Thomas Cranmer, the first Protestant archbishop of Canterbury, born at Aslacton, Nottinghamshire, July 2, 1489, burned at the stake in Oxford, March 21, 1556. His family was ancient and respectable. At the age of 14 he was sent to Jesus college, Cambridge, where he applied himself to the study of Hebrew, Greek, and theology. In 1510 or 1511 he was chosen to a fellowship, which he forfeited by marrying. He then became lecturer in Buckingham (now Magdalen) college; but his wife dying within a year, he was restored to his fellowship, and in 1523 received the degree of D. D. In 1529 Henry VIII., wishing a divorce from Catharine of Aragon that he might marry Anne Boleyn, asked the opinion of many learned men, among whom was Cran-mer, whether his marriage with the widow of his brother, for which the pope had granted a dispensation, was a valid one according to the Bible and the canon law. Cranmer answered that the question should be decided from the Bible; that the divines of the English universities were as well fitted to give judgment as those of Rome or any foreign country; and that both the king and the pope would be bound to abide by their decision.
Henry said that Cranmer had " got the right sow by the ear;" and Cranmer was summoned to court, made a royal chaplain, received some benefices, and was appointed to a place in the household of Lord "Wiltshire, the father of Anne Boleyn, where he was to prepare an argument on the question. The conclusion of the argument was that a marriage with a brother's widow was condemned by the Bible, the councils, and the fathers. The Oxford divines favored his view, while most of those of Cambridge dissented; many of the continental divines sided with Cranmer. In 1530 he accompanied Lord Wiltshire and others on an embassy to the emperor Charles V. and the pope. Clement VII. had for months resisted all solicitations to pronounce judgment on the question of the divorce, but had at length been induced by the emperor, the kinsman of Catharine, to sign a brief forbidding Henry to marry before the publication of his sentence. On the arrival of the ambassadors the operation of the brief was suspended, and the pope promised to do whatsoever his conscience would permit in favor of Henry. Cranmer went to Germany for the purpose of working on the minds of the Lutheran clergy; he became converted to their doctrines, and married the niece of Osiander, one of the leading reformers.
Returning to England, he was made archbishop of Canterbury in 1533. He immediately proceeded with the divorce, and declared the marriage between Henry and Catharine null and void from the beginning. He did not per-' form the marriage ceremony between Henry and Anne; but he delivered the crown and sceptre to Anne at her coronation, June 1,1533. The pope having excommunicated Henry, Cranmer became an active agent in the reformation. When Anne was arrested on charge of adultery, May 2, 1536, Cranmer was ordered to go to his episcopal palace, and there to remain. At first he was disposed to show some spirit, and wrote a letter to Henry which was not unfavorable to Anne; but before the letter was sent he had an interwiew with some of the officers of the crown, which caused him to add a postscript to the effect that he was persuaded of the queen's guilt. After the trial and condemnation of Anne she was taken to Lambeth, where Cranmer, sitting.in judgment, pronounced her marriage null and void from the first. The archbishop had his share in the persecutions that were carried on by Henry, and in some instances took part in sending to death persons who believed what he himself soon afterward came to profess.
When the power of all the prelates in the kingdom was suspended by Thomas Cromwell in his capacity of vicar general, Cranmer set the example of submission, having previously contended that the king alone had the power of appointing spiritual officers. The suppression of the monasteries was supported by him, but he was desirous that some of the property seized should be used for the purposes of religion and education. In 1534 he carried through the convocation a resolution that the Bible should be translated, and the volume appeared in 1540, Cranmer's portrait being conspicuous in the frontispiece. Through his influence the creed, the Lord's prayer, and the commandments were taught in English. In 1539 the famous "six articles" were adopted, in opposition to Cranmer's advice and exertions. He was married, and the third article declared that it was not permitted to priests to marry and have wives after ordination. On this point Cranmer contended strongly, but Henry would not abandon his purpose. Cranmer submitted, and sent his wife and children to Germany. Anne Boleyn was executed May 19, 1536, and the next day Henry was married to Jane Seymour, who died soon after; and in January, 1540, the king married Anne of Cleves. Cranmer favored the latter marriage, received Anne upon her arrival in England, and six months afterward declared the marriage invalid.
It was Cranmer who in 1541 informed Henry of the alleged criminality of his fifth queen, Catharine Howard. When Henry died, in 1547, Cranmer was by the royal will appointed a member of the council of regency which was to rule during the minority of Edward VI., who was only nine years old. During the " boy king's " life Cranmer's influence was great, and was directed to the establishment of that ecclesiastical polity which has ever since endured in England, with the brief interval of Mary's reign. He bore a prominent part in the legal murder of Lord Seymour of Sudely, at the instigation of that lord's brother, the protector Somerset. In the harsh treatment of the Catholic prelates he was the principal agent. When it was found necessary to overcome Edward's repugnance to the burning of heretics, Cranmer was employed to satisfy his scruples. He sentenced persons to the stake for the very opposite belief to that for which he had taken part in condemning others in the reign of Henry. When Edward resolved to leave the crown to Jane Grey, Cranmer was reluctantly induced to sanction the act. He adhered faithfully to her, and fell with her.
He had nothing to hope from Mary, and his last official act was to serve at the funeral of Edward. The next day, Aug. 9,1553, he was ordered to confine himself to his palace at Lambeth. Having some time later written a declaration against the mass, he was summoned before the council, and committed to the tower, on the charges of treason and sedition. He was attainted by parliament, but it was resolved to proceed against him for heresy alone, and he was sent down to Oxford with Latimer and Ridley, to go through the form of disputing with Catholics on the contested points of religion. All were condemned, though the Protestants were not so much as heard. To the demand of the commissioners before whom they were then taken, whether they would return to the old faith, they answered in the negative. Cranmer was then cited to appear at Rome within 80 days, and as he could not do so, he was condemned as contumacious. At first he was firm, but the fear of death overcame him, and he recanted over and over again, without avail. Mary hated him because of what he had done against her mother and herself, and Gardiner and Bonner hated him because of the personal oppression they had suffered at his hands.
Both queen and bishops were resolved upon his degradation, and equally that it should not save his life. He was ordered to prepare for death; whereupon he declared that his recantation had been freely made, and begged for a short delay in order to give further proof of his repentance. This granted, he made his last confession, in which he declared that he had been the greatest of persecutors, compared himself to the penitent thief, and concluded by humbly begging pardon; but on March 21, 1556, he was directed to prepare himself for the stake. A paper consisting of an abstract of his recantations was given him, which he was to read at the stake. He transcribed and signed it, and kept a copy, which he altered, and made a disavowal of all his recantations. After listening to a sermon he avowed himself a Protestant, saying he died in his former faith, believing neither in the papal supremacy nor transubstantiation; and declared that the hand which had signed his recantations should first burn. He was burned opposite Balliol college, and when the flames were rising around him he thrust his right hand into them, and is said to have held it there until it was consumed, crying aloud: " This hand hath offended - this unworthy right hand." He died repeating the words, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!" - The principal authorities for the career of Cranmer are Strype's "Memorials,'.' the "Lives" by Todd and Le Bas, and the historical works of Burnet, Lingard, Turner, Hallam, Macaulay, and Froude.