Thomas Cranmer was born in 1489 in Aslockton, Nottinghamshire, England, the second son of Thomas Cranmer and Agnes Hatfield.
His parents were not members of the aristocracy, but were modestly wealthy and able to pass on their estate to their eldest son. Thomas and his younger brother therefore were led towards entering the church.
Little is known of Cranmer’s early life but at fourteen he entered Jesus College, Cambridge, obtained his Master of Arts degree after many years in 1515 and was elected to a Fellowship of Jesus College.
When Cranmer married, he was forced to vacate his Fellowship of Jesus College, and take work as a Reader at Buckingham Hall (later named Magdalene College) to support both himself and his wife. When Cranmer’s wife died during her first childbirth, Jesus College reinstated him to the Fellowship.
Cranmer now began studying Theology and by 1523 had been ordained. He followed this by receiving his Doctor of Divinity Degree.
Cranmer was to join the service of Henry VIII in 1529. There was a sweating sickness spreading across England in 1529, and being prevalent in the towns and cities, Cranmer decided to leave Cambridge and move into the country. While residing in the country he met with Stephen Gardiner and Edward Foxe, two to the king’s councillors, and they naturally began talking about the king’s desire for an annulment.
Cranmer suggested disregarding the legal case in Rome, instead concentrating on gaining the opinions and support of religious subjects and universities. If the experts in theology would agree that Henry’s marriage to his deceased brother’s widow was illegal, the annulment could be agreed by the church courts without the need to appeal to the pope.
Cranmer was sent to Rome in 1530, to raise the issue of the annulment and gain the opinions of church officials and then in 1532 he became ambassador to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Cranmer was required as part of his role to travel throughout Europe with Charles V and while in Italy in October 1532 he received a letter naming him as Archbishop of Canterbury and ordering him to return to England, and he arrived back in January 1533.
On 30 March 1533 Thomas Cranmer was consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury at St Stephen’s Chapel in the Palace of Westminster.
Henry was desperate to annul his first marriage and marry Anne Boleyn, and following a secret marriage between the two in January 1533, and Anne’s subsequent pregnancy this became a much more urgent matter for Cranmer.
Cranmer spent months establishing procedures for an annulment and opened a court on 10 May 1533, inviting both Henry and Catherine of Aragon to appear, however Catherine did not appear or recognise the validity of the proceedings.
On 23 May, Cranmer pronounced that Henry’s marriage to Catherine was against the law of God. After many years, Henry was now free to marry Anne Boleyn and on 28 May 1533 Thomas Cranmer validated their marriage, then on 1 June Cranmer crowned Anne, Queen of England.
Only three years later Cranmer was to pronounce the marriage null and void, leading to Anne’s execution.
Cranmer was to aid the king with two more of his marriages. He assisted with the divorce of his fourth wife Anne of Cleves in 1540 and the execution of his fifth, Catherine Howard in 1542.
Cranmer was a leading protestant reformer with many enemies vying for his removal from power and some even wanted him condemned to death, however he was protected by the king, with very little support elsewhere.
Henry VIII died in 1547 and Thomas Cranmer was among the executors of his will and involved in the setting up of the Regency Council to support the nine year-old Edward VI to govern the country.
In 1549 Cranmer published the ‘First Book of Common Prayer’ written in English and then the ‘Second Book of Common Prayer’ in 1552. Prior to this the writings had all been in Latin. Much of this still forms the church services of today.
Using the ‘First Book of Common Prayer’ became compulsory on 9 June 1549, however as the church services now had to be given in English this caused protests in areas of Southern England including Devon and Cornwall as English was not their first language. This became known as the Prayer Book Rebellion. The rebels made many demands, but Cranmer condemned these demands to the king.
Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and protestant reformer was Lord Protector of the young king Edward VI, but he was ousted from power by an extreme protestant reformer John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, later to be Duke of Northumberland.
Many reforms were yet to be made to the Church of England, but these were in jeopardy when the king became ill and died in July 1553.
John Dudley, now Lord Protector wanted to secure the English throne in his favour and he had manipulated Edward into changing the line of succession away from his half-sister Mary, a staunch Catholic onto Lady Jane Grey, wife of his son Guildford Dudley.
Thomas Cranmer had agreed with Edward’s will and supported Lady Jane Grey onto the throne of England. Mary though would fight for her crown and overthrow Lady Jane Grey after only nine days.
With Mary on the throne, Cranmer’s downfall was swift. It was Cranmer who had arranged for the divorce of Mary’s parents, Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII, and her subsequently being named illegitimate.
Cranmer was arrested and charged with treason, his trial starting on 13 November 1553, he was found guilty and condemned to death. He was moved to Oxford to await a second trial for heresy.
Cranmer was to make many recantations of his faith and finally recognise the pope as the head of the church, but it would do him no good.
Thomas Cranmer was burned at the stake on the twenty-first March 1556.