Patricia Bernstein

Famous Prisoners in the Tower of London: Thomas Cranmer

Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer was a primary force in the establishment of the Protestant faith in England whose life ended tragically, burned at the stake by Queen Mary I (“Bloody Mary”). Mary was hellbent, so to speak, on returning England to the Roman Catholic faith and determined to punish the leaders of the Reformation in England.

Thomas Cranmer at the Traitor's Gate Tower of London
Goodall, Frederick; Thomas Cranmer at the Traitor’s Gate; Historic Royal Palaces, Tower of London;

It is likely, however, that “Bloody Mary” was motivated by something more than her devout Catholicism in her particularly intense hatred of Cranmer. It was Cranmer, along with Thomas Cromwell, who, in 1533, had arranged the annulment of the marriage of Mary’s mother, Katherine of Aragon, to her father Henry VIII and changed Mary’s status from that of a pampered princess to that of an illegitimate child—at least temporarily. (In 1536, Mary was returned to the order of succession following her brother Edward VI.)

Born in 1489 to Northamptonshire gentry, Thomas Cranmer studied logic, classical literature and philosophy at Jesus College, Cambridge. Despite his academic brilliance, Cranmer’s career in the Church was twice nearly derailed by romance. He won a Fellowship at Jesus College, but married a woman named Joan and lost his Fellowship though he was not yet a priest.  There were rumors later, spread by detractors of Cranmer and unproven, that Joan was a barmaid, and that Cranmer had married Joan because she became pregnant. Cranmer was so highly esteemed, however, that when Joan died in childbirth and he became a widower, the Fellowship was restored to him.

Cranmer was sent to Europe as a diplomat to try to make progress in the cause of the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Katherine. During his movements about Europe, he  met a Lutheran reformer, Andreas Osiander and fell in love with Osiander’s niece Margarete. Although by this time Cranmer had been ordained as a priest, he and Margarete were secretly married. He somehow kept his wife and children secret for many years as he rose in the Church and in Henry VIII’s favor.

When the realization finally became inescapable that Pope Clement VII, entirely under the thumb of Katherine of Aragon’s nephew Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, would never grant the annulment Henry demanded, Cranmer became one of the primary architects of the new Church of England which was finally officially severed from allegiance to the pope and Rome on July 18, 1536.

By July 1536, however, Cranmer, as Archbishop of Canterbury, had already annulled the marriage of Henry and Katherine, validated Henry’s marriage to Anne of Boleyn and crowned her queen, baptized Anne’s daughter Elizabeth, and subsequently declared Anne’s marriage to Henry null and void! At the moment when the Church of England finally and irrevocably split from Rome, Anne Boleyn, the woman who had motivated the entire process of separation, had already been dead for several months.

Cranmer continued to be very close to King Henry, who trusted him throughout the rest of his life unlike almost any other adviser. This may have been partly because, no matter his personal inclinations, Cranmer always did the king’s bidding and because, unlike many of the other religious figures of the day, Cranmer was not a fanatical ideologue, though he moved steadily towards consolidating Protestantism in England.

Cranmer’s inclination was always to kindliness and mercy: he consistently pleaded for Henry to spare the lives of the condemned, including Sir Thomas More and Cromwell. He even told Henry he did not think Anne Boleyn was guilty of adultery, to no avail. As a result, the wicked old king called for his compassionate Archbishop Cranmer to give him comfort when he lay dying.  

Perhaps Cranmer’s most lasting achievements were his supervision of the production of an English Bible and his role in the writing of the majestic Anglican Book of Common Prayer. But after the brief reign of Henry’s son Edward VI, Henry’s oldest child Mary came to the throne with a special desire for revenge against Cranmer. Even before her October 1553 coronation as queen, Mary ordered Cranmer sent to the Tower of London, where he shared a cell in the Bloody Tower with Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley who were also prominent Protestant reformers.

In November, Cranmer was tried and condemned to death as a traitor. In March 1554, he, Latimer and Ridley were transferred to Bocardo prison in Oxford to be tried again for heresy. Cranmer was forced to watch the burning of convicted heretics Latimer and Ridley on October 16, 1555. The aged Latimer famously cried just before the wood was lit around him, “Be of good cheer, Ridley; and play the man. We shall this day, by God’s grace, light up such a candle in England, as, I trust, will never be put out.” Latimer seems to have died fairly quickly, but the wood around Ridley was too green and the flames did not reach the bag of gunpowder around his neck, which resulted in the lower part of his body burning before the upper part was touched by flame. A very cruel death indeed.

Cranmer’s path to death was less straightforward. Perhaps he was terrified by what he had seen of the sufferings of Latimer and especially Ridley. In any case he agreed to make several recantations of his Protestant beliefs, accepting the supremacy of the pope and the doctrine that there was no salvation outside the Catholic Church. Normally, his recantations would have absolved him from burning, but Mary was utterly determined to kill him.

Thus on March 21, 1556, the former archbishop unexpectedly and dramatically recanted his recantations, denounced the pope as the Antichrist, and even declared that, since his right hand had signed the recantations, he would thrust it into the flames first when he was burned, which he did. Two years later Mary died, forever to be known as “Bloody Mary,” and Elizabeth I came to the throne and restored the Church of England’s independence from Rome. But conflict between Protestants and Catholics would continue for many years to come.

Amazon: Order A Noble Cunning

Photo Credit:

Thomas Cranmer at the Traitor’s Gate, by Frederick Goodall (1822–1904), photo credit: Historic Royal Palaces, Tower of London, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND


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