Thomas Cranmer 1489-1556
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.
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.
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.
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.