Born in 1489 at Nottingham, Cranmer was educated at Jesus College, Cambridge and became a priest following the death of his first wife. By the time of the controversy over the divorce of King Henry from his wife, Catherine of Aragon, Cranmer had risen to an influential position, and his willingness to pursue the matter on the King's behalf won him further advancement, despite the fact that he had secretly married the niece of a Lutheran theologian in Nuremberg. On March 30, 1533, he became Archbishop of Canterbury, and was able to push through the reforms that led gradually to the creation of the Church of England. In 1538 he condemned the views of John Lambert when he denied the real presence of Jesus Christ in the bread and wine of the eucharist. Lambert was burnt at the stake, and Cranmer came to adopt his views.
On Henry's death in 1547, Cranmer became an indispensable advisor to his son and successor, Edward, who, though still a child, had been brought up with extreme Protestant views. During Edward's reign, Cranmer introduced the Book of Common Prayer which is still used today, and in general, led the Church of England in an indisputably protestant direction.
Edward died in 1553, to be succeeded by his half-sister, Mary I of England, who had been brought up a Catholic and wished to return the country to its former faith. Cranmer was removed from office, imprisoned and charged with both treason and heresy on February 14, 1556. In an effort to save himself, he recanted, but was nevertheless condemned to be burned at the stake. When he discovered his fate, he withdrew his recantation, and at the point of execution, he thrust his right hand into the fire, this being the hand which had signed the document. He was executed along with two other bishops, Ridley and Latimer, at Oxford in 1556. The event is commemorated by the so-called Martyrs' Memorial (which is not on the original site).