I recently began reading J.C. Ryle’s book, Five English Reformers. The book focuses on the lives and martyrdoms of John Hooper, Rowland Taylor, Hugh Latimer, John Bradford, and Nicholas Ridley. In chapter 1, however, Ryle briefly discusses the events surrounding the executions of a handful of other English reformers. One of these men was Thomas Cranmer.
I found Thomas Cranmer’s story particularly interesting because it was uniquely tragic and heroic. Cranmer was the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was imprisoned and examined for teaching the word of God. Like the other reformers, he did not shy away from repudiating the heretical doctrines of the Roman Catholic church. As a result, he was condemned and sentenced to be burned. But when his time of execution drew near, Cranmer recanted. Ryle writes,
And now comes the painful fact that in the last month of Cranmer’s life his courage failed him, and he was persuaded to sign a recantation of his Protestant opinions. Flattered and cajoled by subtle kindness, frightened at the prospect of so dreadful a death as burning, tempted and led away by the devil, Thomas Cranmer fell, and put his hand to a paper in which he repudiated and renounced the principles of the Reformation, for which he had labored so long. (23)
Cranmer’s recantation was not enough for his accusers. According to Ryle, the Papists were still resolved to put Cranmer to death. By God’s grace, Cranmer eventually repented of his recantation and resolved to die in defense of the Reformation. In front of a large assembly, Cranmer renounced his recantation, declared the Pope to be the Anti-Christ, and repudiated the doctrine of the real presence. He was sentenced to burn at the stake. Ryle records the details of his execution and it is quite moving. I leave you with Ryle’s words:
But then came the time of Cranmer’s triumph. With a light heart, and a clear conscience, he cheerfully allowed himself to be hurried to the stake amidst the frenzied outcries of his disappointed enemies. Boldly and undauntedly he stood up at the stake while the flames curled around him, steadily holding out his right hand in the fire, and saying, with reference to his having signed a recantation, ‘This unworthy right hand,’ and steadily holding up his left hand towards heaven. Of all the martyrs, strange to say, none at the last moment showed more physical courage than Cranmer did. Nothing, in short, in all his life became him so well as the manner of his leaving it. Greatly he had sinned, but greatly he had repented. Like Peter he fell, but like Peter he rose again. And so passed away the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury. (24)