On the 21st March 1556, Thomas Cranmer was executed for heresy. As a leader of the English Reformation he had not only promoted Protestantism but had also established the first structures of the Church of England. Despite having signed a number of recantations or retractions of his Protestant faith, on the day of his execution he in turn recanted these recantations before being burned at the stake.
Cranmer’s early career had seen him present the case for Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Although his argument did not result in the Pope agreeing to annul the marriage, Cranmer was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by the King in March 1533 after which he quickly moved to declare Henry’s marriage to Catherine void. Within just a few years he also annulled the King’s marriages to Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard and had begun to work with Thomas Cromwell to promote the publication of an English Bible.
Cranmer’s actions led to him developing a large and powerful opposition, which only grew under the reign of Edward VI. His support for the Protestant Lady Jane Grey as Edward’s successor, rather than his Catholic older sister Mary, ultimately led to him being put on trial for treason in 1553. Cranmer’s execution in 1556 for heresy and was intended to act as way to discredit Protestantism. However, his eleventh-hour rejection of his earlier recantations against the Reformist movement meant that his death ultimately undermined the Marian Counter-Reformation.
He died at the stake having placed his right hand, with which he had signed his recantation, into the fire first as a punishment for being “unworthy”.