Leslie Winfield Williams’ biography of Thomas Cranmer Emblem of Faith Untouched is a powerful read. In it she offers a sweeping look at the life, work, and theology of Archbishop Cranmer.
She identifies two impulses in him that would define his life, and ultimately contribute to his death: the first was a deep allegiance to Scripture over against the papacy; the second was a deep allegiance to the English Crown.
A Cambridge academic, Cranmer was thrust into the spotlight through a fluke twist—he offered a suggestion to a mutual friend of the Henry VIII as to how Henry could get an annulment from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. From there things tumbled, resulting in his assent to the position of archbishop of the fledgling Church of England. In this position, Cranmer could both focus on Scripture and Crown.
It is striking that through the many marriages of Henry VIII, Cranmer kept his head when so many others lost theirs. He was able to stick to his guns, even confront Henry, but still maneuver in such a way as to stay on Henry’s good side. And Henry liked Cranmer, which helped his cause too.
After Henry’s death, King Edward supported the English Reforms, and Cranmer began to make changes in earnest. Henry had a conservative streak, so Cranmer had to some extent been in a holding pattern. But after Edward took the throne, Cranmer began to formalize a theology for the Church in England. He released early editions of the Book of Common Prayer, treatises on the Eucharist against transubstantiation, and an outline of the faith.
When Mary took the throne, she did so, of course, with vengeance. Initially showing leniency toward heretics, she snapped after several attempts were made to dethrone her. She took steps to reintroduce papal supremacy and tried to root out reform from all corners of the country. This of course, in time, sealed Cranmer’s fate. He, along with fellow reformers Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, were sentenced to death. In prison and growing weak and ill, Cranmer was made to watch Latimer and Ridley burn in the square below. Latimer’s is the line about striking a match that would start a fire that would never go out in England, referring to their witness for the reformation faith. Latimer died quickly; Ridley took hours, watching his own legs burn away while his torso remained intact. The Catholic jailers hoped Cranmer would recant after seeing his friends die so painful a death, but it only increased his resolve. After countless rounds of various bodily and mental tortures, Cranmer did recant; however, the documents he wrote were, upon careful inspection, not recantations. So the Catholic inquisitor made Cranmer sign a document penned by Catholics, which he did.
On the day of his execution, his last words proved to be more powerful than anyone could have anticipated. Broken and beaten, Cranmer summoned the strength to pray for forgiveness for his sins and to pray for wisdom to speak his last words clearly. He exhorted those gathered to watch his execution to focus on the next life instead of on this world, to obey the monarchs, to love each other like brothers and sisters, and to give to the needy. Concluding, he affirmed his belief in the Christian faith as outlined in the creeds and in Scripture, both Old and New Testaments. He then spoke to the things he’d written since he had had his position as archbishop removed a few days earlier. Alluding to the recantations, he said his conscience was more stricken over them than any of his other actions, and so his right hand—the hand he had signed them with—would be the first part of his body to be thrust into the flames as punishment.
The Catholic onlookers were incensed; the Protestant onlookers overjoyed.
He then “jogged” to the place of execution and awaited the fire. As the flames grew, he placed his hand in them. As he neared death, his final words echoed Stephen from the Book of Acts: Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. I see the heavens opened up, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” And then he passed from this life.
He died, as the author points out, likely thinking that his life’s work—”his struggles to free England and its clergy from Rome’s bondage, to rid England of religious abuses, to provide his preachers with homilies, to write his people a prayer book, to enact a uniform statement of doctrine, to give the people the means to worship and to read the Bible in their own language, and to allow religious discussion without the death penalty” (152)—had ended in failure. But out of the ashes of his body rose the reforms he so ardently fought for during his life. Mary died only several years later, defeated and alone. Queen Elizabeth, Mary’s sister, “brought a measure of peace to sixteenth-century England” (153).