All three men were brought before the commissioners and each was told he had been proved wrong and was given opportunity to recant. Each refused. They were condemned as heretics.
One of the most interesting bits of Oxford history is the story of the Oxford Martyrs and the statue by which they are remembered. The history of the monument itself is fascinating. In 1833, John Henry Newman (1801‑90), an Anglican priest, began publishing a series of pamphlets called Tracts for the Times. By them he intended to defend the Anglican Church as a divine institution, the doctrine of apostolic succession, and the Book of Common Prayer. He was followed by John Keble (1792‑1866) and E. B. Pusey (1800‑82) in the Oxford Movement. Some critics saw these emphases as a drift back to Roman Catholicism. By 1838, the Oxford Movement was in full swing. Some more vigorous Protestant Anglicans, concerned about the powerful tug of the Oxford Movement’s account of the tradition of the western church on the hearts and minds of Oxford, commissioned the Martyrs’ Memorial in remembrance of the death of three of the English Reformation’s most well-known and fascinating heroes, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, Bishop Hugh Latimer, and Bishop Nicholas Ridley. The construction of the memorial was funded through subscriptions, which was also a vehicle by which various Anglican pastors could register their support of ideas for which the memorial would stand. It was not well supported locally. The memorial was completed, in 1845, just two years before Newman completed his conversion to Rome. Newman was later rewarded for his labors with a Roman cardinal’s hat. Along with him several other prominent Anglicans converted to Rome, apparently justifying the fear of some of the movement’s critics. It was ironic that the monument honoring England’s most famous Reformers should be built in the midst of controversy involving Rome, for it was a very similar controversy that made three churchmen into martyrs.
Cranmer suggested to Henry that he might consult the universities who in turn might be able to find grounds in canon law for the divorce. Henry was delighted with this suggestion. This would not be the last time Cranmer would be of such assistance to Henry.
The First to Recant
The most fascinating of the three martyrs is the reluctant Archbishop, Thomas Cranmer
(c. 1489‑1556). Thomas, like his fellow martyrs, was educated at Cambridge. Raised a loyal son of the church and a loyal servant of his king, Cranmer took priestly orders and became a fellow in Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1514. Soon after, he abandoned his order to marry. He became a reader at Buckingham College. After less than a year of marriage, Cranmer’s wife, Joan, died and he was readmitted to Jesus College as a fellow (a tutor), and shortly before 1520 was ordained to the priesthood.
By 1529 it had become apparent to King Henry VIII that his wife, Catherine of Aragon, was not going to produce an heir to the throne. He sued the pope for divorce. Seeing Henry’s unsuccessful attempt to free himself to produce an heir, Cranmer suggested to Henry that he might consult the universities who in turn might be able to find grounds in canon law for the divorce. Henry was delighted with this suggestion. This would not be the last time Cranmer would be of such assistance to Henry.
Three years later, Cranmer, the loyal servant of Henry Tudor, was serving as his ambassador to the pope. While on this trip, he met and secretly married Margaret Osiander, niece of the Lutheran reformer of the same surname. On the face of it, this was a strange thing for Cranmer to do. Why would a zealous priest, in the service of the king, on a trip to see his “holy father” take a second wife? This contradictory modus vivendi marked Thomas to his end. We know him as a Reformer, yet for most of his career he was not terribly Reformed in his actions, and perhaps the one unifying theme of his service was his dedication to an idea which most Reformed people found distasteful, to say the least. Cranmer was a committed Erastian. He believed that the king was rightly the temporal head of the church. The Genevan Reformers and their Palatinate, English and American heirs believed that Christ is the temporal and spiritual head of the church, and they struggled mightily to prevent secular authorities from manipulating the church. At the same time, Cranmer did much to advance the Reformation in England, in a way in which few others could. In 1532 he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, the ecclesiastical leader of the English church. He served Christ in that office until the accession of Mary Tudor in 1553.
From his appointment, until the accession of the child Edward VI (1547–53), Cranmer served Henry very faithfully, granting ecclesiastical sanction to Henry’s marital infidelities. The year following his appointment, Cranmer annulled Henry’s marriage to Catherine. He performed the same “service” for Henry in 1536, leading to Anne Bolyn’s execution and then officiated at Henry’s marriage to, and divorce from, Anne of Cleves. Not surprisingly during this period, Cranmer advanced his Reforming ideas very cautiously, authoring and sanctioning a series of Articles, none of which can be described as militantly Reformed. His Ten Articles of 1536 endorsed three sacraments: baptism, communion and penance. Although the article on the Eucharist did not use the word transubstantiation, it is not clearly Protestant. It was replaced a year later by the Bishops’ Book, named after the men who wrote it. This work endorsed seven sacraments and the Ave Maria. The Bishops’ “Book”‘ was revised by King Henry and aptly renamed The King’s Book in 1543. The major change is that now the book clearly endorsed transubstantiation.
Unfortunately for Margaret Osiander, her husband opposed ineffectively the Six Articles of 1539 which Henry imposed on the church. These articles were Henry’s response to the growth of the reformation in the church. They endorsed transubstantiation, communion in one kind, clerical celibacy, monastic vows, private masses and auricular confession. Being a pastor’s wife can be unpleasant. Being an archbishop’s wife can be miserable, especially when it is illegal to be such! Margaret, whom Cranmer had kept in hiding seven years, was now sent to Germany. Ironically, after all Cranmer had done for Henry’s married life, it is Henry who unwittingly enforced an unwanted separation on his archbishop.
Henry Tudor had good reason to trust his archbishop. Cranmer had done little to challenge or disappoint him. During Henry’s life, the most radical move Cranmer made was to encourage the distribution of the Bible in English, not an insignificant contribution, mind you, but not enough to get him in trouble with his “boss,” as it were. Tied as he was to Henry’s whim, Cranmer could only be as effective as Henry was tolerant. At the king’s death and the accession of young Edward VI, Cranmer flew his Reformed colors more openly. His view of the Supper became more recognizably Protestant. He imported the Italian humanist and Reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli (1500‑62) to be Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford and the Strasbourg Reformer, Martin Bucer (1491‑1551) to hold the same post at Cambridge. In 1549 he published his greatest work, the Book of Common Prayer The Book continues to be praised as a signal literary and theological achievement. It was revised and made more clearly Protestant in 1552. In the next year he also published the plainly Calvinistic Forty‑two Articles, the basis of the Elizabethan Thirty‑Nine Articles (1571).