Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Confronting Cranmer

By Nancy Bilyeau

On this day in 1556, Thomas Cranmer, the 67-year-old archbishop of Canterbury, was burned to death.

When I realized it was the anniversary of his burning this morning, it was tricky for me. I wrote an article for English Historical Fiction Authors on Mary I, the Catholic queen and daughter of Henry VIII.

While researching it, I gave a lot of thought to Mary, to the centuries of vilification she's inspired. The young Lady Mary is a character in my novels, The Crown and The Chalice, and I depict her with sympathy. Recent revisionist biographies and academic studies of Mary Tudor make the argument that she was a great deal fairer and more effective than her moniker of “Bloody Mary” would suggest.

But then there’s Cranmer.

When you write about the 16th century, one thing you have to contend with is the power of the personalities. They brought about wars, divorces, grisly executions and shocking betrayals—all at a furious pace. These people who have been dead five centuries reach out and grab us by the throat. With the Tudors there is none of the Stuart insouciance or Hanoverian indifference. Do you love me or hate me? Anne Boleyn demands of us. Should I have been killed at age sixteen? pleads Lady Jane Grey. Am I the one who murdered the princes in the Tower—or was it bad old Richard? inquires Henry VII.

While I try to make sense of my feelings about Mary Tudor, I can’t excise Cranmer. For there is no way around it, his end was extremely harrowing. I think about Cranmer’s execution a lot. I begin my novel The Crown with a 1537 journey to a burning at Smithfield (one that actually happened). The archbishop of Canterbury appears in my third novel, The Tapestry, although his death lies well ahead. I would have to say that it’s a way to die that both disturbs and obsesses me.

Queen Mary was determined to arrest Cranmer, the man who legalized her father’s divorce from her mother, Katherine of Aragon. This annulment caused her years of pain and fear and nearly broke her spirit. Cranmer was offered mercy if he recanted—and he did. He signed the document rejecting his Protestant beliefs with his right hand. But then, dragged to preach his newfound beliefs before the people, he denied his recantation.

Because I know how to get out of the way, here is the description of what followed, as written in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs:

“Cranmer would have proceeded in the exposure of the popish doctrines, but the murmurs of the idolaters drowned his voice, and the preacher gave an order to "lead the heretic away!" The savage command was directly obeyed, and the lamb about to suffer was torn from his stand to the place of slaughter, insulted all the way by the revilings and taunts of the pestilent monks and friars.
 With thoughts intent upon a far higher object than the empty threats of man, he reached the spot dyed with the blood of Ridley and Latimer. There he knelt for a short time in earnest devotion, and then arose, that he might undress and prepare for the fire. Two friars who had been parties in prevailing upon him to abjure, now endeavored to draw him off again from the truth, but he was steadfast and immovable in what he had just professed, and publicly taught. A chain was provided to bind him to the stake, and after it had tightly encircled him, fire was put to the fuel, and the flames began soon to ascend.

Then were the glorious sentiments of the martyr made manifest; then it was, that stretching out his right hand, he held it unshrinkingly in the fire until it was burnt to a cinder, even before his body was injured, frequently exclaiming, "This unworthy right hand."
His body did abide the burning with such steadfastness that he seemed to have no more than the stake to which he was bound; his eyes were lifted up to heaven, and he repeated "this unworthy right hand," as long as his voice would suffer him; and using often the words of Stephen, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit," in the greatness of the flame, he gave up the ghost.”

Rest in peace, Thomas Cranmer.


Nancy Bilyeau has written a trilogy of historical thrillers set in the reign of Henry VIII. The third, The Tapestry, will be published March 24, 2015.

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  1. Divorce? I thought Henry got an annulment. Maybe my memory is off.

  2. This is heartrending! What a horrible way to die! What horrible things are done in the name of religion; including the witch burnings that came later. Sigh.

  3. Great post, Nancy. I pity anyone dying such a death. I pity Cranmer and the others who were burned by Mary. Sadly, burning was the way the civil law dealt with heretics in those days, heresy being a capital offense. Of course, in England, what was considered heresy depended upon who was on the throne. Henry VII and Henry VIII both had people burned. So did many of their predecessors, people whom we do not usually associate with burning, like Edward IV. In my third novel about the Cathars in 13th century France there is a great deal of burning. Later, Philip the Fair burned the Templars. It was terrible, and ordered by the secular power, never by the religious authorities, who were not allowed to execute anyone, contrary to popular belief. Mary could have ordered them imprisoned for life, but she chose to follow the path of her father and, for that matter, her grandparents in Spain, who had people burned after being proven to be heretics by the Inquisition. I will never forget how St. Martin of Tours reprimanded a civil ruler for burning a heretic in the 4th century, saying the a bad precedent was being set. He was so right.