The 21st of March is the day the Church of England remembers Thomas Cranmer, the compiler of the Book of Common Prayer who was martyred on this day in 1556. Having flourished under Henry and pressed through church reforms under Edward, including the first two editions of the book of Common Prayer, he was arrested when Mary came to the throne on charges of Treason and Heresy. Whilst there was a beauty and clarity in his work on the BCP and a genuine zeal to make the gospel known and available to ordinary people in their own language, Cranmer also knew that he had made some unworthy compromises in the matter of Henry’s divorce. Mary’s interrogators played on this and Cranmer signed some recantations of his earlier positions., but in the end he went to the flames, not for the political shifts and compromises of the rulers around him but for an uncompromising commitment to a gospel of salvation made freely known to all in their own language.
He renounced his previous recantations, made under torture, and thrust his right hand first into the flames, saying that the hand which had signed these false recantations should burn first. his last words, as the flames consumed him were: ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit… I see the heavens open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.’
We look back now and see his enduring legacy in the service book still treasured by millions. I have tried to put something of my own feeling for Cranmer and his story in the following poem, which is taken from my most recent book with Canterbury Press The Singing Bowl. As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘Play’ button.
The Two Kings: a meditation on Thomas Cranmer
Soon after he had signed the fifth recantation he had a dream in which he saw two kings contending together for his soul. One of the kings was Jesus and the other was Henry VIII Thomas Cranmer Jasper Ridley
Bearing a light to break the gloom
That gathers in his littered room,
After the Latin mass is sung,
Cranmer essays the English tongue.
Before his straining eyes is set
The single word Magnificat.
He writes, delighting in the word,
My soul doth magnify the Lord
Elsewhere other voices sing
To laud and magnify the king;
A woman turns her whitened face
To beg his majesty for grace
And offers up he perjured soul
A sacrifice to bluff king Hal
Whose chains and scourges still disclose
The blood within the Tudor rose.
Could Cranmer ever hope to bruise
That hydra-headed serpent, whose
Turned in the word obedience,
And tempted him, upon his knees,
To tender Caesar Peter’s keys?
He offered Henry heaven’s trust,
Dust bowing down to worship dust.
Yet he, whom Satan had convinced
To put his trust in such a prince
And so provoke his jealous God,
Denying the redeeming blood,
Was chosen, judged, and justified,
In the same blood that he denied.
So Cranmer, who betrayed the Lord,
Was brought to glory through his Word
As, through the medium of a dream,
the Word in him redeemed the time.
His faith, denied and found again,
Held fast in that foul Oxford rain
Where, chained and bound by pious friars,
He thrust his right hand in their fires
And crying out in fits and starts
Burnt his best sermon on their hearts.