decision from Rome as to the verdict. In December 1555, Rome sent its decision – he lost his office of archbishop and permission was given for secular authorities to rule on Cranmer’s fate.

In an effort to save himself, Cranmer made four recantation in January and February 1556. In these recantations, he submitted himself to his monarch, Mary I, and recognised the Pope as Head of the Church. However, Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London, was not convinced by Cranmer’s recantation so his priesthood was taken away and it was decided that he would be executed for heresy on the 7th March. A desperate Cranmer then made a fifth recantation in which he stated that he fully accepted Catholic theology and that there was no salvation to be found outside of the Catholic Church. He repudiated his Protestant theology and affirmed that he was returning to the Catholic Church. He took part in the mass and asked for sacramental absolution.

This should have been the end of it. Cranmer had fully recanted, he had done what Mary I wanted and in a very public way. He should have been absolved but although his execution was postponed temporarily Mary I then set a date for it: 21st March 1556. His recantations were for nothing.

Thomas Cranmer’s Execution

On the 21st March 1556, the day of his execution, Thomas Cranmer was told to make a final public recantation at the University Church, Oxford. He stood up, gave the expected prayer and exhortation to obey the King and Queen and then, in a final act of defiance, renounced his previous recantations, saying:-

“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.”

It was a shocking turnaround but Cranmer had nothing to lose. He was going to die whatever his actions and beliefs. John Foxe, author of “Actes and Monuments” (“Foxe’s Book of Martyrs”), wrote of Thomas Cranmer’s execution:-

“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.”

Thomas Cranmer’s execution should never have happened, it was unlawful. Thomas Cranmer had obeyed Mary I and had recanted and repented of his Protestant beliefs. He had accepted the authority of his monarch and the Pope. Whatever he felt inside, he had signed his recantations and submitted to the Queen and Church. Why then was this broken man, a man who had turned his back on his real beliefs and convictions, executed?

Martyrs Memorial, Oxford

Well, I discussed this in my previous article on Thomas Cranmer and listed the following as possible reasons:-

  • Revenge – Did Mary I punish Cranmer for ending her parents’ marriage, making her illegitimate and for heralding in the English Reformation?
  • An example – Was his brutal end simply a way of showing how far Mary I and the Catholic Church would go to stamp out heresy?
  • Politics – Was Thomas Cranmer simply too influential and important a man to let live?
  • Theology – Was Mary I simply doing her duty to her God and country by getting rid of an outspoken heretic?

Whatever the reasons for the burning of Thomas Cranmer, he was not forgotten and ended up being remembered as a Protestant Martyr with the likes of Latimer and Ridley. Today, tourists and visitors can see Martyrs’ Memorial and also the cross on the road which marks the site where Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley were burned at the stake. The inscription on the 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”

Like the apostle, Peter, Cranmer betrayed his faith in fear, but then showed great courage and conviction at the end. RIP Thomas Cranmer.

Notes and Sources

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