Thomas Cranmer: the Yes-Man who said No
Richard Wilkinson elucidates the paradoxical career of one of the key figures of English Protestantism.
One of Thomas Cranmer’s few qualifications when Henry VIII made him Archbishop of Canterbury in March 1533 was obsequiousness. It was indeed a strange appointment. Cranmer was an obscure, naive Cambridge theology don with recent but very limited experience of diplomacy. Typically when he put in for his expenses, he swindled himself. He had heretical leanings and was on his second marriage, his first wife having died in childbirth. In order to procure his official cloak, the pallium, Cranmer had to commit perjury in promising obedience to the Pope. However, Henry needed a yes-man and, as a natural bully, he could recognise one when he saw one. Like many throughout history Cranmer turned subservience into an art-form. ‘Mild, tractable, loath to displease’, Cranmer actually elevated obedience to the ruler into a moral principle, established in the Bible. Cuius regio eius religio (the ruler decides the religion) was a familiar sixteenth century adage; but Cranmer was exceptional, even in a king-worshipping age, by arguing that it was morally right. So he condemned the West Country rebels in 1549 as brutally as Luther had damned the German peasants in 1525. Were there any values which rivalled Cranmer’s obligations to the crown? This article explores the conflicts which produced English Protestantism.
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