The book of Hebrews speaks of men of faith “who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong” (Hebrews 11:33-34).
These words apply very well to the life and death of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. Unlike the typical bold and fiery Reformer, Thomas Cranmer was a man of peace, a gentle soul, a warm friend, and a man who earnestly shunned controversy. He had many days of glory, wealth, power, and prominence. Thomas Cranmer was the Primate of all England, the respected protector of kings, the trusted friend of queens, a loving husband, a devoted father, a trusted churchman, and the author of the beloved Book of Common Prayer. But the year 1556 saw Cranmer at the great crisis of his life. We will peek into the cell of his prison and see how “out of weakness, Thomas Cranmer was made strong.”
A gloomy light filtered into the dark cell of the prison where Thomas Cranmer sat. The feeble shaft of daylight illuminated a piece of paper. Cut off from the succor of his friends, separated from his wife and children, racked by grief, and bombarded by the rhetoric of his enemies, his weary heart pondered his options. Cranmer had only two. First he could assert the truth he had so long preached: that Christ alone was the head of His Church, that the mass was a Roman innovation, that purgatory was not found in the Word of God, and that man must be born again. Second, he could give in to the pressure of the age and hope to retain his position as Archbishop of Canterbury.
Only weeks before, two of his very dear friends, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, had decided for the first option. They had boldly stood for the truth, and had been burned to death at the stake. Cranmer could stand at the window of his cell and look down the street at the place where they had suffered such a cruel death. Now, if he persisted in his beliefs, their fate would be his.
His mind began to play with him. What good came of their death? Latimer and Ridley were gone. Their voices were forever silent. He could avoid their fate simply by signing that piece of paper in front of him, recanting his “errors.” But he sincerely believed the truth, and he also knew that Jesus had said, “But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 10:33).
For many decades now, Thomas Cranmer had survived when others had died. When popular current had run against the Gospel, Cranmer, like a reed blown by the wind, had bowed over until the storm had passed. He had survived by keeping a low profile and speaking out only when it seemed that the truth would be received. He had always been a peacemaker, a gentleman, a kind-hearted soul who hated no one and sought no controversy. He was now an old man. Could he stand a burning? Would it not be easier to die in a comfortable bed like a respectable man, rather than in open shame like a criminal?
Cranmer was a gentle, timid old soul. He reckoned with himself that, if he lived, he could continue to labor for the cause of Christ. There, in the quietness of his cell, he made his decision. With trembling hand, he signed the paper in front of him. Like Peter before him, Thomas Cranmer had denied his Lord in the hour of trial.
For a while, Cranmer was relieved. He would retain his honor. A date was set in which he was to enter the church and publically renounce his errors before the assembled throng. But as the awful day of public recantation approached, Cranmer’s heart began to smite him with reproach and guilt. The words of Jesus again came throbbing into his heart. “But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 10:33). He had done it. He had denied the Lord Jesus. He had betrayed the Christians who looked to him for leadership. He had given cause for the enemy to blaspheme.
But the deed was done. Oh, if he could only recall the ink! If only that quill pen could suck up the words. But it was too late. The recantation was submitted. The date was set for him to publicly deny the Gospel. We dare not enter the sacred ground where our old penitent sought pardon of his God. What were the agonies of his soul? How many were the tears that etched their way down those aged cheeks? What were the heart-rending cries of the man who had denied his God? But then he remembered Peter. Had not Peter also denied his Lord? Had not Peter also sought and obtained pardoned?
The Book of Common Prayer
Perhaps in those sacred moments Thomas Cranmer bent his knee in his cell and turned with sorrowful eyes to the very words that he had composed in brighter days, words that had been printed in the glorious reign of Edward VI, words which now were a balm to his troubled heart,
Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done and there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders. Spare thou them, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou them that be penitent, according to thy promises declared unto mankind, in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of thy holy name.
The day finally came for the public recantation. With fixed resolve, the aged penitent entered the massive pulpit in the cathedral. Many people had assembled to hear the public recantation of the heretic. Some were there who had once been earnest followers of his preaching, those he had led in days past. Now, they had come to hear him deny his Lord. Their earnest faces gave the penitent new courage.
Looking upon the assembled throng, old Cranmer’s heart quailed but a moment, then his old eloquence and courage empowered his tongue. He addressed the people in carefully crafted words, proclaiming the duty of the people to live as Christians, to shun error, to be loyal to true religion. Then he got to the end of his speech. Up to this point, all the people still assumed that he would now recant his former preaching. Cranmer then said, “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.”
At this point, there was a moment of tense silence in the room, as concerned believers and triumphant bishops alike looked to the pulpit with fixed eyes, waiting for him to renounce his errors. Cranmer then said, “I have written many things untrue. And forasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall be first punished; for if I come to the fire, it shall be first burned.” The aged man still hated controversy, but his hour had come. He had bent over in the wind far too long. He squared his shoulders and continued, “And as for the Pope, I refuse him as Christ’s enemy and anti-Christ, with all his false doctrine. And as for the Sacrament . . .” Here a violent outcry of sound interrupted Cranmer, and his speech was cut short by the enraged bishops. As with the first martyr in the book of Acts, his enemies gnashed upon him with their teeth, and hauled him away to his death.
Very soon, Thomas Cranmer, once the Primate of all England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of the English Reformation, was chained to a rough stake. His wife and children were far away in the safety of Germany and would not learn of his death until the crisis was past and the battle was won.
Cranmer stood in the same place where his two friends had recently gone before him. A mixed crowd was there, a vast concourse of people, for this was none other than the highest churchman in the land of England. Some were his sincere followers from old days, the people who had earnestly followed his preaching and who rejoiced that, even in death, their teacher maintained the truth of the Gospel. Some were his mortal enemies. As the fire was kindled and the flames leaped up, true to his promise, Cranmer held his right hand directly into the fire. Cranmer did not die until the right hand was burned all the way to the stump. The old man then lifted his eyes triumphantly to heaven, his face ringed with flames but full of heavenly peace, and cried out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
In his lifetime, Thomas Cranmer had indeed “subdued kingdoms, obtained promises, and wrought righteousness.” Now, in his death, he “quenched the violence of fire” and “out of weakness was made strong.”
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs by John Foxe Masters of the English Reformation by Marcus Loane The History of the Reformation by J. H. Merle D’Aubigne The Book of Common Prayer
This series recounts the stories of mighty men from the past - from the earliest days of the Roman persecutions all the way up to our modern era.
We are giving away a copy of Hannibal’s Oath: The Life and Wars of Rome’s Greatest Enemy, a new biography of Hannibal that we just reviewed here on Discerning History. You can enter using the widget below, the giveaway closes at 12:00 am on November 10th, 2017.
The story of Hannibal’s brilliant campaigns in Rome is one of the most famous and dramatic in military history and it has been oft told. Nearly all that we know about him is contained in the works of just a few Roman historians, and after so many years new information is very rarely discovered. Historian John Prevas acknowledges this in his new book Hannibal’s Oath: The Life and Wars of Rome’s Greatest Enemy, which was provided to Discerning History for review. All historians are working from the same material, but Hannibal’s Oath provides an interesting version of the story that readers would do well to consider.
Prevas insightfully brings out some aspects of the story that other authors graze over that shed new light on the man and his battles. He also has spent time in Europe visiting the sights that he mentions, and so speaks from first hand knowledge wherever possible. The book is not very long, and sometimes it feels as if he moves quickly over certain events that would be well worth dwelling on. One somewhat strange example of this is the one referenced by the title – Hannibal’s Oath, referring to the time as a boy when Hannibal’s father had him swear that he would never be a friend of the Romans.
Prevas does not use extensive quotes from the ancient sources, rarely quoting more than a phrase here or there. While some may prefer that, I enjoy occasionally hearing directly from the historians on which all of our knowledge is based.
This book, while acknowledging Hannibal’s brilliance and military skills, is definitely a negative assessment of the man. It is based on the principle that “great men, those who make history and even change its course, are invariable the most evil.”1 It attempts to show that in many ways Hannibal was a “colossal failure.”2 While you may not agree with all of his assessments, it is still a useful perspective to hear and evaluate.
In summary, if you are looking for a short, readable and insightful account of Hannibal, this may be the book for you. This book may not be suitable for younger readers, as it deals with some quite unsavory aspects of Carthaginian culture.
We are giving away a copy of Hannibal’s Oath, see this post for details!
1. Hannibal’s Oath: The Life and Wars of Rome’s Greatest Enemy by John Prevas (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2017) p. 241. 2. Ibid, p. 238.
October 31st is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenburg, which is commonly regarded as the start of the Protestant Reformation. God used Martin Luther and the Reformation not just to bring many people and churches back to His word, but to shape the world in many ways.
We should take this milestone in history to look back and remember what God has done in the past. In this post we’ll give you some resource and ideas of how to do that on this, or any, Reformation Day. Also feel free to leave a comment and let us know how you celebrate.
1. Learn about Martin Luther
Reformation Day is a great opportunity to discover or remind yourself of the story of Martin Luther and the beginning of the Reformation. There are many resources on Luther, for children as well as adults. We suggest the account of Luther’s 95 Theses from History of the Reformation in the 16th Century by J. Merle d’Aubigné in Book III, Chapters 4, 5 and 6. You can find this for free at the Gutenberg Project.
Also stay tuned to Discerning History, we plan to post more video and written materials on Martin Luther over the next few days and weeks.
2. Read the 95 Theses
Reformation is the anniversary of Luther’s release of the 95 Theses. He intended them as propositions to be discussed in a formal academic debate. This never happened. Instead their publication caused a great stir, and it proved to be the first step towards Luther’s break with the Catholic church. You should consider reading them, or some of them this Reformation Day. You will see both how Luther held many core beliefs that were the foundation of the Reformation, and how unreformed Luther still was. Find them online here.
3. Review the Fundamentals of the Reformation
Reformation Day gives a great chance to review some of the fundamental doctrines of the Reformation – the doctrines of the inerrancy and sufficiency of scripture, the Five Solas of the Reformation, and TULIP, the Five Points of Calvinism. These are great ways to teach the Biblical doctrines of the Reformation to children.
4. Sing Reformation Hymns
The Reformation led to a revitalization of singing and an outpouring of new songs. Luther himself was an avid song writer. Rejoice in God’s providence by singing some classic hymns that have been translated into English:
Although the day is scheduled to commemorate the start of the Reformation with Martin Luther, it’s a great opportunity to learn more about the many other men that God used in the past, such as John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, John Knox, and many other lesser known figures. You can begin with our Reformation history articles and video here on Discerning History.
6. Have a Reformation Feast
In the Bible we see that God wants His people to rejoice before Him in what He has done. Reformat Day is a great opportunity to do that. Gather with friends and family to eat and review and discuss the history and importance of the Reformation. If you have children there are many ways to get them engaged and excited. You could all dress up as Reformation figures. There are other sites online with more ideas for Reformation Day parties.
7. Listen to the Reformation Polka
On a lighter note, you can listen to the “Reformation Polka,” a fun song about Martin Luther set to the tune of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
During the Middle Ages, the knights were the premiere warriors in the European continent, if not the entire world. Battles were won and lost by a relatively small number of knights in complete suits of armor. Although there were other troops on the field, often many of them, in many battles they did not play a decisive role. Yet there was one nearly forgotten group of peasants in the 15th century that defeated knights over and over again – the Hussites. These common folk of Bohemia, modern Czech Republic, were followers of the martyered John Hus, and ideological predecessors of the Protestant Reformation.
The most effective, and famous, commander of the Hussites was Jan Zizka. Today he is something of a national hero for the Czechs, and there is a massive statue of him on Vitkov Hill, the site of one of his greatest victories, overlooking the city of Prague. Zizka had a genius for organizing the Hussites, who were mostly farmers, and turning them into an effective fighting force. He developed several tactics that allowed the Hussites to defeat several crusades that were launched against them by the Catholic Holy Roman Empire.
Statue of Jan Zizka
Zizka knew what had happened when mobs of peasants had faced knights before – complete defeat. He knew that the Hussite’s only chance for victory was through organization, so that is what he set out to do. He made sure that there were clear rules, and clear punishments for violating them. Disobedience to orders was punishable by death. Zizka also trained his armies to march fast and move quickly, so that they could move easily to strike where they were needed.
Once his army had basic training, Zizka did not immediately go out to face his most powerful enemies. He first took opportunities to try small sorties into the surrounding countryside, practicing the drills that they had learned, gaining their weapons and tactics, and experiencing the rush of battle for the first time. Gradually, through much training and practice, Zizka’s farmers were turned into a disciplined fighting force, a feat nearly unheard of at this time in history. Towards the end of his career, Zizka wrote The Statues and Military Ordinances of Zizka’s New Brotherhood, which codified the practices he had fostered in his forces, and established a code of military conduct.
Zizka’s men lacked not only discipline, but weapons and equipment. So they improvised. They were farmers, so they turned farm tools into weapons. One of the most common were the flails, which farmers used to thresh gain. This was a long handle, with a short length of chain and then a shorter stick. These could easily be turned into fearsome weapons by embedding spikes in the shorter part of the flail.
Replica of a Hussite War Wagon
Another thing that farmers would have were wagons, and this is likely where war wagons, the most famous Hussite innovation, originated. The war wagons eventually became critical to the Hussite tactics. They were wagons that were specifically designed to be turned into a fort at a moment’s notice. They were likely the first mass produced military vehicle in history. They were generally plated with iron, with wheels and panels designed to interlock when placed end to end to create a solid wall. There was a high wall on one side of the wagon, and sometimes a roof, to protect the defenders. A ramp came down to allow easy entrance and exit. There was also a container of stones handily for ballast, and to use as missiles if the enemy got too close.
As part of Zizka’s organization, the crew of the wagon was very systematized. It consisted of 20 men, each with a specific role. Two were drivers who were also armed for defense. Two were handgunners, who manned a small gun or cannon which was usually mounted on a swivel in the wagon. Six more were crossbowmen, who could fire and reload in the shelter of the wagon. Four were flailmen, whose improvised weapons worked best against enemies with anything else other than plate armor. Four were halberdiers, who carried halberds, pike-like weapons that were designed to throw fully armored knights to the ground and then finish them off with a quick blow. Two were pavisiers, who carried large shields to provide cover for those carrying flails, halberds, or crossbows, when not in cover behind a wagon.
These wagons were organized into sections of ten. An army would have a total of fifty to a hundred wagons. 50 to 100 total wagons. This provided a way to very quickly build a fort that provided a refuge that heavily knightly cavalry could not easily overcome. The “tabor,” as the wagon forts were called, could even be mobile, as long as the horses survived. Once enemy knights were worn down by attacking the tabor, they would be vulnerable when the Hussites sallied out from the wagons to counterattack.
Hussites Fighting at the Battle of Lipan
The Hussites armies were some of the first forces of common men who were able to defeat knights through discipline and good training. They could be called the first step in the downfall of the knights. As technological changes lessened the knights’ supremacy, and other factors changed European society, crowds of pikemen and musketeers replaced the cadre of knights that had ruled the battlefield.