Queen Mary Tudor, Was She Out for Revenge? (Thomas Cranmer: Martyred 21 March 1556)

by Beth von Staats

Queen Mary Tudor — Was She Out for Revenge?



Editor’s Note: This article includes an excerpt from Thomas Cranmer in a Nutshell, by Beth von Staats (MadeGlobal Publishing).


Thomas Cranmer, England’s first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, has a tainted and complicated legacy. One of world history’s most morally and emotionally conflicted historical figures, Cranmer’s professional life, combined with his wholehearted belief in the scriptural truth of the royal supremacy, left him continuously weighing his religious beliefs, moral centre, family values, and conscience with those of the monarchs he steadfastly served, King Henry VIII, King Edward VI and Queen Jane Dudley – and most tragically for Cranmer and those who loved him, also those of the monarch he ardently betrayed, Queen Mary Tudor.

When discussing Thomas Cranmer’s 21 March 1556 tragic martyrdom, sadly commemorated by the Church of England and the Worldwide Anglican Communion today, people often ask for my thoughts of Queen Mary Tudor. Did she orchestrate Cranmer’s downfall, imprisonment, and martyrdom due to her steadfast Roman Catholic belief system? Did she hate Cranmer? Was she out for revenge?

Queen Mary Tudor

Most people assume the answers to these questions to be, “yes, yes, and yes”. After all, Queen Mary Tudor was a devout Roman Catholic. In contrast, Thomas Cranmer believed the Pope to be the antichrist. Queen Mary Tudor believed her mother, Queen Catherine of Aragon, to have been the anointed Queen Consort of England from her marriage to King Henry VIII to the day she died. Thomas Cranmer instead declared Queen Catherine of Aragon’s marriage to the king to be “null and void from the start”, a decision that for all intents and purposes bastardized Mary. In short, at the time of Queen Mary Tudor’s ascension to the throne, beyond King Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, both dead and gone, there was one man left alive thought responsible for Queen Mary’s tragic childhood — her separation from her mother, her loss of her father’s affection, her loss of royal status and succession rights, her life at times at risk of execution. That man was Thomas Cranmer.

Given all we know of Queen Mary Tudor’s life before her ascension, if we are to look solely at her actions taken against Thomas Cranmer in isolation, setting aside the hundreds of others martyred by burning during her reign, would we really find her choice all that surprising? Would we even question it? I hazard to think we would not — but, I also believe it is important to point out in fairness to Queen Mary Tudor’s legacy — and also Thomas Cranmer’s — that there was far more behind Cranmer’s martyrdom than the simple desire by the reigning monarch to exact hate-filled revenge. The fact of the matter is this. Once it became clear that King Edward VI would die without an heir, Thomas Cranmer and Mary Tudor literally fought one another for survival — and through extension, the survival of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism in England. In a valiant struggle of one against the other, Mary Tudor knowingly won the battle. Thomas Cranmer unknowingly won the war.

As all Tudor History enthusiasts know, when it became clear that King Edward VI would not survive to adulthood, the realm faced a huge succession crisis. History teaches us that the young king’s solution from that established by his father King Henry VIII was to change the succession to one more acceptable to his staunch Protestant beliefs. In his own hand, King Edward VI drafted “My devise of the succession”. In doing so, King Edward VI passed over both of his sisters Mary and Elizabeth Tudor and, like his father, his Scottish relatives, and settled upon the progeny of his paternal aunt, Mary, Queen of France and Duchess of Suffolk.

King Edward VI

Although Thomas Cranmer testified at his heresy hearing in 1555 that he was allowed no private access to King Edward VI during the final months of his reign to hear first-hand in a confidential forum what the king’s wishes actually were, he accepted them just the same. After all, King Edward VI’s commands were in original form in his own hand and further articulated to Cranmer in a group forum. Thus, steadfastly loyal to the two kings he served, Thomas Cranmer not only signed the bond of allegiance supporting the devise, he signed it FIRST — “unfeignedly and without dissimulation” — in an oversized signature, “T. CANT.”

King Edward VI’s death on 6 July 1553 came more swiftly than most anticipated. This created two major complications that would come back to haunt Thomas Cranmer. First, King Edward VI’s “My devise of the succession” had not yet passed through Parliament. Far more ominous, Mary Tudor, with advance warning of her brother’s impending doom, was able to flee. Without securing the person of the Lady Mary, Cranmer and John Dudley — who for the previous two years were at odds with one another — needed to immediately ally and work together. They did just that.

The first order of business was to crown a queen. The original heir to the throne Lady Frances Grey by prearrangement renounced her claim. Thus, the first intended regnant Queen of England would be Lady Jane Dudley (nee: Grey), who had married the Duke of Northumberland’s son Guildford just six weeks previously. The proclamation of Jane Dudley as Queen of England went smoothly, spreading throughout the realm. As was customary, she was initially housed at the Tower of London. Unfortunately for Cranmer, however, within two days of the king’s death, Mary Tudor was safe in East Anglia.

A wave of popular support for the Mary Tudor enabled her to safely venture on to Framlingham Castle in Suffolk. Wisely avoiding any debate of the religion question, Mary Tudor pressed her claim to the throne as the rightful heir as King Henry VIII’s eldest daughter. The strategy worked, and support for her ground-swelled. John Dudley’s hastily formed London forces, partially armed with men, armour, weapons and horses provided by Thomas Cranmer, intended to cut the Mary off from the Midlands. Unnerved by the resistance he was encountering, Dudley retreated to Cambridge, proclaiming for Mary Tudor as Queen of England himself. Cranmer stood alone.

John Dudley

While Dudley led his expeditionary forces, Thomas Cranmer composed a letter on 11 July in which he formally rejected Mary Tudor’s claim to the throne. Cranmer wrote that the divorce of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon “was necessary to be had both by the everlasting laws of God, and also by the ecclesiastical laws, and by the most part of the noble and learned universities of Christendom…”  Then, Cranmer’s name again led a list of Privy Councillors ordering sheriffs throughout the kingdom to pull together forces to retrieve the “bastard Mary”, because she was “plotting to bring papists, Spaniards and other strangers into the realm at the great peril and danger of the utter subversion of God’s holy word.” While Mary Tudor pointedly focused on her succession rights, Cranmer attempted desperately to bring religion back into the discussion.

One week into the reign of Queen Jane, news of revolts throughout the realm reached London, resulting in several Privy Councillors slipping away to join Mary Tudor’s cause. In contrast, Thomas Cranmer dug his heels in, again leading a now shortened list of signatures in a desperate attempt to secure the support of Sir Richard Rich and his influence in Essex on Queen Jane’s behalf. By then the cause was hopeless, his words wasted on Tudor History’s most notorious “flip-flopper”. Most Councillors signing the letter slipped away the same day, proclaiming Mary Tudor Queen of England.

Although resistance to her cause continued through the entire month of July in Cranmer’s home diocese of Cambridgeshire and also the Fens, Mary Tudor, accompanied by her younger sister Elizabeth, rode into London triumphant. The daughter of Queen Catherine of Aragon, granddaughter of Queen Isabella of Castile, was Queen of England. Thomas Cranmer instead was a traitor, the last man left not to proclaim for her.

Treason charges lodged against Thomas Cranmer were inevitable. With thirty suits of Cranmer’s armour found abandoned by the Duke of Northumberland’s troops and his bold signature leading several damning documents, his arrest was a fait-accompli. The Dudleys and Bishop Nicholas Ridley already in the Tower of London by the end of July, Cranmer walked free until mid- September. Evidently, Queen Mary was cautious not to show her religious cards too soon, also treading lightly with evangelical protesters.

Thomas Cranmer

With the luxury of time this afforded, Thomas Cranmer could have easily escaped to Europe as many other Protestants had, such as Peter Martyr, Francis Walsingham and Katherine Willoughby. Instead, Cranmer stayed in England, residing in plain sight in his private estates, carrying out his typical duties. Was Cranmer making arrangements to protect his wife and two children? Was he intent through duty and loyalty to preside over the funeral of his godson King Edward VI? Historians have yet to solve the mystery, but his decision to remain in England certainly had tragic consequences.

Commanded by Queen Mary Tudor to call together Convocation and appear at the Court of Richmond, Thomas Cranmer complied. Fearful of placing his contemporaries and friends in danger, he refused to speak with them publicly, most notably Sir William Cecil. As others around him, such as Secretary Cheke and Lord Russell were questioned and arrested, he refrained from his typical habit of writing letters of support on their behalf. From the point Queen Mary Tudor took power, she refused to see or speak with Cranmer, this quite obvious at functions where both were in attendance. In short, knowing his arrest and condemnation were forthcoming, Cranmer went about the business of preparing himself for the inevitable, careful to do so in a way that no one else was dragged alongside.

By August, Queen Mary Tudor no longer showed tolerance for open evangelical services. Rather than banning them altogether, she cleverly opened the possibility of the Eucharist mass being worshiped in all parishes instead. The tide swiftly turned, Eucharist masses swiftly overwhelming those clergies still willing to preach evangelical services. Cranmer was shocked by the Roman Catholic conversions of the imprisoned John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, and Sir John Gates, Marquess of Northampton. A wonderful turnabout in Queen Mary’s favour, the lay leadership neutralized and religious tides turning her way, she took the opportunity to purge the Protestant clergy. Though careful not to involve others, Thomas Cranmer was still not of a mind to capitulate. Civil disobedience for him still reigned.

His arrest imminent, commissioners working on behalf of Queen Mary delivered to the archbishop a list of questions he was compelled to answer, along with a command to prepare a complete listing of his possessions. While Thomas Cranmer went along with the commissioners’ directives, he concurrently refused to bend to the Marian regime’s religious policies. Cranmer sent a letter to a friend condemning a Eucharist mass celebrated at his own Canterbury Cathedral, along with a draft of a proclamation condemning the celebration of mass as “devil devising”, further denying all rumours that he would ever celebrate any Eucharist mass before the Queen of England. Somehow this draft proclamation was promulgated. Thomas Cranmer was frustrated, to say the least. His intention was to edit the draft into a public manifesto that “a la Martin Luther” would be affixed to every church door in London with his official seal. Obviously, the ruling regime considered his action sedation, Cranmer proudly admitting to it himself when finally questioned and subsequently arrested after an appearance at Star Chamber.

Thomas Cranmer

In spite of Thomas Cranmer’s steadfast support of and scriptural belief in the royal supremacy, he engaged in active high treason. Although his signature on King Edward VI’s “Devise of the succession” was boldly signed while Edward was still king, it was never approved by Parliamentary decree. Once the king died, Cranmer engaged in overt activities to prevent Queen Mary’s succession, thirty suits of armour at the very least provided to John Dudley’s troops, documents written and signed ordering additional troops from all local sheriffs, and composition of written declarations of her illegitimacy and of heresy. Once Queen Mary Tudor ascended to the throne, Thomas Cranmer failed to proclaim her, engaged in activities in opposition to her religious agenda, and publicly shamed her belief in Roman Catholicism. Thus, after being paraded through the city of London in disgrace, Thomas Cranmer was found guilty of high treason on 13 November 1553 at the same trial that also condemned England’s shortest-reigning monarch Jane (Grey) Dudley, her husband Guildford and others.

Though Lady Jane Dudley and Guildford Dudley bravely faced inevitable beheadings, Queen Mary Tudor’s plans for Thomas Cranmer took a far different path. The first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury would be charged and convicted of heresy, like many “heretics” before him — some condemned by him — burned at the stake. From Queen Mary Tudor’s 16th-century mindset, heresy was the greater crime, Cranmer’s burning death a needed step towards England’s return to Roman Catholicism, and with it, the ultimate salvation of her subjects.


A Video Tribute to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer by Mercy Rivera

Mercy owns none of the contents.



Beth von Staats
Beth von Staats

Beth von Staats is a history writer of both fiction and non-fiction short works. A life-long history enthusiast, Beth holds a Bachelor of Arts degree, magna cum laude, in Sociology from the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. She is the owner and administrator of Queen Anne Boleyn Historical Writers website, QueenAnneBoleyn.com.

Beth’s interest in British History grew through the profound influence of her Welsh grandparents, both of whom desired she learn of her family cultural heritage. Her most pronounced interest lies with the men and women who drove the course of events and/or who were most poignantly impacted by the English Henrician and Protestant Reformations, as well as the Tudor Dynasty of English and Welsh History in general.


"Thomas Cranmer In a Nutshell" Final Blog Stop
Thomas Cranmer -mini-bio



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Beth von Staats

is the owner and administrator of QueenAnneBoleyn.com. Blogger of "The Tudor Thomases", Beth specializes in writing magazine articles, online historical articles, short stories, and flash fiction.

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