Thomas Cranmer

(History of the World: The Renaissance)

Article abstract: Cranmer presided, along with Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s vicegerent in spiritual affairs, over the creation of the Anglican Church in England and separation from the Church of Rome. Cranmer was responsible for giving an English Bible to the English, drafting a new English service via the Book of Common Prayer (1549, 1552), and sealing England’s commitment to a Protestant form of worship by his death under Henry’s daughter Mary.

Early Life

Thomas Cranmer, the son of a country squire, was born at Aslacton, Nottinghamshire, on July 2, 1489. As a child he learned to hunt, shoot, and ride. He suffered under a cruel schoolmaster before going to Cambridge University, where he studied the classics, philosophy, logic, and Erasmus’ works. He received the B.A. in 1511-1512, the M.A. in 1515. He held a fellowship from Jesus College but lost it upon marrying “Black Joan” of the Dolphin Inn. Both Joan and a child died within a year, and Cranmer returned as a Fellow at Jesus. He took Holy Orders as a priest prior to 1520 but did not take an oath of celibacy, since that was not required at the time. He received the B.D. degree in 1521 and the Doctor of Divinity in 1526, whereupon he became a public examiner in theology at Cambridge.

Cranmer’s idea of enlisting European universities’ opinions on the validity of Henry VIII’s marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, brought him to Henry’s attention in the summer of 1529. The marriage cause had been returned to Rome for final determination. At Henry’s behest, Cranmer wrote a treatise on the subject and convinced learned men at Cambridge to side with the king. Eventually Oxford and the University of Paris took Henry’s part, but no other universities did. Cranmer became chaplain to Anne Boleyn and a member of the household of her father, Thomas Boleyn, accompanying him on a mission in 1530 to Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. Two years later, Henry sent Cranmer as ambassador to Charles at Ratisborn and Nuremberg. While there, the forty-three-year-old Cranmer married Margaret, the twenty-year-old niece of Andreas Osiander, the Lutheran reformer. On the death of Thomas Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry determined to replace him with Cranmer and succeeded in securing Rome’s approval of the appointment. Before returning to England, Cranmer secretly sent his wife there.

Reluctantly, Cranmer accepted the post as archbishop, being appointed March 30, 1533. Before taking his oath, however, he made a protest that the new oath did not bind him to do anything contrary to Henry’s will. His first business was to pronounce in an ecclesiastical court on May 23 the invalidity of Henry’s marriage to Catherine. Next, on May 28, he declared Henry’s marriage of January 25 to Anne Boleyn lawful. On September 10, he became godfather to Henry and Anne’s daughter Elizabeth, the future Elizabeth I, born on September 7.

Cranmer was a short man. The July, 1545, painting done by Fliccius shows him with a somewhat stern, forbidding countenance, but that may have been a pose for the painter, since Cranmer was gentle in his dealings with all. Clean-shaven in the portrait, with the suggestion of a fast-growing beard, he did grow a long beard during his imprisonment under Mary, Henry and Catherine’s daughter, a devout Catholic.

Life’s Work

As archbishop, Cranmer deferred to Henry, who was made Supreme Head of the Church by parliamentary statute in 1534, and to his friend Thomas Cromwell, who was appointed Vicar General in Spirituals in 1535. Cranmer saw that the pope’s name was eliminated from all service books. Personally sympathetic to Thomas More, the former Lord Chancellor, and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, he saw them executed in 1535 for refusing to accept Henry’s new succession to Anne’s heirs and to Henry’s new authority. The following year, in May, he visited Anne in the Tower, where she had been placed on charges of having had sexual relations with several men, including her brother Thomas. On May 17, Cranmer declared Anne’s union with Henry as invalid from its inception, thus bastardizing Elizabeth, and gave Henry a dispensation to marry Jane Seymour, who, like Henry, was descended from Edward III. Anne was executed on May 19. Jane died twelve days after giving Henry a male heir, Edward, on October 12, 1537. Cranmer became Edward’s godfather—evidence, again, of Henry’s intimate affection.

Early in 1536, Cranmer had directed the religious convocation to approve the Ten Articles, the first formula of faith made by the Church of England. The Articles, as their revision the next year in the Bishop’s Book reveals, had been set by Henry and edited by Cranmer. Collectively they denoted a drift toward reformation. Four of the seven Sacraments, matrimony, confirmation, religious orders, and extreme unction, were not mentioned; only baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and penance were discussed.

Cranmer’s longtime wish to make the English Bible available to the English people was successful when he secured, in August of 1537, Cromwell’s permission to sell copies of Matthew’s Bible, based on the work of the reformers William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale, to the public. This Bible, subsequently revised, became the Great Bible, known for its size, and was placed in each parish church from 1541 on. Parliament, however, in 1543 forbade the reading of the Bible at home by women and lesser...

(The entire section is 2253 words.)