21 March 1556: Thomas Cranmer executed for heresy

Thomas Cranmer was the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, serving both Henry VIII and Edward VI. Henry actually expired clutching Cranmer’s hand, and when his son and successor, in turn, died at just fifteen in 1553, the Archbishop supported the Protestant Lady Jane Grey’s claim to the throne and her famously brief nine-day reign.

After Lady Jane Grey was deposed by the Catholic Queen Mary I, who restored the nation to its pre-Reformation faith, Cranmer was arrested and condemned to death as a heretic. Presented with little option other than to ‘turn or burn’, Cranmer initially recanted his Protestantism in a potential bid for clemency. But forced to make a second and public declaration of the error of his ways from the pulpit of the University Church in Oxford on 21 March 1556, he repudiated his earlier recantation. He was immediately bundled out of the church and led to an awaiting stake and burnt to death.

However, before he was engulfed by the blaze, and in one last act of defiance, he thrust the hand that had signed his recantation deep into the flames until, according to John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, ‘it was burnt to cinder’ all the while, apparently, ‘frequently exclaiming, “The Unworthy Hand”’.