Archbishop of Canterbury, Leader of the English Reformation. He served as Archbishop from December 1533 until December 1555, during the reigns of English Kings Henry VIII, Edward VI and, for a short time, Queen Mary I. Born into a modest family, his father died when he was 12 year old and two years later, he attended the newly created Jesus College in Cambridge, England from where he received his Bachelor of Arts Degree eight years later. In 1515 he received his Master of Arts Degree and was elected to a Fellowship of Jesus College. He then married, and although he was not yet a priest, he was forced to forfeit his fellowship, resulting in the loss of his residence. To support himself and his wife, he took a job as a reader at another college. After the death of his wife during her first childbirth, Jesus College reinstated his fellowship and he began studying theology and by 1520 he had been ordained, with the university already having named him as one of their preachers. In 1526 he received his Doctorate of Divinity. In January 1532 he was appointed the resident ambassador at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V and during his travels with the Emperor, he saw for the first time the effects of the Protestant Reformation. While in Italy, he received notice that he had been appointed the new Archbishop of Canterbury, following the death of Archbishop William Warham, and he returned to England in January 1533 and was consecrated as Archbishop on March 30 of that year. His appointment had been secured by the family of Anne Boleyn, who was being courted by Henry VIII. On May 23, 1533 he declared the marriage between Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, null and void, freeing Henry to marry Anne Boleyn a few days later. After Anne was arrested for treason and imprisoned in the Tower of London, he wrote a letter to the Henry VIII expressing his doubts about her guilt, and highlighting his own esteem for her. After it was delivered, he was resigned to the fact that the end of Anne's marriage was inevitable and that she would ultimately be executed. When Edward VI came to the throne, after the death of Henry VIII, he was able to promote major religious reforms, which he had been unable to do under Henry's reign due to power struggles between religious conservatives and reformers. He wrote and compiled the first two editions of the "Book of Common Prayer," a complete liturgy for the English Church. With the assistance of several Continental reformers to whom he gave refuge, he developed new doctrinal standards in areas such as the Eucharist, clerical celibacy, the role of images in places of worship, and the veneration of saints. He promulgated the new doctrines through the "Prayer Book," the "Homilies" and other publications. After the accession of the Roman Catholic Queen Mary I, he was put on trial for treason and heresy. Imprisoned for over two years and under pressure from Church authorities, he made several recantations and apparently reconciled himself with the Roman Catholic Church. However, on the day of his execution, he withdrew his recantations, to die a heretic to Roman Catholics and a martyr for the principles of the English Reformation. He was burned at the stake at the age of 66. His death was immortalized in John Foxe's "Book of Martyrs" and his legacy lives on within the Church of England through the "Book of Common Prayer" and the "Thirty-Nine Articles," an Anglican statement of faith derived from his work. There have been numerous portrayals of him in film and television, with the first of these was by Charles Fuller in the 1911 film "Henry VIII." Subsequent portrayals include Lumsden Hare in "Young Bess" (1953), Cyril Luckham in "A Man for All Seasons" (1966), Bernard Hepton in "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" (1970), "Elizabeth R" (1971), and "Henry VIII and His Six Wives" (1972), David Waller in "Lady Jane" (1986), and Hans Matheson in the 2008 television Showtime serial "The Tudors." The Anglican Communion commemorates him as a Reformation Martyr on March 21, the anniversary of his death.
Bio by: William Bjornstad