The British reformer, Thomas Cranmer, died 456 years ago today. But he didn’t just die — he was burned as a martyr.
Unfortunately, there are complexities to his death. The quick version is that he was imprisoned by Catholic Queen Mary (aka, “Bloody Mary”) along with his friends Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley. They were condemned as traitors and after Latimer and Ridley were executed, Cranmer recanted. But then he recanted his recantation and was executed anyway, plunging his offending hand that wrote the recantation into the fire first.
How are we to understand his life and legacy? John Starke offers a helpful summary in “Thomas Cranmer’s Complicated Death:”
Cranmer’s death is complicated. He didn’t die abandoning his faith, but his behavior in the months before his death doesn’t exactly neatly identify him as a hero. Martyrdom without previous recantations is a much easier, more inspiring story to tell. We wish the story worked out differently, and I’m sure Cranmer felt the same way.…
But Cranmer’s death resembles many ordinary stories where Christian leaders needed to stiffen their backbones but didn’t. We wish we had taken a stronger stance, not capitulated so much, been a bit clearer without so much backtracking. It’s likely that none of us will have entire reformations pending upon our decisions. But all Christian leaders must be courageous and ambitious, looking to Christ for our security and humbly admitting when we’re wrong.
HT: The Gospel Coalition Blog. [Christopher Catherwood has also included a chapter on Cranmer in his book, Five Leading Reformers: Lives at a Watershed of History.]