Archbishop Cranmer met his end on this day in 1556. This is not a religious blog – see Cranmer (No 1 in the Top 10 Religious Blogs in the UK) if that is what you want – but if, like me, you had a proper C of E education with chapel every Sunday and have spent most of your life in Oxford, you find him the most tangible of historical figures.
For one thing, you can stand exactly where he died in agony, the spot marked by a brass cross in the middle of Broad Street. You can’t say that of anyone else (yes all right, we know exactly where Anne Boleyn and Dick Turpin died, but Cranmer’s end was right here in the street). Not far away, in the University Church, is the pillar with a cleft cut in it where hung the stage on which he stood during his trial.
And his words run round your head unbidden, absorbed during countless services not far from here – the brass cross lies equidistant from my college chapel and St Giles – as well as at school.
And by thy great mercy
For the love of thy only Son, our saviour Jesus Christ
You do not need to be religious to be comforted by that, comforted both as the author intended – by the sense of having someone to watch over you – and by the feeling that some things at least are constant in this debased age. The Church of England’s desperate attempts to be trendy have watered down much of the Book of Common Prayer, but Cranmer’s jewels, like the Third Collect in the Order for Evening Prayer quoted above, shine through the clumsy modern wrapper.
I once came upon a bunch of fine flowers resting on the cross where Cranmer, like Latimer and Ridley before him, had burned. Traffic still used the Broad then and they looked defenceless, lying there in the middle of the road. I assumed that they honoured the brave men who had died there, and was somewhat surprised that they celebrated Queen Mary instead. It set up conflicting emotions: it seemed rather fine that someone – I assume an Anglo-Catholic organisation – should salute Mary’s attempts to restore her faith to England nearly 500 years after her death, even though her faith was not mine; equally, it was rather tasteless to do so on the spot where it was easy to picture the torment of her victims. I wonder of it happens every year – I must go down one year on her birthday, 18 February, and see.