Thomas Cranmer Cranmer, Thomas - Essay

Diarmaid MacCulloch


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Thomas Cranmer 1489-1556

English theologian.

Cranmer is a figure of key historical, theological, and literary importance for his role in the Protestant Reformation in England. Historians have been interested in Cranmer primarily for his part in granting several of Henry VIII's divorces and for his advocacy of royal supremacy, which held that the English king, not the Catholic Pope, was the supreme head of the Church of England. Theologians have concerned themselves with Cranmer's movement from Catholic conservatism to support for religious independence from papal authority, his rejection of Catholic doctrines on transubstantiation, his many written defenses of other supposed heretical views, and his support for an English translation of the Bible in 1540. Literary scholars have also studied Cranmer for his enormous influence on English letters; his Certayne Sermons or Homilies (1547) and The Booke of the Common Prayer (1549; more commonly known as The Book of Common Prayer) are often praised as the most influential works of English prose next to the King James edition of the Bible. Recognizing in Cranmer's English liturgies and sermons phrases and ideas central to countless English authors, a number of scholars study Cranmer's writings for their profound influence on religious life and literature in the English-speaking Protestant world.

Biographical Information

Cranmer was born in Aslockton, Nottinghamshire, in 1489. In 1503 he began his religious studies at the recently opened Jesus College at Cambridge University, where he received his B.A. in 1511 and M.A. in 1514, and where he may have been influenced by the teachings of Erasmus, an anti-medievalist Cambridge professor who insisted that the Bible should be translated into commonly spoken European languages. Cranmer lost his post-graduate fellowship in 1515 when he married, but was reinstated soon after when his wife died in childbirth. In 1520 Cranmer was ordained a Roman Catholic priest. In 1526 he earned a doctorate of divinity in studies that were heavily influenced by issues generated by the Protestant Reformation.

Cranmer's career took an unexpected turn in 1529, when he told Stephen Gardiner and Edward Fox, officials in Henry's VIII's court whom Cranmer knew from his years at Cambridge, that Henry's desired divorce from Catherine of Aragon could be justified on theological grounds. The king called Cranmer to discuss this possibility and ordered him to write a book using biblical arguments to support the legality of his divorce. Although Cranmer's book is now lost, he was soon rewarded for his efforts by being appointed to an official delegation to Rome in 1530, and in 1532 he was made ambassador to Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. While in Germany Cranmer remarried, a fact he had to keep secret for nearly two decades because of Catholic prohibitions against married clergy. In 1533 Henry appointed Cranmer archbishop of Canterbury; one of Cranmer's first acts was to grant Henry a divorce from Catherine and to sanction his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Over the next decade Cranmer would facilitate Henry's subsequent spousal changes, granting the king a divorce from Anne Boleyn in 1536, from Anne of Cleves in 1540, and from Catherine Howard in 1542. The Pope, Cranmer argued, had no power to deny Henry's divorces or marriages since the King, not he, was the supreme head of the Church in England.

Besides the political and religious reforms set in motion by Cranmer's arguments for royal supremacy, Cranmer was responsible for another important reformist innovation: the permission to have an English language Bible published in 1539. Throughout Cranmer's career as archbishop of Canterbury, he was nearly constantly accused of heresy, especially for his belief that Christ's body was not actually present in the sacrament of Communion. Effectively shielded for his increasingly radical theological positions by Henry and his successor, Edward VI, Cranmer worked to reform the religious lessons of English ministers and personally composed the first English liturgy. Cranmer quickly fell from religious power, however, when in 1553 he supported the ascension of Lady Jane Grey to the throne over Henry's daughter Mary. After Jane was deposed following a brief nine-day rule and Mary was declared Queen, Cranmer was arrested, charged with heresy, and imprisoned. Over the next two years Cranmer was forced, probably through torture, to recant his religious and political writings, and he was excommunicated from the church. In 1556 he was ordered to make his recantations public prior to being burned at the stake. Before his execution, however, Cranmer announced to the gathered crowd that he would not recant, declaring again his rejection of transubstantiation and labeling the Pope an antichrist. His death by burning made him an early Protestant martyr.

Major Works

The bulk of Cranmer's major works has primarily been of interest to Christian theologians and historians of the Protestant Reformation. Such works include his Defence of the True and Catholike Doctrine of the Sacrament (1550) and Answer of the Most Reverend Father in God Thomas Archebyshop of Canterburye (1551), works which either defended views Cranmer held despite charges of heresy or which attempted to make clear the religious doctrines of the Church of England. Of special interest to literary scholars as well, however, have been Cranmer's liturgies and sermons found in his Exhortation vnto Prayer (1544), Certayne Sermons or Homilies, and The Book of Common Prayer. While the last work is a collaborative effort, Cranmer is known to have written at least three of the work's twelve sermons, and his leadership of the project has been viewed as instrumental in supplying Anglican ministers with material in accord with the reformist tendencies of the Protestant Reformation. Cranmer's liturgical work in An Exhortation vnto Prayer and The Book of Common Prayer are his lasting literary contributions, not only because they represent the first English-language liturgies but also because their continued use today has made phrases and ideas originating with Cranmer a part of everyday speech and thought. From the “dearly beloved” opening of a wedding ceremony to the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” of a funeral service, Cranmer created a distinctive religious language that has profoundly influenced the lives and writings of Christians and English-speaking writers.

Critical Reception

Cranmer is almost unanimously praised by literary critics for the rhythms and cadences found in his prayers, homilies, and sermons. The Book of Common Prayer, still used today as the official prayer book of the Church of England, has been hailed as the most influential work of English prose with the exception of the King James Bible. While many of his prayers were based on his translations of Latin texts, Cranmer receives adulation for the faithfulness of his scholarship balanced with his poetic sense of the English language. While his prose writings are considered superior to his verse compositions, both are recognized as providing a structure that would be employed by countless religious writers, and although some critics maintain that the sermons in the Certayne Sermons or Homilies have little interest for the modern reader, most agree that they were of great historical importance in supplanting medieval teachings in England, in establishing Anglican doctrine and orthodoxy, and even in standardizing the speech of England's many dialects. Cranmer's liturgical work, initiated in An Exhortation vnto Prayer and completed in The Book of Common Prayer, was the first of its kind in English. The theologian's two major works, it has been pointed out, have been recited more often than the works of Shakespeare.

Another facet of Cranmer's life that has fascinated literary scholars and theologians is the fact that he kept an extensive library. Although only 400 books and manuscripts from the archbishop's personal library remain today, his total collection is believed to have been numbered at more than 700 titles, a huge number when compared to private collections of the period, and greater even than the libraries at Cambridge or Oxford Universities in the 1550s. Scholars continue to examine Cranmer's library for clues into his evolution as a religious thinker, speculating on when he added particular volumes to his collection and analyzing the numerous annotations Cranmer wrote in the margins of these works. Cranmer's library, a treasure unto itself, excites those interested in the career of one of the most important figures in the period of the Protestant Reformation in England.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

An Exhortation vnto Prayer … to be Read in Euery Church afore Processyons. Also a Letanie with Suffrages to be Said or Song in the Tyme of the Said Processyons (prose) 1544

Certayne Sermons, or Homilies, Appoynted by the Kynges Maiestie, to be Declared and Redde, by all Persones, Vicars, or Curates, euery Sonday in their Churches, where thei haue Cure (sermons) 1547

Catechismus, that is to say, a Shorte Instruction into Christian Religion for the Synguler Commoditie and Profyte of Chidre and Yong People [translator; from Justus Jonas' Catechism] (theology) 1548

The Order of the Communion (prose) 1548

The Booke of the Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacramentes, and other Rites and Ceremonies of the Churche: After the Use of the Churche of England [with others] (liturgy) 1549; first revised edition, 1552

A Defence of the True and Catholike Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Body and Bloud of our Saviour Christ, with a Confutation of Sundry Errors concernyng the Same (theology) 1550

An Answere Against the False Calumniacions of D. Richarde Smyth who Hath taken vpon him to Confute the Defence (theology) 1551

An Answer of the Most Reverend Father in God Thomas Archebyshop of Canterburye Primate of all Englande and Metropolitane, unto A crafty and Sophisticall...

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C. H. Smyth (essay date 1926)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Smyth, C. H. “Cranmer” and “Appendix: The Date of Cranmer's Liturgical Projects.” In Cranmer and the Reformation under Edward VI, pp. 28-77. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1926.

[In the following excerpt, Smyth considers charges that Cranmer was theologically inconsistent and attempts to determine the years during which the works collected in an edition entitled Cranmer's Liturgical Projects, edited by Dr. Wickham Legg, were written.]


Few Reformers have been so contemptuously regarded as the first Protestant Archbishop of the Church of England. ‘Mehr klug als charaktervoll’1, ‘ingenio quod...

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Hilaire Belloc (essay date 1931)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Belloc, Hilaire. “Cambridge.” In Cranmer: Archbishop of Canterbury, 1533-1556, pp. 32-47. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1931.

[In the following excerpt, Belloc praises Cranmer's prose, arguing that his genius was not innate but rather the product of deliberate and scholarly effort.]

[The] genius of Cranmer in this supreme art of his—the fashioning of rhythmic English prose—was not of that spontaneous kind which produces great sentences or pages in flashes, as it were, unplanned, surging up of themselves in the midst of lesser matter; he was not among prose writers what such men as Shakespeare or Ronsard are among the poets—voluminous,...

(The entire section is 801 words.)

Geoffrey William Bromiley (essay date 1956)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Bromiley, Geoffrey William. “Introduction—The Reformer,” “The Scholar,” and “Concluding Estimate.” In Thomas Cranmer: Theologian, pp. vii-xxviii, 1-11, and 97-103. London: Lutterworth Press, 1956.

[In the following excerpt, Bromiley outlines Cranmer's achievements as a religious reformer and a theological scholar.]


By Shakespeare's classification Thomas Cranmer was one of those who have greatness thrust upon them. Neither by birth, training, connections, nor opportunity could he expect to play any great part in the affairs of church or nation. Born in 1489 at Aslockton in Nottinghamshire, the...

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James A. Devereux (essay date October 1969)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Devereux, James A. “The Collects of the First Book of Common Prayer as Works of Translation.” Studies in Philology 66, no. 5 (October 1969): 719-38.

[In the following essay, Devereux analyzes Cranmer's translations of sixty-six Latin orationes.]

Whatever their views on “Henry the Eighth and All That,” students of the English Reformation have always acknowledged the literary supremacy of the Book of Common Prayer.1 And within the covers of the Prayer Book one group of texts is regularly singled out for praise: the short but solemn prayers called collects. From the literary point of view the collects are at the heart of the...

(The entire section is 8127 words.)

Ronald B. Bond (essay date 1976)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Bond, Ronald B. “Cranmer and the Controversy Surrounding Publication of Certayne Sermons or Homilies (1547).” Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et Reforme 12 (1976): 28-35.

[In the following essay, Bond assesses the history and the critical reception of Certain Sermons, or Homilies.]

The attempt of the English church during the sixteenth century to vindicate Henry's split with Rome was, of course, a long and gradual process toward viable Anglicanism, a process which included translations of the scriptures and some ancillary texts such as Erasmus' Paraphrases into the vernacular, the formulation of a new service of worship contained in...

(The entire section is 4496 words.)

Julia Houston (essay date winter 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Houston, Julia. “Transubstantiation and the Sign: Cranmer's Drama of the Lord's Supper.” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 24 (winter 1994): 113-130.

[In the following essay, Houston argues that Cranmer's writings on Christ's transubstantiation in the Eucharist had important, if indirect, implications for English drama.]

The foundations of the vast and varied English Renaissance debate over the propriety of the drama involved numerous definitions of what, precisely, constituted drama itself. If we adopt the Prague School understanding of drama, so central to semiological dramatic theory, that “all on stage is a sign,”1 we can find a...

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Susan Wabuda (essay date fall 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Wabuda, Susan. “Bishops and the Provision of Homilies, 1520 to 1547.” Sixteenth Century Journal 25, no. 3 (fall 1994): 551-66.

[In the following excerpt, Wabuda describes how Cranmer's Certain Sermons, or Homilies gradually replaced sermons and doctrine from the Middle Ages with what he regarded as more scripturally based addresses.]

Of all the king's “grete clerkes,” no bishop spent more time devising homilies after the breach from Rome than Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Starting in 1534, the preparation of homilies was one of his most important concerns. His earliest effort was the Bidding Prayer Order. Almost every sermon during the Middle Ages...

(The entire section is 4022 words.)

David G. Selwyn (essay date 1997)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Selwyn, David G. “Thomas Cranmer and the Dispersal of Medieval Libraries.” In Books and Collectors 1200-1700, edited by James P. Carley and Colin G. C. Tite, pp. 281-94. London: The British Library, 1997.

[In the following essay, Selwyn discusses the books with monastic provenances found in Cranmer's extensive library, arguing that a determination of when and where Cranmer obtained these manuscripts would offer insight into to the archbishop's evolving theological thought.]

In comparison with his successor, Matthew Parker, Thomas Cranmer is not remembered as a notable collector and bibliophile. His extensive library was for the most part a working...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Selwyn, David G. “‘Books with Manuscript’: The Case of Thomas Cranmer's Library.” British Library Journal 23, no. 1 (spring 1997): 47-59.

Detailed bibliography of the books that Cranmer collected in his personal library, drawing special attention to those works with Cranmer's handwritten annotations.


Collinson, Patrick. “Thomas Cranmer.” In The English Religious Tradition and the Genius of Anglicanism, edited by Geoffrey Rowell, pp. 79-104. Oxford: IKON, 1992.

Study of Cranmer's life and contributions in shaping Anglicanism.


(The entire section is 305 words.)