The Reformation in England did not really come about through theological reasons but for political ones. The key figure of this movement was Henry VIII. Most of us know the story of how he broke with the Roman Catholic Church. He was married to Queen Catherine of Aragon, but she couldn’t give him a son to be the heir to the throne. So, Henry sought an annulment from the Pope so that he could marry another. When the Pope refused, Henry looked for a new way out of his marriage: a break with Rome. With the help of his advisor, Thomas Cromwell, Henry succeeded in breaking from the Roman Catholic Church and starting his own religion where he was the head of the church (the Church of England). It’s much easier to allow annulments when you are the head of the church!
The Pope pronounced an official excommunication on Henry, so Henry passed a law called the Treason Act which labeled any Pope loyalists to be guilty of heresy and punished by death. Originally, Henry VIII was not a supporter of the Reformation at all, but ended up being a partial Protestant when this split from Rome happened. He had his main adviser named Thomas Cronwell, but he had another named Thomas Cranmer. This man was a learned scholar who sided with many of Luther’s teachings.
Cranmer was the main person pushing Protestant ideas and theology in Henry VIII’s reign. He published a book called the Book of Common Prayer, which was a manual for church services that included many prayers and congregational responses. Cranmer also wrote the introduction to the Great Bible (the first authorized edition of the Bible in English) that Henry VIII had placed in every church in England. While Cranmer wanted to continue to push Protestant theology, Henry VIII passed something called the Six Articles Act in 1539. These articles affirmed the Catholic doctrines of transubstantiation, withholding the cup of communion from the common people (if necessary), celibacy of priests, monastic vows of chastity, private Mass, and the need for official confession.
Henry VIII died in 1547 and was succeeded by Edward VI. He didn’t reign long as he died in 1553, only 6 years later. That was the year that Cranmer wrote a document called the Forty-two Articles. It was a mainly Protestant document reflecting the views of Luther and Calvin. In these articles, Cranmer outlined such Protestant doctrines as justification by faith alone, the sole authority of Scripture, a denial of transubstantiation, and the naming of only two sacraments. This push towards Protestantism was short-lived however.
After Edward VI died, Mary Tudor became queen. She was a zealous Catholic and was furious at how Henry VIII had treated her mother (Catherine of Aragon). She sought to return England to the Pope, and she would kill anyone who didn’t align with her. She was rightfully nicknamed ‘Bloody Mary’ because of her ruthless attack against Protestants. In 1555 she began her assault and martyred 300 Protestants with another 800 fleeing for their lives. Some of the notable names that were martyred under her reign were John Rogers, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and Thomas Cranmer.
Cranmer endured a lengthy trial where the foregone conclusion of guilty was reached. He was publicly humiliated by having his church authority and robes removed in a careful ceremony where he was handed over as a common criminal. But Bloody Mary was not done with him yet. While in prison, fake promises of mercy were used on him to sign numerous denials, where he rejected all Protestant ideas and Mary hoped to publish these signed documents to squash the Reformation in England once and for all. On the day of his death, at the stake where he would be burned, Cranmer shocked everyone when he publicly rejected his signed denials, denied the Pope’s power, and called transubstantiation false. As the fire was lit, he famously placed his right hand in the flames first, the hand that had signed the denials. His bravery and boldness made a mark on English Protestantism forever.
It is hard to criticize Cranmer for signing his denials. We can probably admit, we would have done the same thing. But as he had days in prison to think about it, he came to the conclusion that he was going to die anyway…and heaven was awaiting him. That restored his trust and while his signing of the denials is one of his low points, his martyrdom is a great story of faith and boldness for Christ. May we be so strong in our faith as well.
-Pastor Mark Scialabba