A Crown, War and Death….

Oliver Cromwell's death mask

Oliver Cromwell’s death mask


Today, we commemorate the beginning of a renowned but over-hyped medieval reign and the end of what was effectively, a military dictatorship….

On 3rd September 1189, King Richard I ‘Coeur de Lion’ was crowned in Westminster Abbey.  Unusually, Richard took his own crown from the altar and passed it to Archbishop Baldwin who then proceeded with the ceremony. The day’s celebrations were marred by the violent persecution of Jews in London, which triggered similar, murderous outbreaks in other cities most notably Lincoln, Norwich and York.

On 3rd September 1634, the influential barrister, jurist and politician Sir Edward Coke died at the age of 88. He was renowned for his determined fight against the Royal Stuarts’ claims to absolute rule….and on that theme..

On 3rd September 1650, at the Battle of Dunbar, a Parliamentarian force led by Oliver Cromwell, defeated a Scottish army, which was loyal to Charles II.  Charles had been proclaimed ‘King of Scots’ on 5th February 1649.

Twelve months later on 3rd September 1651, The final battle of the English Civil War took place at Worcester where Oliver Cromwell defeated the Royalists.  The future Charles II fled the battlefield and went into hiding before taking himself into exile in France.

On Friday 3rd September 1658, on the anniversary of his victories at Dunbar and Worcester, the military and political leader Oliver Cromwell, died in Whitehall at the age of 59 after being struck down by malarial fever.

Cromwell was buried with great ceremony in Westminster Abbey.  However, on 30th January 1661, on the 12th anniversary of the execution of Charles I, Cromwell’s body was exhumed and subjected to a symbolic, posthumous execution; his remains were hung in chains before being decapitated.  The body was thrown into an unmarked pit whilst his severed head was displayed for 24 years outside Westminster Hall.

The head was then sold several times until, in 1960, it was buried in Cambridge.  Cromwell’s death mask is displayed at Warwick Castle..

On 3rd September 1878,the passenger steamer ‘SS Princess Alice’ was sunk after colliding with a larger vessel, the ‘SS Bywell Castle’ on the River Thames, within sight of North Woolwich pier in London.  Over 650 passengers were drowned in the accident, the worst in the river’s history.

On 3rd September 1939, Britain declared war on Germany. The Second World War which followed, was the deadliest conflict in human history, resulting as it did in the deaths of 50-70 million people.

London’s burning, London’s burning…

Fire of London, which started in the early hours of Sunday 2nd September 1666

Fire of London, which started in the early hours of Sunday 2nd September 1666


At around 2am on Sunday 2nd September 1666, a small fire started at the house of Thomas Farynor, ‘The King’s Baker’ in Pudding Lane near London Bridge.

The baker’s family was trapped indoors but managed to scramble through an upstairs window to an adjoining property, but their maidservant who was too frightened to try: she was the first person to perish in the conflagration that swept through the City of London.

Known as the Great Fire of London, the fire burned until Wednesday 5th September, gutting the medieval city inside the former Roman wall.  Approximately 13,200 houses, 87 churches and St. Paul’s Cathedral were destroyed.  Only six deaths were recorded in formal records but the full death toll was probably much higher.  The social and economic consequences of the fire were enormous.


When Henry met Di

A strange coincidence of dates brought an end to the lives of two iconic figures, who influenced English history and culture in very different ways.

Their deaths, separated by 575 years, occurred on 31st August within the same European city and on the same day of the week.  Both were in their mid thirties.

On Sunday 31st August 1422, the great Warrior-King Henry V died at the Bois de Vincennes in Paris at the age of 35.  Henry was returning from a military campaign when he contracted dysentery, an occupational hazard for medieval monarchs.  His body was carried back to England and buried in Westminster Abbey, close to the shrine of Edward the Confessor.  His infant son was 9 months old and he succeeded to the throne as King Henry VI, the youngest monarch in English history.

On Sunday 31st August 1997, Diana Princess of Wales was killed following a violent car-crash in the Pont de l’Alma road tunnel in Paris; she was 36 years old.  Her partner Dodi Fayed and their driver Henri Paul died also in the collision.  The bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones survived the accident despite appalling injuries.


Tomb of Henry V, which lies close to the shrine of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbeys

Tomb of Henry V, which lies close to the shrine of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbeys

The most photographed and famous woman of her day, who died on 31st August 1997

The most photographed and famous woman of her day, who died on 31st August 1997


Mixed Blessings for the Tudors and England

Throughout the centuries, 29th August has been a busy, interesting and influential day. Here are some examples…

On 29th August 1350, the naval Battle of Winchelsea took place off the south coast of England.  An English fleet of about 50 ships led by King Edward III and his son the ‘Black Prince’, defeated an attack by approximately 40 vessels sent by the Kingdom of Castile.  The Castilians had fought for France and had been attacking English merchant ships for some time.  It is believed that King Edward’s ship was rammed during the skirmish and the vessel carrying the Black Prince was sunk.

On 29th August 1529, Bishop Stephen Gardiner of Winchester introduced to King Henry VIII an obscure cleric named Thomas Cranmer.  The King was most impressed with Cranmer’s views on the ‘King’s Great Matter’.  Within four years, Thomas was Archbishop of Canterbury and he took several major decisions on King Henry’s marriages to Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn.

On Tuesday 29th August 1553, a diarist, probably Rowland Lee, an official of the Royal Mint at the Tower of London, dined with Lady Jane Grey & recorded his conversation with her.  The author entitled his diary entry, ‘The Chronicle of Queen Jane’ although by that date, Lady Jane was confined in the Tower at the pleasure of Mary I.  The entry tells us that Jane drank to the assembled company, which included Mr. Partridge, ‘The Gentleman Gaoler’.

On 29th August 1555, Philip of Spain left Greenwich Palace and departed England, effectively abandoning his wife Queen Mary I, only 13 months after the couple had been married.  Ostensibly, Philip left the country to take up his position as successor to the Spanish Empire but in truth, he had little interest in either Mary or England.  Philip did return on what was effectively a business trip, for a period of 4 months in March 1557, but in all other respects, his marriage to Mary was at an end: at a later date, Philip sent the Armada with the intention of invading England..

The physician and philosopher John Locke was born at Wrington in Somerset on 29th August 1632.  He was one of the most influential thinkers of the 18th century ‘Age of Enlightenment’ and is usually regarded as the ‘Father of Liberalism’.

On 29th August 1923, actor, director and producer Richard Samuel Attenborough CBE was born in Cambridge.  He is the elder brother of the naturalist and wildlife film maker David Attenborough.  Richard’s acting career began in 1942 and he has featured in several major films.

The former motor racing driver James Simon Wallis Hunt was born on this day {1947} and so was comedian Lenworth George ‘Lenny’ Henry CBE {1958}.

On 29th August 1966, The Beatles performed their last, live commercial concert, which was in Candlestick Park, San Fancisco.

40 years ago on 29th August 1974, 220 people were arrested following disturbances at a rock festival in Windsor Great Park, Berkshire.  More than 600 police officers moved in at 8am to remove 2000 festival goers who had camped in the park without permission.  Fighting broke out when some youths refused to leave.  This was the third event to be staged in the park and not surprisingly, it was the last.

A lovely celebration was had on 29th August 1986; England’s oldest twins celebrated their 100th birthday at a joyous party.  May and Marjorie Chavasse were both in reasonably good health.  Neither of them had ever married but both had distinguished careers.  Marjorie worked for ‘Dr. Barnardo’s charity and set up several homes for children.  May was a nurse who once cared for soldiers in France, during the First World War.  The two ladies received a congratulatory telegram from HM The Queen.

Finally, on 29th August 1989, England lost an iconic figure: the conservationist, painter and ornithologist Sir Peter Markham Scott CH CBE DSC died in Bristol at the age of 79.  He was a founder member of the World Wildlife Fund and set up several wetlands, bird sanctuaries in Britain.  In 1936, he represented Great Britain in the Olympic Games and won a bronze medal for the sailing event.  During the Second World War, he served with the Royal Navy and commanded gun boats..


The long forgotten but very significant naval battle of winchelsea.

The long forgotten but very significant naval battle of Winchelsea.

For ever England…..

Today, we commemorate the poet Rupert Chawner Brooke, who was born in Rugby, Warwickshire on 3rd August 1887.

Brooke is best known for the poetry, which he wrote during the First World War, particularly ‘The Soldier’, a sonnet that he penned in 1914.

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.



Murder in the Forest ? Who was red faced ?

On 2nd August 1100 King William II aka ‘William Rufus’, so called because of his ruddy complexion and red hair, rode out from Winchester on a hunting expedition in the ‘New Forest’.

The King was accompanied by several noblemen and his younger brother Henry, {the future successor Henry I}.  although he didn’t know it, this was to be King William’s last hunting trip.

According to official accounts, William and a knight named Walter Tirel, pursued a stag.  The King shot an arrow at the beast but missed.  Tirel was asked to shoot the animal but his arrow also ‘missed’ the target and struck King William, killing him instantly.

William was the second son of William the Conqueror to be killed whilst hunting in the New Forest.  It was later reported that William’s body was left in the care of peasants, who carried it back on a farmer’s cart to Winchester.

King William II was despised by the clergy: he was buried, with little or no ceremony, beneath a tower in Winchester Cathedral.  The tower collapsed the following year, causing many people to declare it an ‘Act of God’.


William Rufus

In or out of Europe ? It’s all old hat..

As political parties struggle for supremacy in the wake of poor ratings, we hear and read about potential referendums and demands for an exit from Europe on our terms.  The subject is of course nothing new; in fact the issue was addressed nearly 5 centuries ago.

480 years have passed since Nottinghamshire born Thomas Cranmer who was Archbishop of Canterbury, convened an Ecclesiastical Court at Dunstable Priory near Luton and took England out of Europe in the most dramatic fashion imaginable.

It was on 23rd May 1533 that Cranmer and his Court declared the marriage of King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon ‘null and void’.  They decided that the Pope had no jurisdiction in the ‘King’s Great Matter’ and in so doing, the Court and King Henry separated and isolated England from Catholic Europe.

From 3:20pm on Thursday 23rd May 2013, I will be speaking on BBC Radio Nottingham to describe what was quite possibly the most important and significant decision in England’s long and illustrious past.  I will argue that the impact gave the English an island culture which still pervades.

I will explain why Thomas Cranmer and his colleagues made the decision, against the backdrop of King Henry’s temporary obsession with Anne Boleyn.  I will have available the text of the surviving letters written by Henry to Anne; they speak volumes about his passions and I trust that you will enjoy the broadcast…

The Ladies are King – England’s Top Ten Monarchs

Queen Victoria photographed in 1887.

Queen Victoria photographed in 1887.

1.    Most people will know that Queen Victoria is the mother of all British monarchs.  She succeeded to the throne on 20th June 1837, following the death of her Uncle William IV; she was just 18 years old.  Victoria’s remarkable tenure continued for 63 years and 216 days {or 23,226 days}, which makes her the longest reigning monarch in England’s long and illustrious history.  When she died on 22nd January 1901 Victoria was 81 years old.  She was interred in the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore, within sight of Windsor Castle.  Victoria had nine children and most of them played significant roles in shaping European monarchies.  Two of her grandchildren, Britain’s George V and Germany’s Wilhelm II, were on opposing sides during the First World War.

HM Queen Elizabeth II

2.    Queen Elizabeth II is hot on the trail of her famous ancestor.  Born on 21st April 1926, she is 86 years old which makes her the oldest monarch in English and British history.  This remarkable woman succeeded her father George VI on 6th February 1952 when she was 25 years old.  It follows that in February 2013, she will have served Britain and the Commonwealth for 61 years which places her second in my list of all time greats.  Without doubt, Queen Elizabeth II has witnessed and absorbed more changes than any other King or Queen of England or Britain.  Her monarchy has been exposed to the most intense, microscopic scrutiny but she has always responded with dignity and resolve.  Elizabeth has four children and her eldest Prince Charles, has served or perhaps endured, the longest term ever as heir to the throne.  If she is to surpass Queen Victoria, Elizabeth II must stay in power until 9th September 2015, when she will be 89 years old.

King George III sits third in this test of longevity

3.    The long reign of George III was notorious for the King’s occasional bouts of insanity, which were probably a symptom of porphyria.  George came to the throne on 25th October 1760 when he was 22 years old.  His son the Prince of Wales, with whom he was often in conflict, served as Regent during the incidents of ‘madness’ but George III remained in power notionally until his death on 29th January 1820 when he was 81 years old, a feat that seemed highly unlikely during the early part of his life.  His reign of 59 years and 96 days puts him third in this list of elite rulers.  George survived several attempts to assassinate him and in 1762, he purchased Buckingham House {now Buckingham Palace} in St. James Park for £21,000.  Despite his German antecedents, George was the most patriotic monarch imaginable, which perhaps explains his extreme disappointment at the loss of the American colonies after 1781.

Tomb effigy of Henry III

Tomb effigy of Henry III

4.    One has to regress nearly 800 years for the fourth longest reign in England’s history.  King Henry III, the son of King John, was born on 1st October 1207 and he came to the throne nine years later on 19th October 1216, following the sudden death of his father.  Henry was more suited to the religious life than that of a king but his troubled reign continued for 56 years and 29 days.  His greatest legacy is undoubtedly Westminster Abbey, which he had rebuilt in the form that we see today.

Tomb effigy of Edward III

Tomb effigy of Edward III

5.    Next comes the great medieval Warrior-King Edward III who was born in Windsor Castle on 13th November 1312.  His succession, which was a rather clumsy, political affair, occurred on 25th January 1327 when Edward was 14 years old and his reign continued for 50 years and 147 days until his death at the age of 64 on 21st June 1377.  King Edward’s monarchy was quite extraordinary.  He led England into the early stages of the ‘Hundred Years War’ against France and in 1348, his country experienced the first devastating outbreaks of Bubonic Plague.  In the same year Edward founded the ‘Order of the Garter’ and he nominated Saint George as its Patron Saint; it is now the oldest order of chivalry in the world.

Coronation portrait of Elizabeth I

Coronation portrait of Elizabeth I

6.    Sixth place goes to England’s most illustrious and celebrated monarch, Queen Elizabeth I who was born on 7th September 1533.  She was 25 years old when she came to the throne on 17th November 1558, following the death of her much troubled half-sister Mary I.  During an incredible tenure of 44 years and 127 days, Elizabeth survived numerous attempts on her life and plots against her monarchy.  She rejected all offers of marriage, defied Catholic Europe and defeated the huge Armada sent by Philip II of Spain.  The Court of Elizabeth I is still the most famous and prestigious in world history.

Henry VI

Henry VI

7.    During the 15th century, the English crown changed hands five times as the Wars of the Roses ripped the country apart.  The turbulent and interrupted reign of King Henry VI was symptomatic of this violent era.  Henry was only 8 months old when he succeeded to the throne on 31st August 1422, making him the youngest sovereign in English history.  He was later deposed for a short period by Edward IV and his reign of 38 years and 347 days was brought to a violent end on or around 21st May 1471, when he was almost certainly murdered in the Tower of London.  Henry’s greatest legacy is his twin foundation at Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge.

Aethelred 'the Unready' taken from the Chronicle of Abingdon

Aethelred ‘the Unready’ taken from the Chronicle of Abingdon

8.    It may surprise you to know that eighth position is taken by a monarch who died nearly 1000 years ago.  The reign of Aethelred ‘the Unready’ began on 18th March AD978 and continued over 38 years and 36 days until his death on 23rd April 1016.  His kingship was disrupted and bedevilled by Viking raids and wars; it was interrupted in 1013 when Aethelred fled to Normandy for a while.

Henry VIII

Henry VIII

9.    Next in line is a giant of a man in every sense.  Born in Greenwich Palace on 28th June 1491, Henry VIII was 17 years old when he came to the throne on 21st April 1509.  His grandmother Lady Margaret Beaufort served as Regent until Henry reached his 18th birthday, later that year.  During a phenomenal reign of 37 years and 281 days, Henry made more changes to England’s political, geographic and religious landscapes than any monarch before or since.  Henry VIII was 55 years old when he suffered a rather ignominious death on 28th January 1547.

King Henry I ' {Bleauclerc'}

King Henry I ‘ {Bleauclerc’}

10.    King Henry I, the youngest son of William the Conqueror, was nicknamed ‘Bleauclerc’, meaning fine scholar.  He was born at Selby in Yorkshire in September 1068 and was thus, the first Norman King to be born in England.  He came to the throne on 2nd August 1100 at the age of 31 following the ‘accidental’ death of his elder brother William II.  Henry’s tenure lasted 35 years and 120 days.  When Henry I died at the age of 67, reportedly after eating lampreys {eel-like fish}, England erupted in a civil war between supporters of his daughter Matilda and his nephew Stephen.

An idealistic portrayal of the killing of Lady Jane Grey

An idealistic portrayal of the killing of Lady Jane Grey

At the other end of the scale, we should not forget the least influential of all English monarchs, Lady Jane Grey whose story is perhaps the most tragic in our history.  On 10th July 1553, Lady Jane was pronounced Queen, a situation brought about by her own father and her wicked father-in-law.  After nine days only, Jane’s ‘reign’ was terminated after the appointment of the legitimate heir, Queen Mary I.  After being confined in the Tower of London for the next 7 months and despite being innocent of any known offence, Lady Jane was executed in order to preserve the status quo; she was 16 years old.

The price of monarchy has always been high.  Whilst our current Queen has been forced to endure intrusions that were unthinkable less than a century ago, her predecessors suffered more from the machinations of resentful and over-ambitious subjects who craved ultimate power.



Waiting for the Rainbow

Like many others, I approached 2012 with great hope and anticipation.  I looked forward with immense excitement to celebrations and entertainments, the like of which would not be seen again in my lifetime.  The timely interventions promised to deliver a tonic for ailments, which bedevilled the economy and overshadowed the approach of a momentous year.

The sense of patriotic pride was enormous.  The Olympic and Paralympic Games were about to be played out on my doorstep and my passion for English history was to be met in full by commemorations all over the country: I was particularly keen to watch and photograph the magnificent pageant on the River Thames.  A summer of joyous indulgence awaited but the expectations were rudely interrupted.

The atrocious weather that accompanied the Olympic torch on its journey through Britain and Ireland, mirrored the dark events that unfolded in my life.  The very skies seemed to weep in sympathy as my horizons and ambitions were curtailed severely.

In January 2012, I experienced problems with my mouth and  throat.  After being referred to a surgeon, I discovered that I had cancer.  The terrible disease had struck at my tongue, throat and my neck.  In the space of eight months, I endured five operations and intensive courses of radiotherapy and chemotherapy.  This devastating combination rendered me weak and feeble.  I was unable to speak for two months and since 2nd July, I have been unable to eat or drink in the usual way.  My weight plummeted and my strength was reduced accordingly.

July and August were particularly difficult months for my partner and I.  We weren’t confident that I would make old bones and I was forced to re-evaluate my priorities and objectives.  The things that really mattered fell into sharp focus and became extremely clear.  Fortunately, despite the terrible shock at what had befallen me, I didn’t have the time or inclination for self-pity: my life was taken over by the need to survive.

My partner Rosalind led me on a merry-go-round of treatments and consultations.  I don’t know what I would have done without her strong guidance and determination to overcome.  Together we faced each day as it came and as my condition deteriorated, we fought our way through some horrible symptoms.

It was not until November, that I knew the cancers had gone.  Rosalind and I hope of course that it will never return but we are directing our efforts towards the lengthy process of recovery.  I am still taking liquid feed through a tube that is connected to my stomach.  I am able to swallow some soft foods and home made soup has become an important and rather enjoyable part of my diet.

Whilst I long for the day when I will be fit and strong, I cannot easily dismiss the experiences just described.  I have been a sportsman for 40 years and in that time, I have completed 12 ultra-marathons.  I have been fit and strong throughout my life but cancer has taken me to new lows and that has been very humbling.  I have been exposed to a new world where people suffer terribly, often through no fault of their own.  I cannot forget the innocent children and their parents who went through the same dilemmas.

I have been astonished and heartened by the dedication and skill of men and women who make up our National Health Service.  They are so often maligned by an irrational and aggressive press, which takes no account of the millions of successful treatments that are prescribed and delivered every year in England.  I wonder how those journalists would cope without this national treasure ?

I have eased my way back into my passions and interests.  History and photography are taking the lead and twitter has been of enormous help in that regard.  I look forward to the day when I can once again deliver talks and presentations on English history.  As my weight and strength return, I look towards the skies and the rainbow that will salute my return to a more normal life.

Thomas Cranmer. A Simple Man in a Complex Age

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer 1489-1556

Thomas Cranmer lived the most extraordinarily complex life in very difficult times.  He founded the Anglican Protestant Church and more than any other cleric, was responsible for shaping the nascent Church and developing forms of worship that could be understood by the English in their own country.  He was witness to the monumental decisions and political manoeuvres, which separated and isolated his country from Catholic Europe and helped bestow on England, the island culture which pervades.

Thomas was born on 2nd July 1489 at Aslockton in Nottinghamshire, four years after Henry VII had ushered in the Tudor era.  When he was 14 years old, Thomas’ widowed mother sent him to Cambridge where he began an intense and lengthy period of study.  By 1515, he had been elected to a fellowship at Jesus College but, whilst studying for an MA, he married his first wife Joan, the daughter of an inn-keeper and Thomas was required to abdicate the fellowship.  Unfortunately, approximately 12 months later, Joan died during childbirth and Thomas was re-admitted to the Church.

St. John of Beverley at Whatton in Nottinghamshire where Thomas Cranmer worshipped as a boy

Cranmer was a natural scholar and became familiar with the European reform movement, which was energised by Martin Luther who ‘posted’ his written protests in 1517.  Almost certainly, Thomas would have been content to live out a life of study at Cambridge but the Tudor Court intervened and launched his  career in a direction that he could not have anticipated.

By 1526, Thomas had evidently established a reputation for himself because he was chosen by Cardinal Wolsey for a minor role with an English embassy to Spain.  Cranmer was back in England by 1527 and two years later, his life changed dramatically.

In the summer of 1529, citizens of London were being ravaged by a deadly plague so Thomas stayed with relatives at Waltham Holy Cross in Essex.  He was joined by two of his Cambridge associates, Stephen Gardiner (Bishop of Winchester) and Edward Foxe (Bishop of Hereford and Secretary to Cardinal Wolsey).  Inevitably, the three men discussed the dominant political issue of the day, the faltering marriage between King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon aka ‘The King’s Great Matter’.  The King and Cardinal Wolsey were tackling the issue from a legal perspective rather than a theological point of view and Cranmer thought that was unwise.  Thomas suggested that King Henry should put aside the legal case in Rome in favour of canvassing opinions from theologians in European universities.  Gardiner and Foxe later discussed Cranmer’s proposals with Wolsey and then King Henry, who liked the idea.

Henry, upon hearing the suggestion, summoned Cranmer for an interview.  Thomas was a man of steady character and fair-mindedness and it seems, he was also a talented wordsmith because after the interview, Henry required Anne’s father Thomas Boleyn to take Cranmer on as a house guest so that the cleric could focus his studies on solving the ‘King’s Great Matter’.  Thomas Cranmer was instructed to write a book on the issue and being part of the Boleyn household gave him the necessary means to do so.

This close connection to the Boleyn family yielded quick advancement in Cranmer’s career.  It has even been speculated that Thomas tutored Anne during this period, which served to increase his standing at one of the most tumultuous Royal Courts in English history.  Cranmer was adopted as Thomas Boleyn’s principal theoretician and strategist insofar as King Henry’s potential divorce was concerned and he found himself on an Embassy to Italy.  Ostensibly, the Embassy’s main goal was to convince the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who was Catherine of Aragon’s nephew, that King Henry had legitimate reasons for abandoning his wife.  The English delegates believed that if they could persuade Charles V, the Pope’s blessing would follow.

No one truly expected Charles V to side with Henry so when the Embassy failed in its primary objective, the English were not surprised.  However, the trip gave Cranmer the opportunity to test his theories by canvassing opinions from European theologians and he obtained favourable rulings from the most respected universities at Ferrara, Bologna, Pavia and Padua.

In January 1532, Thomas Cranmer was appointed resident ambassador at the court of Charles V.  Cranmer spent his time in Europe collecting as many supporters for Henry’s cause as possible, though he was never able to persuade Charles V or the Pope that Henry’s marriage was null and void.  On 1st October 1532, Cranmer was in Italy when he received a royal letter informing him that he had been appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in place of the deceased William Warham.  Despite such news, Cranmer was not thrilled because he had a major problem: whilst in Europe, he had been secretly married and men of the priesthood were expected to remain celibate.

Because of his marital status, Cranmer was uneasy and reluctant about being appointed to the highly prestigious and powerful position.  He knew that prior to appointment, Archbishops of Canterbury had to acknowledge the authority of the Pope and Cranmer’s entire argument in Henry’s ‘Great Matter’ was based on the scripture trumping the authority of any man, including the Pope.  Cranmer delayed his journey home as much as he could, hoping he would fall off Henry’s radar.   He finally returned to England in mid-January 1533 where he learned to his disappointment, that his arrival was highly anticipated by King Henry and Anne Boleyn.

Despite his reluctance, on 30th March 1533, Thomas Cranmer was in a Chapel at Westminster Palace for his consecration as Archbishop of Canterbury.  In order to ease his trepidation on taking oaths regarding the Pope’s authority, Cranmer added a ‘disclaimer’ that allowed him to disagree with rulings of the Pope if they did not accord with the scriptures.

The office of Archbishop gave Thomas authority to try and judge Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon.  He set out immediately to convince secular and religious authorities in England that King Henry had just cause to remove the case from the Pope’s jurisdiction.

Catherine of Aragon was popular with ordinary English people, so Thomas convened an Ecclesiastical Court at Dunstable Priory, well away from London where public disorder might threaten his intentions.  Thomas summoned Catherine and Henry to a hearing but Catherine did not wish to acknowledge that Cranmer had authority in the affair so she ignored the summons and was not represented at the court.

The Church of Dunstable Priory: the scene of monumental changes to English culture


Catherine’s refusal to accept the court’s authority only quickened the trial and on 23rd May 1533, Cranmer declared the marriage between Henry and Catherine null and void.  On 28th May, the same court  announced that the ‘bigamous’ marriage between Henry and Anne, which had taken place in January of that year, was lawful.  Four days later, on 1st June 1533, Thomas Cranmer was in Westminster Abbey to crown and anoint the heavily pregnant Anne Boleyn, ‘Queen of England’.

This series of events prompted Pope Clement VII to ex-communicate Henry VIII and Thomas Cranmer but in any event, in September 1533, Cranmer was at Greenwich to baptise Anne Boleyn’s child, the future Elizabeth I, for whom Thomas stood as Godfather.

Anne’s Boleyn’s infamous 1000 day reign ended violently and on 16th May 1536, three days before her execution,Thomas visited Anne in the Tower of London and took her confession. If Thomas believed that the former Queen’s death marked the end of his tribulations, he was to be mistaken.

On 30th May 1536, Thomas officiated at the marriage of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour.  The marriage was short lived as a result of Jane’s untimely death and on 6th January 1540, the Archbishop married the King to his fourth wife Anne of Cleves.  That marriage  was doomed to failure and within six months, Thomas was arranging the separation.  In 1541,  Thomas had the unenviable task of informing King Henry that his fifth wife Catherine Howard, had been enjoying an illicit affair.

Thomas Cranmer performed his final duty for Henry VIII on 28th January 1547.  As the King lay dying at Whitehall Palace, Thomas held his hand and read a reformed statement of faith.

During the short reign of the successor King Edward VI, Cranmer was able to focus on making church services intelligible to congregations by gradually introducing the use of the English language in place of Latin.  He wrote and compiled the first two editions of the Book of Common Prayer.  The teenaged Edward VI suffered terrible illness and on 8th August 1553, Thomas officiated at the boy-King’s funeral.

Against his wishes, Thomas Cranmer was required to acquiesce in the substitution of Lady Jane Grey on the throne in place of the Lady Mary; this was a decision for which he received no mercy.  Thomas had played key roles in the demise of Catherine of Aragon and the Roman religion and they were going to be avenged.

On 14th September 1553, Cranmer was arrested and sent to the Tower of London.  On 13th November he was arraigned for treason.  His life was spared initially because Queen Mary’s regime wanted the influential Archbishop to deliver public recantations of his former ‘heresies’.  He was held at the Tower of London and at Oxford until 1556.  He was interrogated many times but held to his principles for much of that time.  Eventually Thomas relented and renounced his former beliefs, a decision which he regretted to the end.  On 21st March 1556, after retracting his earlier recantations, Thomas was dragged to the stake outside Balliol College in Oxford and burned alive.  Thomas met his terrible end with remarkable courage; he was 66 years old.


The Martyr's Memorial at Oxford marking the location of Thomas Cranmer's execution

This blog was written on 21st March 2012 by Paul Wiltshire and Melissa Beh from Washington DC