On March 21 1556, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was burned at the stake in Broad Street, Oxford. A metal X still marks the spot where you can, if you’re very careful, briefly pause in the middle of the traffic.
The charges against him of treason and heresy both merited the death penalty. One of the key accusations, however, was the denial of the bodily presence of Christ in the elements of bread and wine at communion — a denial which contradicted Roman Catholic teaching then and now and which brought with it numerous other consequences.
For example, if Christ’s body and blood were not present, how could the Mass be a sacrifice for sins? And if the Mass were not a sacrifice, then what was it?
Cranmer had been under arrest for almost three years during which time he had been degraded from the rank of Archbishop, and he had made several recantations of his earlier views hoping for a reprieve, but to no avail.
Even in mid-March, he was still apparently willing to recant, and on the day of his execution he was allowed to give a public address in St Mary’s church, the expectation being that he would further upset the Protestant cause by a confession of his sins.
His final address, however, did not go according to his enemies plans. After some introductory remarks, he continued as follows:
And now I come to the great thing that troubleth my conscience more than any other thing that ever I said or did in my life: and that is, the setting abroad of writings contrary to the truth. Which here now I renounce and refuse, as things written with my hand, contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and written for fear of death, and to save my life, if it might be: and that is, all such bills, which I have written or signed with mine own hand since my degradation: wherein I have written many things untrue. And forasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished: for if I may come to the fire, it shall be first burned. And as for the pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy and antichrist, with all his false doctrine.Not surprisingly, the speech was cut short and Cranmer was rushed to the stake where, true to his word, he held his right hand out in the flames until it was burned first.
But the man lives on, in a remarkable legacy not only to the Church in England but across the globe. That legacy is found in what we now know as the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, whose 350th anniversary we celebrate this year. Read more