Thomas Cranmer was a key figure in the English Reformation. His memory is kept alive in two churches in Nottinghamshire, only a few hundred yards apart.
Born in 1489 in Aslockton, about 10 miles east of Nottingham, he rose from a minor gentry background, by way of an academic career in Cambridge, to the dizzy height of Archbishop of Canterbury. He made the transformation from traditionalist (Catholic) cleric to reformer and creator of the Anglican church and was responsible for the Book of Common Prayer. This included the first complete forms of service for daily and Sunday worship in English.
He achieved his position through the patronage of Henry VIII. The king made him one of his most trusted advisers with regard to his “Great Matter” of securing a divorce from Katharine of Aragon. In Henry’s estimation, Cranmer was:
a marvellous and virtuous wise man.
He was appointed the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533, a post he held until his death in 1556, outliving Henry by ten years. At his height he owned 5 palaces and possessed goods worth £1214, four shillings and two pence, or the equivalent of almost half a million pounds today. The value of his clothing alone was put at £205.8s.2d (£78,000). Unfortunately, this calculation was made in order to take his goods from him. His tragedy was that he was seen as the chief representative of Protestantism by the incoming (Catholic) Queen Mary, who had him imprisoned and then burned at the stake on the grounds that he tried to help (Protestant) Lady Jane Grey become Queen in 1553.
In the medieval period Aslockton had a small chapel, which did not survive. It was located within the parish of Whatton in the Vale, only a quarter of a mile away, where the Cranmer family worshipped and Cranmer’s father is buried. Thomas was made rector of Whatton in 1547 by Edward VI.
A small parish church was built in Aslockton in 1891 by Sir Reginald Blomfield, close to the remains of the Cranmers’ house in the adjacent field. It was paid for by the mother of a former vicar of Whatton, T K Hall, who lost his life when the ship on which he was a passenger, the Quetta, was lost off the coast of Queensland. It possesses fine modern windows, by stained glass designer Michael Stokes, commemorating both “the Quetta disaster” and Cranmer’s life.
Thomas Cranmer has given his name to a group of six Anglican churches in this part of Nottinghamshire and to the group’s community centre, adjacent to Aslockton’s church. It is built of warm red brick, as is the interior of the church, whose exterior is faced with Lincolnshire limestone. There are a number of striking windows by Michael Stokes.
Just a few miles from Nottingham, then, it is possible to connect with a very different age, when the lives and beliefs of English people were split asunder by the actions of the King and Thomas Cranmer, son of the squire of Whatton and Aslockton, was martyred for his role in shaping the Anglican religion.
Thomas Cranmer: a Life, by Diarmaid MacCulloch, published by Yale University Press, 1996. Copy held in the Bromley House Library, Nottingham.
MacCulloch makes a strong case that the “marvellous and virtuous wise man” can only be Cranmer. Henry VIII made the reference in a diplomatic letter of 1530 to Thomas Boleyn (the Earl of Wiltshire), his envoy to the Holy Roman Emperor. Cranmer was with Boleyn at the time but was not specifically named in the letter.
Cranmer’s 5 palaces were at Lambeth, Canterbury, Croydon, Bekesbourne and Ford (both in Kent).
The portrait of Thomas Cranmer is by an unknown artist and is taken from Wikimedia Commons. There is a portrait of 1545 in the National Portrait Gallery in which Cranmer is clean shaven. He may have grown his long beard in mourning for Henry VIII or it may have been a fashion set by Protestant clerics on the Continent.
Information on both churches may be found on the Southwell and Nottingham Church History Project pages.