The final part of a 4 part series.
The month before Edward’s death, Cranmer was persuaded by the King to agree to a scheme to divert the succession from Mary, Henry’s elder daughter, to Lady Jane Grey. Cranmer was extremely reluctant to disturb the arrangements which Henry had put in place to have Mary succeed Edward if she outlived him, but the Archbishop was swayed by his loyalty to the present monarch. However, in the event, the staunchly Roman Catholic Mary was soon swept into power.
Cranmer did play some part in Edward’s funeral, which followed the forms of the Book of Common Prayer. Mary reluctantly accepted the advice of her nephew the Emperor to allow this; he argued that, since Edward was a heretic, he was not entitled to an orthodox Roman Catholic funeral. A rumour spread round London that Cranmer had offered to say mass at Edward’s funeral. The Archbishop described the story, with perhaps uncharacteristic boldness, as lies spread by Satan in order to overthrow the Lord’s holy supper and restore the Latin mass, which Satan had invented. He offered, provided the Queen would consent to it, to take part in a public disputation to show that the doctrine in force in England under Edward was purer than any that had been known for 1000 years. He planned to stamp this proposal with his official seal and fix it to every church door in London. This, however, was not done, but one of his fellow-bishops had hundreds of copies printed and they were soon on sale throughout the capital. And Cranmer was soon a prisoner in the Tower, accused of high treason, for which he was sentenced to death. In the end, Mary decided not to punish him for treason against herself but for what she saw as the far more serious offence of heresy against God. After some time, Cranmer was joined in his cell by Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer and John Bradford. No doubt the dreadful prison conditions were alleviated by the opportunity to study the Word of God together and to prepare for the disputation on the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper which the authorities had arranged to take place in Oxford.
March 1554 saw Cranmer in prison in Oxford, along with Ridley and Latimer, but probably in separate cells. They were given a further month to prepare for the disputation, the form of which was very much to the Reformers’ disadvantage. Cranmer had to argue against four or five opponents at once and there was considerable heckling from an audience which was packed with supporters of the new regime, but he made his position clear enough. He maintained that he did not oppose the real presence of Christ in the Supper, but that he did not accept that Christ was physically present. When his opponents pointed out that by the real presence they meant that Christ was present in the flesh which He took from the Virgin Mary, Cranmer asserted that “His true body is truly present to them that truly receive Him, but spiritually”. However, Cranmer distinguished carefully between the obedience he was perfectly willing to give to the Crown and his complete rejection of the authority of the Pope. A few days later, the three Reformers were told that they had been proved wrong in the disputation and were given an opportunity of recanting and expressing their belief in the “real presence”. They refused, and Cranmer protested: “From this your judgement and sentence, I appeal to the just judgement of God Almighty, trusting to be present with Him in heaven”.
Very few of Cranmer’s letters from his Oxford prison have survived. In one written to a Mrs Wilkinson, he urged her to flee from England to escape persecution, explaining that if a Christian were captured and confronted with the choice of recanting or death, he must bravely face death, but that it was tempting God to seek martyrdom unnecessarily and to refuse to seek safety in flight. He had earlier declared why he himself had not fled; it was because of the discouraging effect it would have on others.
Some legal difficulties stood in the way of bringing the condemned prisoners to the stake at once. In the autumn of 1554, Mary felt able to acknowledge the supremacy of the Pope and to bring her kingdom under the authority of Rome once more. The three prisoners were then condemned all over again and, because Cranmer had been made Archbishop by the authority of the Pope, a complicated procedure was set in train to excommunicate him, which had to be approved by the pontiff himself. After they had been condemned the second time, a Spanish friar, who was the Emperor’s confessor, was sent in the hope of bringing the three prisoners to recant. Latimer refused to see him; Ridley stood firmly out against him; Cranmer greeted him courteously but, it was said, moved from being initially “a student, to a very troublesome audience, and finally an open enemy”. However, the authorities felt that further discussion might prove useful.
A fortnight later, on October 16, Ridley and Latimer were brought to the stake. As they were led past Cranmer’s prison, they looked up at his window in the hope of seeing their friend for one last time in this world, but in vain. At that moment, Cranmer was engaged in discussions with the friars. But before long he was brought onto the roof of the prison to watch the horrible spectacle – especially horrible because of the long-drawn-out agony which Ridley had to endure before he succumbed to the flames. The authorities hoped that what he saw would weaken Cranmer’s resolve, but during his visits over the following week, the friar found Cranmer as firm as a rock.
Later in the year, Cranmer was allowed a degree of freedom; he lived in the home of the Dean of one of the Oxford colleges. During that time he had discussions with various theologians. Back in prison at the beginning of 1555, he seems to have felt intensely lonely and was suffering from ill-health. He had numerous discussions with Nicholas Woodson, one of the jailors, who withdrew his friendship when Cranmer refused to recant. From the next cell, the prisoner was heard weeping bitterly, but Woodson insisted on Cranmer recanting as a condition for resuming his visits. It has been pointed out that experts in psychological warfare would recognise it as a fatal blunder for a prisoner to make a friend of his jailor. Cranmer succumbed. But his submission was as yet tinged with a certain reserve; he made obedience to the monarchy the ground for submitting to the Pope, and this was not acceptable to the authorities. A few days later came a more complete recantation.
The authorities, however, were not interested in Cranmer recanting. He was the scapegoat for everything that had happened under Henry, and he had specially earned Mary’s antipathy by the part he played in her mother’s divorce. After being degraded from the priesthood, Cranmer’s spirit strengthened again and he appealed against the Pope to the next general council of the Church. This, of course, was completely against the spirit of his recent recantations. However, further pressure was applied by friars and others in the weeks that followed, and there were further recantations.
On his final night in time, Cranmer, under the supervision of the friars, wrote out a speech of submission which he was to deliver at the stake before being burnt. Later, probably through the night, he wrote out another version of his speech, with a drastically different ending: “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 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 forasmuch as my hand offended, writing contrary to my heart, my hand shall first be punished therefor; for, may I come to the fire, it shall be first 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.”
Marcus Loane imagines him praying during that night from the Litany, which he had himself composed, “that it may please Thee to bring into the way of truth such as have erred and are deceived; that it may please Thee to strengthen such as do stand, and to comfort and help the weak-hearted, and to raise up them that fall, and finally to beat down Satan under our feet; that it may please Thee to succour, help and comfort all that are in danger, necessity and tribulation; that it may please Thee to forgive our enemies, persecutors and slanderers, and to turn their hearts; that it may please Thee to give us true repentance, to forgive all our sins, negligences and ignorances, and to endue us with the grace of Thy Holy Spirit to amend our lives according to Thy Holy Word.” (2)
It was a wet morning that 21 March 1555 in Oxford. So the first part of the proceedings were held inside, in St Mary’s Church. There was a sermon which laid out Cranmer’s crimes, spoke of the infinite mercy of God and pointed to the penitent thief on the cross. But, however confident the preacher was that Cranmer’s penitence was as certain as the thief’s, he must still burn. Then Cranmer was given his opportunity. First he prayed, “Thou didst not give Thy Son unto death for small sins only, but for all the greatest sins of the world, so that the sinner return to Thee with all his heart, as I do here at this present. Wherefore have mercy on me, O God, whose property is always to have mercy. Have mercy upon me, O Lord, for Thy great mercy.” Then he pulled his speech out from inside his clothes and proceeded to read. Before long there was uproar. Cranmer continued to shout his words over the din but, when he began to refer to the sacrament, they dragged him down from the stage he was standing on.
Cranmer bounded off towards the place of burning, while the friars struggled to keep up with him. Did his eagerness to get there indicate that he now had a clear conscience before God, that he again enjoyed the sense of forgiven sin? He was tied to the stake and the fire was lit. True to his word, he kept his right hand in the flame, except that he once used it to wipe his face. Again and again he complained, “This hand hath offended”. He cried too, just as Stephen had done centuries before, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”. Can we doubt that the Lord Jesus received his spirit at the point when it was set free from the pain of the fire and from every possibility of again being tempted to deny his Master?
The vine which was the Church of England was already a sorry spectacle. But this vine was yet to revive when, in 1558, Mary went to the grave, to be succeeded on the throne by her half-sister Elizabeth. Yet Elizabeth saw to it that the vine would grow no further in a Reformed direction than it had reached at the time of Edward’s death. “Quite deliberately”, says McCulloch, “she established a version of the Edwardian Church which proved to be a snapshot, frozen in time, of the Church as it had been in September 1552, ignoring the progress made in further changing the Church of England after that date.” (3)
However much further Cranmer might have taken the Church if Edward had been spared, his programme of reform was suddenly and tragically halted, and indeed eradicated for the time being, with the ascent to the throne of the fanatically-Romanist Mary Tudor. But William R Estep, a recent historian of the Reformation period, has commented, “Little did Mary realise that in burning the Archbishop she was kindling the fire that would eventually consume the cause that she so fervently championed”. (4) The fires which burnt the martyrs were the very means, in God’s providence, of making England as firmly Protestant as she was to become for many generations.
Everyone agreed that Cranmer was pleasant and courteous in his dealings with others, that he was free from malice, hatred and the desire for revenge. He was known for his extraordinary charm; even one of his bitterest opponents paid tribute also to his humility and generosity. Here was a man who had a serious sense of his responsibility as a servant of the Most High: “I pray God that we have not rather been figures of bishops, bearing the name and title of pastors and bishops before men, but that we have in deed diligently fed the little flock of Christ with the sweet and wholesome pasture of His true and lively Word”. John Knox described him as “the mild man of God” and referring to Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer, spoke of “their sincere doctrine, pure life, godly conversation and discreet counsel”. But perhaps we can allow Merle d’Aubigné to have the last word. Addressing the people of England, he acknowledged his preference for the character of a Luther, a Calvin or a Knox, but went on: “God employs for the mysterious accomplishment of His purposes a great variety of character. . . . If this God of sovereign wisdom gave a Cranmer and not a Luther as reformer to the Church of England, it was because, in His unanswerable counsel, He had given as King to your people not a Frederick the Wise but a Henry VIII. The extreme prudence of Cranmer, his timidity, his want of decision, his pliability, deplorable in certain cases, preserved him under the government of the despotic Tudor from the scaffold to which that bloody Prince sent many of his bishops and his statesmen, and thus saved, with his own life, the work for which he was required. . . . He was the instrument employed by God for a work which . . . has saved during the last three centuries, thousands and thousands of souls.”
1. The final article in the series, continued from last month. Under the young, godly Edward VI, the Reformation in England had made considerable progress. Then in 1553, at the age of only 16, he died.
2. Masters of the English Reformation, p 238.
3. Thomas Cranmer, p 620.
4. Renaissance and Reformation, p 264