If Martin Luther was the father of the Protestant Church, then Thomas Cranmer was the doctor that delivered the baby.
Thomas Cranmer spent 26 years of his life at Cambridge University, first as a student, then as a fellow of Jesus College and a university preacher. At this point there was only one Church in England and most of Europe – Roman Catholic, but the English branch had a decided Celtic flavour. Cranmer was not linked with those at Cambridge influenced by Luther. He did develop a love for the Scriptures.
In 1529 King Henry VIII (of the many wives fame) wanted a son and heir for the throne, he had been married to Catherine of Aragon for 23 years but Catherine had only produced one child a daughter, so he wanted his marriage to Catherine of Aragon declared annulled. Cranmer had a high sense of duty to his King, so Henry engaged Cranmer to help build the case for an annulment. It is widely believed that the Pope's refusal to this is what caused the break from the Roman Church. But the historical record indicates that Henry spent most of his reign challenging the authority of Rome, and that the divorce issue was just one of a series of acts that collectively split the English church from the Roman church.
Cranmer had been 3 years in Germany working for the King, and had there come under the influence of Luther's theology, he had gone so far as to secretly marry. After the break with Rome, he was called home to succeed William Warham as Archbishop of Canterbury, an appointment he accepted with reluctance. Cranmer did support the principle of Royal Supremacy, in which the king was considered sovereign over the Church within his realm. In May 1533 he pronounced the king’s marriage to Catherine invalid and that to Anne Boleyn valid.
Cranmer’s position enabled him to direct the course of the English Reformation. When the 9 year old Edward VI succeeded his father in 1547, the stage was set for the English church to take on a more Protestant flavour. Cranmer welcomed this, and by the time the young king died in 1553, he had been instrumental in having a copy of the Bible placed in every church and the English church had a new Book of Common Prayer, to which he had greatly contributed, the Anglican Church as we know it had been born.
The accession of the very Roman Catholic, Queen Mary in 1553 however, meant a return to the Roman Church and Cranmer was arrested as a heretic. He spent the last 2½ years of his life in prison, first in the Tower and then at Oxford. During this time he was tried for treason, then for heresy. Under threat of death he signed a number of recantations during this time. However, just before being led to the stake to be burnt, he publicly renounced all his recantations. He told the crowd that his right arm, which had signed the recantations, would be the first part of his body to be burned. With his right arm held steadily in the fire, his last words were, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
The Prayer book with his contribution largely unchanged, was republished in 1662 and went on to be used by Anglicans for the next 4 Centuries.
BORN:1489, Aslockton, Nottinghamshire, England
DIED: Burned at the Stake, 21 March 1556, Broad Street, Oxford, United Kingdom