History Today Subscription offer.

Thomas Cranmer 1489-1556: Archbishop of Canterbury

Twenty-three crucial years in English history were covered by the arch-episcopate of Thomas Cranmer, whose most enduring monument is the English Book of Common Prayer. By H.A.L. Rice.

In August of the year 1532 Archbishop Warham died, and Henry VIII nominated as his successor Master Thomas Cranmer, Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge. Behind that high appointment lay a tale of tortuous intrigue; before the new Archbishop there stretched a Primacy covering twenty-three crucial years in English history.

Thomas Cranmer was born in 1489, at Aslacton in Nottinghamshire. He was a gentleman by birth and, in spite of an excessive timidity in his youth, he won for himself the reputation of being an intrepid horseman. At Cambridge he distinguished himself, first by gaining a Fellowship at his own College and then by forfeiting it through an injudicious marriage.

A year later, however, his wife died—she was related to the landlady of the Dolphin Tavern—and Cranmer was restored to his Fellowship. He was ordained, and as Lecturer and Examiner in Divinity he settled down to what might have been, in other circumstances, a long and peaceful academic career.

But Cranmer was destined to be drawn into the murky business of the King’s attempt to have his marriage to Katharine of Aragon declared null and void. Negotiations with the Pope finally broke down in October 1529, and Wolsey, who had been entrusted with the handling of them, was disgraced.

A few months earlier, when the King was visiting Waltham Abbey in Essex, two of his entourage, Bishops Gardiner and Fox, were billeted at the house of a Mr. Cressey, to whose young son Thomas Cranmer was acting as tutor for the vacation. It was a fateful meeting. At supper the talk turned on the King’s matrimonial troubles and the likelihood of the Pope’s refusing to grant a decree of nullity.

This already seemed a foregone conclusion, for Clement VII was hardly a free agent. He was virtually the prisoner of the Emperor Charles V, whose forces had recently occupied Rome, and Charles was Queen Katharine’s nephew. It was more than the Pope dared do to deprive the Emperor’s aunt of her position as wife and Queen.

Considering this deadlock, Cranmer suggested that “the King’s matter” might suitably be put to the Universities for their opinion, a suggestion which was at once passed on to the King. Henry was delighted; he instructed Cranmer to prepare a brief on the subject and appointed him chaplain to the Earl of Wiltshire, father of Anne Boleyn. The Universities, as it turned out, proved reluctant to reach a finding satisfactory to the King.

It was only after much oblique threatening and packing of committees that they could be induced to do so. Meanwhile, Cranmer had gone abroad with the Earl of Wiltshire and took the opportunity of putting the King’s case before various foreign universities, and even of pleading it before the Pope in person. He also made important contacts with some of the German princes who had embraced Lutheranism, and with several leading Lutheran divines. One of these was Dr. Andreas Osiander, pastor of St. Laurence’s church at Nuremberg, with whose niece Cranmer fell in love and married.

This, of course, was open defiance of Church law and it indicates the direction in which Cranmer’s attitude to ecclesiastical discipline and authority was moving. For a priest—or a Cardinal, such as Wolsey—to take a mistress might be winked at; to contract a formal marriage was to fly “the flag of” open rebellion. It also came near to wrecking Henry’s personal plans, for when Warham died the King at once pressed for Cranmer to succeed him.

A married priest was still an anomaly and a scandal, and the thought of a married Archbishop of Canterbury roused violent objections both in England and in Rome. Henry found it necessary to apply all the pressure at his command to obtain from the Pope the requisite Bulls and dispensations.

Cranmer had no desire to exchange the academic calm of Cambridge for the vortex of public affairs. He delayed his return from the Continent as long as he dared, hoping, possibly, that the King might change his mind or fail to obtain the Pope’s dispensation. It was the middle of February 1533, when he finally arrived back in England.

A fortnight or so earlier Henry had been married to Anne Boleyn. Cranmer was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury on March 30th, 1533, and in the following May he pronounced Henry’s marriage to Katharine null and void. Five days later he declared the validity of the King’s marriage to Anne, and when the Princess Elizabeth was baptized on September 10th the Archbishop was her god-father.

Parliament, at the King’s bidding, now passed an Act of Succession formally acknowledging the legitimacy of whatever offspring might result from the new royal marriage. All persons of rank and consequence were required to take an Oath to maintain the Act’s provisions, and for declining to do so Sir Thomas More and Bishop Fisher of Rochester were sent to the Tower and condemned to death. It is to Cranmer’s credit that he made strenuous but unavailing efforts to save both men from the scaffold.

He seems to have played little part in the Dissolution of the Religious Houses. There is no reason for assuming that he had any great love for monasticism as such, but there exists a letter of his to Thomas Cromwell in which he appears to be far from happy about the whole shameless business of dissolution and dispossession, and the cynically hypocritical way in which the cause of true religion was invoked to justify it.

At Canterbury he successfully resisted an attempt by the King’s Commissioners to reframe the regulations of the King’s School so as virtually to exclude from it all but gentlemen’s sons. He even asserted that the children of poor parents were better endowed mentally than the sons of the gentry, and were generally more diligent in their studies—a sweeping and no doubt erroneous generalization, but one which shows Cranmer in an unexpected and interesting light.

During the final decade of Henry’s reign Cranmer found himself increasingly caught up in the theological controversies of the time. His own sympathies tended towards doctrinal and liturgical reform, but the King and most of the bishops were strongly conservative in their theological thinking.

Henry still treasured his Papally-bestowed title of Fidei Defensor and throughout his reign heretics continued to be burnt, while the ancient ceremonies and dogmas were endorsed by Royal Injunctions and Parliamentary statutes. Against such legislation, deliberately aimed at opinions which he had come to hold with growing conviction, Cranmer contended earnestly in Parliament.

At the first breath of the royal displeasure, however, he was invariably found ready to withdraw his opposition. This Erastian pliability must be regarded as a serious flaw in an otherwise not ignoble character, but his was essentially a mild, unassertive, scholarly disposition, ill-equipped for the ruthless ways of Tudor ecclesiastical politics.

His tragedy was that, admirably suited for a life of scholarly pursuits, he found himself flung into the surge of public affairs at one of the most disturbed and controversial periods of English history. A Dunstan, a Langton or a Laud might have succeeded in riding the whirlwind and directing the storm; Cranmer could only bow before it and seek safety in submission.

He should not, perhaps, be judged too harshly on this account. He was facing continually a situation which was, to say the least, imponderable. No one knew for certain that what was lawful today might not be felonious tomorrow; that what was now condemned might not over-night receive the royal support. For those who stopped short of permitting conscience to pilot them to within the shadow of the scaffold, the situation called for no ordinary measure of manoeuvre and adaptability. Moreover, Cranmer may well have reflected that, while martyrs have their value in commending causes, a live Archbishop who believed in reform but knew how to bide his time was of more practical consequence than a dead one who had spoken out too boldly and too soon.

For all that, Cranmer had his own brief encounters with the perils that played about all who held high office under a Tudor Sovereign. After the fall of Cromwell—for whose life Cranmer made another of his unavailing pleas—the Archbishop’s enemies made determined efforts to have him arraigned on charges of heresy. Only the personal intervention of the King saved him from the Tower and possibly the block.

A Wolsey, a Thomas More, a Cromwell, might be left naked to their enemies; an erring wife could expect no royal mercy. But towards the man who had solved his matrimonial problem and guided him on the path towards independence of Rome Henry showed an unexpected and uncharacteristic gratitude and loyalty.

We may consider it fortunate that he did, for in the decade that followed Cromwell’s fall Cranmer made his greatest contribution to the Church’s liturgical development, and incidentally to the development and enrichment of the national tongue. Ever since 1534 he had been pressing for an authorized translation of the Bible, and it was in no small part due to his influence that Coverdale’s “Great Bible” of 1539 was published and that in the following year a copy of it was ordered, by Royal Injunction, to be set up in every parish church.

Since it contained a preface by the Archbishop, it was widely known as “Cranmer’s Bible.” His other aim was to reform the service books—the Missal, the Breviary, the Manual and the rest— and translate them into the vernacular. Here he found himself frustrated by the King’s intense ecclesiastical conservatism, and progress in this direction was difficult and slow. He persevered, however, and was able to count upon a steadily increasing measure of support—clerical as well as lay.

In 1542 Convocation agreed to an Order directing that Lessons from the New Testament in English should be read at Mattins and Vespers every Sunday and Holy Day. Two years later, at the request of the King, Cranmer compiled a Litany in English, based upon the Sarum Latin Litany with additional borrowings from Lutheran and Eastern Orthodox sources.

It is substantially that which appears in our present Prayer Book and represents Cranmer’s literary genius at its best. In 1548, after the death of Henry, came Injunctions ordering that the Epistle and Gospel at High Mass should be read in English and authorizing an “Order of Communion” (Invitation, Confession, Absolution, etc.) to be used in the Latin Mass after the priest’s communion. The way was now prepared for a complete translation and simplification of all the Latin service books and for their compression into one volume.

A committee of divines, with the Archbishop as Chairman, met frequently to consider proposals upon the drafting of which Cranmer had long been engaged. The result was that a Bill of Uniformity was passed by Parliament in January 1549, and received the Royal Assent in March. The Act required that “the Book of Common Prayer” should come into general use by Whitsunday, June 9th, at the latest, and imposed severe penalties upon any of the clergy who refused to make use of it and upon any of the laity who spoke against it.

As the official records of Convocation for this period perished in the Great Fire of 1666, it is impossible to say for certain whether the Book ever received the sanction of the Church’s own legislative body. This first English Prayer Book of 1549 professed to be, not so much an innovation in forms of service, as a return to what was believed to be the purer worship of the Primitive Church, so long overlaid with medieval corruptions and complications.

It was essentially catholic in tone, and consequently was accepted—though perhaps reluctantly—by the more conservative-minded of the bishops, such as Gardiner, Heath, Bonner and Tunstall. It has, of course, passed through several subsequent revisions, but in its main substance the Book of 1549 was the Prayer Book as we know and use it today.

During the brief reign of the boy King, Edward VI, the religious trend of the country was forced violently in a reforming direction and continental Protestant preachers poured into England. Most of them stayed at Lambeth as Cranmer’s guests, and exercised considerable influence upon the development of his theological thinking. It was in no small part due to their urgings that a revision of the Prayer Book was undertaken in 1552 and that this version contained many changes of a Lutheran character.

The Prayer Book of 1552, and the Forty-Two Articles put out a year later, probably represent Cranmer’s final doctrinal position. He had gone far towards that of the Continental Reformers, but by no means all the way. He insisted stubbornly on maintaining the decencies of worship and upon a moderate, “half-way” theological standpoint which must have exasperated the more radical of his reforming friends. His aim was always reform of abuses rather than religious revolution, and his object was to pilot the Church of England firmly between the rival extremities of Rome and Geneva.

The death, at 15, of Edward VI spelt disaster for Cranmer and all who supported the Reformation, as well as for the Duke of Northumberland and the other political careerists who had sought to profit themselves by it. Their frantic effort to prevent the accession of the Romanist Mary by persuading the dying boy to “devise” his Crown to Northumberland’s daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, could only have one result. Cranmer, bravely enough, remained at his post, hoping desperately perhaps that some sort of co-existence might prove feasible between those who accepted the Prayer Book and those who were in loyalty bound to the Pope and the Latin Mass.

Although for a time the two rites did exist side by side, Queen Mary was merely biding her time. She had neither forgotten nor forgiven the man who had played so important a part in proclaiming the nullity of her mother’s marriage. In August 1553 Cranmer was placed under house arrest for his part in signing the document which “devised” the Crown to Lady Jane Grey.

In September he was committed to the Tower on a charge of having spoken against the Latin Mass. A Bill of Attainder was then passed through Parliament involving his deprivation and degradation. In April of the following year “the late Archbishop of Canterbury,” together with Ridley and the aged Bishop Latimer, was taken to Oxford to defend his theological views in open disputation. The result of the debate, of course, was never in doubt, and the three men were kept in prison until such time as it might be convenient to try them for heresy.

In the spring of 1555 a determined attempt was made to intimidate all who held “heretical” opinions. Under the ancient statute De heretico comburendo Bishop Hooper was burned at the stake in his see city of Gloucester, Bishop Ferrar at St. David’s, and Rowland Taylor in his Suffolk parish of Hadleigh. Although Gardiner, recently restored to his bishopric of Winchester, and Tunstall, similarly restored to Durham, refused to take any part in the persecutions, Bonner in London was active in hunting out heretics, and during the next three years nearly three hundred persons were burned to death in his diocese alone. On October 16th, 1555, Latimer and Ridley, after trial before Bishop White of Lincoln, lit their historic candle when they were burnt at the stake “upon the north side of the town (Oxford) in the ditch over against Balliol College.” Cranmer was taken to see them die.

During the next few months he was subjected to continual pressure to abjure his theological opinions, and at length he was prevailed upon to sign a document acknowledging the Pope’s supreme authority. On February 14th, 1556, he was taken to the cathedral church in Oxford and solemnly degraded of his archie-piscopal robes and insignia. He was attired in layman’s dress and returned to his prison. Two days later he declared his full acceptance of the doctrines of purgatory and transubstantiation, and abjured all the beliefs he had formerly professed of a Lutheran or Zwinglian nature.

If he entertained any real hope that this volte face would save him, he was speedily disillusioned. His recantation was at once widely published, but only to discredit him in the public regard. The unhappy old man was induced to sign yet further and more abject submissions, accusing himself of responsibility for the heresies and schisms into which the country had fallen. This further self-abasement was likewise unavailing. On March 21st he was brought once more to St. Mary’s Church where a platform had been set up for him in front of the pulpit. It was the day before Passion Sunday.

A silent throng filled the nave and side aisles as the Provost of Eton climbed the pulpit steps to address them. He explained why Cranmer must die. Notwithstanding his acceptance of the full Romanist faith, and in spite of the fact that four Reforming bishops had already been burnt, Bishop Fisher was still insufficiently avenged. Only the death of the Archbishop could completely balance the account.

Yet, since Cranmer had abjured his heresies and once more embraced the true faith, he could rest assured that masses would be said for his soul in all the churches of Oxford. Having thus bleakly comforted him, the Provost then called upon Cranmer publicly to proclaim his faith. With the tears streaming down, the Archbishop addressed the congregation. He began by invoking Divine forgiveness for all his sins, and went on to urge upon his hearers loyal obedience to the Throne and charity towards each other. As a statement of his faith he recited the Apostles’ Creed.

“And now,” he said, “I come to the great thing which so much troubleth my conscience, more than anything that ever I did or said in my whole life.”

The expectant congregation, the triumphant tribunal, waited for the solemn denunciation of his erstwhile Reforming opinions which must surely follow. What in fact came next electrified and confounded them.

“I renounce and refuse, as things written with my hand, contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and written for fear of death and to save my life, all bills and papers which I have written or signed with my own hand since my degradation. And forasmuch as my hand offended, writing contrary to my heart, my hand shall first be punished therefore; for when I come to the fire it shall first be burned.”

He attempted to say more, to denounce the pretensions of the Pope, to re-assert his former denial of transubstantiation. But his outraged judges would allow him to speak no further. He was dragged from the platform and from St. Mary’s Church, to the spot near Balliol College where, only a few months before, he had seen Latimer and Ridley put to death.

Here, before a vast concourse, he knelt in prayer and, after shaking hands with some of the bystanders, prepared himself for the stake. Then, in the words of an eye-witness, “when the wood was kindled and the fire began to burn, he put his right hand into the flame saying ‘ This hand hath offended.’” He was tied to the stake, the flaming faggots were piled around him, and “as soon as the fire got up he was very soon dead, never stirring or crying all the while.”

Thus, courageously, died Thomas Cranmer, a martyr to the beliefs which he had never inwardly denied, for all his outward tergiversations. In dying he achieved a nobility and heroism difficult to detect as we contemplate his career as a whole. His subservience to Tudor despotism, his Erastian propensity for subordinating the spiritual to the secular, tend to dwarf him in comparison with some of his predecessors in the primatial see.

Yet he was essentially a good man; irreproachable in his private life, devout and sincere in his religion, gentle and tolerant towards his fellow-men. He alone had interceded on behalf of Fisher, More and Cromwell, had pleaded for the monks of Sion, and had vainly opposed the rapacious Northumberland in his more outrageous plans of pillage and spoliation. And if at times he stretched his conscience almost to breaking-point in his desire to please and serve his King, it should ever be remembered to his credit that ultimately conscience triumphed over all.

In theology he genuinely sought to return to a purer and more primitive faith, essentially orthodox yet purged of what he considered to be medieval accretions and abuses. He played no small part in laying the foundations of an Anglican theology and a doctrinal via media— foundations upon which Parker, Jewel, Hooker and the Caroline divines were afterwards able so notably to build.

Yet it was not in the field of dogmatics that Cranmer achieved his supreme distinction. His priceless legacy to posterity is the Book of Common Prayer. It has justifiably been said that as a compiler of prayers in our flexible English tongue Cranmer stands in a class by himself, as surely as Shakespeare stands alone as a poet. Many have achieved a lasting fame on less worthy and enduring merits.

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week
X