While events were moving apace on the liturgical front, all was not well in the political realm. Within months of the Accession of Edward VI to the throne, Protector Somerset’s position of power had been usurped by the rapacious Duke of Northumberland. Although a man of avowedly Protestant sympathies, Northumberland was far more interested in amassing power and wealth for himself, with the result that corruption and the abuse of power were rife throughout the land. This meant that as long as it did not affect public justice and morality, the Reformation was prevented from taking hold in any sweeping and all-inclusive sense.
In any case, the reign of the sickly Edward was not to last for long. A scant eighteen months after the introduction of the Second Prayer Book, the king succumbed to his final illness, a lad of just sixteen. He was succeeded on the throne by his half-sister, Mary Tudor, daughter of Catherine of Aragon. Throughout the reign of Edward Mary had remained loyal to the Pope. Perhaps more significantly she had witnessed her mother being cruelly pushed from her throne and for twenty years had suffered the ignominy of being viewed as illegitimate. Now her hour of ascendancy had arrived, and the bloodiest chapter in the history of England was begun.
Mary lost no time in re-establishing ties with Rome. The Prayer Book of 1552 was rescinded. Cranmer and the other Protestant bishops were removed from their sees and more than a fifth of the clergy from their parishes as heretics, many of them fleeing for safety into exile on the European continent.
Soon Thomas Cranmer, along with fellow bishops John Hooper, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, were brought to trial for promulgating their Protestant teachings, and sentenced to death by burning. The story of Archbishop Cranmer is particularly poignant. Under conditions of extreme deprivation and weakness, he was induced to sign a document recanting of his Protestant convictions. It did not take him long to recognize the enormity of what he had done and he revoked his recantation with the words,
And now I come to the great thing which so troubleth my conscience, more than any other thing that I said or did in my life: and that is my setting abroad of writings contrary to the truth, which things here now I renounce and refuse, as things written with my hand contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart… And forasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart, it shall be first burned.
On 21 March 1556 in Oxford Thomas Cranmer was led to the stake. In his History of the Christian Martyrs John Foxe, a contemporary, reports,
And when the wood was kindled, and the fire began to burn near him, he stretched forth into the flames his right hand, which had signed his recantation, and there held it so steadfastly, that the people might see it burned to a coal before his body was touched…
Five months earlier, on the same site, on 16 October 1555, Bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley had also been burned at the stake. Bishop Latimer’s words to his colleague, reported again by John Foxe, deserve to be quoted: “Be of good comfort, Mr Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”
In addition to these brave bishops, more than three hundred Protestants and Protestant sympathizers were put to death in Mary’s bloody reign. Mercifully that reign was short. What it achieved in its course of five years was not to retrieve England for Roman Catholicism but to seal the English Reformation with the blood of martyrs.