Thomas Cranmer: A Life 
by Diarmaid MacCulloch.
Yale, 692 pp., £29.95, May 1996, 0 300 06688 0
Show More
Show More

The last few years have seen a remarkable surge in studies of the Reformation period and this book by Diarmaid MacCulloch is the piece which completes the jigsaw, putting at the centre of the first half of the 16th century Thomas Cranmer, the archbishop with the beard who created the Church of England. Cranmer’s beard dominates the cover. Instead of the familiar Flicke portrait of a clean-shaven prelate, MacCulloch or his editor (I’d bet it was MacCulloch’s choice) has preferred the inferior and much less attractive portrait preserved at Lambeth House, where his white beard is so emphasised that Cranmer looks more like an Orthodox rabbi than an Archbishop of Canterbury. The beard also figures prominently in the book’s final illustrations, engravings which portray the last hours of his life, his burning at the stake and, just previous to that, two which show the desperate attempts by the Marian hierarchy to suppress his final recantation of his recantation in the University Church at Oxford. One of these illustrations is the official one, as it were, taken from the 1563 edition of Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, in which Cranmer still stands superior to his tormentors, in spite of their attempts to pull him down by his clothes. More dramatic is the alternative engraving of the scene, found in a slightly later book by Foxe’s printer, which MacCulloch suggests was rejected from the book of martyrs, in which a clean-shaven and tonsured monk pulls hard at Cranmer’s beard.

It seems odd at first that the Flicke portrait was not chosen for the cover, because the reading of the details of that portrait given here by MacCulloch adds hugely to our understanding of it and of Cranmer. But MacCulloch is a fine interpreter of all kinds of detail and Cranmer’s beard, it turns out, is of equal interest to the symbolic images and posture of the better known image of the Archbishop, for it signals Cranmer’s deep ambivalence about his relationship with Henry VIII. Henry made him Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533, when Cranmer was 43 years old, and he held the position under four monarchs: Henry himself, Edward VI, Queen Jane and finally Mary, the queen who had him burned. Although this book is an account of his whole life, its chief concern is with his time as Archbishop; by page 37 he is already 40 years old.

When Henry died Cranmer had been his Archbishop for 13 years, through the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn and of Thomas Cromwell. It was Cranmer’s hand that Henry grasped at the last when his power of speech was gone to indicate the confirmation of his assured Christian belief. Legend has it that Cranmer grew the beard as a sign of mourning for the man who had given him power and authority, but, as MacCulloch shrewdly notes, there is another way of looking at the beard: ‘It was a break with the past for a clergyman to abandon the cleanshaven appearance which was the norm for late medieval priesthood ... Henry’s death might rob the Archbishop of a deeply loved friend and cause him to mourn, but it freed him to be himself theologically.’

Like all those who were close to Henry Cranmer experienced several episodes of alarming personal danger, and even when times were good his reforming zeal was always constrained by the King’s theological conservatism. With Henry’s death, the close shaves were apparently over and Cranmer could at last begin to build a truly reformed Church under the new Josiah, Edward VI, with the aim, as MacCulloch repeatedly documents, of making England the centre of the European evangelical movement. So the man with the beard who stares out from the cover is, as his image indicates, more an Old Testament prophet figure than an Archbishop of Canterbury, prepared to offer his people the reward which comes to those who enter the born-again English Church. Equally, he is Henry’s mourner; and MacCulloch, who gets as much under his subject’s skin as it is possible for a biographer to do, risks a disconcerting phrase when he describes that death-bed scene: ‘thus ended the most long-lasting relationship of love which either man had known.’ The judgment is unexpected if only because it plays down the other relationship which MacCulloch is so good at developing, the one between Cranmer and the second Mrs Cranmer. The daughter of a German brewer (but die niece of the Reformer Osiander), Cranmer married her in 1532, and she survived him. The details of his life with her are sparse, which is a tribute to Cranmer’s well-developed sense of personal privacy, but MacCulloch uses every available one to allow us to glimpse a life of companionship of the kind to which John Milton aspired in a scholar’s marriage: his wife’s chamber was placed next to his study in the house which he most frequently occupied, ‘a proximity’, MacCulloch says, ‘which not all scholars have welcomed in their marriages’.

Still, companionship is one thing, love another, and MacCulloch is probably right to describe the relationship with Henry in the more passionate terms. Cranmer’s life, as MacCulloch tells it, falls into four parts. First the prologue, as scholar and diplomat, then the career as Archbishop in three stages: consolidation under Henry, triumph under Edward, disaster under Mary. Cranmer lived a full life and died a dazzlingly dramatic death, but the real intellectual excitement of this book lies not so much in those areas we might expect, the period of triumphant Church building and the fall into horror and betrayal, but in the charting month by month of his service under Henry.

In common with most historians who have to grapple with Henry VIII, MacCulloch has a substantial amount of contempt for the tyrant, and more than most he finds fine phrases to describe him. But because he is writing the life of the man who worked longest with Henry and who probably understood him best – and the understanding is a key to the longevity – MacCulloch cannot help but convey how extraordinarily attractive Henry was. Even more telling, he shows Henry to have been an efficient and discerning ruler. Odd as the claim may seem, although it would not have seemed at all strange to the King himself, Henry epitomised the ideal of the Renaissance prince, the focal point of a humanist enterprise aimed at educating the one person in the realm who had power over everything.

When Henry’s rule began, of course, he did not have such power because of Papal authority; Cranmer played the key role in prising England free of Vatican control. MacCulloch takes an interesting approach to Cranmer’s Erastianism. Rather than believing, as has commonly been the case, that Cranmer’s loyalty to the King and his wish to have Henry as the supreme authority over the Church led to his opposition to Rome, MacCulloch thinks the opposite is the case: ‘Cranmer came to hate the Papacy, and therefore he needed the Royal Supremacy to fill the chasm of authority which had opened up in his thinking as a result.’ This interpretation is in line with MacCulloch’s argument in this book that Cranmer was more a man of principle than of expediency. Cranmer, he says, did not offer Henry the arguments which he wanted to hear, thereby ensuring his own power base, but rather developed the arguments from an existing conviction that Papal authority was wrong.

This is not to say that MacCulloch whitewashes Cranmer. Where the facts do not fit the man of principle image he is quick to say so. The origins of Cranmer’s prelacy he describes as morally tainted because of the manoeuvre by which Cranmer first swore an oath of primary loyalty to the Pope and then followed it with an oath of primary loyalty to the King. ‘In a procedure which can reflect no credit on him at all, Cranmer had formally benefited from Papal bulls while equally formally rejecting their authority.’ Or, to take an example from the triumphant years under Edward, MacCulloch refuses to agree with Cranmer’s ‘tender-hearted admirers’ that he should not bear primary responsibility for the burning of Joan of Kent. Rather the opposite, it is clear that he ‘bullied a reluctant Edward VI into signing Joan’s death warrant’.

However, where there is ambiguity the balance usually comes down on Cranmer’s side. Two parallel examples are his responses to the condemnation of Anne Boleyn and of Thomas Cromwell. To Anne, Cranmer owed everything. When she was accused of adultery he wrote a letter to Henry which is capable of very different interpretations, particularly at the point where he tries to relate his obligations to her and to the King:

And I am in such perplexity, that my mind is clearly amazed; for I never had better opinion in a woman, than I had in her; which maketh me to think, that she should not be culpable. And again, I think your Highness would not have gone so far, except she had surely been culpable. Now I think that your Grace best knoweth, that next unto your Grace I was most bound unto her of all creatures living. ... And if she be found culpable, considering your Grace’s goodness towards her, and what condition your Grace of your only mere goodness took her and set the Crown upon her head: I repute him not your Grace’s faithful servant and subject, not true unto the realm, that would not desire the offence without mercy to be punished to the example of all other.

MacCulloch knows that this can be read as a ‘craven piece of toadying’, but he insists that it be read quite otherwise, as ‘a model of pastoral wisdom and courage’. Likewise with Cranmer’s letter on Cromwell’s fall. MacCulloch recognises how uncomfortably close its structure and phrasing are to the earlier letter, as if Cranmer were trying to work the same trick twice, but he nonetheless takes it at its face value and praises Cranmer for his courage.

This is a passionate, committed biography, firmly on its subject’s side; but it is hard to resist the judgment that its writer has earned his commitment because of his painstaking accumulation and carefully argued analysis of the details of Cranmer’s life and the modesty of his claims for Cranmer’s achievements. For one thing, he makes no claim for him as an original thinker. A good scholar of others’ work, Cranmer came up with none of the big ideas which built the Reformation. Neither was he, according to MacCulloch, anything like an astute politician. True, this observation is made in the context of a comparison with Thomas Cromwell, and few could match his political nous, but in general the facts bear MacCulloch out. Cranmer won his political battles through patience and luck rather than by wheeling and dealing. ‘You were born in a happy hour,’ Cromwell is reported to have said to him, ‘for do or say what you will, the King will always take it at your hand.’

It helped, too, that Cranmer’s battles were fought over a fairly definite area: the establishment of an English Church built on a firm evangelical base. The cornerstone was a view of the Eucharistic presence which Cranmer developed, according to MacCulloch, in 1546. To begin with, Cranmer could only sense the outlines of the kind of belief to which he wanted Henry’s Church to subscribe, but after 1546 he remained unwaveringly constant (with the exception of his very last days) to the belief that ‘Christ’s passion was “but once for all”, and justification was by means of passion, resurrection and ascension, “by means whereof ... this sacrament is called the body and blood of Christ.”’ The quotations are from Richard Bonner’s 1547 treatise on the sacrament, and MacCulloch, in a persuasive piece of detective work, identifies this otherwise unknown author with Cranmer himself.

From this challenge to the Roman Church’s view of the Eucharist everything else developed: no worship of the wafer, no prayers for the dead, no purgatory, the destruction of images and a commitment to predestination. Rather than the Church of England developing its doctrine haphazardly, MacCulloch is clear that Cranmer led a team of firmly committed evangelicals into the reign of Edward VI, bent on making the whole Church subscribe to a view of the Eucharist which Henry could never have countenanced. The eating of the body is to dwell in Christ, and this may be though a man never taste the sacrament’ was how Cranmer expressed it in the debate on the Eucharist which took place in the House of Lords in December 1548.

Such debates were not purely theological but had huge political and cultural implications. Reading the Bible in English and saying prayers in English, so that all superstitious accretions were stripped away, were important consequences of Cranmer’s need to establish his Church. Before he adapted his Eucharistic doctrine (only his insofar as he championed it: the intellectual source was Martin Bucer), Cranmer presided over a succession of English Bibles; and soon afterwards, in 1549, came his own great contribution, the Book of Common Prayer. Again, MacCulloch’s analysis is a challenging one. Rather than seeing its 1552 revision as a puritanising of what had been in 1549 a reasonably Anglo-Catholic rite, he demonstrates that even the first version holds little attraction, if properly regarded, to those who still hanker after the Oxford Movement’s view of things.

In effect, Cranmer was a radical, aiming to achieve a root and branch reformation of English culture. So much so that it is tempting to set this book alongside Liah Greenfeld’s recent Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (1993), in which she traces the emergence of modern nationalism to the growth of the English nation-state under Henry VIII. MacCulloch himself says little or nothing about such an idea, and he may well resist it because of his emphasis on Cranmer’s desire to have an international evangelical Church, fit to rival the Roman one which had emerged from the Council of Trent. But Cranmer’s desire was as much to have England at the centre of this Church, and if MacCulloch is right in seeing Cranmer’s hatred of Rome as the spur to his Erastianism, then this too is a nationalistic way of thinking. Having an English Bible and praying in English are similar nationalistic elements, something acknowledged in MacCulloch’s final judgment of Cranmer’s achievement, that, leaving all political and theological issues aside, he was, above everything else, a great English writer.

His personal and intellectual crisis came with the coup which put Mary on the throne, for now he was faced with a monarch who wanted to merge England back into Catholic Europe and return its Church to a set of beliefs in which the real presence was foremost. Cranmer recanted, even going so far as to accept the Pope’s power on earth and to subscribe to the Catholic Church’s doctrine on transubstantiation. He followed this by reneging on his new belief when it became clear that he was still going to be burnt, and he ruined what should have been the equivalent of a Moscow show trial by departing from the script and reasserting his evangelical views. Hauled down by his beard or his clothes and haled off to the stake, he then made his celebrated act of defiance by thrusting into the flames his right hand because it had been the one which had signed his recantation. What had been designed as a triumphant sealing of Mary’s restoration of the true faith became the defining gesture of the English Reformation. Or, to take the other view, the crafty, unprincipled Cranmer who had led the people of England into apostasy, reverted to type when he found that he could not save his skin.

To take MacCulloch’s version of Cranmer’s final actions we have to accept his portrayal of him as an essentially principled man. Even then, it is difficult to explain Cranmer’s vacillations, from his original temporising with his treacherously friendly adversary Villagarcia, to his final, ambiguous statement to the same man that he would have deemed the Pope to be head of the Church if it would have saved his own head. Again, MacCulloch fixes on the details in order to argue the case, the last of them is a message from Cranmer’s sister, not the one who had become a nun and who had earlier visited him in his incarceration, but the Protestant one, who sent him a ring together with ‘certain instructions not recorded’. Cranmer’s whole life had been influenced by women: ‘black Joan of the Dolphin’, with whom he made an uncharacteristically impetuous first marriage; the second Mrs Cranmer; Anne Boleyn, who made him; Queen Jane, for the support of whom he laid himself open to the treason charges with which the servants of that most implacable lady, Queen Mary, turned him into a ‘dead Man’ weeks before his execution; and then his two sisters, of whom he chose the Protestant one.

The idea of such a choice is a nice conceit, the more so because MacCulloch relates it to a dream which Cranmer is reported to have had in prison, shortly before he began to succumb to Villagarcia’s arguments, in which he was visited by Jesus and Henry VIII and had to choose between them. Whether the dream or the choice between the two sisters is historically true matters less than the notion that he was a man who made choices. His peculiar ability was always to see both sides of an argument, but rather than paralysing him, his openness to contrary opinions seems to have spurred him to choose between them. And he was brave enough at the end to acknowledge that he had made the wrong choice.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences