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Frightened old man finds courage to testify to freedom of conscience

When I travelled toward Oxford a few years ago in March, the wet country roads gleamed in the sudden bright sunshine that followed the slant of hail. Britain has a way of bringing back the past, and as I travelled, I thought about the old man who had been taken down wet roads into Oxford where he was burned to death on March 21, 1556.

Thomas Cranmer had been a reform archbishop of Canterbury. Confronted with a new Queen, Bloody Mary, he tried to prevaricate about his reformed faith. He played for time. He did not want to die, particularly he did not want to die by fire.

The religious officers of the Queen grew impatient, and forced him to watch friends who had refused to renounce their reform faith die at the stake. Understandably unenthusiastic about the prospect of being burned alive, sick with fear, Thomas signed his recantation, and swore obedience to the Pope.

On March 21, 1556, dressed in ragged clothes and a dunce’s cap, he was led to St. Mary’s, Oxford, to recant publicly. He understood the quid pro quo: if he did not recant his reformed faith he would burn. The wood was waiting. The church was packed with people who had been ordered to hear his recantation and watch his humiliation. As we wrote in the Liberty Timeline,

He knelt and prayed the Lord’s Prayer, and the men and women in St Mary’s knelt and prayed with him. Then he began to speak. It was a minute before they realised that the old archbishop had changed his mind –
“And now I come to the great thing that troubleth my conscience more than any other thing that ever I said or did in my life: and that is, the setting abroad of writings contrary to the truth. Which here now I renounce and refuse, as things written with my hand, contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and written for fear of death, and to save my life. . .And forasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished: for if I may come to the fire, it shall be first burned.”

His guards were shouting. They forced him outside, and rushed him along Brasenose Lane to the front of Balliol College, where he was stripped of his clothes, to stand in his shirt, chained to a stake around which wood was piled. When the wood began to burn, he held his hand in the fire, “crying with a loud voice, 'This hand hath offended.' As soon as the fire got up, he was very soon dead, never stirring or crying all the while."

Many British men and women, both Protestant and Catholic, endured death by fire to bear witness to freedom of religious conscience. This is why they were called martyrs, which comes from the Greek word that means witness-bearer.

Their witness and courage helped to bring religious tolerance to Britain. I think Brits came to understand how awful it was to hurt each other, and those who believed in God came to understand that God gave each person the freedom to worship as he or she chooses because love can only be truly offered to God by those who are free.

Thanks to Howard of On this Day for reminding us of the day.