Thomas Cranmer was born on 2 July 1489 in Aslockton in England. His parents were Thomas and Agnes Cranmer, who were of modest wealth. He had at least two brothers.
Thomas Cranmer came into Mary’s life when he was assisting with the annulment proceedings between Mary’s parents, Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. He discussed his ideas with Stephen Gardiner and Edward Fox in 1529 and suggested putting aside the legal case in Rome in favour of gathering opinions from theologians. Henry showed a lot of interest in the idea, and it was implemented. The team produced the Collectanea Satis Copiosa (“The Sufficiently Abundant Collections”) and The Determinations, historical and theological support for the argument that the king exercised supreme jurisdiction within his realm.
In 1532, when Thomas was in Germany, he saw the effects of the Reformation with his own eyes. He became good friends with Andreas Osiander, a theologian, and even married Andreas’ wife’s niece, Margaret, setting aside his vow of celibacy. They had at least four children.
Thomas was ordered to return to England on 1 October 1532 when he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. He arrived in early January. He was consecrated as Archbishop on 30 March. He continued to work on the King’s annulment, which became even more pressing when Henry and Anne secretly married in January 1533 and Anne announced her pregnancy.
On 23 May Thomas pronounced the judgement that Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was against the law of God and even threatened Henry with excommunication if he did not leave Catherine. Henry was now free, and just five days later Henry and Anne’s marriage was validated. On 1 June he personally crowned and anointed a heavily pregnant Anne. The Pope retaliated by excommunicating Henry and his advisors, including Thomas unless Anne was repudiated by the end of September. Henry did not respond, and Anne gave birth to Elizabeth on 7 September. Thomas was again called into action when he baptised Elizabeth and also became one of her godparents.
For Mary, Thomas would always be the man who destroyed her parents’ marriage. Thomas decided to support the decision the put Lady Jane Grey upon the throne when Edward VI died. When Mary was successful in taking the throne nine days later, he was not initially targeted and even led Edward VI’s funeral. Though he advised others to flee England, he never left. He declared, “… all the doctrine and religion, by our said sovereign lord King Edward VI is more pure and according to God’s word, than any that hath been used in England these thousand years.”. For this, he was ordered into court. He was sent straight to the Tower. On 13 November 1553, Thomas and four others were brought to trial for treason. They were found guilty and condemned to death. However, a second trial would follow for heresy. During this time he managed to smuggle one last letter out, which survives. He was imprisoned at Bocardo prison for 17 months, before finally standing trial on 12 September 1555. On 4 December he was stripped of the archbishopric, and the sentence was to be carried out, he was to be burnt at the stake.
Thomas recanted several times between January and February, and he recognised the Pope as the head of the church. He fully accepted Catholic theology and stated that there was no salvation outside the Catholic church. He was joyous at returning to the Catholic faith and asked for and received sacramental absolution. He was hoping for clemency from Mary until the final moment.
His burning was postponed, and under normal circumstances, he should have been reprieved. However, Mary was determined to make an example of him.
On 21 March 1556 Thomas’ turn finally came. Though most thought he would die a good Catholic, he had a last scene to play. In his final words, he diverted from the script and ‘contrary to the truth I had in my heart, and written for fear of death’. That fear was now gone and ‘all such bills and papers which I have written or signed with my hand since my degradation.’ In one simple gesture, he refused to die a good Catholic. He stuck his right hand, the hand that had signed the recantations, into the flames and asked ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ 1
Mary was finally rid of the man who for her embodied the new religion and the downfall of her parents’ marriage, but perhaps not in the way she had intended. A friendly face and relative became the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Reginald Pole.