The first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury in the Church of England. He was burned at the stake for heresy in 1556, during the reign of Mary I.
The Cranmer family originated in Sutterton in the fenlands of Lincolnshire, where there was a manor of that name. It has also been spelled Cranmore, and originally the Cranmer coat of arms featured a chevron between three cranes.
The earliest reliably attested ancestor was Edmund Cranmer, who elevated the family by his marriage to Isabella the heiress of William de Aslacton, "of knight's degree", of Aslacton in Nottinghamshire. Since then, the seat of this line of the Cranmers was Aslacton (Aslockton), where Edmund's great-grandson Thomas Cranmer was born 2 July 1489. 
Edmund Cranmer's son John married Alice Marshall of Muscam,  and their heir was Thomas Cranmer, who married Agnes Hatfield. This Thomas had three sons, of whom the eldest, John, was his heir. Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop, was second-born, and Edmund, Archdeacon of Canterbury, the youngest. These younger sons were left bequests adequate for their education at Cambridge.
The senior Thomas Cranmer also had several daughters, although their identities are not clear. Two, presumably the youngest - Margaret and Emmet - were named in his Will and left marriage portions. Nothing else is known of them with certainty. Alice became a nun at the Cistercian house of Stixwold in Lincolnshire; she was sacristan there in 1525. Archbishop Cranmer later installed her as prioress of the nunnery of Minster in Stepney. She may have been the sister who urged him to recant after his condemnation for heresy under Mary I. Of the other sisters, it is attested that Dorothy married Harold Rossel and Agnes Edmund Cartwright. Some Visitations and other sources also list a Jane (married to John Moning, Lieutenant of Dover Castle) and Issabelle (married Sir ___ Shepey),   but these have been disputed.  
The senior Thomas Cranmer had a small estate with which to endow all these children and bequeath a patrimony to his heir sufficient to enable him to keep up his standing as a landed gentleman. The Cranmers seemed to be conscious of their marginal status. In his Will, the senior Thomas styled himself armiger, or esquire, which was also on his tombstone, where are inscribed not only his own family arms but also those of Newmarch, the ancient lords of Aslockton and of Whatton.. That stone lies among the Newmarches in the parish church of Whatton, St John of Beverly, rather than the chapel at Aslockton.
The Cranmer links to gentility, while tenuous, were genuine. By birth, marriage, or association, they were connected to a number of the county families of Nottinghamshire: Clifton, Fitzwilliam, Rossell, Whalley, Molyneux.
In 1501, when the senior Thomas Cranmer died, his son Thomas was only twelve years of age and attending a grammar school presided over by a "marvellous severe and cruel schoolmaster." At age fourteen, he entered the new foundation of Jesus College at Cambridge, where he would spend most of the next thirty years. In this career, he was followed by his younger brother Edmund.
Thomas Cranmer spent an inordinately long time - eight years - before obtaining his BA degree in 1511/12, after which he was named a Fellow of the college. Subsequently, he took degrees MA 1515, BD 1521, and DD 1526, when he was named University preacher. However, his career was almost permanently derailed when, after taking his MA, he married a woman known only as Joan. This marriage was not illicit, as Cranmer had not at the time been ordained, but the regulations of the college required him to forfeit his Fellowship. Cranmer took a lowly position as a reader at Buckingham College (later Magdalene) and found lodging for his wife at the Dolphin Inn. Within a year, Joan had died in childbirth. Jesus College then restored his Fellowship, exhibiting a great deal of confidence in his abilities.
During the course of Cranmer's residence at Cambridge, the European intellectual milieu altered profoundly. His studies for the BA were little unchanged from the medieval curriculum, as described by a critical biographer: ". . . the grossest kind of sophistry, logical philosophy moral and natural (not in the text of the old philosophers, but chiefly in the dark riddles and quiddities of Duns and other subtle questionists."  But his preparation for the MA focused on the Latin classics and the humanist Erasmus, who visited Cambridge in 1511.
The terms of his Fellowship required him to pursue the study of theology. About 1518, with Erasmus having published his Greek New Testament and Luther his 95 Theses, Cranmer embarked on his degree in Divinity, being ordained at about the time when the study was about to shift to reading scripture from the original texts - the first step in the Reformation.  Following his doctorate, Cranmer was appointed to a lectureship in the Old and New Testaments.  His biographers reported that, as biblical examiner in the Divinity school, he would not pass candidates who were not properly grounded in the Scriptures. Cranmer was not at that time in approval of Luther, preferring the thought of Erasmus; he was already a biblical humanist.
By 1527, King Henry VIII had decided that his queen's failure to provide him a male heir was due to his violation of a biblical prohibition (Leviticus 18 & 20) against marrying his deceased brother's widow, Catherine of Aragon, despite a papal dispensation allowing it. The king was determined on a papal annulment of his marriage, allowing him to marry again to a younger woman, Anne Boleyn, but this effort was futile from the outset, given that Catherine was the aunt of Emperor Charles V, whom Pope Clement VII could not afford to offend. As a biblical issue, the matter was naturally of great interest to Cranmer, who did not hesitate to join in the debate on the side of the king. It is unclear whether he did this from conviction or interest, or perhaps at first only thinking it an interesting academic dispute for a theologian.
In the summer of 1529, Cranmer was present with two old friends from Cambridge - Stephen Gardiner and Edward Foxe - who were then advising the king on his suit; Cranmer suggested that instead of importuning the Pope, Henry could solicit the opinions of prominent theologians in the world's universities. Henry instantly seized on the idea, and Cranmer found himself enlisted in the cause of dissolving the marriage. Whether this was his aim at the outset, there was now no turning it down.
To that end, Cranmer traveled in 1532 as ambassador to the court of Emperor Charles V, and also making secret overtures to some of the Lutheran German princes, in the course of which he made the acquaintance of some prominent theologians, notably Andreas Osiander of Nuremberg. That summer, Cranmer imprudently, being now in Holy Orders, married a niece of Osiander's wife: Margarete, whose surname might have been Preu.
Cranmer's researches for Henry, plus his growing first-hand observation of the papacy, led him to embrace more closely the notion of Royal supremacy within the church. Henry must have been confident in his conviction, for at the urging of the Boleyn party, in October 1532 he sent for Cranmer to return home to fill the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The newly-married Cranmer hesitated, allegedly hoping that delay might cause the impatient king to choose someone else, but by 1533 he had returned to England, sending Margarete on ahead of him. 
While the Archbishop of Canterbury is traditionally the Primate of All England, first in precedence within the church, Thomas Cranmer was effectively the servant of King Henry VIII, even before the Act of Supremacy made it official in 1534. While he would tell the king his true opinion on a matter, he was always subservient. Thus he survived fifteen years in the service of this capricious tyrant, while others went to the block or the stake.
He first had to be consecrated as archbishop, which required, still, an oath of loyalty to the papacy. While Cranmer did take this oath, on 30 March 1533, he hedged it with a list of disclaimers stating it would not override his loyalty to the king - a position that would cause him trouble in later years. Henry had secretly married Anne Boleyn in January and she was now pregnant, so the task of ending his first marriage was urgent. The ecclesiastical trial was a staged event, the outcome scripted in advance between Cranmer as judge and Henry as defendant, with a final, cynical note threatening Henry with excommunication if he failed to accept that his marriage to Catherine was voided. The consequence of this judgment was to declare Henry's daughter Mary a bastard, for which she would never forgive Cranmer.
Cranmer's subsequent years as Henry's archbishop were not easy ones. Not only did he have to fulfill the shifting whims of the king on matters of doctrine, he was beset by jealous enemies within the church. His initial attempt in 1534 at a visitation of the dioceses under his charge were met with resistance by several bishops who did not accept his authority, most notable his old colleague Stephen Gardiner, who was to become his most bitter enemy. The king, however, had a remedy for this; he appointed his ruthless minister Thomas Cromwell as Vice-gerent In Spirituals, giving him in effect precedence over the archbishop. Cranmer and Cromwell were both interested in reforming the church away from the papacy and had a mutually-beneficial relationship until Cromwell was executed by the king. Cranmer, on the other hand, had the king's loyalty until the end. It was apparently Henry who advised him to alter his coat of arms by replacing the original cranes with pelicans, who were traditionally credited with the virtue of feeding their children with their own blood.
Thomas Cranmer was not a radical; he altered his theological positions only gradually. In 1533, he presided over the execution by burning of a John Frith, who denied the real presence of Christ in the eucharist. Thirteen years later, he had adopted that same position himself. But the real issue was not so much doctrinal as the need for uniformity in doctrine. Cranmer's continuing contact with the protestant theologians in Germany in Switzerland brought him ever closer, not to the views of Luther but the reformed church that would later be known as Calvinist. He adopted their positions not only on the eucharist but also on predestination, justification by faith and the denial of purgatory. King Henry, however, was by no means willing to agree with him on all such counts. For every step he might take in the direction of reform, he took another one backward towards tradition.
Perhaps the high point of Cranmer's archbishopric under Henry was the publication in 1539 of the first authorized Bible in the English vernacular. In 1540, he wrote a preface to the second edition, which sometimes led people to call it "Cranmer's Bible", although the text was largely William Tyndale's and the moving force behind its authorization was Thomas Cromwell. Every church was required to purchase a copy and keep it chained to the public for all to read. Yet in a conservative backlash, led by Stephen Gardiner, Parliament attempted to restrict the persons who were allowed access to it. It also passed the Act of Six Articles, a return to Catholic principles, including clerical celibacy. Cranmer was forced to send his wife and young daughter away to Germany.
On 28 January 1547, King Henry VIII died, attended by Archbishop Cranmer, leaving his young son Edward VI as the new King of England. Edward, son of Henry's third and best-beloved wife Jane Seymour, had been brought up a protestant; Thomas Cranmer was his godfather. Now at last the archbishop was free to shape the English church to his own mind. As a symbol of the change, he grew a long white beard, in the mode of the protestant ministers of Europe - an iconic alteration from the clean-shaven Tudor clerics, although the bearded image is less well-known today.
The new regime began with a program of iconoclasm, removing the images in churches that protestant thought considered idolatry, and also removing the stone altars. Bishop Stephen Gardiner objected strenuously to these alterations from tradition, but Cranmer had the satisfaction of seeing Gardiner sent to the Tower in the beginning of 1551.
He also continued with his major work of casting the liturgy into English, beginning at Easter 1548 with a vernacular version of the mass, now called Holy Communion, in which the laity took communion in the form of both bread and wine. He produced several major theological works during this time, but the most significant and influential was the Book of Common Prayer, which was published in a first edition in 1549 and further revised in 1552. This work has proved to be a major milestone in the development of the modern English language as well as the Anglican faith. In 1553, he produced the 42 Articles of Belief, which, reduced to 39, still constitute the doctrinal core of the Anglican churches.
But this ambitious program of reformation was threatened in 1553 by the illness of King Edward and the potential inheritance of the throne by the Catholic Mary, the daughter of Henry that Cranmer had officially bastardized. Edward and his advisors attempted to forestall this in a Will leaving the throne to his cousin Lady Jane Grey, a granddaughter of Henry VIII's sister Mary. But after Edward's death on 6 July, Queen Jane lasted less than two weeks before an armed uprising on behalf of Mary deposed her on 19 July.
. Queen Mary fulfilled Thomas Cranmer's worst fears by restoring the Catholic faith as quickly as Parliament would allow. Knowing what was likely to come, many protestants, including Edmund Cranmer, Archdeacon of Canterbury, fled to the safety of the continent, but the archbishop remained at his post, presiding at the internment of King Edward in August with his own Holy Communion rites. In the meantime, his enemy Stephen Gardiner was released from the Tower, restored to his bishopric of Westminster, and soon made Chancellor.
In November 1553, when accused of treason for his support of Queen Jane, Cranmer readily confessed, but he was then held at Oxford to face charges of heresy, along with his followers Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, who were burned on 16 October 1555, as Cranmer was forced to watch. Following this, in January, he made the first of several recantations, which have excited the speculation of historians. It is not possible to know whether he sincerely repented turning away from the Catholic religion, whether he was exhibiting moral weakness or an attempt to gain a pardon, or whether, having adhered for decades to the principle of Royal Supremacy, he genuinely believed Queen Mary had the right to demand his obedience.
Catholic canon law stipulated that a repentant heretic be pardoned, but Mary and her advisors were determined to see Cranmer publicly burned. They planned a public ceremony for 21 March 1556 at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin in which Cranmer would recant his former beliefs, but at the last moment he gathered the will to embrace his martyrdom - or perhaps it had been his plan from the outset. He denounced his recantations "written contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and written for fear of death." He then added, "foreasmuch as my hand offended, writing contrary to my heart, my hand shall first be punished there-for." The authorities prevented him from finishing his speech and dragged him to the place of execution where Latimore and Ridley had earlier been burned. There, the flames being lit, he thrust his hand first into the fire, and thereafter died.  
Queen Mary did not live long after Thomas Cranmer, dying 17 November 1588. Within a year, her successor Queen Elizabeth had restored the protestant church of Edward VI along the general lines left by Cranmer.
There was an immediate and widespread effort on the part of protestant supporters to turn Archbishop Cranmer into a protestant martyr. Most notable of these was the book Acts and Monuments by John Foxe, more commonly known as Foxe's Book of Martyrs, in which the death of Cranmer was given a prominent place.
Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley are known collectively as the Oxford Martyrs. The site of their deaths is now marked with a cross set into the pavement, and a nearby monument commemorates the events.
The Anglican Church annually commemorates Thomas Cranmer as a Reformation Martyr on the date of his death: March 21.
Thomas Cranmer's decision to marry has to be seen as unfortunate. Margarete Cranmer had to spend years in seclusion in a foreign country and years separated from her husband. After 1547, she was able to return to England and live openly with her husband for a few years, until the death of Edward VI. Their son Thomas was probably born during this time. After Thomas Cranmer was killed, she married Edward Whitchurch, the printer of the Great Bible. Whitchurch also attempted to provide for her children. After his death in 1562, she married Bartholomew Scott, possibly a family member of Whitchurch. Margarete died some time about 1571. There is a memorial to her in Camberwell, where Whitchurch is buried: Margaret, ye wido of ye right reverend Prel. and Martyr Tho. Cranmer, Archbish. of Canterburie.
Thomas and Margarete Cranmer had three children, of whom one son and daughter survived to adulthood. They were restored in blood by an Act of Parliament on 27 February 1562/3. Neither left issue.
Archbishop Cranmer had attempted to provide for his son with landed property in Yorkshire, the Kirkstall and Arthington priories. These, however, were forfeit by his attainder on conviction for treason. These lands were acquired by friends and servants of Cranmer, including Edward Whitchurch. As a child, young Thomas was taken for safety to the continent, probably by his uncle Edmund Cranmer, and on his return to England, he had difficulty in claiming his inheritance, engaged in profligate behavior, and died in poverty, the most unhappy consequence of his father's marriage. His wife was Catherine, youngest daughter of Ralph Rogers, Esq., of Kent, and widow of Hugh Vaughn, who died 1576.
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