Thomas Cranmer was born in 1489 in Aslockton in Nottinghamshire, England, the son of moderately wealthy parents. As his older brother inherited the family estate, Thomas was earmarked for the priesthood.
He was educated at Cambridge, where he spent 30 years both as student and teacher. However, he was plucked from obscurity when he was picked to work on a committee compiling evidence for Henry VIII’s divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. It was a task that would make him one of the most powerful men in England.
For the first forty years of his life, Cranmer appears to have been a conservative Catholic, but as he began to work on Henry’s annulment, his views began to shift. Although Cranmer was initially sceptical of the views of the European reformers, led by Luther, gradually his own studies of the Bible led him to sympathise with them.
The task the King had set Cranmer and his fellows was to find a way for him to divorce Catherine without, as he saw it, violating Church (and therefore God’s) law. The case was based on a dubious interpretation of Leviticus 20:21, ‘If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.’ As Henry had married his brother Arthur’s widow, Catherine, the King was convinced that his wife’s failure to produce a living male heir was a sign of God’s displeasure with the marriage.
The problem was that the Pope of the day – who was under the far-from benign influence of Catherine’s nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V – refused to do Henry the favour of granting the divorce, something that both disappointed and enraged the King.
In the face of this lack of Papal co-operation, Cranmer pored over the records of Church councils to find out whether legitimate governmental decisions in the realm had ever been made independent of Rome. When he discovered that they had, it led him to a radical conclusion – that it wasn’t the Pope who was the judge of what was God’s will on earth, rather it was the monarch!