TO THE EDITOR, CATHOLIC TIMES, CREDO FOR 10th December 2000
FR FRANCIS MARSDEN
A postcard of Henry VIII with his wives stands on my bookshelf, appropriately captioned: two divorced, two beheaded, one died and one survived. A neat summary of the King’s domestic arrangements. Henry’s reign was also a drama of three Thomases – Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Cranmer.
Of these three, it was Cranmer who survived the longest, coming to grief only later in the reign of Queen Mary. That gives us a measure of his political astuteness.
Of course, to expect a Catholic to write favourably about Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, would be like asking a Jewish historian to produce a positive appreciation of Goebbels. Cranmer helped set in motion the liquidation of Catholicism in England and Wales, as Goebbels assisted in the Nazi’s “Final Solution” of European Jewry.
Opinions differ. John Knox called him “the mild man of God”. Henry VIII once described him, only half-jokingly, as “the greatest heretic in Kent.” Friedmann, a biographer of Anne Boleyn, judged him to be “elegant, graceful and insinuating. An admirable deceiver, he possessed the talent of representing the most infamous deeds in the finest words.” Indeed, as an ambassador, Cranmer had totally misled the Emperor Charles V as to King Henry’s intentions over the royal divorce.
The most hostile polemic flows from the pen of William Cobbett, “the poor man’s friend”, so sensitive to injustice, although not himself a Catholic. Cranmer’s is “a name which deserves to be held in everlasting execration; a name which we could not pronounce without almost doubting of the justice of God, were it not for our knowledge of the fact, that the cold-blooded, most perfidious man expired at last among those flames which he himself had been the chief cause of kindling.” (The Protestant Reformation para 64)
The standard English view, epitomised by the Martyrs’ Memorial in Oxford, has been of Cranmer the great Archbishop of Canterbury who helped Henry break from Roman domination, and later devised the Liturgy of the new Protestant services in superb vernacular prose. Cruelly martyred during Mary’s tyranny, he was burnt alive after a moment’s weakness, of which he gloriously repented and expiated by his willing and terrible sacrifice, first thrusting into the flames the hand that had signed the recantations. This is a history written by the victors.
Cranmer’s early life was scholarly and uneventful. Second son of the squire of Aslockton in Nottinghamshire, he went up to Jesus College Cambridge, and there became a Fellow. He plunged into an amorous adventure with a maid at one of the local inns, which ended in marriage. He thus lost his fellowship, but his young bride died within the year, and he was re-instated. In 1520 he was ordained priest and in 1526 became a Doctor of Divinity.
He had imbibed Lutheran ideas from Germany. Already he was secretly a dissident and critic of the Papacy. However, Cranmer’s theological beliefs at any particular date often defy precision. They altered gradually, and were fully expressed only during Edward VI’s reign.
In 1529 he aroused royal attention by suggesting that the King’s “great matter” – the annulment of the marriage to Catherine of Aragon - should be settled by theologians not canon lawyers. He accompanied a royal embassy to Italy to solicit the opinions of the Italian universities on the matter. By 1530, he had become friendly with the Protestant-oriented Boleyn household. He lodged with them and became chaplain to Anne.
In 1532 he visited Nuremberg where he broke his vow of celibacy, by secretly contracting marriage with Margaret, niece of the Lutheran theologian Osiander. Nevertheless, armed with modesty, sound scholarship and Cambridge manners, he came to enjoy a unique place in the trust and affections of the King – a position he maintained by complete subservience to all Henry’s demands.
Indeed in 1533 Henry, knowing nothing of the German concubine, chose Cranmer as his Archbishop of Canterbury. A master of ambiguity, Cranmer took the oath of fidelity to the Papacy in order to receive the pallium, having sworn a prior declaration that the Papal oath would not be binding. “Other perjurers be wont to break their oath after they have sworn; you brake it before,” was Reginald Pole’s rebuke to him.
Cranmer concealed his married state from Henry VIII from 1533-47. Henry, despite his own incontinence, vehemently supported clerical celibacy. Spare a thought for poor Frau Cranmer. She waited years in Germany before she was invited to live anonymously in England, hidden in one of the Archbishop’s remoter Kentish palaces. Catholics gibed that whenever His Grace went a-journeying she accompanied him concealed in a trunk with air-holes. Slanderous but certainly picturesque.
Cranmer consistently used the King’s favour to advance Lutheranism and Reformed religion as far as possible, without upsetting the more Catholic-inclined Henry, who simply wanted to be his own Pope. At first Cranmer rode the Boleyn horse successfully to the head of the pack. As required, he annulled Henry’s first marriage with Catherine, and remarried him to Anne. But three years later the royal lust had refocussed itself elsewhere, and Anne was, probably unfairly, condemned for adultery. The favoured filly was now Jane Seymour. Cranmer obligingly annulled the Boleyn marriage so that the next day the ex-Queen could be beheaded.
By 1536 he had become more daring, publicly preaching that the Pope was Antichrist. He stood aside and pacified public opinion as Cromwell ransacked the monasteries. He persuaded Henry to order the English Bible to be placed in all churches – in a Lutheran translation owing much to Coverdale and Tyndale.
In1540 Cromwell was beheaded, but Cranmer rode out the storm, remaining the king’s good servant. His refined ability to change horses in mid-stream stood him in good stead. The Catholic nobility gained the upper hand. Cranmer bided his time during this setback for the evangelical cause. He presided over heresy trials which condemned both Papists and Protestants to the flames, several of the latter holding opinions which he would later force upon the entire nation.
By this time Cranmer had developed an unfamiliar theology of the Church. God’s plan, he proposed, is that the Christian ruler rightfully governs the Church. The early Church for the first 300 years was defective, because it lacked a Christian King to guide and protect it. Only when Constantine became a Christian Emperor was the Church fully constituted. Thus he vindicated the Royal Supremacy and Henry’s position as “Supreme Head” of the Church in England.
Henry’s fourth marriage to “the Flanders mare,” Anne of Cleves, gave the King little satisfaction, so Cranmer presided over the legal annulment process, opening the way for a new union with Katherine Howard. She proved an adulteress, was beheaded, and replaced by Catherine Parr, who outlived her wife-killing husband.
Little further progress in “Reformation” was possible. 1546 witnessed the destruction of the chantry chapels, and the transfer of their endowments to the royal coffers. Not until 1547 did Henry’s death open the highway to far-reaching doctrinal changes. Now the Archbishop could manifest the hatred he had long nourished for the holy sacrifice of the Mass he himself.had so often offered.
He preached against purgatory and Masses for the dead. Rood crosses and images were taken down and the churches whitewashed. The conservative theologian bishops, Tunstall of Durham, Gardiner of Winchester, and Bonner of London, were imprisoned and deprived of their sees.
In his Defence (1550) Cranmer commented: “Many corrupt weeds be plucked up . . but what availeth it to take away beads, pardons, pilgrimages and such other like popery, so long as two chief roots remain unpulled up? . . . the very body of the tree, or rather the roots of the weeds, is the popish doctrine of transubstantiation, of the real presence of Christ’s flesh and blood in the sacrament of the altar . . and of the sacrifice and oblation of Christ made by the priest for the salvation of the quick and the dead. Which root, if they be suffered again to grow in the Lord’s vineyard, they will spread all the ground again with the old errors and superstition”.
To this end he devised the 1552 Prayer Book, replacing the old Latin Mass with a new communion service on a wooden table instead of a stone altar. The sacraments were reduced to two. Intercession for the deceased, the cult of Mary and the Saints was proscribed.
Unfortunately for Cranmer, the next Supreme Head of the Church turned out to be Mary Tudor, a determined Catholic. She set about re-uniting England with the Universal Church. She knew the Archbishop was both a heretic and a traitor. Having so long supported the Royal Supremacy, had he much reason to complain when, beneath the rainy Oxford skies one March Saturday in 1556, the same Royal Supremacy deigned that despite his wavering recantations he burn amidst the flames in St Giles? Surely he received no less than he had been content to inflict upon numerous others.