E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

The Martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer

21 March marks the martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer,1 Archbishop of Canterbury and architect of the Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-Nine Articles, by being burned alive at the hands of Queen Mary I in 1556.

The most famous account of his death is that found in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Foxe writes:

But when he came to the place where the holye Bishops and Martyrs of God, Hugh Latymer and Ridley were burnt before hym for the confession of the truth, kneelyng downe, he prayed to God, and not long tarying in hys prayers, putting of hys garments to hys shirt, he prepared hymselfe to death. His shirt was made long down to hys feete. His feete were bare. Likewyse his head, when both his caps were of, was so bare, that one haire coulde not be seene vpon it. His beard was long and thicke, couering hys face with meruailous grauitie. Such a countenance of grauitie mooued the hearts both of his friends and of his enemies.

Some present attempted to sway Cranmer from his Protestant principles, but he refused:

Then the Spanish Friers Iohn & Richard, of whom mention was made before, began to exhort him and playe their partes with him a freshe, but with vayne and lost labour, Cranmer with stedfast purpose abidyng in the profession of his doctrine, gaue his hand to certaine old men, and other that stood by, biddyng them farewell.

A 16th c. version of a trad millennial was nearby and was much displeased with this; but that mattered very little, or rather not at all.

And when he had thought to haue done so likewyse to Ely, the sayd Ely drewe backe his hande and refused, saying: it was not lawfull to salute heretickes, and specially such a one as falsly returned vnto the opinions that he had forsworne. And if he had knowen before that hee would haue done so, he would neuer haue vsed his company so familiarly, and chid those sergeants and Citizens, whiche had not refused to geue hym their hands. This Ely was a priest lately made, and student in Diuinitie, being thē one of the fellowes of Brasennose.

Foxe goes on to describe the death itself. Cranmer first voluntarily put his hand to the flames before they consumed his body.

Then was an iron chaine tied about Cranmer, whom when they perceyued to be more stedfast then that he could be mooued from hys sentence, they commaunded they fire to be set vnto hym.

And when the woode was kindled, and the fire began to burne neere hym, stretching out his arme, he put hys right hand into the flame: which he held so stedfast & immoueable (sauing that once with the same hand he wiped his face) that all men might see hys hande burned before his body was touched. His body did so abide the burning of the flame with such constancy and stedfastnes, that standyng alwayes in one place without moouyng of his body, he seemed to mooue no more then the stake to which hee was bound: his eyes were lifted vp into heauen, and oftentymes he repeated hys vnworthy right hand, so long as his voyce would suffer hym: and vsing oftē the words of Steuen, Lord Iesus receiue my spirite, in the greatnesse of the flame, he gaue vp the Ghost.

Foxe praises his fortitude and his wisdom in renouncing his prior recantations of the Reformation, and declares that he is the real “Saint Thomas of Canterbury,” in contradistinction to Thomas Becket.

This fortitude of mynd which perchaunce is rare and not found among the Spaniards, when Frier Ioh. saw, thinkyng it came not of fortitude, but of desperation (although such maner of examples which are of the like constancy, haue bene common here in England) ranne to the L. Williams of Tame, crying that the Archb. was vexed in mind, and died in great desperation. But he which was not ignorant of the Archbishoppes constancy, beyng vnknowen to the Spaniards, smiled only, and (as it were) by silence rebuked the Friers folly. And this was the ende of this learned Archb. whom, least by euill subscribyng he should haue perished, by well recantyng God preserued: and least he should haue lyued longer with shame and reproofe, it pleased God rather to take him away, to the glory of his name and profit of his Church. So good was the Lord both to hys Church, in fortifieng the same wyth the testimony and bloud of such a Martyr: and so good also to the man with this crosse of tribulation, to purge his offences in this world, not onely of his recantation, but also of his standyng agaynst Iohn Lambert and M. Allen, or if there were any other, with whose burnyng and bloude, hys hands had bene before any thyng polluted. But especially he had to reioyce, that dying in such a cause, he was to be numbred amongst Christes Martyrs, muche more worthy the name of S. Thomas of Caunterbury, then he whom the Pope falsly before did Canonise.

Though his account is less famous than that of Foxe, Cranmer was also memorialized by Theodore Beza in his Icones;2 Beza calls him a “renewer of the true religion” (verae religionis instaurator) and a “most courageous soldier” (propugnator fortissimus). Beza connects Cranmer’s giving of his hand to the flame first as a renunciation of his previous recantation mentioned above: “‘But you,’ he said, ‘right hand, which subscribed the damned3 paper because of the fear of death, pay the penalty of this crime.” He goes on to apply to him words used by Basil of Caesarea in honor of the martyr Barlaam during the Great Persecution of Diocletian, which conclude: “You have seized my right hand and led me by your counsel, and have gloriously received me.”

John Calvin had earlier written to Cranmer to propose a general council of the Reformed churches, including the Church of England, and said that he would “cross ten seas” to help Cranmer repair the body of the church that “lies bleeding.” We can close with Calvin’s words as a reminder of the international Reformation as it existed in the sixteenth century to which Cranmer so mightily contributed; as, moreover, a reminder of what might have been, what is, and what might still be.

Yet the Lord, as he has done even from the beginning of the world, will preserve in a miraculous manner, and in a way unknown to us, the unity of a pure faith from being destroyed by the dissensions of men. And those whom he has placed on his watch-tower he wishes least of all to be inactive, seeing that he has appointed them to be his ministers, through whose labours he may preserve from all corruptions sound doctrine in the Church, and transmit it safe to posterity. Especially, most illustrious Archbishop, is it necessary for you, in proportion to the distinguished position you occupy, to turn your attention as you are doing towards this object. I do not say this as if to spur you on to greater exertions, who are not only, of your own accord, in advance of others, but are also, as a voluntary encourager, urging them on; I say it in order that, by my congratulations, you may be strengthened in a pursuit so auspicious and noble. I hear that the success of the Gospel in England is indeed cheering; but you will experience there also, I doubt not, what Paul experienced in his time, that by means of the door that has been opened for the reception of pure doctrine, many enemies will suddenly rise up against it. Although I am really ignorant of how many suitable defenders you may have at hand to repel the lies of Satan, still the ungodliness of those who are wholly taken up in creating disturbances, causes the assiduity of the well-disposed to be at no time either too much or superfluous. And then I am aware that English matters are not so all-important in your eyes, but that you, at the same time, regard the interest of the whole world. Moreover, the rare piety of the English King, as well as his noble disposition, is worthy of the highest commendation, in that, of his own inclination, he entertains the pious design of holding a convention of the nature referred to, and offers a place for it also in his own kingdom. And would that it were attainable to bring together into some place, from various Churches, men eminent for their learning, and that after having carefully discussed the main points of belief one by one, they should, from their united judgments, hand down to posterity the true doctrine of Scripture. This other thing also is to be ranked among the chief evils of our time, viz., that the Churches are so divided, that human fellowship is scarcely now in any repute amongst us, far less that Christian intercourse which all make a profession of, but few sincerely practise. If men of learning conduct themselves with more reserve than is seemly, the very heaviest blame attaches to the leaders themselves, who, either engrossed in their own sinful pursuits, are indifferent to the safety and entire piety of the Church, or who, individually satisfied with their own private peace, have no regard for others. Thus it is that the members of the Church being severed, the body lies bleeding….Would that I were as able as I am willing to exert myself! Moreover, the very difficulty of the thing which you feel, compels me to do what, at the outset, I affirmed I would not do, viz., not only to encourage, but also to implore you to increase your exertions, until something at least shall have been accomplished, if not all that we could desire.—Adieu, very distinguished Archbishop, deserving of my hearty reverence. May the Lord continue to guide you by his Spirit, and to bless your holy labours!

  1. The image for this post can be found here.
  2. I have written at length on Beza’s Icones in Beyond Calvin: Essays on the Diversity of the Reformed Tradition.
  3. Or “cursed.”

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.