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A History of the Reformation (Vol. 2 of 2)

Which resulted in the Recantations of Thomas Cranmer


"Ignorance, I know," he said, "may excuse other men; but he that knoweth how prejudicial and injurious the power and authority which the Pope challengeth everywhere is to the Crown, laws, and customs of this realm, and yet will allow the same, I cannot see in anywise how he can keep his due allegiance, fidelity, and truth to the Crown and slate of this realm."

In his second letter he struck a bolder note, and declared that the oath which Mary had sworn to maintain the laws, liberties, and customs of the realm was inconsistent with the other oath she had taken to obey the Pope, to defend his person, and to maintain his authority, honour, laws, and privileges. The accusation of perjury did not touch him at all. The sovereigns--Bishop Brooks, appointed to try him--every constituted authority in the realm--when confronted by it, had to choose between the oath of allegiance to country or to Papacy; he had chosen allegiance to his fatherland; others who acted differently betrayed it. That was his position. The words he addressed to Queen Mary--"I fear me that there be contradictions in your oath "--was his justification.

At Rome, Cranmer was found guilty of contumacy, and the command went forth that he was to be deposed, degraded, and punished as a heretic. In the meantime he was burnt in effigy at Rome. When he heard his sentence, he composed an Appeal to a General Council, following,

he said, the example of Luther.[512] The degradation was committed to Bonner and Thirlby, and was executed by the former with his usual brutality. This done, he was handed over to the secular authorities for execution. Then began a carefully prepared course of refined mental torture, which resulted in the "Recantations of Thomas Cranmer."[513] A series of recantations was presented to him, which he was ordered to sign by his sovereign; and, strange as it may seem now, it was the sovereign's command that made it almost impossible for Cranmer to refuse to sign the papers which, one after another, were given him. He was a man who felt the necessity of an ultimate authority. He had deliberately put aside that of the Pope, and as deliberately placed that of the sovereign in its place; and now the ultimate authority, which his conscience approved, commanded him to sign. The first four were not real recantations; Cranmer could sign them with a good conscience; they consisted of generalities, the effect of which depended on the meaning of the terms used, and everyone knew the meanings which he had attached to the words all throughout his public life. But the fifth and the sixth soiled his conscience and occasioned his remorse. It was not enough for Mary, Pole, and Bonner that they were able to destroy by fire the bodies of English Reformers, they hoped by working partly on the conscience and partly on the weakness of the leader of the English Reformation, to show the worthlessness of the whole movement. In the end, the aged martyr redeemed his momentary weakness by a last act of heroism. He knew that his recantations had been published, and that any further declaration made would probably be suppressed by his unscrupulous antagonists. He resolved by a single action to defeat their calculations and stamp his sincerity on the memories of his countrymen. His dying speech was silenced, as he might well have expected; but he had made up his mind to something which could not be stifled.[514]

"At the moment he was taken to the stake he drew from his bosom the identical paper (the recantation), throwing it, in the presence of the multitude, with his own hands into the flames, asking pardon of God and of the people for having consented to such an act, which he excused by saying that he did it for the public benefit, as, had his life, which he sought to save, been spared him, he might at some time have still been of use to them, praying them all to persist in the doctrines believed by him, and absolutely denying the Sacrament and the supremacy of the Church. And, finally, stretching forth his arm and right hand, he said: 'This which hath sinned, having signed the writing, must be the first to suffer punishment'; and thus did he place it in the fire and burned it himself."[515]


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