Cranmer Thomas, archbishop of Canterbury, and one of the greatest of the English reformers, was born at Aslacton, Nottinghamshire, July 2, 1489. He entered Jesus College in 1503, became a fellow in 1510-11, studied Greek, Hebrew, and theology with great diligence, and acquired high repute for scholarship. He forfeited his fellowship by an early marriage, but his wife died within a year, and he was restored. In 1523 he took the degree of D.D. In 1528 he was at Waltham Abbey, the seat of Mr. Cressy, educating that gentleman's children. Here he met Gardiner and Fox, who asked his opinion as to Henry VIII's divorce. His reply was made known to the king, and gave him so much satisfaction that he sent for Cranmer, who reluctantly obeyed the summons, and reduced his opinion to writing. "It asserted that the marriage of Henry with his brother's widow was condemned by the Scriptures, the councils, and the fathers; and that the pope had no power to give a dispensation for that which was contrary to the word of God." Pains were taken to make this judgment known. Cranmer himself disputed upon it at Cambridge, and brought several over to his opinion. He was appointed chaplain to the king, presented to the archdeaconry of Taunton, and joined the embassy to Rome about the close of 1529. The ambassadors, finding all arguments unavailing with pope Clement, quickly returned, leaving Cranmer in Italy. The pope conferred on him the empty title of "Supreme Penitentiary." Wearied with delays, Cranmer left Italy in 1530, and went afterwards, on the same business, to France and Germany — an expedition which, although it produced no decisive public result, led to an event of great consequence to himself. Regardless of the Romish injunction for clerical celibacy, he married (1532) a second time, the object of his choice being the niece of Osiander, the pastor of Nuremberg. This secret act exposed him to many unworthy evasions. He was soon after made archbishop of Canterbury, and when consecrated (March 30, 1533), made a public protestation, "That he did not intend by this oath to restrain himself from anything that he was bound to either by his duty to God, or the king, or the country." "By this," says Burnet (Hist. Reformation, vol. 1), if he did not wholly save his integrity, yet it was plain he intended no cheat, but to act fairly and aboveboard." On the 23d of May, 1533, Cranmer declared the king's marriage void. Five days afterwards he publicly married the king to Anne Boleyn, a private marriage having taken place in the January previous. The business of his office and parliamentary duty now occupied his time. With his assistance were passed several statutes, by which the power of the pope in England was materially diminished; the Convocation and universities assented to these statutes, pronouncing that "the bishop of Rome has not any greater jurisdiction conferred on him in this realm of England than any other foreign bishop." In 1534, with the consent of the Convocation, he set on foot a translation of the Bible, by dividing Tyndale's version of the New Testament into nine or ten parts, which he required the most learned bishops to revise; the translation was completed and ultimately printed at Paris. In 1535 he assisted in the second edition of the "King's Primer," a book containing doctrines bordering upon Protestantism. In 1536 the divorced queen died, and Henry, being now tired of Anne Boleyn, determined to get rid of her, and Cranmer a second time served the bad passions of the king, and, in virtue of his office, pronounced the marriage void (1536). The pope threatened to assemble a synod to censure Henry. Cranmer and others signed a declaration that the king need not obey the decisions of such an assembly. With the assistance of many eminent divines, Cranmer arranged the "Bishops' Book," inculcating the doctrines of the Reformers. The king, to whom this book was submitted, himself inserted some corrections, from which the archbishop was bold enough to dissent. The destruction of the greater abbeys was now rapidly proceeding, and the funds which arose from them were lavished by Henry upon unworthy favorites, until Cranmer, who had hoped to apply them to the promotion of religion and education, remonstrated against their improper application. A sum of money was obtained for the foundation of some new bishoprics, but the king's prodigality could be checked no further. From 1538 to 1544 the mind of Henry VIII was against progress in the Reformation. On the 5th of May, 1538, Cranmer and others were appointed commissioners "to inquire" (Le Bas, vol. 1:204) "into the debated doctrines, and to prepare such articles as would pacify the spirit of controversy." At the end of eleven days the labors of the commissioners coming to no result, the duke of Norfolk offered six articles (Burnet, vol 1) for the consideration of the House of Lords. Cranmer's opinion agreed only with one of these articles, but they were passed, SEE ARTICLES, Six. Latimer and Shaxton resigned their bishoprics, an example which Cranmer did not think it his duty to follow. In July, 1540, he presided at the Convocation which pronounced the unjustifiable dissolution of the marriage between Henry and Anne of Cleves. The misconduct of Catharine Howard, whom Henry had married, coming to the knowledge of the archbishop, he reported her profligacy to the king (1541). The proofs of her crimes were held to be conclusive; she was condemned and executed. The Reformation now (1542) became the sole occupation of Cranmer, who had transferred to the universities the task of revising a new edition of the Bible published the year before. In a minor degree Cranmer's attention was occupied in reproving the luxury in which some ecclesiastical establishments, as well as the bishops, had indulged.
In May, 1543, appeared the "King's Book," which was, in fact, little more than a new edition of the Institution of a Christian Man, altered in some points by the papal party; it received its name from the preface, which was written in Henry's name. The clergy being hostile to this book, Cranmer, at a visitation of his diocese, in submission to the king's supremacy, forbade them from preaching against any portions of it, however they or he himself might dissent from them. In 1544 Cranmer carried through Parliament a bill to mitigate the severity of the "Six Articles." He also assisted in compiling an improved English Litany, essentially similar to that which is now in use. Difficulties, however, were increasing around him. The duke of Norfolk and other members of the privy council accused him of spreading heresies through the land, and Henry caused Sir Anthony Denny to carry a message to Cranmer, who rose from his bed to attend upon the king at Whitehall. The council assembled next day, and summoned the primate. Sentence of imprisonment was passed upon him, but, to their confusion, he. produced the signet of the king, from whose hands he had received it the night before. The council did not venture to proceed further.
King Henry died 27th January, 1547. Cranmer was named one of the regents of the kingdom. On the accession of Edward, all things indeed betokened a further extension of the Reformation. A visitation was immediately set on foot; twelve homilies, four of which are ascribed to Cranmer, were drawn up, and ordered to be placed in every church, with the translation of Erasmus's paraphrase of the N.T., for the instruction of the people. Gardiner continued to oppose the Reformation, but Cranmer's influence prevailed; and when he produced in convocation an ordinance that the laity as well as the clergy should receive the sacrament in both kinds, the proposition passed unanimously, and soon after obtained the sanction of the Legislature. In 1548 he revived the proposal for substituting a communion office for the mass, and a service was framed in time to be circulated to the clergy for their use at the following Easter. A translation of a catechism, written in German and Latin by Justus Jonas, was published by the archbishop, entitled Cranmer's Catechism. In the month of May a commission of twelve divines, with Cranmer at their head, was appointed for the compilation of an English liturgy. SEE COMMON PRAYER; SEE LITURGY. On the condemnation of Lord Seymour (1549), Cranmer signed the warrant for his execution, notwithstanding the canon law that no churchman should meddle in matters of blood. Bonner, bishop of London, was now degraded by commissioners, of whom Cranmer was one. An addition was made to the ritual in the shape of a formulary for ordination, and other steps were taken by the primate in order to diffuse a better knowledge of the creed of the Protestants. At Lambeth he received the most eminent foreign divines, Martin Bucer, Fagius, Peter Martyr, and several more. Cranmer was greatly troubled at the discussions respecting the substitution of tables for altars in the churches. In July, 1550, Hooper was made bishop of Gloucester, and soon after Cranmer received from him a refusal to wear the episcopal habits. Cranmer, upon consideration, determined to oppose Hooper, and, in case he persisted, to remove him from his bishopric. Hooper adopted some of the usual habits. The bishop of Chichester would not obey the order respecting the' removal of altars, and the primate consequently deprived him of his see. Bishop Gardiner, who had now been in prison nearly two years, was deprived of his bishopric and sent back to the Tower. The conduct of Cranmer in the cases of Bonner and Gardiner was a great exception to his usual moderation. Gardiner, during his imprisonment, occupied himself in answering a treatise published by Cranmer, entitled the Defence of the True Doctrine of the Sacrament. This controversy was carried on by the archbishop until the end of his life. A revision of the "Service-book" of 1548 was commenced by Cranmer, with the assistance of Ridley and Cox, Peter Martyr and Bucer. The undertaking was checked in 1551 by the death of Bucer. The bishops being now (1551) for the most part divines favorable to the Reformation, the compilation of articles for the greater uniformity of faith was undertaken by them at the suggestion of the king. This labor so filled the hands of Cranmer, that his time was nearly always occupied by one or other of the great duties that he had imposed upon himself; scarcely could he attend the trial of bishop Tonstal. The bishop was deprived of his see, a sentence which was so contrary to Cranmer's opinion, that, with Lord Stourton, a Roman Catholic, he protested against it. It was not till 1552 that Cranmer gave up all hope of an agreement among all the churches that had withdrawn from the papal supremacy, and for which he had entered into correspondence with Calvin, Melancthon, and other divines of the Continent. The "Service-book" was completed, and the Book of Common Prayer adopted by Parliament in the spring of 1552. In May, 1553, Edward issued a mandate that the clergy should subscribe to the Forty-two Articles upon which the divines had agreed, but he died soon afterwards.
A letter was sent to the princess Mary declaring queen Jane (Lady Jane Grey) to be the sovereign. This letter was signed by many persons, and among them by Cranmer, whose zeal for the Protestant cause must have blinded him to the danger of the enterprise. On the 9th of July, 1553, the chief officers of the state swore allegiance to Jane; on the 20th we find many of those who had been zealous in her cause "impatient to send in their submissions to Mary." On the same day an order was sent by Mary to Northumberland to disarm. The hopes of the Protestants were now at an end, as queen Mary's unshaken attachment to the Roman Catholic creed was universally known. Gardiner was released and made chancellor, and a commission was formed to degrade and imprison Protestant prelates and ministers on the charges of treason, heresy, and matrimony. In the beginning of August Cranmer was summoned before the council; and in September, with Latimer and Ridley, was committed to the Tower. In March, 1554, he was removed, with bishops Latimer and Ridley, to prison at Oxford, where was renewed the controversy respecting the Lord's Supper, which, by the queen's desire, Was named the subject for discussion. On the 13th and 19th of April the discussion was held; and on the 28th the accused were brought to St. Mary's, where it was declared that, unless they would turn, they were obstinate heretics, and no longer members of the Church. Cranmer then replied. "From this your judgment and sentence I appeal to the just judgment of the Almighty, trusting to be present with him in heaven, for whose presence in the altar I am thus condemned," and he was removed again to prison. It was soon discovered that the tribunal before which Cranmer had been tried was not competent to decide the case. The pope issued a fresh commission, and on the 12th of September, 1555, the primate was examined by Brokes, the bishop of Gloucester, and two civilians, Martin and Story. Before these proceedings, Cranmer was summoned to appear within eighty days before the pope at Rome: this must have been a mere fiction of papal law, as it was impossible for Cranmer to obey. On the 29th of November the eighty days had elapsed, and on the 4th of December he was excommunicated and deprived of his bishopric. A letter from the pope (Paul IV), bearing date the 14th of November, affirming him to be contumacious because "he took no care to appear" at Rome when cited, and declaring him guilty of heresy and other enormities, finally commanded his excommunication. On the 14th of February Cranmer was degraded. In a few days after this his fortitude gave way; he forsook his principles and wrote a recantation. It was of no avail towards the preservation of his life. On the 20th of March, the eve of his execution, he was visited by Dr. Cole, and Cranmer stated that he remained firm in the Catholic faith as he had recently professed it, an answer that has been considered equivocal. On the following day he was led to St. Mary's church, where, after an exhortation by Dr. Cole, Cranmer finished his private devotions and then solemnly addressed the people, openly professing his faith, and at length declaring, "Now I come to the great thing that troubleth my conscience more than any other thing that I ever said or did in my life, and that is the setting abroad of writings contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and writ for fear of death, and to save my life, if it might be; and that is all such bills which I have written or signed with mine own hand since my degradation, wherein I have written many things untrue. And forasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished, for, if I may come to the fire, it shall be first burned. And as for the pope, I refuse him as Christ's enemy and Antichrist, with all his false doctrine." The assembly was astonished; they had supposed that he would have confirmed and not retracted his recantation. He was hurried away to the stake, where he stood motionless, holding up his right hand, and exclaiming, until his utterance was stifled, "This unworthy hand! Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!" Cranmer's diligence and application were unusual; he was deeply read in theology and canon law, and was familiar with Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, as well as French, German, and Italian. His reservation respecting the oaths which he swore when appointed archbishop, his subserviency to Henry VIII in annulling his marriages, his share in the condemnation of some heretics, his conduct at the disgracing of Bonner and Gardiner, and the want of courage which made him recant after his condemnation, are great blots on his character. But, though his conduct on these occasions was marked by want of firmness, it cannot be denied that Cranmer was sincere, mild, and moderate, and, for the most part, a firm man; nor is it to be forgotten that persecution was the policy of all religious parties at this period. "Cranmer was neither fool, knave, nor demigod. He lived in an age when men had need of all the tact they could muster, and he proved himself prudent and learned. He was one of those useful persons who sometimes acquire influence by the very absence of striking and ardent qualities — the Melancthon of our English Reformation. The greatest defect of his character, want of firmness, which has ruined many a man of genius and learning, by a peculiar combination of circumstances, secured his advancement and guided him to fortune. His mind possessed great acuteness; he could generally perceive what was best, although, had vigorous action been required of him, he would have failed to do justice to the clearness of his views. Such a mind is common enough. Fortunately for the usefulness of Cranmer, the time required of him little more than to follow his bent and be moderate. He was surrounded by vehement and excited spirits, who required all the restraint of his temperate and quiet character. And these very traits of his have impressed upon the Church which he molded, and upon the public office which he, as primate, had the chief share in drawing up," a sort of compromising and uncertain character, "which has never been lost. It is through Cranmer's influence that the Church of England at the present day is capable of sheltering at once the High and Low Churchman, the Universalist and the Calvinist." His cruel death was one of the most unpopular measures of Mary's government. — See Strype, Memorials of Cranmer (Oxford, 1840, 2 vols. 8vo; also 1853, by Barnes, 2 vols. 12mo, and 1854 [Eccl. Hist. Soc.], 4 vols. 8vo); Todd, Life of Cranmer (Lond. 1831, 2 vols. 8vo); Le Bas, Life of Cranmer (Lond. 1833, 2 vols. 12mo; N. Y. 18mo); Burnet, Hist. Reformation (passim); Gilpin, Life of Cranmer; Eng. Cyclopaedia (which has been freely used in the preparation of this article). Cranmer's writings are still of value for theology as well as for Church history. A full list of them is given by Jenkins, Remains of Abp. Cranmer, collected and arranged (Oxf. 1833, 4 vols. 8vo). The "Parker Society" has republished Cranmer's Writings on the Lord's Supper (Camb. 1844, imp. 8vo), and his Miscellaneous Writings and Letters (Camb. 1846, imp. 8vo).