God's Good Servant, but the King's First?

December 1998By William J. Tighe

William J. Tighe is Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania.

Thomas Cranmer: A Life.  By Diarmaid MacCulloch. Yale University Press. 692 pages. $18.



Thomas Cranmer: Archbishop of Canterbury, charter member of the Church of England, chief author of the elegantly written Book of Common Prayer, and ringmaster of Henry VIII’s marital three-ring circus; convicted of treason but spared by the new Catholic queen so she could try him for heresy; burned at the stake in 1556. Some have called him a hero, some a villain.

After Henry VIII’s death and the crowning of the boy Edward VI in 1547, Cranmer was one of the overseers of what Diarmaid MacCulloch calls “a religious revolution of ruthless thoroughness” which was “designed to destroy one Church and build another….” And yet, as MacCulloch emphasizes, the church we have come to know as Anglican was not at all what Cranmer had in mind, if by “Anglican” we mean a via media between Protestantism and Catholicism: “Cranmer would have violently rejected such a notion: how could one have a middle way between truth and Antichrist?”

MacCulloch has written a readable and compelling life of this controversial figure in the crooked and ambiguous English Reformation. MacCulloch is a Lecturer in Church History at Oxford and an ordained deacon of the Church of England (who informs his readers that he retains “a wary affection for the Church of England…which has shaped my own identity…”). Having uncovered a number of new facts about Cranmer’s career and thought, he has “concluded that those who told the hero-narrative generally distorted fewer elements of the evidence than those who told the villain-narrative” and he acknowledges his “admiration for the way in which [Cranmer] struggled to a final gesture of certainty in his last hour.”

That confused and dramatic last hour was the exit from the stage of a man who had spent three decades embroiled in the internecine warfare of English ecclesiastical politics. Thomas Cranmer was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1533 to either 1553 (when he was convicted of high treason for his part in the failed attempt to substitute the Protestant Lady Jane Grey for the Catholic Mary Tudor as successor to Edward VI) or 1556 (when he was formally deprived of the archbishopric by papal authority after the full restoration of Catholicism in England).

He was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake in Oxford on March 21, 1556. It was a highly improper ending, for in January Cranmer’s confidence in his Protestant views had begun to crumble, and on February 27 he renounced Protestantism. By all precedent, his life should have been spared, despite the death sentence entailed by heresy.

But Queen Mary was implacable, holding Cranmer responsible for all that had happened in the past quarter-century in England: the annulment of her father Henry VIII’s marriage to her mother, Catherine of Aragon, and her own consequent bastardizing; the breach between England and the Apostolic See, and the subsequent martyrdoms of St. John Fisher, St. Thomas More, and members of her own and her mother’s circle of friends; the dissolution of the monasteries and the looting of the Church; the triumph of Protestantism during the reign of her half-brother Edward VI; and the attempt to exclude her from the throne. Die he must.

Every indication is that Cranmer intended to make a good Catholic end in these miserable circumstances, but it appears that in the course of the last full day of his life he changed his mind and resolved to die a Protestant. A sermon was to be preached in the Oxford University church of St. Mary the Virgin, in part to justify his execution, and then Cranmer was expected to read his final recantation before being taken to the stake. Instead, he repudiated his recantations, denounced the pope as Antichrist, and reaffirmed his Reformed (as opposed to Catholic or Lutheran) beliefs about the Eucharist, before being pulled from the pulpit and rushed to his execution amid tumult and uproar.

Only two years later Queen Mary died and was succeeded by her half-sister, Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. The new queen, after five months of political strife and parliamentary struggles, managed to assert her supremacy over the English church and substitute a Protestant liturgy for the Catholic Mass. Thereafter, Cranmer and bishops Latimer and Ridley (who had both been executed in 1555) became in English Protestant lore the three martyr bishops who had given their lives for “the truth of the Gospel” and the “freedom” (from Rome) of the Church of England. This status, however, was later to be regarded with distaste by those groups within the Church of England and the wider Anglican world that wished, in the aftermath of the Oxford Movement of the 1830s, to stress the putatively “Catholic nature” of the post-Reformation English state church and to disavow any but the most incidental connections with the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.

Who was Thomas Cranmer — and what really were his religious beliefs? A tradition going back almost to the 16th century has Cranmer, young theologian and fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, as a member of the group of reform-minded academics who met informally at the White Horse Tavern to discuss and disseminate Martin Luther’s ideas. But MacCulloch, by examining the marginal annotations in Cranmer’s own hand on Cranmer’s copies of St. John Fisher’s attack on Luther (1523) and Erasmus’s defense of free will against Luther (1524), has brought to light what he calls Cranmer’s “furious and horrified condemnation of Luther’s arguments.” Cranmer disliked Luther’s “ravings” against the pope and his denial of free will, and was furious at Luther’s disparaging of the authority of the ecumenical councils of the Church.

The violent 15th-century controversies over whether popes were superior in authority to ecumenical councils, or vice versa, had abated but had not been settled (and they were not to be settled definitively for Catholics until 1870). A good Catholic might be a “conciliarist” or a “papalist” in the 16th century, and Cranmer’s annotations, showing his anger at Luther’s slighting of councils, and his occasional reservations about Fisher’s full-blooded papalism, mark him as a conciliarist. But he was to go further. On all the issues on which evidence exists that the young Cranmer disagreed with Luther — respect for the papacy, belief in free will, the authority of church councils — Cranmer later reversed himself: He came to believe as strongly as Luther that the papacy was the Antichrist foretold in Scripture; he was as strongly predestinarian as either Luther or Calvin; and he repudiated the authority of all but the earliest councils.

(He would conceive, however, of a council of his own devising. Much of his time from 1548 to 1553 was spent in futile efforts to induce leading Protestant reformers such as Bullinger, Calvin, and Melanchthon to come to England in order to prepare the way for a Protestant general council which would counter the Catholic Council of Trent and heal the widening breach between the Lutherans and the Reformed — or “Calvinists,” as they are often misleadingly termed.)

Cranmer’s rise had begun with his work for King Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, on the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. It was Cranmer who hit on the idea of canvassing the opinions of the theological faculties of European universities, and although this was to prove a blind alley, it brought Cranmer to the notice of the king. Cranmer was one of the members of an English mission to Rome in 1530 which attempted unsuccessfully to combine blandishments and bullying to sway the pope to settle the case in the king’s favor, and from January 1532 to January 1533 he served as England’s ambassador to the Emperor Charles V, until being recalled to England to become Archbishop of Canterbury, an appointment that the weak Pope Clement VII was pathetically eager to expedite in the hope of retaining the English king’s good will.

Under Henry VIII’s supreme headship, from 1533 to 1539 or 1540, a coalition of reform-minded “evangelicals,” attracted in varying degrees to Protestant ideas or simply to those of the Catholic humanist Erasmus, and protected by the king’s great minister Thomas Cromwell, set the pace for change in the Church of England. They supported the dissolution of the monasteries, the translation and authorization of an English Bible, and attempts to ally England with the Lutheran princes of Germany (the attempts foundered on Henry’s unwillingness to commit himself and his church to Lutheran doctrine, however diluted). Cranmer was one of the foremost proponents of these policies. He managed to avoid involvement in the condemnation and execution of Fisher and More in 1535, and twenty years later he claimed that he had opposed More’s execution.

Cranmer’s own views at this period may loosely be described as “Lutheran”: Like the Lutherans, he professed the pope to be Antichrist; like them also, he believed in “justification by faith alone” and the authority of the Bible alone in determining doctrinal truth; and while repudiating the name and philosophical content of Transubstantiation as regards the Eucharist, he strongly affirmed Christ’s real (or, in his word, “true”) presence in the bread and wine, and he attempted unsuccessfully to argue John Frith and John Lambert out of their symbolic (or Zwinglian) view of the sacrament before their executions for heresy in 1533 and 1538, respectively.

(Cranmer adopted these same “symbolic” views in 1546 or 1547, making his conduct toward Frith and Lambert in later years an embarrassment to his defenders and an asset to his detractors.) His strenuous attempts to save these two from the flames stand in sharp contrast to his savage delight in the burning of a “papal loyalist” in 1538. John Forrest, an Observant Franciscan, had been an outspoken partisan of Catherine of Aragon, and his case is a unique example of adherence to the papacy being treated as heresy in England — rather than as treason — after the break with Rome. Those who judged Cranmer in Mary’s reign were to regard his fiery end as an appropriate requital for the death of Friar Forrest.

When Henry died in 1547 and nine-year-old Edward VI came to the throne, the king’s maternal uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, was declared Lord Protector during the king’s minority. Both Somerset (who fell from power in 1549) and his rival and supplanter John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, were committed to advancing Protestantism in England. It was right around this time that Cranmer’s theological position went from a loosely Lutheran one to a strongly Reformed one (or “Zwinglian” or “ Swiss”; to use the term “Calvinist” would be both anachronistic and misleading, since Calvin’s views on the Eucharist were in many respects to remain closer to those of Luther than were Cranmer’s, and if one were to name a continental reformer whose views and Cranmer’s corresponded most closely, it would be Zwingli’s successor at Zurich, Heinrich Bullinger [1504-1575], whose influence in their lifetimes far exceeded that of John Calvin [1509-1564]).

Cranmer was never “in charge” of religious affairs in England during Edward VI’s reign, but he was a central and respected member of the inner circle of the government, and was free to be his own master in a way that he had never been under Henry VIII. MacCulloch says that the “evangelical establishment grouping knew from the start in 1547 exactly what Reformation it wanted: whatever hesitations occurred were primarily attributable to the need to disarm conservative opposition…there was an essential continuity of purpose in a graduated series of religious changes…. Thomas Cranmer was the one man who guaranteed the continuity of the changes, and he was chiefly responsible for planning them as they occurred….”

MacCulloch demonstrates at great length the thoroughly Protestant nature (“Swiss” rather than “Lutheran”) of the theology underlying the Eucharistic rite of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, a rite whose traditional shape has provided, as he states, “theological fools’ gold for those Anglo-Catholics who have sought to reinterpret it” as Catholic in substance, by contrast with the more obviously “Reformed” 1552 Book. The 1549 rite made cosmetic concessions to conservative sensibilities (allowing traditional vestments, describing the Communion service as “commonly called the Masse,” permitting a degree of prayer for the dead in the funeral service) which allowed determinedly traditionalist clergy to “counterfeit the Mass” in their manner of using it.

Cranmer did not anticipate the sustained efforts of the imprisoned Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner, to use his long sojourn in the Tower to attack Cranmer’s writings on the Eucharist, claiming that the 1549 rite was fully susceptible of a Catholic interpretation. But still, as MacCulloch thinks, the 1549 prayer book was probably intended from the beginning as a preliminary to further “reform” in due course; Gardiner’s efforts, however, made further revision an urgent priority. MacCulloch thinks that Gardiner at this stage of his career might appropriately be styled “the first Anglo-Catholic.”

From the other side, Cranmer had troubles with Protestants whose zeal for an England “reformed” in the manner of Zurich — a goal to which Cranmer had no principled objections — would brook no delays. Such were John Hooper, Bishop of Gloucester, and the Scotsman John Knox, who by the end of Edward’s reign were enjoying increasing favor from the regime and who might well have been the wave of the future had not the march toward a “Swiss” destination ground to a halt at the boy-king’s death.

MacCulloch sees the “puritanism” of the later 16th century not so much as the creation of Protestants who had gone into exile under Mary and returned under Elizabeth filled with a new zeal for what they had experienced in Zurich or Geneva, but as the result of frustration at Elizabeth’s failure to resume the “reforming” impetus that had been so strong in her brother’s reign. She simply restored Edward’s (and Cranmer’s) church as it had stood in 1552 and for the remaining 44 years of her reign permitted no changes. She thus (ironically and no doubt unintentionally) prepared the way for the emergence of an “Anglicanism” claiming to be both Catholic and Protestant — a development which Cranmer never intended and which he would have regarded with horror could he have foreseen it.

In his final chapter, “Aftermath and Retrospect,” MacCulloch, among other things, ponders what might have happened if the scheme in 1553 to put Jane Grey on the throne and “dispose of” Mary Tudor had succeeded. Would there have been a third version of the prayer book even more in line with the practice of the Reformed churches, with sitting for Communion instead of kneeling, and with all music save Psalm-singing banished from church? Lacking the morale boost and revival provided by the brief restoration of Catholicism under Mary Tudor, Catholicism in England might have dwindled (as it did in Scandinavia) into virtual nonexistence, and there would have been no stream of Catholic clergy and academic theologians into exile, as in fact there was in the decade after 1559, to lay the groundwork for the “English mission” of the Jesuits and other “seminary priests” which enabled a remnant Catholic community to maintain itself during a century of intermittent persecution and nearly 150 more years of illegal but unofficially tolerated existence.

MacCulloch also discusses the ambiguous nature of the “Elizabethan Settlement” of 1559 and the ambivalent attitudes of Anglicans of differing theological stances toward Cranmer and his work. “He would not have known what Anglicanism meant, and he probably would not have approved if the meaning had been explained to him,” as MacCulloch puts it.

Despite its length and detail, Thomas Cranmer: A Life will engage readers who are not historians or theologians. It won the Whitbread Biography Award, an English prize given annually to the best biography of the year, and though it may presuppose more knowledge of 16th-century English history than most Americans are likely to possess, its author’s learning is becomingly presented, and the book reads surprisingly easily. All readers of NOR who take an interest in the English Reformation or Anglicanism ought to consider reading it, as it undoubtedly ranks with books like J.J. Scarisbrick’s The Reformation and the English People (1984), Peter Lake’s Anglicans and Puritans? (1988), Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars (1992), Christopher Haigh’s English Reformations (1993), and Anthony Milton’s Catholic and Reformed (1995), which together have gone far to transform our understanding of the historical context and nature — and, to be blunt, the profound unpopularity save among the small minority of godly Protestants until well into the 1580s or 1590s — of the English Reformation, as well as of the theological stance of the Church of England after 1559.

Unlike Scarisbrick, Duffy, and Haigh, MacCulloch is not held to be a member of a “revisionist school” of English Reformation historians whose views have led to attacks on their integrity as allegedly writers of “Catholic history” (Scarisbrick and Duffy are practicing Catholics, while Haigh describes himself as an Anglican agnostic; Lake is an atheist, and Milton calls himself “this most unrepentant of lapsed Catholics”). Thus it is all the more significant that MacCulloch’s book lends so much indirect support to their contentions.

Historical research increasingly bears witness to the inanity and futility of Anglo-Catholic and “high church” claims about the “essentially Catholic” nature of Anglicanism at the time of its origin. And today the Gadarene rush of the “First World” churches of the Anglican Communion into theological, moral, and practical libertinism — a stampede that the conservative vote of the 1998 Lambeth Conference on homosexuality might slow for a moment but cannot stop — reveals Anglicanism to be leaving behind even the modicum of common Christian orthodoxy that it has retained.



Back to December 1998 Issue

Read our posting policy Add a comment
Be the first to comment on this note!