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Thomas Cranmer

Thomas Cranmer

The English ecclesiastic Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) was the first Protestant archbishop of Canterbury.

Thomas Cranmer was born in Aslacton, Nottinghamshire, on July 2, 1489, the son of a village squire. He went to Cambridge University at the age of 14; though of indifferent scholarship, he received a bachelor's degree in 1511 and a master's degree in 1514. He also received a fellowship at Jesus College and seemed well on the way to an ecclesiastical career when, at 25, he abandoned his fellowship and married Black Joan of the Dolphin Inn at Cambridge. Very little is known of this girl, who died, as did his child by her, within a year of their marriage. Cranmer then returned to his former way of life. His fellowship was restored, and by 1520 he had been ordained a priest and become a university preacher. Five years later he received the degree of doctor of divinity.

A chance meeting in August 1529 with two members of King Henry VIII's administration led to Cranmer's employment in the royal service; he worked toward obtaining the annulment of Henry's marriage with Catherine of Aragon. In January 1532 he was sent as ambassador to the court of Emperor Charles V at Ratisbon and at Nuremberg. At the latter town he made two acquisitions: Lutheran sympathies, if not convictions, and a young German wife, Margaret, a Lutheran and a niece of the prominent Lutheran scholar Andreas Osiander.

Protestant Archbishop

Within a year of his appointment as ambassador, Cranmer was recalled and nominated for the office of archbishop of Canterbury. He knew that this appointment was given him in return for his future annulment of the King's marriage. The bulls of his appointment to the See of Canterbury were obtained, under compulsion and with great speed, from Pope Clement VII by March 1533, and Cranmer was consecrated archbishop on March 30. On May 23 he concluded the trial of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon by declaring the marriage to have been invalid. On May 28 Cranmer publicly adjudged Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn in the previous January to have been lawful; and on June 1, Whitsunday, he anointed and crowned her as queen of England in Westminster Abbey.

For the rest of his life Cranmer was a major instrument in establishing royal supremacy in spiritual matters as in temporal affairs and thus destroying the independence of the English Church. In 1536 he presided over a commission of bishops and divines which met at Lambeth Palace, his London home. This commission published the Ten Articles, a statement of the beliefs of the Henrician Church, which it was hoped could be accepted by Lutherans as well as Catholics.

On May 15, 1536, Anne Boleyn was condemned to death for treason by reason of her adultery. Her execution was postponed for 2 days, however, in order that Cranmer might declare her marriage to Henry invalid and thus bastardize their daughter, Elizabeth. On the day Anne died, Cranmer granted Henry a dispensation to marry Jane Seymour despite their consanguinity.

Disputes and negotiations over religious beliefs and practices filled these years. In 1539 Cranmer opposed the Act of the Six Articles; he believed the act was too Catholic despite the fact that Henry VIII himself had drawn up the final text. He helped, however, to put together the religious work known as the King's Book, although much of its content was contrary to his beliefs. His overwhelming Erastianism stifled his opposition to this book and allowed him to approve its use in his diocese.

Liturgical Plans

In the last years of Henry's reign Cranmer's beliefs gradually became more Protestant, and his enemies at court sought to have him deposed, if not condemned, for heresy. Nevertheless, Henry, apparently well aware of all this, protected him and allowed him to develop the liturgical plans that were to bear such famous fruit. Cranmer published the English Litany in 1544 and the First Book of Common Prayer in 1549 during the reign of King Edward VI. A more Protestant version of the latter work, the Second Book of Common Prayer, was issued in 1552, and it proved to be the foundation of, and the most lasting formative influence in, the Church of England. A. G. Dickens (1964) calls it "a devotional asset ranking second after the English Bible," and it exerted a most powerful influence on the development of the English language. Finally came the Forty-two Articles of Religion, which received royal approval a month before Edward's death in 1553. Cranmer and others had worked on these articles for many years, and they were the prototypes of the famous Thirty-nine Articles established in Queen Elizabeth's reign.

With the accession of Queen Mary, there remained for Cranmer, who had so injured her and her mother and had been so prominent in promoting the destruction of the Catholic Church, only imprisonment and death for heresy. Despite his recantations of his heretical views he vigorously affirmed his Protestantism as he was burned at the stake on March 21, 1556.

Further Reading

A thorough biography is Jasper Ridley, Thomas Cranmer (1962). See also Francis E. Hutchinson, Cranmer and the English Reformation (1951), and Theodore Maynard, The Life of Thomas Cranmer (1956). For background material A. G. Dickens, The English Reformation (1964; rev. ed. 1967), and J. J. Scarisbrick, Henry VIII (1968), are useful.

Additional Sources

Gilpin, William, The life of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, London: Printed for R. Blamire …, 1784.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid, Thomas Cranmer: a life, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.

Thomas Cranmer: churchman and scholar, New York: Boydell Press, 1993. □

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Cranmer, Thomas

Cranmer, Thomas (1489–1556). Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer played a greater role than any other single churchman in shaping the Church of England, and above all its liturgy. However, his diffidence in theological controversy has denied him the status of a founding reformer. He was born to a gentry family in Nottinghamshire and studied at Jesus College, Cambridge, where he became a fellow and took orders, becoming a DD in 1526. He rose to sudden prominence in 1529 on the strength of his suggestion that the universities of Europe be asked to provide opinions on the legitimacy of Henry VIII's first marriage. On an embassy to Germany in 1532 he met and married the niece of the Lutheran church leader of Nuremberg, Andreas Osiander, whom he later brought secretly back to England. When Archbishop William Warham died in August of that year Cranmer was proposed as his successor; despite the stalled divorce negotiations Clement VII provided the papal documents for his consecration early in 1533. Cranmer then presided over the court which annulled Henry and Catherine's marriage. He was also used, later on, to decree the nullity of Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn and to celebrate, and end, the marriage to Anne of Cleves.

During c.1535–8 it is hard to separate Cranmer's role from that of Thomas Cromwell, or from some other bishops such as Hugh Latimer, in the shaping of religious policy and documents such as the ‘Bishops’ Book' of 1537. He was clearly opposed to the Act of Six Articles in 1539 (which forced him to send his wife away) but, unlike Latimer, did not resign his see in protest. After Cromwell's death he emerged as one of the leading reform-minded privy counsellors. Henry VIII's constant support ensured his survival in the ‘Prebendaries' plot’ against him at Canterbury in 1543, and gave him the authority to promote his own English Litany and King's Prymer while suppressing more conservative liturgical projects.

On the accession of Edward VI, Cranmer issued definitively protestant works, above all the first Book of Homilies, a set of official model sermons, which were to be amplified and reissued under Elizabeth. In contrast, his first version of the Book of Common Prayer of 1549 was painfully conservative, to the glee of catholic opponents and the embarrassment of Cranmer's allies. It nevertheless provoked the western rebellion of that year. In 1549 Cranmer welcomed a galaxy of German and Italian protestant stars into England as a refuge from Charles V's campaign against Lutheranism. They helped guide Cranmer into formulating his most explicitly anti-catholic liturgical document, the second version of the Book of Common Prayer (1552) and the Forty-Two Articles of Religion (1553), the basis for the Prayer Book of 1559 and the Thirty-Nine Articles of 1563 respectively.

Cranmer, like most leading figures in Edward's reign, acquiesced uneasily in the device to divert the succession to Jane Grey, but offered no resistance to Mary I's accession despite her known catholicism. He and other protestant bishops regarded her coming as a divine test or punishment, and disobeyed passively. An attainder for treason was set aside in favour of a show-disputation at Oxford in April 1554, in which Cranmer defended himself less vigorously than Nicholas Ridley. He was kept in prison and eventually persuaded to sign recantations in which he accepted key catholic doctrines. He later withdrew these and was burned for heresy on 21 March 1556.

Cranmer's defining quality seems not to have been timidity (the theme of some accusations by historians) but a curiously biddable humility, intense loyalty to the crown, and a preference for very gradual change. The last two might in other circumstances have made a good Lutheran, but the first was most unusual for any 16th-cent. churchman. He wrote relatively little and ranks much less highly as a theologian than many of those he received in England in 1549–53. However, his exceptional gift for framing a poetic liturgical language, which combined the Latinate with the everyday, created a Prayer Book which was appreciated more and more in the centuries which followed.

Euan Cameron

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Cranmer, Thomas

Thomas Cranmer (krăn´mər), 1489–1556, English churchman under Henry VIII; archbishop of Canterbury. A lecturer at Jesus College, Cambridge, he is said to have come to the attention of the king in 1529 by suggesting that Henry might further his efforts to achieve a divorce from Katharine of Aragón by collecting opinions in his favor from the universities. Cranmer went (1530) to Rome to argue the king's case and was (1532) an ambassador to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. In 1533, Henry named him archbishop of Canterbury, and as soon as the appointment was confirmed by the pope, Cranmer proclaimed that Henry's marriage to Katharine was invalid. A few days later he crowned Anne Boleyn as Henry's queen. Completely subservient to the king's will, Cranmer declared Anne's marriage invalid in 1536. He promoted Henry's marriage (1540) to Anne of Cleves and the divorce from her, and was later (1542) one of the accusers of Catherine Howard. Cranmer was strongly influenced by the German Reformation. With his friend Thomas Cromwell, he endorsed the translation of the Bible into English and was influential in procuring a royal proclamation (1538) providing for a copy in every parish church. However, as long as Henry VIII lived, the archbishop could promote no significant doctrinal changes. The situation changed with the accession (1547) of the young Edward VI, during whose reign Cranmer shaped the doctrinal and liturgical transformation of the Church of England. He was responsible for much of the first Book of Common Prayer (1549) and compiled the revision of 1552, which contains the most famous examples of his sonorous prose, with the aid of prominent Continental reformers. His Forty-two Articles (1553), though never formally adopted, formed the basis of the Thirty-nine Articles (see creed5). Cranmer supported the claims of Lady Jane Grey after Edward's death. Upon the accession (1553) of the Roman Catholic Queen Mary I, he was tried for treason, convicted of heresy, stripped of his preferments, and condemned. A few days before his death he recanted, but when asked to repeat the recantation at the stake, he refused and thrust the hand that had written it into the fire.

See biographies and studies by F. C. Hutchinson (1951, repr. 1966), T. Maynard (1956), J. G. Ridley (1962, repr. 1983), and D. MacCulloch (1996).

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Cranmer, Thomas

Cranmer, Thomas (1489–1556). Archbishop of Canterbury, Protestant reformer, scholar, and liturgist. Cranmer played a crucial part in the Henrician Reformation in England and in shaping the English catechism, prayer books and Articles (see THIRTY-NINE ARTICLES). A fellowship at Jesus College, Cambridge, and ordination allowed him to study for his doctorate in Divinity (1526) and to evaluate the work of Biblical scholars, including Fisher, Luther, and both Catholic and other Reformers. Asked by Henry VIII to put his views on the King's proposed divorce into book-form, he was subsequently used by the king to argue for the divorce at Bologna, Rome, and eventually Ratisbon and Nuremberg. There he encountered German Lutherans, and also met and married Margaret, the niece of Andreas Osiander (a Reformation theologian) in 1532. This unusual and uncanonical step was thrown into high relief when he was summoned from these Lutheran circles to become archbishop of Canterbury in 1533.

His belief in the scriptural warrant for the authority of the prince and not the pope as head of the Church guaranteed a measure of protection from Henry VIII and Edward VI, to whom he acted as spiritual guide and tutor. This in turn enabled Cranmer to advance some reformed views, especially on the desirability of vernacular scriptures, the abolition of superfluous saints' days, and the translation of the liturgy and catechism into English. The limits of his loyalty to the Crown were tested by the accession of Queen Mary in 1553, who required his allegiance to the crown to be transferred to the papacy. He wavered and recanted at first, but finally came to the view that loyalty to the monarch had to be subordinate to loyalty to the word of God. He was accordingly burnt as a heretic on 21 Mar. 1556.

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Cranmer, Thomas

Cranmer, Thomas (1489–1556) English prelate and religious reformer. Henry VIII appointed him Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533. Cranmer secured the annulment of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, despite opposition from the Pope. A friend of as Cromwell, Cranmer promoted the introduction of Protestantism into England and compiled the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. Following the accession of the Roman Catholic Mary I in 1553, Cranmer's reforms were halted. He was burned at the stake.

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