Cranmer, Thomas 1489–1556 Archbishop of Canterbury

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Cranmer, Thomas
Archbishop of Canterbury

Thomas Cranmer served as Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest church official in England, during the reign of Henry VIII. In this position, he presided over the nation's break with the Roman Catholic Church and the formation of the new Anglican* Church.

Cranmer began his career teaching religious studies in Cambridge, England. In 1520 he became a priest, and soon afterward he received an appointment as part of a diplomatic mission to Spain. On his return to England, he met Henry VIII, who invited him to join a team of religious scholars working to obtain an annulment* of the king's marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Henry wanted to end the marriage so that he could remarry, but the pope had denied his request. Cranmer and the other scholars developed an argument to justify it.

Cranmer strongly favored reforms within the Catholic Church, such as allowing priests to marry. He showed his support for this idea by taking a wife in 1532, but a year later he had to hide his unlawful marriage when he was unexpectedly named Archbishop of Canterbury. Soon after that, King Henry decided to break away from the Roman Catholic Church. He established a new Church of England with Cranmer as the top religious official. In that role, Cranmer worked closely with the king's minister, Thomas Cromwell, to build the Anglican Church on new lines, moving it farther from Catholic views. He drew up the document called the Forty-Two Articles of Faith, which laid out the beliefs of the Church of England. (The church later reduced his list to 39.) Many of Cranmer's theological* views were close to those of the Lutheran Church, particularly those relating to the ritual of communion.

Cranmer also promoted translations of the Bible and other sacred works into English. He created a version of the prayer service in English, much of which still survives in the modern Book of Common Prayer. He also produced two English prayer books. Cranmer's writings included many words borrowed from Greek and Latin, which had a lasting impact not only on the church service but also on the English language itself.

In 1553 Cranmer cooperated with an unsuccessful plot to place Jane Grey on the throne. The new queen, Mary I, returned the nation to Catholicism. Her government arrested Cranmer and convicted him of treason and heresy*. In prison he signed a series of statements denying his Protestant beliefs, but he was still condemned to burn at the stake. At the ceremony before his execution, he rejected the statements he had signed in prison and restated his Protestant faith.

(See alsoBible; Christianity; England; Protestant Reformation. )

* Anglican

referring to the Church of England

* annulment

formal declaration that a marriage is legally invalid

* theological

relating to theology, the study of the nature of God and of religion

* heresy

belief that is contrary to the doctrine of an established church