This Day In Literary History
On March 21st, 1556, the famous English writer and cleric Thomas Cranmer was burned at the stake. Cranmer, a leader of the English Reformation and the Archbishop of Canterbury, was part of the Oxford Martyrs - three men who were executed by order of Queen Mary I.
The other two Oxford Martyrs were Hugh Latimer, the Bishop of Worcester, and Nicholas Ridley, the Bishop of Rochester. They had all run afoul of the heresy laws of Queen Mary I.
Mary I, England's notorious Catholic monarch, would be known as "Bloody Mary" for executing over 300 Protestant clerics and reformers during her five-year reign.
Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was Queen Mary's most prized target, for he had championed William Tyndale's English language Bible, which was deemed heretical by the Vatican, as it had declared the Latin Bible to be the true Bible.
Cranmer had also been partly responsible for the Church of England's break with the Holy See by building a case for the divorce of Mary's father, King Henry VIII, from her mother, Catherine of Aragon.
Worst of all, Cranmer had written and compiled the first two editions of The Book of Common Prayer which contained not just prayers but also the complete liturgy of the Anglican Church. This was the ultimate violation of Queen Mary's heresy laws.
The Queen had not originally intended to execute Cranmer; she had a different plan for him which she hoped would result in a huge propaganda coup against the Anglican Church.
First, Cranmer was forced to watch his friends Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley be tried, convicted, and executed by burning right after the verdicts were delivered.
Then, Cranmer himself was tried for heresy and treason. He appealed to Rome to be tried by a papal court instead of the Queen's secular court. His appeal was denied.
After his conviction, he was sent to prison to await execution. He was offered a commutation of his death sentence if he would recant his Protestant faith in writing.
Thomas Cranmer would write not one, not two, but four recantations during the two years he spent in prison. The authorities believed that his fourth recantation was most likely genuine.
He was released to the custody of the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. While living at the Dean's house, Cranmer was counselled by a Dominican friar, Juan de Villagarcia.
Although Cranmer had in writing pledged his loyalty to the English monarchy and recognized the Pope's authority as head of the Church, he had conceded little in the matter of Protestant versus Catholic doctrine, so he was returned to prison.
Two days after a writ for Cranmer's execution was issued, he wrote a fifth recantation which was deemed genuine. He was a broken old man so desperate to save his life that he wrote a sweeping confession.
In his detailed catalog of his sins against the Catholic Church, Cranmer begged for mercy, but Queen Mary would have none. She ordered his execution to take place, though he was told that he could make one final, public recantation to plead for his life. So he wrote one.
Then, the day before his execution, while on the pulpit at University Church to make his final recantation, Thomas Cranmer changed his mind and decided to go out in a blaze of glory - literally.
Instead of delivering a final, ultimate recantation of his Protestant faith, he renounced all of his previous recantations, blasted the Catholic Church, and denounced the Pope.
Cranmer was seized, removed from the pulpit, taken to the place where Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were burned at the stake before him, and executed. He put his right hand, which he used to write his recantations, into the fire before it consumed the rest of his body.
Ironically, two years later, Queen Mary I died of influenza at the age of 42. Her successor and half-sister, Queen Elizabeth I, would restore the Anglican Church to power, repeal the heresy laws, and broker a historic settlement between the Anglican and Catholic Churches.
An adapted version of Thomas Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer would be designated the new Anglican Church's official liturgy.
The burning of Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley would inspire the legendary American science fiction writer Ray Bradbury to write his classic novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953).
The hero, Guy Montag, resists the government's attempts to force him to recant his belief that books shouldn't be burned. Bradbury quotes Latimer's last words to Ridley before their execution:
Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.
Quote Of The Day
"I have sinned, in that I signed with my hand what I did not believe with my heart. When the flames are lit, this hand shall be the first to burn." - Thomas Cranmer, his last words
Today's video features the final speech given by Thomas Cranmer before his execution. Note: you'll want to expand this video to full screen. Enjoy!