September 16, 2014

The Death of Thomas Cranmer

by Nathan Busenitz

CranmerA brief sketch from the pages of Reformation history.

Four hundred fifty eight years ago, on March 21, 1556, a crowd of curious spectators packed University Church in Oxford, England. They were there to witness the public recantation of one of the most well-known English Reformers, a man named Thomas Cranmer.

Cranmer had been arrested by Roman Catholic authorities nearly three years earlier. At first, his resolve was strong. But after many months in prison, under daily pressure from his captors and the imminent threat of being burned at the stake, the Reformer’s faith faltered. His enemies eventually coerced him to sign several documents renouncing his Protestant faith.

In a moment of weakness, in order to prolong his life, Cranmer denied the truths he had defended throughout his ministry, the very principles upon which the Reformation itself was based.

Roman Catholic Queen Mary I, known to church history as “Bloody Mary,” viewed Cranmer’s retractions as a mighty trophy in her violent campaign against the Protestant cause. But Cranmer’s enemies wanted more than just a written recantation. They wanted him to declare it publicly.

And so, on March 21, 1556, Thomas Cranmer was taken from prison and brought to University Church. Dressed in tattered clothing, the weary, broken, and degraded Reformer took his place at the pulpit. A script of his public recantation had already been approved; and his enemies sat expectantly in the audience, eager to hear his clear denunciation of the evangelical faith.

But then the unexpected happened. In the middle of his speech, Thomas Cranmer deviated from his script. To the shock and dismay of his enemies, he refused to recant the true gospel. Instead, he bravely recanted his earlier recantations.

Finding the courage he had lacked over those previous months, the emboldened Reformer announced to the crowd of shocked onlookers:

I come to the great thing that troubles 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 here now I renounce and refuse, as things written with my hand [which were] contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, [being] written for fear of death, and to save my life.

Cranmer went on to say that if he should be burned at the stake, his right hand would be the first to be destroyed, since it had signed those recantations. And then, just to make sure no one misunderstood him, Cranmer added this: “And as for the pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy and antichrist, with all his false doctrine.”

Chaos ensued.

Moments later, Cranmer was seized, marched outside, and burned at the stake.

True to his word, he thrust his right hand into the flames so that it might be destroyed first. As the flames encircled his body, Cranmer died with the words of Stephen on his lips: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. I see the heavens open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • Chris Okogwu

    Glory be to God.
    Such restored courage in the face of fearful threatening speaks volumes of the strength the Lord gives those who fear Him.

  • 2ruthmatters

    Thank you! How can anyone doubt the Sovereignty of God when you read things like this? Our Lord did not abandon Cranmer who seemed to “fall away”. Rather than let Thomas die obscurely in a prison cell, He used his sinful flesh to gain a bigger audience to bring greater glory to Himself and usher His servant into eternal glory. Not to mention this tribute to faithfulness continues to reach Christians almost 460 years later!

  • DebbieLynne7 .

    I pray for that kind of faith!

  • tovlogos

    I really liked this story, Nathan — You said so much with so few words.
    As for disciples:
    “…From everyone who has been given much, much will be required…” (Luke 12″48).
    To be given the Holy Spirit trumps all gifts; and no one can ask for more. Stephen and all the martyrs for Christ were not brave — they had the Holy Spirit, who banishes all fear.

    • TestifyTruth

      Hmmm, thank you for this understanding. Amen.

      • tovlogos

        Amen — Testify until He comes — we will high five in the kingdom.

  • A true hero of the faith

  • Thank you for sharing this. What a beautiful testimony of how God’s grace sustains and preserves His people in the faith.

  • Thanks Nathan.

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  • Galeazzo

    Let us not forget the 500 roman catholic martyrs under Elizabeth and Cromwell. Go see Tyburn gallows.

    • Pea-Tear

      I think we can surely agree that both sides erred in slaying one another in the cause of religion. Though where religion and politics become bedfellows, history teaches us to expect no less b/c humans will squabble for power. With all that said, I’m not sure it follows that remembering Reformation martyrs is a time to also remember Roman Catholic ones, making both equivalent. (You haven’t said that, but I take that to be the unspoken premise of ‘Let’s not forget’.)

      Before God, indeed, all those men, women and children were equal. But Rome was an immense political power, asserting the pope’s temporal authority over all civil rulers (as late as 1864; ‘Syllabus of Errors’), and actually successfully wielding that influence. Catholic Europe was still hugely powerful (France & Spain weren’t nothing to mess with). So I don’t sit easy with us retrospectively equivalizing deaths on both sides; I sympathize more with the ‘upstarts’ so to speak when one is fighting to exist, while the other tries to snuff it. Whether nascent Protestant Geneva facing Emperor Charles V, or Roman Catholic Ireland under the scourge of a vicious (and ‘established’) Cromwell.

      I’m open to changing my mind on this, so I’d like to hear you make a case against it. I’m not trying to say, at all, that RC martyrs were worth less than Protestant ones. I’m saying that we shouldn’t remember them as equal sufferers of a struggle, when one side had a pretty decisive advantage. It seems to me to ignore the historical case. Lemme know what you think. Have a good day 🙂

    • Michael

      Galeazzo, those so-called catholic martyrs were political agents attempting to capture England and the English people and put them under the dark tyranny of Rome. The Protestant martyrs were burned at the steak for the crime of being Bible-believing Christians. Open your eyes.

      • Corey Fleig

        I don’t think it would be wise or fair to prop up one side to the neglect of the other. I cannot possibly know what Catholics were thinking back then, nor do I pretend to know their hearts. They committed grave acts, and at other times in history Protestants committed the same.
        Whether its the catholic or the protestant, all must bow the knee to the very Word of God held up in Scripture – and while I may want to string up Bellarmine and Newman, I shutter when I think about placing blame.
        Of course Rome was wrong! But no one can establish we Protestants never committed these kind of crimes. May God help us to weigh with just scales.

        • Michael

          Moral relativism is not the world-view of a Bible-believing Christian. Discern light from darkness, truth from falsehood, good from evil. Take a stand for one side or the other. Your ‘Protestants aren’t perfect’ is a straw man (we’re born sinners, fallen humanity), and when it puts you in sympathy with the devil it goes from being fallacious to tragic.

          Again, Protestants were burnt for bringing the Word of God to people and for believing and valuing that Word of God above the word of man. The motive of Roman Catholics was very different. They were undermining governments to bring them under the tyranny of their Pope and hence into *enforced spiritual darkness.* The Reformation was a war. The good side won. Be happy. Condemn evil.

          • Corey Fleig

            If this website continues to post replies, then I’ll just say to Michael, we are going to definitely disagree. I would happily join you on the battlefield to affirm the Reformation message, but I get the strong feeling that when the war was over, I would weep over the destroyed souls, but you would 1) gloat over the dead bodies, and 2) condemn a modern-day Catholic for having relatives who sided with the pope. Just a guess here, Michael.

          • Michael

            I gave you a thumbs up just to call a truce. Bad doctrine then is bad doctrine now, though. If one doesn’t see that clearly in history then it gets cloudy here in the present.

  • vinas46

    The last paragraph brought tears.

  • JTC 1977

    If only the Anglican Church had retained Cranmer’s courage and love for God’s truth.

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  • Donald Philip Veitch

    Interesting to see evangelical types with an interest in the English Reformation.

    • JTC 1977

      Why so Donald?

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  • Pope of Geneva

    We should be grateful for Thomas’s Forty-Two Articles of Faith …

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  • netrek

    Oh that we had such mighty men of faith today!

    • CatholicFormerAnglican

      This is the most repugnant site I have seen in some time. “Our Protestant bodies burnt were more righteous than the RC bodies burnt!”. Rubbish! It is high time, in the face of such unbridled evil in the world for Anglicans and Roman Catholics to join as one great force in the 21st century, to pray to Jesus for complete unity and communion and get on with our mission of God’s work. This discussion above is perverse and not worthy of the members of the body of Jesus Christ. Shameful.

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