Thomas Cranmer

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Thomas Cranmer (1489 - 1556) was the Archbishop of Canterbury (1533–56) under King Henry VIII. He was a leader of the Reformation in England, and is known as the "father of the Church of England." He oversaw the creation of the Church of England Church's foundational documents, the 'Book of Homilies' (1547), the 'Book of Common Prayer' (1549, 1552), and the 'Articles of Religion' (1553), in all of which the supreme authority and sufficiency of scripture for salvation was explicitly stated.

Cranmer had a broad international perspective, and tried to move England into the path of the wider European Reformation, especially towards the Calvinism found in the churches of south Germany and Switzerland. His success in England was due to his skill as a diplomat, his ability to find a judicious balance between opposing religious forces, and his pastoral approach to resolving matters of faith and practice.



Cranmer was born in Nottinghamshire; from age 14 he attended Cambridge University, where he received a sound humanist education and was elected Fellow of Jesus College about 1511. He forfeited his fellowship when he married, but was reelected on his wife's death. He took holy orders as a Roman Catholic priest in 1523 and became a university examiners in theology. Cranmer in 1529 suggested that the university faculties of Europe should be consulted on the controversial legality of Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine of Aragon. thereby avoiding an appeal to Rome for its annulment. Henry welcomed the idea and put Cranmer in charge of its execution. Cranmer headed a delegation to Rome to discuss the matter.

In 1531 the king sent Cranmer to Germany to arrange an alliance with the Lutheran princes. In 1532 he married a niece of the German Lutheran theologian Andreas Osiander.

Archbishop of Canterbury

He became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533. As archbishop, he at once declared Henry's marriage to Catherine null and void and confirmed as valid the king's marriage to Anne Boleyn. When Anne's daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I was born, he served as godfather. In 1536 he accepted alleged evidence of Anne's adulteries and annulled her marriage.

Monasteries, chanteries, almshouses, and other institutions operated by monks were destroyed by Henry VIII primarily because he needed their wealth. Cranmer did not fully support this policy nor did he profit from these actions except in acquiring books from the monasteries.

English language

As archbishop he did much to make possible the reading of the Bible in English and opposed the reaction that led to the Six Articles in 1539; these reasserted most points of Catholic doctrine, including celibacy of the clergy and transubstantiation.

The "Litany" of the Book of Common Prayer, which was issued in 1545 and bears Cranmer's name, is substantially the one still used in the Anglican church. Under the boy King Edward VI, Cranmer had a large share in preparing the prayer books of 1549 and 1552, as well as the Forty-two (later the Thirty-nine) Articles of 1553. His translation of the liturgy into the sonorous English of the 16th century was a remarkable achievement and had a lasting effect on English literature.

His 1549 'Book of Common Prayer' helped England shift from Latin to English as a way of fostering the development of the English nation, but that change also transferred religious authority from the institution (i.e., the Catholic Church, which had a near monopoly on Latin) to larger numbers of English-speaking individuals capable of comprehending religious truth in the vernacular.

He wrote a preface to the Great Bible (1540) urging Englishmen to make Bible study a habit and to approach it with the determination to repent and reform. He promised that it would provide answers to all of life's major questions. After Henry's death Cranmer was finally able to publish the Book of Homilies to espouse Reformation doctrines and displace conservative manuals containing the legends of the saints and other religious material not derived specifically from the scriptures.

Cranmer saw education as the key to the reformation of the clergy. He sought to raise standards by influencing grammar schools, especially by the refounded King's School at Canterbury, by introducing Protestant preachers and teachers in the universities, and by prescribing in-service training for existing clergy. In his own lifetime his work was unsuccessful, but many of the ideas were taken up by the Elizabethan episcopate.


Cranmer's Eucharistic theology was designed to make sure people did not think that there was any physical presence of Christ in the elements of bread and wine, as Catholics believed. He designed his 1552 communion service to make it clear that Christ was only present to those communicants who had faith in him, and faith could not be earned by any human being; it was a predestined gift of God to those to whom he chose to give it. For example, he associated the medieval stone altar with the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. Therefore, he called on priests to replace the altar with a wooden table as a means of irradiating belief in transubstantiation. High Church Anglicans later revised the service to make it more sacramental and more acceptable to Lutherans in Europe, who could help England militarily.

Cranmer wrote voluminously on the Eucharist. His prayer book of 1549 reflected Lutheran doctrine; the revised prayer book of 1552 tended to be Zwinglian. Cranmer held to the 9th century Ratramnus doctrine of the Eucharist: while the communicant eats the elements, which remain unchanged, his soul feeds upon the spiritual Christ.


In 1553 Mary, daughter of Henry by Catherine of Aragon and a staunch Catholic, came to the throne. Cranmer was charged with treason and sedition when Lady Jane Grey was overthrown; Cranmer had approved her appointment as queen. He was burnt to death in 1556 as one of the Oxford Three. He is a saint in the Anglican Church.

Further reading

  • Ayris, P., and D. Selwyn, eds. Thomas Cranmer: Churchman and Scholar (1993), essays by scholars
  • MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Thomas Cranmer: A Life (1996) 692pp, the standard scholarly biography
  • MacCulloch, Diarmaid. "Cranmer's Ambiguous Legacy." History Today, 1996 Vol. 46, Issue 6 online at EBSCO
  • Ridley, J. Thomas Cranmer (1962).

Primary sources