Thomas Cranmer: the Yes-Man who said No

The paradoxical career of one of the key figures of English Protestantism.

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.

An Uncomfortable Fudge

To be fair to Cranmer, he needed other qualities if he was to fulfil his ambition to create a Protestant nation. He was genuine in his wish to exclude papal influence from England. He substituted the authority of the Bible and wished it to be available in the vernacular for all his fellow citizens. Likewise, he aimed at church services in English and not Latin. Not the least of his problems was that his formidable and erudite monarch, who with some justification fancied himself as a theologian, had to be convinced that England needed any settlement more radical than ‘catholicism without the pope’.

In the short term Cranmer’s task was to terminate Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and replace her with Anne Boleyn, the ‘goggle-eyed whore’ – as the London mob called her – with whom Henry had fallen in lust. That having been done, what next? The parliamentary campaign to pass the necessary legislation by which Henry replaced the Pope and the systematic looting of the medieval church were masterminded by Thomas Cromwell, the king’s piggy-eyed vice-gerent. Cranmer was not involved. But he had to surmount an embarrassing blip when Anne the Protestant heroine disgraced herself by producing a daughter and then allegedly sleeping around in order to provide her impatient lord with a son. (Incidentally, has any historian pointed out the significance of Anne’s alleged adultery with her own brother? A baby boy who resembled a Boleyn would arouse no suspicion.) Anyway, Cranmer’s role was to hear Anne’s confession, which convinced him of her innocence, and to intercede unsuccessfully with her husband. The Protestant cause was now at risk.

Cranmer’s enemies – and there were many, whether inspired by envy or doctrinal disagreement – had several opportunities to destroy him. For instance, when Anne’s replacement Jane Seymour died in childbirth, the Protestant cause very nearly hit the buffers due to Cromwell’s arrangement of a royal marriage with the ‘mare of Flanders’, Anne of Cleves (‘full of bad odours’ according to her gallant husband). Down went Cromwell, and Cranmer almost went down with him. Cranmer’s survival throws interesting light on his alleged psycophancy. Not only did he plead the cause of Thomas Cromwell – unsuccessfully again but perhaps winning the grudging respect of his royal master – but he also defended Thomas More, to say nothing of Princess Mary, drawing the prophetic comment from Henry that he might well live to regret Mary’s survival. Henry came to admire his archbishop’s guileless defence of the vulnerable, even to his own disadvantage. Similarly Cranmer covered the king’s draft proclamations with criticisms not only of Henry’s theology but his faulty self-expression and grammar. When bishops Gardiner and Bonner combined with the Canterbury cathedral clergy to denounce their archbishop, Henry terrified Cranmer by accusing him of being the biggest heretic in Kent. The king then put Cranmer in charge of the enquiry into these charges despite his typical objection that he was the wrong man to take on this role.

Cranmer dutifully complied with Henry’s lurches to the right and to the left. To his shame he participated in the burning of heretics of rival persuasions. He had to conceal his wife. He had to accept the King’s Book, which almost restored Catholicism – but then Henry committed his son’s education to Protestant tutors and ordered ‘his chaplain’, as he called Cranmer, to compose an English Litany. No wonder that Cranmer avoided Henry’s court as much as possible, keeping his head down, minding the shop and preparing a truly Protestant liturgy should the hour strike. And strike it did on January 28 1547, when Cranmer was summoned in the small hours from his palace at Croydon because his master was dying and would not be ushered into the next world by anyone except his archbishop. When Cranmer arrived, Henry was speechless. Before he died he pressed the archbishop’s hand to indicate his trust in Christ. Cranmer’s biographer, Diarmaid MacCulloch, writes: ‘thus ended the most long-lasting relationship of love which either man had known’. To indicate his grief Cranmer grew a beard for the rest of his days. Why did a gentle and merciful man regret the passing of such an ogre. A typical yes-man?

The Yes-Man Unleashed

The unpredictable old tyrant was replaced by an inexperienced boy dominated by his Protestant ministers. Actually, in so far as he had opinions, Edward VI was clearly on the way to becoming a Protestant bigot. Cranmer therefore received the green light. He began to implement the crusade which he had longingly planned. Reactionary churchmen were replaced by progressives – Bonner at London by Ridley, Cranmer’s bête-noir Gardiner by Ponet at Winchester. Hooper was foisted upon the indignant conservative chapter at Gloucester, Latimer invaded Worcester. Prominent European Protestants were appointed to university chairs, Martin Bucer for example at Cambridge. Shrines were demolished, images were smashed, pilgrimages forbidden. Just how widespread this anti-Rome campaign was and how popular has been disputed. Professor Eamon Duffy maintains that only in London and East Anglia was such radicalism welcomed. Certainly in the north of England and in the West Country there was opposition.

Now came Cranmer’s great opportunity. He composed a Protestant English language prayer-book which was introduced by parliamentary statute in 1549. When evangelicals criticised it for being too conservative, Cranmer obliged with a slightly more radical second prayer-book in 1552. These prayer-books constitute the Book of Common Prayer (hereafter BCP) which is still used in the Anglican Church today, though it has significantly lost ground during the last 30 years to more ‘accessible’ alternatives. This is not the place to take sides, nor am I qualified as a theological or literary specialist to pontificate on Cranmer’s religious or artistic qualities. Suffice it to say that the remarkably long-lasting record of the BCP must surely be significant. And there can be no harm in a hack historian tentatively suggesting the secrets of Cranmer’s achievement.

Perhaps the best illustration of Cranmer’s genius is the collects, that is to say, the special prayers composed for each Sunday. Some of these were borrowed by Cranmer from other sources and adapted or improved. Others were original compositions. The collect for Advent Sunday, for instance, first appeared in 1549: ‘Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast aside the works of darkness and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when He shall come again in His glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal ...’ A matchless piece of English prose or meaningless bombast? To be objective, one can note the reliance on scripture, so typical of Cranmer: ‘cast away the works of darkness’ is from Romans chapter 13, the progression from darkness to light is from the first chapter of St John’s gospel. The contrast between mortality and immortality is significant, as is the emphasis on humility as Christ’s quality and our need for it through grace. The meaning of Christmas is that we inhabit a visited planet. One can point to the concise nature of Cranmer’s prose, the avoidance of polysyllabic words. God must not be bored.

Cranmer’s theology is best illustrated by the BCP Communion service. Take, for example, the Prayer of Consecration: ‘Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world ...’ Here are Cranmer’s supreme religious beliefs – he is penitent, suffused with awe and gratitude, biblical (cf I John 4.10: ‘Herein is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins’). It is furthermore a summary of the Protestant rejection of the Roman Catholic belief in transubstantiation (the doctrine that the bread and the wine became the body and blood of Christ) through the sacrifice of the priest at the altar; there has been only one sacrifice, by Christ on the Cross, and it has proved to be completely sufficient for the sins of the whole world, and for the removal of the individual’s guilt and imprisonment by sin. The prayer goes on to explain that we participate in the commemoration of Christ’s death and in the benefits of the Passion, through the reception of the bread and the wine.

The considerable alteration of Cranmer’s communion service in recent times, to say nothing of the virtual abolition of Matins and Evensong, prompt the question, what is wrong with the BCP? Speaking in 1884, W.E. Gladstone claimed that his ministry’s achievements were so remarkable that there was now simply no need for further reform. Would Cranmer have made a similar claim? Probably not. He was such a modest man, so receptive to the criticisms of contemporaries, that a third prayer-book would have emerged before long. Looking back now, we can pinpoint the relative lack of a sense of mission to other faiths, and to other parts of the world – many yet to be discovered. While Cranmer was critical of the greed of his political colleagues and at his death commended the poor, there is not much social gospel in the BCP. His theology would nowadays be faulted by all but conservative evangelicals for its simplistic belief in Christ’s undeserved sufferings to propitiate an angry God anxious to punish us for our offences. Indeed Cranmer’s obsession with our sins – we are ‘miserable offenders’ – is arguably unhealthy. He confessed to Henry VIII that he could not write poetry. The great age of English hymnody was decades away.

Alas! All Cranmer’s achievement was at risk due to the ill-health of one hereditarily syphilitic teenager. Cranmer did not help the cause by writing rude reprimands to Princess Mary for not complying with the government’s demands to abandon the Mass. In summer 1553, Edward was dying. Northumberland bullied him into bequeathing the succession to Lady Jane Grey in whose veins ran Plantangenet blood. She was forced to marry – guess who? – Northumberland’s son, Guildford Dudley. Even the archbishop could see that this was a hopeless project. Cranmer appealed in vain for the opportunity to reason with his godson in private. Instead he was obliged to listen to the boy’s agonised appeal not to be the only minister to reject his will. The yesman could only comply. His signature was to be his death warrant, among other fatal decisions. Cranmer opposed Northumberland’s greed and ambition. When Edward died, Cranmer was proved right, Northumberland wrong. With untypical ineptitude, Northumberland failed to apprehend Princess Mary; she escaped into Norfolk whence she advanced on London, to be welcomed as Harry’s daughter. Northumberland threw up his cap at Cambridge for the queen – to no avail. Likewise, his embrace of Catholicism on the scaffold failed to save his life, though it damaged Protestantism.

Cranmer’s immediate reaction was realistic. He dispatched his wife and children to Germany and advised anybody else who consulted him to escape if possible. Less realistic was his hope that a cringing offer of loyalty to Mary might achieve a detente between the Queen’s Catholicism and the Protestant settlement of her brother’s reign. Repeatedly he asked the Queen to receive him. Repeatedly she refused. In any case Cranmer wrecked his cause by reacting intemperately to a rumour that he had celebrated Mass in Canterbury Cathedral by issuing a forthright condemnation of transubstantiation. After the failure of Wyatt’s rebellion as a protest against the Queen’s marriage to Philip of Spain, Cranmer was arrested for treason and imprisoned in the Tower.

Yes to Virtually Anything?

Mary was a highly principled woman. She was not usually cruel or vindictive. She was a devout Catholic whose deepest wish was that England should return to the Faith. She welcomed back into her administration men who had co-operated with Henry VIII up until 1543 but expressed regret for what had occurred. Such a man was Gardiner who was restored to his bishopric at Winchester and made Lord Chancellor. On the other hand, Mary turned down a request from Parliament that she should marry an Englishman. Soon vestments, candles and images reappeared in churches, though at first there was no persecution of Protestants. Such a compromise between Catholicism and reform went down well enough. But when Parliament had reissued the statute de heretico comburendo the burning of Protestants began.

There was no mercy for Cranmer. Mary could not forgive him for his part in the humiliation of her mother, Catherine of Aragon, and for the public branding of herself as a bastard. Nor could she forget Cranmer’s leadership of the heretical church. He was joined in the Tower by other prominent Protestants such as Ridley, Latimer, Hooper and Bradford. After several relatively serene weeks during which they studied the Bible, Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer were sent to be tried at Oxford. After being condemned as heretics, Ridley and Latimer were burnt outside Balliol College. Cranmer had to witness their deaths. But he was held in the forbidding Bocardo prison until the necessary permission arrived from Rome for the papally appointed archbishop to be tried. In the meantime Cardinal Pole received England back into the Roman faith. When Cranmer had been degraded, excommunicated and condemned as a heretic, Pole replaced him as Archbishop of Canterbury.

These measures, however, were all very well so far as Mary and her ministers were concerned, but not enough to signify and confirm the religious counter-revolution which had occurred. What was needed was total, explicit, abject surrender by the arch-heretic Thomas Cranmer. As a yes-man he would go a long way out of obedience to the crown. Yet given his loyalty to the reformed faith and his honesty, this was no straightforward undertaking. What had to be achieved therefore was the total humiliation and demoralisation of the archbishop so that he would sign anything. At his trial for heresy the ecclesiastical lawyer Thomas Martin demolished Cranmer with clinical and tendentious efficiency. He appealed to the gallery by claiming that Cranmer had surrendered to the Devil who had failed to persuade Christ to cast himself down from the temple. But Cranmer had indeed cast himself down: ‘Down with the sacrament! Down with the Mass! Down with the altars! Down with the arms of Christ, and up with a lion and a dog ... all your proceedings and preachings tended to no other, but to fulfil the Devil’s request, Cast yourself down!’ Cranmer was similarly humiliated at his degradation ceremony. He was first made to put on the vestments of an archbishop – but these were shabby and pitiful imitations, like Christ’s crown and robe. Bonner tore these vestments off Cranmer, shouting insults all the while – ‘Now you are no lord!’ He scratched Cranmer’s hands to remove the unction which he had received as a priest.

This calculated cruelty worked. Cranmer signed a series of confessions, each more humiliating than the last. He was ‘coached’ by clever Spanish friars who both bullied and befriended the old man. Why did Cranmer give way? He was unwell, lonely and bewildered. His admirers have denied that Cranmer tried to save his own life. Yet he admitted this himself, and what could be more understandable than that the prospect of the stake should terrify him? Gradually the realisation dawned that he was going to be burnt in any case. On his last night perhaps Cranmer was comforted by his own Litany: ‘That it may please Thee to strengthen such as do stand; to comfort and help the weak-hearted; to raise up them that fall; and finally to beat down Satan under our feet.’ Cranmer learnt the confession he had been made to write out in his own hand; but he also wrote another confession of a very different kind.

Next day, March 21 1556, dawned cold and rainy. It was customary for a sermon to be preached before a condemned heretic was burnt. But if it was wet, a suitable building would be found for the sermon. So the huge crowd of clergy, politicians, university officials and spectators filed into the University Church of St Mary the Virgin. Cranmer was placed on a platform opposite the pulpit where Dr Cole, the Provost of Eton, explained why he was to be burnt even though he had recanted. Northumberland’s death cancelled out the execution of Sir Thomas More. But there remained Cardinal Fisher, the martyred Bishop of Rochester. Ridley, Latimer and Hooper were not enough. Cranmer was to complete this curious law of four eyes for an eye.

When Cole had finished, Cranmer spoke. All eyes were on him. There was total silence. The doomed man led the assembly in the Lord’s Prayer. He prayed for the poor. Then he began his confession which initially followed the official script – until he said this: ‘And now I come to the great thing that troubleth my conscience more than any other thing that I said or did in my life, and that is the setting abroad of writings contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and written for fear of death and to save my life if it might be; and that is all such bills which I have written or signed with mine own hand since my degradation: wherein I have written many things untrue. And foreasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished, for if I may come to the fire, it shall be first burned. 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 ...’ But the pandemonium which now broke out prevented Cranmer’s condemnation of Gardiner’s views on the Mass. Angry hands pulled him down and hustled him out of the church towards the pyre. The Spaniard Villa Garcia accused the lapsed yes-man of changing his speech because he knew he would burn anyway. Cranmer agreed that he might be right. MacCulloch is surprised by Cranmer’s retort, though it seems sensible to me. When they came to the pyre, Cranmer shook hands with onlookers before being chained to the stake as the flames leapt up. True to his word he held his hand in the flames until he collapsed, crying ‘Lord Jesus, receive my soul!’ Catholics claimed that his heretical heart would not burn.

Why did the Yes-Man say No?

Shortly before he died, Cranmer dreamt that Henry VIII and Christ had a disagreement. So could the crown be wrong? Did Cranmer finally think the unthinkable? Catholics stressed Cranmer’s inconsistency, possibly his insincerity – ‘this execrable man’, a Spanish polemicist called him. But this is not the whole story. For one thing, the man who wrote the BCP could not be called ‘execrable’. And there is a further point. Although Duffy, in his recent sympathetic study of Mary’s reign, admits that the execution of Cranmer was a public relations disaster, he ignores the immorality of burning a penitent ex-heretic who had repeatedly recanted. The preacher’s text at a burning was often 1 Corinthians XIII , 3 – ‘Though I give my body to be burnt and have not charity ...’ But Cranmer was the personification of charity; the lack of charity was on the other side. Did Cranmer turn because of his disgust at a regime which could be so unkind? The Whig historian G.M. Trevelyan wrote: ‘No wonder that Cranmer’s timid nature hesitated and recanted in the presence of a terrible death. It is more wonderful that he held his hand in the fire ... In that magnificent gesture the Church of England revived.’ But Trevelyan did not go far enough. Cranmer said No to Roman Catholic and Yes to Protestant Christianity.