The place of the Protestant Reformation in English history is unlike that the movement played in any other European nation. The break with the Roman Catholic church produced lasting effects on English religious and political life, and also influenced the very culture and language of the island and its people.
As with so many things English, this change was a curious mixture, at once hesitant in its inception yet far-reaching in its effects. It was in many ways parochial in its inspiration (growing out of one man’s desire to change his wife) yet widespread in its effects (leading to a religious system halfway between continental Protestantism and Catholicism). It was inspired by the demands of a very limited set of specific historical circumstances, yet it has proven to be lasting in its results.
There were a number of architects to these events. Some of them remain well known to this day, such as King Henry VIII, whose desire to continue the Tudor line of monarchs was the precipitating element in the events which followed. Others are less well known to twentieth century readers but their presence during their day was equally imposing as that of Henry himself. Among these are, most notably, Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey, and his apprentice and successor, Thomas Cromwell. Among opponents to the transition there is one preeminent figure, Saint Thomas More, who chose death rather than renounce what he saw as his allegiance to the church he believed established by Christ.
A figure less well known but nevertheless central in shaping the change in English religious life and sensibility was Thomas Cranmer—scholar, clergyman, archbishop of Canterbury and, ultimately, martyr for the Protestant faith. In a very real and important sense, Cranmer was the founder of the modern Church of England, and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s massive biography is the story of Thomas Cranmer, the church he helped found, and the nation he so decisively influenced.
Thomas Cranmer’s life and career were made, marred, and ultimately preserved by controversy. Little is known of him before he was swept into the turmoil of “the King’s great matter”—Henry VIII’s desire to obtain a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in order to remarry and produce a legitimate male heir. At the time that Cranmer, a Cambridge graduate and young clergyman, entered the historical record, the king’s great matter was not progressing to Henry’s satisfaction. The pope, who had granted Henry a dispensation to wed Catherine (she had been, briefly, the wife of his deceased older brother, Arthur) was not inclined to grant another so Henry could marry Anne Boleyn, despite Wolsey’s increasingly frantic maneuverings and equally ingenious arguments.
Cranmer’s suggestion was to canvass the theological faculties of the European universities and allow them to decide whether Henry or the pope was in the right. It was the sort of approach that would have great appeal to a man of academic bent, such as Cranmer; it also happened to provide enough intellectual underpinning for Henry to justify the events which followed, most notably the renunciation of papal supremacy as well as the marriage with Catherine. In 1535, in large part for his role in the matter, Cranmer was named archbishop of Canterbury and thus became the spiritual leader of the English church.
In the years that followed, Cranmer gradually instituted sweeping changes in that English church. Henry VIII was actually rather conservative in religious matters. Aside from his break with the pope and his looting of the monasteries, both of which were essentially political concerns, Henry remained essentially a Catholic to his death. Still, Cranmer was able to introduce, cautiously at first and later more boldly, his own distinctive beliefs which became part of the “evangelical” or “reformational” theology. The chief tenets of these were a rejection of papal supremacy in favor of royal supremacy; the acceptance of a married rather than celibate clergy; the rejection of the real presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist; a conviction in justification by faith alone and not by works; and, finally, a growing belief in predestination.
The practical result of these beliefs, after Cranmer’s elevation to archbishop and especially during the reign of the piously Protestant Edward VI, was to strip the English church of much of its traditional ceremony. For example, the venerable Feast Day of the True Cross, as well as the services of the Exaltation of the True Cross and the Veneration of the Rood (the True Cross) were abolished. Cranmer’s reasoning was that worshipers should focus on Christ himself, rather than the outward symbols of Christianity,...
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