Image of Portrait of Thomas Cranmer

Thomas Cranmer

Thomas Cranmer (1489 - 1556) was the Archbishop of Canterbury in the reign of Henry VIII and launched the English Reformation.

Cranmer the Archbishop

Few people have played so important a part in shaping the course of English history or had a more profound influence on England’s language and literature than Thomas Cranmer.

As Archbishop of Canterbury from 1532 until 1555, Thomas Cranmer orchestrated Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and presided over England's separation from the Roman Catholic Church. He drafted the new English church’s 39 Articles and the Book of Common Prayer

After the death of Edward VI in 1553 he supported Lady Jane Grey’s unsuccessful bid for the throne and was convicted of treason. When he refused to recant his Protestant beliefs he was burnt as a heretic in Oxford.

Cranmer was the first of four members of Jesus College to become archbishop and Primate of All England; the others were Richard Bancroft, Thomas Herring, and Matthew Hutton. However, the precise nature of Cranmer's relationship to the College isn't entirely clear.

Life in Cambridge

Jesus College was Cranmer's home for more than a decade, from 1517 to 1528. As Rysley Reader in Divinity he taught theology before being recruited into the King’s service by Cardinal Wolsey.

It is often said that he was an undergraduate and then a Fellow of the newly founded Jesus College, but this is improbable. Before 1544 there was no University rule that a student must be a member of a College or the pupil of one of its Tutors, and there is no evidence of Jesus having any undergraduates in the first two decades of its existence. Cranmer’s brother Edmund was a Cambridge student too, but has not been claimed by any College.

Until Bishop West gave Jesus College its first statutes in 1516, the College did not have any Fellows; just a Master, a schoolmaster of the grammar school attached to it, and several chantry priests. Cranmer cannot have been one of these, or have held a fellowship in any College, since he had married sometime in the mid 1510s. When Jesus College came to have its own Fellows his name does not appear among them in the bishop’s registers.

Cranmer first came to Cambridge aged 14 in 1503, following his father's death. He lodged with (and perhaps worked for) relatives of his mother who kept the Dolphin Inn near the town end of Jesus Lane. He did not, however, complete his University degree until 1512. It may be that soon after his arrival in Cambridge he started attending the College’s grammar school, and that this is how he first became known to those establishing the new College.

Later, after his wife’s early death in childbirth, the young widower was invited to live at the College. Unlike the Fellows he would have paid for his own board and lodging, becoming a ‘perendinant’, a paying guest.

Later life

When he left Cambridge, Cranmer remembered his old companions at Jesus College. Once he was installed as archbishop he sent the Master a buck from one of the deer parks “to be bestowed amonges your company within your college” and promised to repay him the cost of the dishes to accompany it.

During more than 20 years as archbishop he was not otherwise a benefactor of the College that had been his Cambridge home for so long. After his conviction for treason everything he owned, including his splendid library, was seized by the crown.