Thomas Cranmer

Thomas Cranmer

Thomas Cranmer was born at Aslockton, Nottinghamshire on 2nd July 1489. He was admitted to Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1503. According to Diarmaid MacCulloch: "Cranmer took eight years to 1511, a surprisingly long time, to acquire the degree of BA: perhaps his acknowledged problems in absorbing information quickly, or family financial worries, delayed his progress." (1)

Cranmer received his MA in 1515. Although not yet deacon or priest he still had to forfeit his fellowship of Jesus College when he married a woman who worked at an inn called The Dolphin. She became known as "Black Joan of the Dolphin" (2) He became a teacher at Buckingham College but Joan died in childbirth and he returned to Cambridge University. (3)

Thomas Cranmer took holy orders in 1520. In that year the university named him one of the preachers whom they were entitled by papal grant to license for preaching throughout the British Isles. During this period he was a loyal papalist and appeared to completely reject the ideas of Martin Luther. In fact, in 1523 he attacked him for "the arrogance of a most wicked man!" (4)

Thomas Cranmer & Henry VIII

Cranmer was a friend of Edward Lee, the Archbishop of York. In 1527 he joined him in a diplomatic mission to to the emperor Charles V in Spain. On his return he had a meeting with Henry VIII where they discussed the possible annulment of the king's marriage to Catherine of Aragon. At a meeting with Bishop Stephen Gardiner and Bishop Edward Foxe on 2nd August 1529, Cranmer suggested that Henry's marriage should not be decided by the canon lawyers in the ecclesiastical courts, but by theologians in the universities. (5) Henry liked the idea and from then on Cranmer became one of his key political advisors. It has been argued that Cranmer was the ideal man for Henry, since he believed in royal supremacy over the Church but also dreaded the disorder that uncontrolled reform might lead to. (6)

Henry VIII eventually sent a message to the Pope Clement VII arguing that his marriage to Catherine had been invalid as she had previously been married to his brother Arthur. Henry relied on Cardinal Thomas Wolsey to sort the situation out. During negotiations the Pope forbade Henry to contract a new marriage until a decision was reached in Rome. With the encouragement of Anne, Henry became convinced that Wolsey's loyalties lay with the Pope, not England, and in November 1529 he was dismissed from office. (7)

Henry now took up Cranmer's suggestion. In February 1530, Cranmer and Bishop Gardiner, began discussing the matter with theologians from Cambridge University. They discovered their was considerable opposition to the idea, but "eventually succeeded in obtaining the opinion that Henry required, after they had handpicked a number of university doctors, whom they knew supported Henry's case, to decide the question for the University." This included Hugh Latimer who was a Lutheran. The University pronounced that a marriage of a man with his brother's widow was against the divine law, and that a Papal dispensation could not make it valid. They encountered even stronger opposition at Oxford University, but at the end of consultation they obtained a 27 to 22 vote that Henry's marriage to Catherine was against God's law." (8)

Anne Boleyn

In 1532 Cranmer went on a further diplomatic mission to Germany. Cranmer befriended the leading Lutheran theologian, Andreas Osiander, and at some stage during a summer of diplomacy, probably in July, married Margaret, a niece of Osiander's wife, Katharina Preu. This act reflects Cranmer willingness to reject the old church's tradition of compulsory celibacy. In October 1532 he discovered that William Warham had died and Henry VIII had appointed him as the next Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer reluctantly accepted the post but realised he would need to keep his marriage secret from the king. (9) Eustace Chapuys sent a report to Emperor Charles V that he believed that Cranmer was a supporter of Martin Luther. (10)

Henry's confidence in Cranmer was reflected by the decision to appoint him as a royal chaplain and he was attached to the household of Thomas Boleyn, the father of his mistress, Anne Boleyn. In December 1532 Henry discovered that Anne was pregnant. He realised he could not afford to wait for the Pope's permission to marry Anne. As it was important that the child should not be classed as illegitimate, arrangements were made for Henry and Anne to get married in secret. Cranmer later confirmed that the marriage ceremony took place on 25th January, 1533. (11)

Thomas Cranmer
Thomas Cranmer by Gerlach Flicke (1545)

Thomas Cranmer was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury in St Stephen's Church at Westminster on 30th March 1533. It was a necessary part of of the consecration ceremony that the Archbishop should take an oath, swearing to be obedient to Pope Clement VII and his successors and to defend the Roman Papacy against all men. This raised a problem for Henry. He wanted Cranmer's consecration ceremony to be correct in every detail, so that no one could claim that he had not been properly consecrated. This was because he intended in a few weeks time for Cranmer to state that the Pope had no authority in England.

Henry and his Archbishop of Canterbury eventually came up with a solution to the problem. Before entering the church, Cranmer made a statement in the chapter house at Westminster, in the presence of five lawyers. He declared that he did not intend to be bound by the oath of obedience to the Pope that he was about to take, "if it was against the law of God or against our illustrious King of England, or the laws of his realm of England". (12)

On 9th April, 1533, Eustace Chapuys had an audience with Henry VIII . Chapuys said that his duty to God and the Emperor required him to protest most strongly against the measures which were being taken in Parliament against Catherine of Aragon. Henry replied that he was obeying God's law in refusing to cohabit with his brother's widow. Henry also said he needed a son to ensure the succession, Chapuys pointed out that he could not be sure that he would have children by a second marriage. Henry protested at this, and asked three times if he was not like other men and hinted that Anne was pregnant.

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The following day Chapuys wrote a letter to Emperor Charles V and advised him to send an army to invade England. He argued that the intervention would succeed, because it would be welcomed not only by the English people but by most of the nobility, so that Henry would have no leaders to command his army and no horseman to serve in it. He went on to say that the Emperor did not have to fear King François, who would certainly not go to war with him for Henry's sake. (13)

Charles V eventually ruled out the use of military force. As Jasper Ridley pointed out: "The operation would be much too hazardous, and Henry would have the help of his various allies; war with England might endanger the Emperor's realms, particularly Germany, where the Lutheran Princes would enter the war on Henry's side. They also rejected the idea of a trade embargo against England, for this could easily lead to war, and would injure the interests of the Emperor's subjects in the Netherlands." (14)

Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn on 25th January, 1533. Elizabeth was born on 7th September. Thomas Cranmer became Elizabeth's godfather. Henry expected a son and selected the names of Edward and Henry. While Henry was furious about having another daughter, the supporters of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon were delighted and claimed that it proved God was punishing Henry for his illegal marriage to Anne. (15) Retha M. Warnicke, the author of The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) has pointed out: "As the king's only legitimate child, Elizabeth was, until the birth of a prince, his heir and was to be treated with all the respect that a female of her rank deserved. Regardless of her child's sex, the queen's safe delivery could still be used to argue that God had blessed the marriage. Everything that was proper was done to herald the infant's arrival." (16)

Elizabeth Barton

Archbishop Cranmer had to deal with the preacher, Elizabeth Barton. She had been claiming that if he married Anne Boleyn he would die within a month and that within six months the people would be struck down by a great plague. He was disturbed by her prophesies and ordered that she be kept under observation. Cranmer commented later that Henry put off his marriage to Anne because "of her visions". (17)

In the summer of 1533 Thomas More met Elizabeth Barton. Soon afterwards he wrote to her warning about the dangers she faced if she continued to speak with "lay persons, of any such manner things as pertain to princes' affairs, or the state of the realm... with any person, high and low, of such manner things as may to the soul be profitable for you to show and for them to know". (18)

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Anne Boleyn

In the summer of 1533 Archbishop Thomas Cranmer wrote to the prioress of St Sepulchre's Nunnery asking her to bring Elizabeth Barton to his manor at Otford. On 11th August she was questioned, but was released without charge. Thomas Cromwell then questioned her and, towards the end of September, Edward Bocking was arrested and his premises were searched. Father Hugh Rich was also taken into custody. In early November, following a full scale investigation, Barton was imprisoned in the Tower of London. (19)

Peter Ackroyd, the author of Tudors (2012) has suggested: "It may be that she was put on the rack. In any case it was declared that she had confessed that all her visions and revelations had been impostures... It was then determined that the nun should be taken throughout the kingdom, and that she should in various places confess her fraudulence." (20) Barton secretly sent messages to her adherents that she had retracted only at the command of God, but when she was made to recant publicly, her supporters quickly began to lose faith in her. (21)

In March 1534 Elizabeth Barton, Edward Bocking, Hugh Rich (warden of Richmond Priory), Henry Risby (warden of Greyfriars, Canterbury), Henry Gold (parson of St Mary Aldermary) and two laymen, Edward Thwaites and Thomas Gold, were indicted of high treason. They were all found guilty and sentenced to be executed on 20th April, 1534. They were "dragged through the streets from the Tower to Tyburn". (22)

Act of Supremacy

Pope Clement VII eventually made his decision. He announced that Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn was invalid. Henry reacted by declaring that the Pope no longer had authority in England. In November 1534, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy. This gave Henry the title of the "Supreme head of the Church of England". A Treason Act was also passed that made it an offence to attempt by any means, including writing and speaking, to accuse the King and his heirs of heresy or tyranny. All subjects were ordered to take an oath accepting this. (23)

Sir Thomas More and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, refused to take the oath and were imprisoned in the Tower of London. More was summoned before Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell at Lambeth Palace. More was happy to swear that the children of Anne Boleyn could succeed to the throne, but he could not declare on oath that all the previous Acts of Parliament had been valid. He could not deny the authority of the pope "without the jeoparding of my soul to perpetual damnation." (24)

Henry's daughter, Mary I, also refused to take the oath as it would mean renouncing her mother, Catherine of Aragon. On hearing this news, Anne Boleyn apparently said that the "cursed bastard" should be given "a good banging". Henry told Cranmer that he had decided to send her to the Tower of London, and if she refused to take the oath, she would be prosecuted for high treason and executed. According to Ralph Morice it was Cranmer who finally persuaded Henry not to put her to death. Morice claims that when Henry at last agreed to spare Mary's life, he warned Cranmer that he would live to regret it. (25) Henry decided to put her under house arrest and did not allow her to have contact with her mother. He also sent some of her servants who were sent to prison.

Execution of Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn was arrested and was taken to the Tower of London on 2nd May, 1536. Thomas Cromwell took this opportunity to destroy her brother, George Boleyn. He had always been close to his sister and in the circumstances it was not difficult to suggest to Henry that an incestuous relationship had existed. George was arrested on 2nd May, 1536, and taken to the Tower of London. David Loades has argued: "Both self control and a sense of proportion seem to have been completely abandoned, and for the time being Henry would believe any evil that he was told, however farfetched." (26)

On 12th May, Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, as High Steward of England, presided over the trial of Henry Norris, Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton at Westminster Hall. (27) Except for Smeaton they all pleaded not guilty to all charges. Thomas Cromwell made sure that a reliable jury was empanelled, consisting almost entirely of known enemies of the Boleyns. "These were not difficult to find, and they were all substantial men, with much to gain or lose by their behaviour in such a conspicuous theatre". (28)

Few details survive of the proceedings. Witnesses were called and several spoke of Anne Boleyn's alleged sexual activity. One witness said that there was "never such a whore in the realm". The evidence for the prosecution was very weak, but "Cromwell managed to contrive a case based on Mark Smeaton's questionable confession, a great deal of circumstantial evidence, and some very salacious details about what Anne had allegedly got up to with her brother." (29) At the end of the trial the jury returned a verdict of guilty, and the four men were condemned by Lord Chancellor Thomas Audley to be drawn, hanged, castrated and quartered. Eustace Chapuys claimed that Brereton was "condemned on a presumption, not by proof or valid confession, and without any witnesses." (30)

George and Anne Boleyn were tried two days later in the Great Hall of the Tower. In Anne's case the verdict already pronounced against her accomplices made the outcome inevitable. She was charged, not only with a whole list of adulterous relationships going back to the autumn of 1533, but also with poisoning Catherine of Aragon, "afflicting Henry with actual bodily harm, and conspiring his death." (31)

George Boleyn was charged with having sexual relations with his sister at Westminster on 5th November 1535. However, records show she was with Henry on that day in Windsor Castle. Boleyn was also accused of being the father of the deformed child born in late January or early February, 1536. (32) This was a serious matter because in Tudor times Christians believed that a deformed child was God's way of punishing parents for committing serious sins. Henry VIII feared that people might think that the Pope Clement VII was right when he claimed that God was angry because Henry had divorced Catherine and married Anne. (33)

Eustace Chapuys reported King Charles V that Anne Boleyn "was principally charged with... having cohabited with her brother and other accomplices; that there was a promise between her and Norris to marry after the King's death, which it thus appeared they hoped for... and that she had poisoned Catherine and intrigued to do the same to Mary... These things, she totally denied, and gave a plausible answer to each." She admitted to giving presents to Francis Weston but this was not an unusual gesture on her part. (34) It is claimed that Thomas Cranmer told Alexander Ales that he was convinced that Anne Boleyn was innocent of all charges. (35)

George and Anne Boleyn were both found guilty of all charges. Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, who presided over the trial left it to the King to decide whether Anne should be beheaded or burned alive. Between sentence and execution, neither admitted guilt. Anne declared herself ready to die because she had unwittingly incurred the King's displeasure, but grieved, as Eustace Chapuys reported, for the innocent men who were also to die on her account." (36)

On 18th May, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer sat as judge at Lambeth Palace to try Henry's petition for divorce against Anne Boleyn. Cranmer had the problem of finding a reason for reversing his decision of three years earlier that Henry's marriage to Anne had been valid. There were two possible grounds for invalidating it: the existence of a precontract between Anne and Henry Percy, and the fact that Anne's sister, Mary Boleyn, had been Henry's mistress. Percy denied that there had been a pre-contract. Henry VIII did not want the public to know he had an affair with Mary, so Cranmer tried the case in private and granted the divorce without publicly announcing the reason for his decision. (37) According to the imperial ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, the grounds for the annulment included the king's previous relationship with Mary Boleyn. However, this information has never been confirmed. (38)

Anne went to the scaffold at Tower Green on 19th May, 1536. The Lieutenant of the Tower reported her as alternately weeping and laughing. The Lieutenant assured her she would feel no pain, and she accepted his assurance. "I have a little neck," she said, and putting her hand round it, she shrieked with laughter. The "hangman of Calais" had been brought from France at a cost of £24 since he was a expert with a sword. This was a favour to the victim since a sword was usually more efficient than "an axe that could sometimes mean a hideously long-drawn-out affair." (39)

Anne Boleyn's last words were: "Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the King, and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never and to me he was ever a good, a gentle, and sovereign Lord.... And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me." (40)

Religious Reforms

In July 1537, a committee of bishops, archdeacons and Doctors of Divinity, headed by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, published The Institution of the Christian Man (also called The Bishops' Book). The purpose of the work was to implement the reforms of Henry VIII in separating from the Roman Catholic Church. Henry did not attend the discussions, but took an active part in producing the book. He studied the proposed drafts, suggested amendments and argued about the precise theological significance of one word compared to another.

The book repeatedly proclaimed the royal supremacy over the Church and the duty of all good subjects to obey the King. For example, "Thou shalt not kill" meant that no one should kill except the reigning monarch and those acting under their orders. This meant that Henry and future monarchs were "above the law of the realm". Henry tried to change it to state that "inferior rulers" should not have the same rights as kings like himself. Cranmer thought that this change would be undesirable and it was not altered. (41)

Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Cromwell and Hugh Latimer joined forces to introduce religious reforms. They wanted the Bible to be available in English. This was a controversial issue as William Tyndale had been denounced as a heretic and ordered to be burnt at the stake by Henry VIII eleven years before, for producing such a Bible. The edition they wanted to use was that of Miles Coverdale, an edition that was a reworking of the one produced by Tyndale. Cranmer approved the Coverdale version on 4th August 1538, and asked Cromwell to present it to the king in the hope of securing royal authority for it to be available in England. (42)

Henry agreed to the proposal on 30th September. Every parish had to purchase and display a copy of the Coverdale Bible in the nave of their church for everybody who was literate to read it. "The clergy was expressly forbidden to inhibit access to these scriptures, and were enjoined to encourage all those who could do so to study them." (43) Cranmer was delighted and wrote to Cromwell praising his efforts and claiming that "besides God's reward, you shall obtain perpetual memory for the same within the realm." (44)

David Starkey has praised the way that Cranmer was able to adapt his religious views during his period of power: "What Cranmer lacked in brilliance, he made up for in steadiness; he was thorough, organized and a superb note-taker. In contrast with the instinctively partisan Gardiner, he was also blessed (and sometimes cursed) with an ability to see both sides of the question. This, combined with his essential fair-mindedness, meant that his opinions were in a state of slow but constant change. The individual steps were scarcely ever revolutionary. But his lifetime's journey - from orthodoxy to advanced reform - was." (45)

The Six Articles

In 1539 Parliament was summoned to consider matters of religion. It was reported at the time that it was assembled to negotiate "a thorough unity and uniformity established for the reformation of the church of this realm". One issue that was in dispute was the orthodox Catholic belief in transubstantiation, whereby the bread and wine became in actual fact the body and blood of Christ. It was believed because it is impossible, and proof of the overwhelming power of God. Radical reformers saw this as a superstitious ritual and was only a commemoration of Christ's sacrifice.

Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, the leading religious conservative, presented what became known as the Six Articles. This restated the orthodox position on such matters as transubstantiation, confession and clerical celibacy. Despite the opposition of Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell, the Six Articles was passed by Parliament. The French ambassador wrote to his court that "the people show great joy at the king's declaration touching the sacrament, being much more inclined to the old religion than to the new opinions".

The denial of transubstantiation was now to be punished by the death in the fire, while the refusal to subscribe to the other five articles led to the forfeiture of all goods and imprisonment at the king's pleasure. It is claimed that some 200 people were arrested and held in prison. Peter Ackroyd, the author of Tudors (2012), has described it as the "most severe religious law in English history". (46) Two bishops were forced to resign their sees as a result of the new measures; Hugh Latimer left Worcester and Nicholas Shaxton left Salisbury. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was able to hold on to his post but he was forced to send his wife, Margaret Cranmer, and their children into exile. (47)

The Fall of Thomas Cromwell

Henry VIII was angry with Thomas Cromwell for arranging the marriage with Anne of Cleves. The conservatives, led by Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, saw this as an opportunity to remove him from power. Gardiner considered Cromwell a heretic for introducing the Bible in the native tongue. He also opposed the way Cromwell had attacked the monasteries and the religious shrines. Gardiner pointed out to the King that it was Cromwell who had allowed radical preachers such as Robert Barnes to return to England.

Robert Barnes was clearly in danger but on 28th February, 1540, he preached a sermon attacking Bishop Gardiner. On 5th March, Barnes was summoned to appear before Henry VIII and Gardiner. Barnes begged forgiveness but continued to preach against the religious conservatives. On 3rd April, he was arrested along with two of his followers, William Jerome and Thomas Garrard, and taken to the Tower of London. (48)

Thomas Cromwell retaliated by arresting Richard Sampson, Bishop of Chichester and Nicholas Wotton, staunch conservatives in religious matters. He then began negotiating the release of Barnes. However, this was unsuccessful and it was now clear that Cromwell was in serious danger. (49) The French ambassador reported on 10th April, 1540, that Cromwell was "tottering" and began speculating about who would succeed to his offices. Although he he resigned the duties of the secretaryship to his protégés Ralph Sadler and Thomas Wriothesley he did not lose his power and on 18th April the King granted him the earldom of Essex.

Quarrels in the Privy Council continued and Charles de Marillac reported to François I on 1st June, 1540, that "things are brought to such a pass that either Cromwell's party or that of the Bishop of Winchester must succumb". On 10th June, Cromwell arrived slightly late for a meeting of the Privy Council. Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, shouted out, "Cromwell! Do not sit there! That is no place for you! Traitors do not sit among gentlemen." The captain of the guard came forward and arrested him. Cromwell was charged with treason and heresy. Norfolk went over and ripped the chains of authority from his neck, "relishing the opportunity to restore this low-born man to his former status". Cromwell was led out through a side door which opened down onto the river and taken by boat the short journey from Westminster to the Tower of London. (50)

On 12th June, Thomas Cromwell wrote a letter to Henry VIII saying he was amazed that such a good servant of the king should be found to have committed treason. He pointed out that he had shown "wisdom, diligence, faithfulness and experience as no prince in the realm ever had". Cranmer told Henry that he loved Cromwell as a friend, "but I chiefly loved him for the love which I thought I saw him bear ever towards your grace singularly above all others. But now if he be a traitor, I am sorry that ever I loved him or trusted him, and I am very glad that his treason has been discovered in time. But yet again I am very sorrowful, for whom should your grace trust hereafter." (51)

Thomas Cromwell was convicted by Parliament of treason and heresy on 29th June and sentenced him to be hung, drawn and quartered. He wrote to Henry VIII soon afterwards and admitted "I have meddled in so many matters under your Highness that I am not able to answer them all". He finished the letter with the plea, "Most gracious prince I cry for mercy, mercy, mercy." Henry commuted the sentence to decapitation, even though the condemned man was of lowly birth. (52)

On 28th July, Cromwell walked out onto Tower Green for his execution. In his speech from the scaffold he denied that he had aided heretics, but acknowledged the judgment of the law. He then prayed for a short while before placing his head on the block. The executioner bungled his work, and took two strokes to sever the neck of Cromwell. He suffered a particularly gruesome execution before what was left of his head was set upon a pike on London Bridge. (53)

Thomas Cranmer in Danger

Ralph Morice wrote that in the summer of 1545 Bishop Stephen Gardiner and some of his conservative supporters on the Privy Council went to see Henry VIII and accused Cranmer of heresy and suggested he should be sent to the Tower of London. Henry agreed that Cranmer should be arrested at the Privy Council meeting the next day. Henry sent for Cranmer to come to him at Whitehall. When he arrived Henry told him that he was going to be arrested as a heretic and sent to the Tower. Cranmer replied: "Oh, Lord God! what fond simplicity have you, so to permit yourself to be imprisoned, that every enemy of yours may take vantage against you. Do not you think that if they have you once in prison, three or four false knaves will be soon procured to witness against you and to condemn you, which else now being at your liberty dare not once open their lips or appear before your face. No, not so, my lord, I have better regard unto you than to permit your enemies so to overthrow you." Henry then gave Cranmer his ring, and told him to produce it when he was arrested next day. (54)

When Cranmer attended the meeting of the Council next day, he was told that he was being sent to the Tower on a charge of heresy; but he then produced the ring. They all then went to see the King, who strongly criticised them for having attempted to send Cranmer to the Tower. Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, protested that they had only done so in order to give him the opportunity to prove his innocence. Henry then ordered them all to shake hands with Cranmer. (55)

Reign of Edward VI

When Henry VIII died on 28th January, 1547. Edward was too young to rule, so his uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, took over the running of the country. At the beginning of the new reign Cranmer grew a beard. "This may be seen as a token of mourning for his old master, but in fact the clergy of the reformed Church favoured beards; it may be seen as a decisive rejection of the tonsure and of the clean-shaven popish priests." (56)

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer fully supported the religious direction of the new government and invited several Protestant reformers to England. Cranmer now openly acknowledged his married state. At Edward's coronation Cranmer gave a short address that was a forceful statement of royal supremacy against Rome, as well as an emphatic call to the young king to become a destroyer of idolatry. (57)

Attempts were made to destroy those aspects of religion that were associated with the Catholic Church, for example, the removal of stained-glass windows in churches and the destruction of religious wall-paintings. Somerset made sure that Edward VI was educated as a Protestant, as he hoped that when he was old enough to rule he would continue the policy of supporting the Protestant religion.

Somerset's programme of religious reformation was accompanied by bold measures of political, social, and agrarian reform. Legislation in 1547 abolished all the treasons and felonies created under Henry VIII and did away with existing legislation against heresy. Two witnesses were required for proof of treason instead of only one. Although the measure received support in the House of Commons, its passage contributed to Somerset's reputation for what later historians perceived as his liberalism. (58)

In 1548 Archbishop Thomas Cranmer converted the Mass into Communion and constructed a new Prayer Book. These events upset those conservatives such as Bishop Stephen Gardiner who pointed out that some of his actions were considered to be heretical. Princess Mary was also concerned by these developments and wrote a letter to Lord Protector Edward Seymour to protest against the direction of events. (59)

The Kett Rebellion took place in the summer of 1549. Lord Protector Edward Seymour was blamed by the nobility and gentry for the social unrest. They believed his statements about political reform had encouraged rebellion. His reluctance to employ force and refusal to assume military leadership merely made matters worse. Seymour's critics also disliked his popularity with the common people and considered him to be a potential revolutionary. His main opponents, including John Dudley, 2nd Earl of Warwick, Henry Wriothesley, 2nd Earl of Southampton, Henry Howard, 1st Earl of Northampton, and Ralph Sadler met in London to demand his removal as Lord Protector. (60)

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer supported the Duke of Somerset but few others took his side. (61) Seymour no longer had the support of the aristocracy and had no choice but to give up his post. On 14th January 1550 his deposition as lord protector was confirmed by act of parliament, and he was also deprived of all his other positions, of his annuities, and of lands to the value of £2000 a year. He was sent to the Tower of London where he remained until the following February, when he was released by the Earl of Warwick who was now the most powerful figure in the government. Roger Lockyer suggests that this "gesture of conciliation on Warwick's part served its turn by giving him time to gain the young King's confidence and to establish himself more firmly in power". (62) This upset the nobility and in October 1551, Warwick was forced to arrest the Duke of Somerset.

Thomas Cranmer
Thomas Cranmer by an unknown artist (c. 1550)

Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, pleaded not guilty to all charges against him. He skillfully conducted his own defence and was acquitted of treason but found guilty of felony under the terms of a recent statute against bringing together men for a riot and sentenced to death. (63) "Historians sympathetic to Somerset argue that the indictment was largely fictitious, that the trial was packed with his enemies, and that Northumberland's subtle intrigue was responsible for his conviction. Other historians, however, have noted that Northumberland agreed that the charge of treason should be dropped and that the evidence suggests that Somerset was engaged in a conspiracy against his enemies." (64) Although the king had supported Somerset's religious policies with enthusiasm he did nothing to save him from his fate and he was executed on 22nd January, 1552. (65)

Attempts were made by conservatives on the Privy Council to engineer the execution of Thomas Cranmer and John Dudley, 2nd Earl of Warwick. The two men formed an alliance and managed to keep control of the government. According to his biographer, Diarmaid MacCulloch "from now on evangelical ascendancy was unchallenged". (66) In 1559 there were further revisions of the Prayer Book. "Cranmer's second prayer book remains at the heart of all Anglican liturgical forms. (67)

Lady Jane Grey

In April 1552 Edward VI fell ill with a disease that was diagnosed first as smallpox and later as measles. He made a surprising recovery and wrote to his sister, Elizabeth, that he had never felt better. However, in December he developed a cough. Elizabeth asked to see her brother but John Dudley, the lord protector, said it was too dangerous. In February 1553, his doctors believed he was suffering from tuberculosis. In March the Venetian envoy saw him and said that although still quite handsome, Edward was clearly dying. Edward's heir was Mary, the daughter of Catherine of Aragon and a Roman Catholic. (68)

In order to secure his hold on power, Dudley devised a plan where Lady Jane Grey would marry his son, Guildford Dudley. According to Philippa Jones, the author Elizabeth: Virgin Queen (2010): "Early in 1553, Dudley... began working to persuade the King to change the succession. Edward VI was reminded that Mary and Elizabeth were both illegitimate, and more importantly, that Mary would bring Catholicism back to England. Dudley reasoned that if Mary were to be struck out of the succession, how could Elizabeth, her equal, be left in? Furthermore, he argued that both the princesses would seek foreign husbands, jeopardizing English sovereignty." (69)

Under the influence of the Lord Protector, Edward made plans for the succession. Sir Edward Montague, chief justice of the common pleas, testified that "the king by his own mouth said" that he was prepared to alter the succession because the marriage of either Princess Mary or Princess Elizabeth to a foreigner might undermine both "the laws of this realm" and "his proceedings in religion". According to Montague, Edward also thought his sisters bore the "shame" of illegitimacy. (70)

The marriage took place on 21st May 1553 at Durham House, the Dudleys' London residence, and afterwards Jane went back to her parents. She was told Edward was dying and she must hold herself in readiness for a summons at any moment. "According to her own account, Jane did not take this seriously. Nevertheless she was obliged to return to Durham House. After a few days she fell sick and, convinced that she was being poisoned, begged leave to go out to the royal manor at Chelsea to recuperate." (71) It is not known if Thomas Cranmer was involved in this plan to grab power from Mary. (72)

King Edward VI died on 6th July, 1553. Three days later one of Northumberland's daughters came to take Lady Jane Grey to Syon House, where she was ceremoniously informed that the king had indeed nominated her to succeed him. Jane was apparently "stupefied and troubled" by the news, falling to the ground weeping and declaring her "insufficiency", but at the same time praying that if what was given to her was "‘rightfully and lawfully hers", God would grant her grace to govern the realm to his glory and service. (73)

On 10th July, Queen Jane arrived in London. An Italian spectator, witnessing her arrival, commented: "She is very short and thin, but prettily shaped and graceful. She has small features and a well-made nose, the mouth flexible and the lips red. The eyebrows are arched and darker than her hair, which is nearly red. Her eyes are sparkling and reddish brown in colour." (74) Guildford Dudley, "a tall strong boy with light hair’, walked beside her, but Jane apparently refused to make him king, saying that "the crown was not a plaything for boys and girls." (75)

Jane was proclaimed queen at the Cross in Cheapside, a letter announcing her accession was circulated to the lords lieutenant of the counties, and Bishop Nicholas Ridley of London preached a sermon in her favour at Paul's Cross, denouncing both Mary and Elizabeth as bastards, but Mary especially as a papist who would bring foreigners into the country. It was only at this point that Jane realised that she was "deceived by the Duke of Northumberland and the council and ill-treated by my husband and his mother". (76)

Mary, who had been warned of what John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland, had done and instead of going to London as requested, she fled to Kenninghall in Norfolk. As Ann Weikel has pointed out: "Both the earl of Bath and Huddleston joined Mary while others rallied the conservative gentry of Norfolk and Suffolk. Men like Sir Henry Bedingfield arrived with troops or money as soon as they heard the news, and as she moved to the more secure fortress at Framlingham, Suffolk, local magnates like Sir Thomas Cornwallis, who had hesitated at first, also joined her forces." (77)

Mary summoned the nobility and gentry to support her claim to the throne. Richard Rex argues that this development had consequences for her sister, Elizabeth: "Once it was clear which way the wind was blowing, she (Elizabeth) gave every indication of endorsing her sister's claim to the throne. Self-interest dictated her policy, for Mary's claim rested on the same basis as her own, the Act of Succession of 1544. It is unlikely that Elizabeth could have outmanoeuvred Northumberland if Mary had failed to overcome him. It was her good fortune that Mary, in vindicating her own claim to the throne, also safeguarded Elizabeth's." (78)

The problem for Dudley was that the vast majority of the English people still saw themselves as "Catholic in religious feeling; and a very great majority were certainly unwilling to see - King Henry's eldest daughter lose her birthright." (79) When most of Dudley's troops deserted he surrendered at Cambridge on 23rd July, along with his sons and a few friends, and was imprisoned in the Tower of London two days later. Tried for high treason on 18th August he claimed to have done nothing save by the king's command and the privy council's consent. Mary had him executed at Tower Hill on 22nd August. In his final speech he warned the crowd to remain loyal to the Catholic Church. (80)

Queen Mary and Thomas Cranmer

On 5th September 1553 Cranmer appeared before royal commissioners at St Paul's deanery to answer questions about his role in the Jane Grey coup. Nine days later he was sent to the Tower of London. His household was broken up, much of his goods sold off, most of his Protestant books destroyed, and the bulk of his magnificent library given away to his enemies. So many Protestants were arrested that Cranmer had to share his apartment with Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and John Bradford. (81)

On 14th February, 1555, Cranmer was stripped of his church offices, and turned over to the secular authorities. John Foxe pointed out: "The doctors and divines of Oxford all tried to make him recant, even allowing him to stay in the dean's house while they argued with him, and eventually Cranmer gave in to their requests and signed a recantation accepting the pope's authority in all things." (82)

Cranmer was put on trial for heresy on 12th September 1555. Pope Paul IV appointed James Brooks, Bishop of Gloucester, to act as judge, which was held in St Mary's Church in Oxford. Thomas Martin, counsel for the prosecution, subjected Cranmer to what has been described as a "brilliant and merciless cross-examination", asking him about his relationship to "Black Joan of the Dolphin" in Cambridge, and his marriage to Margaret in Germany in 1532. Martin also spent time on the oath he gave on 30th March 1533 during the consecration ceremony when he became Archbishop of Canterbury.

According to Jasper Ridley, the author of Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002): "Cranmer gave a piteous exhibition; he was utterly broken by his imprisonment, by the humiliations heaped upon him, and by the defeat of all his hopes; and the fundamental weakness in his character, his hesitations and his doubts were clearly displayed. But he steadfastly refused to recant and to acknowledge Papal Supremacy. He was condemned as a heretic." (83)

On 16th October, Cranmer was forced to watch his friends, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer, burnt at the stake for heresy. "It is reported that he fell to his knees in tears. Some of the tears may have been for himself. He had always given his allegiance to the established state; for him it represented the divine rule. Should he not now obey the monarch and the supreme head of the Church even if she wished to bring back the jurisdiction of Rome? In his conscience he denied papal supremacy. In his conscience, too, he was obliged to obey his sovereign." (84)

In November 1555 Cranmer wrote to Queen Mary urging her to assert and defend her royal supremacy over the Church of England and not to submit to the domination of the Bishop of Rome. When Mary received the letter she said that she considered it a sin to read, or even to receive, a letter from a heretic, and handed the letter to Archbishop Reginald Pole for him to reply to Cranmer. "There could have been nothing more painful for Cranmer, after he had appealed to his Queen to assert her royal supremacy against the foreign Pope, than to receive a reply from the Bishop of Rome's Legate informing him that the Queen had asked him to reply to Cranmer's letter to her." (85)

Cranmer was guarded by Nicholas Woodson, a devout Catholic, who attempted to persuade him to change his views. It has been claimed that this friendship came to be his only emotional support, and, to please Woodson, he began giving way to everything that he had hated. On 28th January, 1556, he signed his first hesitant submission to papal authority. This was followed by submissions on 14th, 15th and 16th February. On 24th February he was made aware that his execution would take place in a few days time. In an attempt to save his life, he signed a statement that was truly a recantation. He probably did not write it himself; the Catholic commentary on it merely says that Cranmer was ordered to sign it. (86)

Despite these recantations, Queen Mary I refused to pardon him and ordered Thomas Cranmer to be burnt at the stake. When he was told the news he probably remembered what Henry VIII said to him when he successfully persuaded the king not to execute his daughter. According to Ralph Morice Henry warned Cranmer that he would live to regret this action. (87)

On 21st March, 1556, Thomas Cranmer was brought to St Mary's Church in Oxford, where he stood on a platform as a sermon was directed against him. He was then expected to deliver a short address in which he would repeat his acceptance of the truths of the Catholic Church. Instead he proceeded to recant his recantations and deny the six statements he had previously made and described the Pope as "Christ's enemy, and Antichrist, with all his false doctrine." The officials pulled him down from the platform and dragged him towards the scaffold. (88)

Cranmer had said in the Church that he regretted the signing of the recantations and claimed that "since my hand offended, it will be punished... when I come to the fire, it first will be burned." According to John Foxe: "When he came to the place where Hugh Latimer and Ridley had been burned before him, Cranmer knelt down briefly to pray then undressed to his shirt, which hung down to his bare feet. His head, once he took off his caps, was so bare there wasn't a hair on it. His beard was long and thick, covering his face, which was so grave it moved both his friends and enemies. As the fire approached him, Cranmer put his right hand into the flames, keeping it there until everyone could see it burned before his body was touched." Cranmer was heard to cry: "this unworthy right hand!" (89)

Thomas Cranmer
Thomas Cranmer burnt at the stake

It was claimed that just before he died Cranmer managed to throw the speech he intended to make in St Mary's Church into the crowd. A man whose initials were J.A. picked it up and made a copy of it. Although he was a Catholic, he was impressed by Cranmer's courage, and decided to keep it and it was later passed on to John Foxe, who published in his Book of Martyrs.

Jasper Ridley has argued that as a propaganda exercise, Cranmer's death was a disaster for Queen Mary. "An event which has been witnessed by hundreds of people cannot be kept secret and the news quickly spread that Cranmer was repudiated his recantations before he died. The government then changed their line; they admitted that Cranmer had retracted his recantations were insincere, that he had recanted only to save his life, and that they had been justified in burning him despite his recantations. The Protestants then circulated the story of Cranmer's statement at the stake in an improved form; they spread the rumour that Cranmer had denied at the stake that he had ever signed any recantations, and that the alleged recantations had all been forged by King Philip's Spanish friars." (90)

Primary Sources

(1) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984)

Clement continued to play his former game, using every excuse for delay and promising everything to everybody. He promised Charles's ambassador that he would issue the bull ordering Henry to stop committing adultry with Anne, and that he would give judgement for Catherine. He then promised Henry's agents that he would not do this. Eventually he issued the bull against Henry, but refused to publish it. He suggested to Henry's agent, Carne, that he might grant Henry a dispensation to commit bigamy and marry Anne without divorcing Catherine; he said this would be less embarrassing than to give Henry the divorce.

Henry had meanwhile acted on Cranmer's suggestion to consult universities. He began at Cambridge, where Gardiner and Fox set to work in February 1530. They found that there was strong opposition in Cambridge to complying with Henry's wishes; but they eventually succeeded in obtaining the opinion that Henry required, after they had handpicked a number of university doctors, whom they knew supported Henry's case, to decide the question for the University. One of those selected was Hugh Latimer, who had attended discussions at the White Horse Inn, was a close friend of Bilney's, and was suspected of being a Lutheran. The University pronounced that a marriage of a man with his brother's widow was against the divine law, and that a Papal dispensation could not make it valid.

(2) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003)

What Cranmer lacked in brilliance, he made up for in steadiness; he was thorough, organized and a superb note-taker. In contrast with the instinctively partisan Gardiner, he was also blessed (and sometimes cursed) with an ability to see both sides of the question. This, combined with his essential fair-mindedness, meant that his opinions were in a state of slow but constant change. The individual steps were scarcely ever revolutionary. But his lifetime's journey - from orthodoxy to advanced reform - was.

Student Activities

Henry VIII (Answer Commentary)

Henry VII: A Wise or Wicked Ruler? (Answer Commentary)

Henry VIII: Catherine of Aragon or Anne Boleyn?

Was Henry VIII's son, Henry FitzRoy, murdered?

Hans Holbein and Henry VIII (Answer Commentary)

The Marriage of Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon (Answer Commentary)

Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves (Answer Commentary)

Was Queen Catherine Howard guilty of treason? (Answer Commentary)

Anne Boleyn - Religious Reformer (Answer Commentary)

Did Anne Boleyn have six fingers on her right hand? A Study in Catholic Propaganda (Answer Commentary)

Why were women hostile to Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn? (Answer Commentary)

Catherine Parr and Women's Rights (Answer Commentary)

Women, Politics and Henry VIII (Answer Commentary)

Historians and Novelists on Thomas Cromwell (Answer Commentary)

Martin Luther and Thomas Müntzer (Answer Commentary)

Martin Luther and Hitler's Anti-Semitism (Answer Commentary)

Martin Luther and the Reformation (Answer Commentary)

Mary Tudor and Heretics (Answer Commentary)

Joan Bocher - Anabaptist (Answer Commentary)

Anne Askew – Burnt at the Stake (Answer Commentary)

Elizabeth Barton and Henry VIII (Answer Commentary)

Execution of Margaret Cheyney (Answer Commentary)

Robert Aske (Answer Commentary)

Dissolution of the Monasteries (Answer Commentary)

Pilgrimage of Grace (Answer Commentary)

Poverty in Tudor England (Answer Commentary)

Why did Queen Elizabeth not get married? (Answer Commentary)

Francis Walsingham - Codes & Codebreaking (Answer Commentary)

Sir Thomas More: Saint or Sinner? (Answer Commentary)

Hans Holbein's Art and Religious Propaganda (Answer Commentary)

1517 May Day Riots: How do historians know what happened? (Answer Commentary)


(1) Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(2) Jasper Ridley, Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002) page 13

(3) John Foxe, Book of Martyrs (1563) page 204 of 2014 edition.

(4) Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (1997) page 27

(5) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 181

(6) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) page 41

(7) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003) pages 430-433

(8) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) pages 190-191

(9) Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(10) Eustace Chapuys, report to King Charles V (27th January, 1533)

(11) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 215

(12) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) page 42

(13) Eustace Chapuys, report to King Charles V (10th April, 1533)

(14) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 223

(15) Patrick Collinson, Queen Elizabeth I : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(16) Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) page 168

(17) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 68

(18) Jasper Ridley, The Statesman and the Fanatic (1982) page 271

(19) Diane Watt, Elizabeth Barton : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(20) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 76

(21) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) page 210

(22) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 76

(23) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) pages 43-44

(24) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 82

(25) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 274

(26) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 324

(27) David Loades, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 82

(28) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 324

(29) Howard Leithead, Thomas Cromwell : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(30) David Loades, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 82

(31) Eric William Ives, Anne Boleyn : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(32) Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) page 227

(33) David Loades, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 82

(34) Ambassador Eustace Chapuys, report to King Charles V (May, 1536)

(35) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 271

(36) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) page 253

(37) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 270

(38) Jonathan Hughes, Mary Boleyn : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(39) Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) page 227

(40) Anne Boleyn, statement on the scaffold at Tower Green (19th May, 1536). Quoted by Edward Hall, in his book, History of England (1548) page 268-269

(41) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 302

(42) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) page 294

(43) David Loades, Thomas Cromwell (2013) page 190

(44) John Schofield, The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII's Most Faithful Servant (2011) page 227

(45) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003) page 385

(46) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 143

(47) Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(48) Carl R. Trueman, Robert Barnes : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(49) David Loades, Thomas Cromwell (2013) page 226

(50) Howard Leithead, Thomas Cromwell : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(51) Thomas Cranmer, letter to Henry VIII (12th June, 1540)

(52) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) page 79

(53) David Loades, Thomas Cromwell (2013) page 226

(54) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 397

(55) Jasper Ridley, Thomas Cranmer (1962) page 238-239

(56) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 187

(57) Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (1997) page 349

(58) Barrett L. Beer, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(59) David Loades, Mary Tudor (2012) page 99

(60) Barrett L. Beer, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(61) Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(62) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) page 92

(63) Jennifer Loach, Edward VI (2002) pages 101-102

(64) Barrett L. Beer, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(65) Elizabeth Jenkins, Elizabeth the Great (1958) page 37 (66)

(66) Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(67) Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (1997) page 512

(68) Dale Hoak, Edward VI: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(69) Philippa Jones, Elizabeth: Virgin Queen (2010) page 86

(70) Thomas Fuller, The Church History of Britain: Volume IV (1845) pages 138-9

(71) Ann Weikel, Mary Tudor : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(72) Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(73) J. M. Stone, The History of Mary I, Queen of England (1901) page 497

(74) Richard Davey, The Nine Days' Queen: Lady Jane Grey and her Times (1909) page 253

(75) Alison Plowden, Lady Jane Grey : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(76) J. M. Stone, The History of Mary I, Queen of England (1901) page 499

(77) Ann Weikel, Mary Tudor : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(78) Richard Rex, Elizabeth: Fortune's Bastard (2007) pages 35-36

(79) Christopher Morris, The Tudors (1955) page 113

(80) S. J. Gunn, Edmund Dudley : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(81) Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(82) John Foxe, Book of Martyrs (1563) page 217 of 2014 edition.

(83) Jasper Ridley, Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002) page 112

(84) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 278

(85) Jasper Ridley, Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002) page 127

(86) Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(87) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 274

(88) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 279

(89) John Foxe, Book of Martyrs (1563) page 219 of 2014 edition.

(90) Jasper Ridley, Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002) page 137