1902 Encyclopedia > Thomas Cranmer

Thomas Cranmer
English prelate
(1489-1556)




THOMAS CRANMER, (1489-1556), archbishop of Canterbury, was born at Aslacton in Nottinghamshire on the 2d July 1489. The second son of Thomas Cranmer and of his wife Anne Hatfield, he belonged to a family that had been settled in Nottinghamshire from the time of the Norman Conquest. He received his early education, according to Morice his secretary, from " a marvellous severe and cruel schoolmaster," whose discipline must have been severe indeed to deserve this special mention in an age when no schoolmaster bore the rod in vain. The same authority tells us that he was initiated by his father in those field sports, such as hunting and hawking, which formed one of his recreations in after life. To early training he also owed the skilful horsemanship for which he was conspicuous. At the age of fourteen he was sent by his mother, who had recently become a widow, to Cambridge, where he entered at Jesus College. Little is known with certainty of his university career beyond the facts that he became a fellow of his college in 1510 or 1511, that he had soon after to vacate his fellowship, owing to his marriage to " Black Joan," a relative of the landlady of the Dolphin Inn, and that he was reinstated in it on the death of hifi wife, which occurred in childbirth before the lapse of the year of grace allowed by the statutes. During the brief period of his married life he held the appointment of lecturer at Buckingham Hall, now Magdalene College. The fact of his marrying would seem to show that he did not at the time intend to enter the church, and there are indications that the profession of his choice was the law. It has been conjectured with some plausibility that the death of his wife caused him to change his intention and qualify himself for holy orders. He was ordained in 1523, and soon after he took his doctor's degree in divinity. According to Strype, he was invited about this time to become a fellow of the college founded by Cardinal Wolsey at Oxford j but Dean Hook .shows that there is some reason to doubt this. If the offer was made it was declined, and Cranmer continued at Cambridge filling the offices of lecturer in divinity at his own college and of public examiner in divinity to the university. It is interesting, in view of his later efforts to spread the know-ledge of the Bible among the people, to know that in the capacity of examiner he insisted on a thorough acquaintance with the Holy Scriptures, and rejected several candidates who were deficient in this qualification.

It was a somewhat curious concurrence of circumstances that transferred Cranmer, almost at one step, from the quiet seclusion of the university to the din and bustle of the court. In 1528 the plague known as the sweating sickness, which prevailed throughout the country, was specially severe at Cambridge, and all who had it in their power forsook the town for the country. Cranmer went with two of his pupils named Cressy, related to him through their mother, to their father's house at Waltham in Essex. The king (Henry VIII.) happened at the time to be residing in the immediate neighbourhood, and two of his chief counsellors, Gardyner, secretary of state, afterwards bishop of Winchester, and Fox. the lord high almoner, afterwards bishop of Hereford, were lodged at Cressy's house. Meet-ing with Cranmer, they were naturally led to discuss what was the absorbing question of the day, the king's meditated divorce from Catherine of Aragón. The opinion of the future archbishop was given with the modesty that befitted an unknown man. He professed not to have studied the cause as the others had done; but it seemed to him that if the canonists and the universities should decide that marriage with a deceased brother's widow was illegal, and if it were proved that Catherine had been married to Prince Arthur, her marriage to Henry could be declared null and void by the ordinary ecclesiastical courts. The necessity of an appeal to Borne was thus dispensed with, and this point was at once 6een by the king, who, when Cranmer's opinion was reported to him, ordered him to be summoned in these terms :—" I will speak to him. Let him be sent for out of hand. This man, I trow, has got the right sow by the ear."

At their first interview Cranmer was commanded by tha king to lay aside all other pursuits and to devote himself to the question of the divorce. He was to draw up a written treatise, stating the course he proposed, and defending it by arguments from scripture, the fathers, and the decrees of general councils. There is reason to believe that he entered upon the task somewhat reluctantly, but in the reign of Henry VIII. it was emphatically true that the king's will was law, and no refusal was possible. His material interests certainly did not suffer by compliance. He was commended to the hospitality of Anne Boleyn's father, the earl of Wiltshire, in whose house at Durham Place he resided for some time ; the king appointed him archdeacon of Taunton and one of his chaplains ; and he also held a parochial benefice, the name of which is unknown. When the treatise was finished Cranmer was called upon to defend its argument before the universities-of Oxford and Cambridge, which he visited, accompanied by Fox and Gardyner. Immediately afterwards he was sent to plead the cause before a more powerful if not a higher tribunal. An embassy, with the earl of Wiltshire at its head, was despatched to Rome in 1530, that "the matter of the divorce should be disputed and ventilated," and Cranmer wa3 an important member of it. He was received by the Pope with, marked courtesy, and was appointed " Grand Penitentiary of England;" but his argument, if he ever had the opportunity of stating it, did not lead to any practical decision of the question. Return-ing home through France and Germany, he had interviews in the latter country with the elector of Saxony and other Protestant princes.
It is usual to attribute to the influence of this Con-tinental visit a further recoil in Cranmer's mind from Roman Catholicism and an advance to what is now known as Protestantism. Now there are, it is true, indications that he was dissatisfied with much that he saw at Rome,, and it is aprobable conjecture that his intercourse with the German princes had some effect in modifying his doctrinal views. But it must be remembered that the modern idea, of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism as two broadly marked, clearly divided, and antagonistic systems was only forming in Germany, and was all but unknown in England in Cranmer's day. It would be unnecessary to state so obvious a truth, were it not for the seemingly ineradicable tendency of hasty thinkers to throw back familiar distinc-tions in religion and politics to a period when such distinc-tions had not come into existence. The fact that Cranmer is persistently described as the " first Protestant archbishop of Canterbury," which, if true at all, is true only in a very modified sense, shows the necessity for this caution.

Cranmer had only been a few months in England when, he received a second commission from the king appointing him " Conciliarius Regius et ad Csesarem Orator." In the summer of 1531 he accordingly proceeded to Germany as sole ambassador to the emperor- with the design of furthering the divorce. His mission was fruitless, but he did not at once return to England. At Nuremberg he had become acquainted with Osiander, whose somewhat isolated theological position he probably found to be in many points analogous to his own. Both were convinced that the old order must change ; neither saw clearly what the new order should be to which it was to give place. They had frequent interviews, which had doubtless an important influence on Cranmer's opinions. But Osiander's house had another attraction of a different kind from theological sympathy. His niece Margaret won the heart of Cranmer, and early in 1532 they were married. In the case of a strong character like Luther, marriage implied an express practical rejection of the authority of Borne to impose celibacy upon priests ; no such inference can safely be made in the case of Cranmer, whose character was weak and whose action was generally determined by the influences of the moment. Hook finds in the fact of the marriage corroboration of Cranmer's statement that he never expected or desired the primacy; and it seems probable enough that, if he had fore-seen how soon the primacy was to be forced upon him, he would have avoided a disqualification which it was difficult to conceal and dangerous to disclose.





Expected or not, the primacy was forced upon him within a very few months of his marriage. In August 1532 Archbishop Warham died, and the king almost im-mediately afterwards intimated to Cranmer, who was still in Germany, his nomination to the vacant see. Cranmer's conduct was certainly consistent with his profession that he did not desire, as he had not expected, the dangerous promotion. He sent his wife to England, but delayed his own return in the vain hope that another appointment might be made. How long he ventured to wait is uncertain, but when he arrived in England he found the arrangements matured for his consecration, his " nolo episcopari " being unavailing against the king's command. The papal bulls of confirmation were dated February and March 1533, and the consecration took place on the 30th March. One peculiarity of the ceremony has occasioned considerable discussion. It was the custom for the archbishop elect to take two oaths, the first of episcopal allegiance to the Pope, and the second in recognition of the royal supremacy. The latter was so wide in its scope that it might fairly be held to supersede the former in so far as the two were inconsistent. Cranmer, however, was not satisfied with this. He had a special protest recorded, in whieh he formally declared that he swore allegiance to the Pope only in so far as that was consistent with his supreme duty to the king. The morality of this course has been much canvassed, though it seems really to involve nothing more than an express declaration of what the two oaths implied. It was the course that would readily suggest itself to a man of timid nature who wished to secure himself against such a fate as Wolsey's. It showed weakness, but it added nothing to whatever immorality there might be in successively taking two incompatible caths.

In the last as in the first step of Cranmer's promotion Henry had been actuated by one and the same motive. The business of the divorce had now become very urgent, and in the new archbishop he had an agent who might be expected to forward it with the needful haste. The celerity and skill with which Cranmer did the work intrusted to him mast have fully satisfied his master. During the first week of April Convocation sat almost from day to day to determine questions of fact and law in relation to Catherine's marriage with Henry as affected by her previous marriage with his brother Arthur. Decisions favourable to the object of the king were given on these questions, though even the despotism of the most despotic of the Tudors failed to secure absolute unanimity. The next step was taken by Cranmer, who wrote a letter to the king, praying to be allowed to remove the anxiety of loyal subjects as to a possible case of disputed succession, by finally deter-mining the validity of the marriage in his archiepiscopal court. There is evidence that the request was prompted by the king, and his consent was given as a matter of course. Queen Catherine was residing at Ampthill in Bedfordshire, and to suit her convenience the court was held at the priory of Dunstable in the immediate neighbourhood. Declining to appear she was declared contumacious, and on the 23d May the archbishop gave judgment declaring the marriage null and void from the first, and so leaving the king free to marry whom he pleased. In the whole proceeding, which had as much of the form as it had little of the spirit of justice, the archbishop's subserviency was pitiful, and it is difficult to acquit him of the graver charge of knowingly pronouncing an unrighteous sentence.

The coronation of the new queen, Anne Boleyn, at which Cranmer officiated, took place on the 1st June, little more than a week after the sentence which deprived her predecessor of her rights. During that interval it is asserted by some authorities that the king and Anne were publicly married by the archbishop. This, however, seems unlikely. A private marriage had taken place in the previous November, or more probably in January. Hook conjectures that the later ceremony was not a repetition of the marriage, but merely an official and public recognition of it.

The splendid pageantry of the coronation made the marriage popular for a few days with the citizens of London, but a deeper current of feeling in the opposite direction soon set in. The deliberate judgment of the country was undoubtedly one of indignant disapproval, and it speedily found utterance through the pulpit—the chief organ of public opinion in the days when there was no press. So outspoken were the preachers in their denuncia-tion of the king's conduct that it was deemed necessary to silence them by an arbitrary exercise of authority. Cranmer's very first act of episcopal jurisdiction was to prohibit all preaching within his own diocese, and to arrange for its restriction by the other bishops of his province. His conduct in this can, of course, only be fairly judged by the standard of his own time, but the forcible suppression of all preaching was a curiously incon-sistent measure to be adopted, even from motives of political urgency, by the "first Protestant archbishop of Canter-bury,"

Cranmer was little at court during the three years of Anne Boleyn's ascendency there. The period was eventful, and he found abundant occupation in his ecclesiastical and parliamentary duties. He was an active promoter of the measures which led to the final breach with Rome. These included the appointment of bishops by the king alone without bulls or licences from the Pope, the prohibition of the payment of Peter's pence or other contributions to Borne, and the renunciation by the archbishop of the title of legate. The independence of the Church of England was finally asserted by the two Houses of Convocation in the declaration that " the bishop of Borne has no greater jurisdiction given him in this realm of England than any other foreign bishop," and this statement may be held to embody the general result of Cranmer's ecclesiastical policy as shown in the details just mentioned. It is to be noted to his credit that he pled for More and Fisher even after he had failed to persuade them to admit the royal supremacy.

Cranmer's share in the divorce of Anne Boleyn in 1536 is perhaps less obscure than most things connected with that very mysterious transaction. When the king had made up his mind, the archbishop was summoned from Kent to Lambeth, where he was kept a virtual prisoner until he had indicated that he would be compliant. In a letter to Henry he pled generously for the queen, but the plea was robbed of whatever force it might have had by a closing sentence in which he stated his willingness to obey the king's commands. The proceedings were gone through with the same hypocritical show of judicial formality as in the case of Queen Catherine, and on the 10th June 1536 the archbishop fulfilled his promise of obedience by declar-ing the marriage he had himself sanctioned to have been null and void from the first. It is urged in his favour that before doing so he had received from Anne a confes-sion of some impediment existing before her marriage with the king which rendered the marriage invalid, but it does not appear in what the impediment consisted, and the plea can scarcely be accepted. Even if it could, few would be inclined to question the judgment of Hook that " of Cranmer's conduct in the affair the less that his admirers say, the greater will be their discretion." And this was not the last time in Henry's reign that the archbishop stooped to act the same degrading part. In 1540 he presided over the Convocation that disannulled the marriage with Anne of Cleves, which he had celebrated almost immediately before. To his next and last interposition in the matrimonial affairs of the king no discredit attaches itself. When he was made cognizant of the charges against Catherine Howard, his duty to communicate them to the king was obvious, though painful; and his choice of the time and manner of his fulfilling it was both delicate to his royal master and considerate to the accused.

Meanwhile Cranmer was actively carrying out the policy which has associated his name more closely, perhaps, than that of any other ecclesiastic with the Reformation in England. Its most important feature on the theological as distinct from the political side was the endeavour to promote the circulation of the Bible in the vernacular, by encouraging translation and procuring an order in 1538 that a copy of the Bible in English should be set up in every church in a convenient place for reading. Only second in importance to this was the re-adjustment of the creed and liturgy of the church, which formed Cranmer's principal work during the latter half of his life. The progress of the archbishop's opinion towards that middle Protestantism, if it may be so called, which he did so much to impress on the formularies of the Church of England, was gradual, as a brief enumeration of the successive steps in that progress will show. In 1535 he corrected a second edition of the book known as the King's Primer, the original composition of which has been attributed to him, and which was in several points Protestant in doctrine. In 1538 an embassy of German divines visited England with the design, among other things, of forming a common confession for the two countries. This proved impracticable, but the frequent conferences Cranmer had with the theologians composing the embassy had doubtless a great influence in modifying his views. He had not strength of conviction enough, however, to oppose out and out the reactionary statute of 1538, known as the Six Articles, or " whip with the six strings." Foxe and others following him have indeed asserted that he did so, but Hook shows that the archbishop was present at the first and second readings of the bill, and also when it received the royal assent, while the only method of opposing it was to have absented himself. No doubt he had and urged strong objections to it, but these must have been overcome in the end by the arguments or the authority of the king. During the period between 1540 and 1543 the archbishop was engaged at the head of a commission in the revision of the " Bishop's Book," or Insti-tution of a Christian Man, and the preparation of the Neces-sary Erudition, known as the " King's Book," which was a modification of the former work in the direction of Roman Catholic doctrine. In 1543 was issued his translation of the Litany, which was substantially the same as that now in use, and shows his mastery of a rhythmical English style. In 1547 appeared the Homilies prepared under his direc-tion. Four of them are attributed to the archbishop himself—those on Salvation, Faith, Good Works, and the Reading of Scripture. His translation of the German Catechism of Justus Jonas, known as Cranmer's Catechism, appeared in the following year. Important, as showing his views on a cardinal doctrine, was the Defence of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament, which he published in 1550. It was immediately answered from the side of the " old learning " by Gardyner. From these and other works which need not be mentioned it is not difficult to fix Cranmer's theological position. It may be best described in general terms as that of the historical High Church party in the Church of England, of which indeed Cranmer may be regarded as one of the chief founders. Tran-substantiation was the discriminating doctrine between Romanists and Protestants in England, just as justification by faith was the discriminating doctrine in Germany ; and it is to be noted that Cranmer did not renounce the dogma until after the death of Henry VIII. Ultimately, after much thought and controversy, he rested content with the acceptance of the fact of real presence apart from any theory, whether of transubstantiation or consubstantiation ; and this course has proved satisfactory to the most eminent theologians of his school in the Church of England down to the present day. If it be added that, on the questions on which they differ from the Roman see, he would have found himself in substantial harmony with the Old Catholics of Germany, his views of ecclesiastical polity will be understood by most readers.
In what may be called the external work of the English Reformation, Cranmer's part was secondary, the principal agent being naturally Cromwell. The dissolution of the monasteries was the work of the minister, not of the arch-bishop ; but the latter showed a laudable zeal in trying to secure as much as possible of the confiscated monastic property for the benefit of religion and learning. Although the relations of Cranmer with Cromwell had never been very intimate, he was generous enough to intercede for the minister after his fall in June 1540. But with his usual weakness he did not persist in his intercession after he saw that the king was determined. In fact he was present in Parliament when the bill of attainder was read, and so consented to it.





The course taken by Cranmer in promoting the Reformation exposed him to the bitter hostility of the reactionary party or " men of the old learning," of whom Gardyner and Bonner were leaders, and on two occasions— in 1543 and 1545 —conspiracies were formed in the council to effect his overthrow. The king, however, remained true to him, and both conspiracies signally failed. It illustrates a favourable trait in the archbishop's character that he forgave all the conspirators, though he might doubtless have secured their punishment through his influence with the king. He was, as his secretary Morice testifies, " a man that delighted not in revenging."

Cranmer was present with Henry VIII. when he died (1547), and did his duty as spiritual adviser faithfully and kindly. By the will of the king he was nominated head of a council of regency composed of sixteen persons, but he acquiesced in the arrangement by which Somerset became lord protector. He officiated at the coronation of the boy king Edward VI., and instituted a significant change in the order of the ceremony, by which the right of the monarch to reign was made to appear to depend upon inheritance alone, without the concurrent consent of the people. The fact deserves mention, as there are other indications that the archbishop was a firm believer in the doctrine of the " divine right."

During this reign the work of the Reformation made rapid progress, the sympathies both of the protector and of the young king being decidedly Protestant. Cranmer was therefore enabled without let or hindrance to complete the preparation of the church formularies, on which he had been for some time engaged. The first prayer-book of Edward VI. was finished in November 1548, and received legal sanction in January 1549; the second was completed and sanctioned in April 1552. The archbishop presided over the commissions that compiled them, and much of the work was done by himself personally. The forty-two articles of Edward VI. published in 1553 were based upon a German source, but they owe their form and style almost entirely to the hand of Cranmer. The last great under-taking in which he was employed was the revision of his codification of the canon law, which had been all but com-pleted before the death of Henry. The task was one eminently well suited to his powers, and the execution of it was marked by great skill in definition and arrange-ment. It never received any authoritative sanction, Edward VI. dying before the proclamation establishing it could be made, and it remained unpublished until 1571, when a Latin translation by Dr Walter Haddon and Sir John Cheke appeared under the title Reformatio Legum Hcclesiasticarum. That it was never authorized is matter for satisfaction in view of the fact that it laid down the lawfulness and necessity of persecution to the death for heresy in the most absolute terms. That Cranmer in this matter practised what he preached, his conduct in the cases of Frith, Hewat, and others sufficiently testifies. If, how-ever, he was a persecutor both in theory and practice, it must be remembered that no one of any party in his day had grasped the principle of religious toleration.

Cranmer stood by the dying bed of Edward as he had stood by that of his father, and he there suffered himself to be persuaded to take a step against his own convictions which may be said to have sealed his doom. He had pledged himself to respect the testamentary disposition of Henry VIII. by which the succession devolved upon Mary, and now he violated his oath by signing Edward's " device " of the crown to Lady Jane Grey. On grounds of policy and morality alike the act was quite indefensible; but it is perhaps some palliation of his perjury that it was committed to satisfy the last urgent wish of a dying man, and that he alone remained true to the " twelfth day queen," when the others who had with him signed Edward's device deserted her. On the accession of Mary he was summoned to the council, reprimanded for his conduct, and ordered to con-fine himself to his palace at Lambeth until the queen's pleasure was known. With a firmness unusual to his character he refused to follow the advice of his friends and avoid the fate that was clearly impending over him by flight to the Continent, Any chance of safety that lay in the friendliness of a strong party in the council was more than nullified by the bitter personal enmity of the queen, On the 14th September 1553 he was sent to the Tower, where Ridley and Latimer were also confined. The immediate occasion of his imprisonment was a strongly worded declara-tion he had written a few days previously against the mass, the celebration of which, he heard, had been re-established at Canterbury. He had not taken steps to publish this, but by some unknown channel a copy reached the council, and it could not be ignored. In March 1554 he and his two illustrious fellow-prisoners were removed to Oxford, where they were confined in the Bocardo or common prison. Ridley and Latimer were unflinching, and suffered bravely at the stake on the 16th October 1555 ; it was fated that Cranmer was to reach the same end by a longer and less honourable path. It is impossible to give all the details of the intricate process against him, which at first involved the double charge of treason and heresy. Against the former of these he emphatically protested, and it was on the latter alone that he was ultimately condemned. The pontifical authority having been restored in England his case was tried by a Papal commission. At his first appearance before the court he protested against the jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome, both by a formal declaration and by the significant action of putting on his hat and standing upright before the Pope's commissioner, the bishop of Gloucester, after having bowed respectfully to the representative of the queen. On the expiration of eighty days from the issue of a summons to Rome, which of course it was not in his power to obey even had he been willing, he was excommunicated by a Papal consistory, and a commission was sent to England to degrade him from his office of archbishop. This was done with the usual humiliating ceremonies in Christ Church, Oxford, on the 14th February 1556, and he was then handed over to the secular power. But before the secular power did its last and worst, Cranmer was to inflict upon himself a degrada-tion deeper far than any that could be inflicted on him from without. The story of his recantations is so notorious as to be known to many who know almost nothing else of his life. Under the pressure of delusive promises by various agents, whose conduct cannot be too strongly condemned, he was induced to sign no less than six of these, each ampler and more abject in its terms than that which had gone before. The last was dated the 18th March. On the 20th Dr Cole, the provost of Eton, visited Cranmer in his prison with the view of ascertaining whether he remained steadfast in his new purpose, and he received what seemed a satisfactory answer. Next day, Saturday, the 21st March, he was taken to St Mary's Church, and asked to repeat his recantation in the hearing of the people as he had promised. To the surprise of all he declared with dignity and emphasis that what he had recently done troubled him more than anything he ever did or said in his whole life; that he renounced and refused all his recanta-tions as things written with his hand, contrary to the truth which he thought in his heart; and that as his hand had offended, his hand should be first burned when he came to the fire. If, as Hook is inclined to think, he made this statement in the belief that his life would be spared if he persisted in his recantation, he seems all but entitled to the crown of martyrdom; if, as Macaulay maintains, he made it after learning that he was to die in any case, and that a lie would therefore serve him as little as the truth, then, as Macaulay says, he was no more a martyr than Dr Dodd. The question is important, but there are no materials for settling it definitely.

Immediately after his unexpected declaration he was led to the stake at the same place where Bidley and Latimer had suffered a few months before. As he had said, his-right hand was steadfastly exposed to the flames, and several times during the burning he was heard to exclaim with a loud voice, " This hand hath offended—this, unworthy hand." The calm cheerfulness and resolution with which he met his fate show that he felt that he had cleared his conscience, and that his recantation of his recantations was a repentance that needed not to be repented of.

It was a noble end to what, in spite of its besetting sin of infirmity of moral purpose, was a not ignoble life. He was often pitiably, sometimes criminally, weak, and never so much both as in his last days. The key to his character is well given in what Hooper said of him in a letter to Bullinger, that he was " too fearful about what might happen to him." This weakness made him the tool of Henry in the most scandalous transactions of his reign, and the tool of Edward in what he knew to be an unjust alteration of the succession, arid it robs him of his undis-puted claim to rank among the noble army of martyrs. But while one may not admit that claim, there is a grandeur in the circumstances of his death, and especially in the incident of the voluntary burning of the right hand, which the popular instinct has not failed to appreciate as all but redeeming him from disgrace. It is only, however, a hero in life who can be in the true sense a martyr in death; and the archbishop was as little the one as the other. And so it is that brave old Latimer wears the crown, while the timid Cranmer passed through the same fiery gates into the city without the martyr's glory, though also without the apostate's shame.

See Foxe's Acts and Monuments (The Book of Martyrs), Strype's Memorials of Cranmer (1694), Anecdotes and Character of Archbishop Cranmer, by Ralph Moriee, and two contemporary biographies (Camden Society's publications), Remains of Thomas Cranmer, by Jenkyns (1833), Lives of Cranmer by Gilpin (1781), Todd (1831), and Le Bas, and Hook's Lives of the Archbishops uf Canterbury, vols. vi. and vii. (1868). (W. B. S.)




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