The martyr who saved the Reformation

Matthew Barrett interviews Leslie Williams about the life and martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer

You have just published a new book with Eerdmans called Emblem of Faith Untouched, introducing Christians to the life of Thomas Cranmer. Many Christians today may be far less familiar with Cranmer than with Martin Luther or John Calvin. Who was this sixteenth-century reformer who proved to be so critical to the English Reformation?

Thank you for asking about the book. Thomas Cranmer was an unlikely candidate to be a major player in the upheavals of the English Reformation. He was recruited because of a coincidental exchange over supper with two of King Henry VIII’s top advisors during the king’s crusade to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn. At age 41, Cranmer was a settled scholar and Fellow of Jesus College in Cambridge, one of the top three examiners for degree candidates, and a dogged and thorough student of Reformation ideas from the Continent.  

Cranmer was appointed to be Henry’s first Archbishop of Canterbury over more obvious candidates for several reasons—first, his belief that the sovereign of the land should also be sovereign of the church. The king was king and had the right and the responsibility to dictate the religious views of his own country—the Pope should not control the English church from afar. Second, Cranmer’s personality. He was not strident and not bigoted; he was diffident yet held a strong undercurrent of conviction; he was able to bide his time when necessary and able to absorb and understand all sides of an argument; and he could get along with a king who lopped off the heads of those who disagreed with him.

Cranmer can be a controversial figure today. Some interpret his life in such a way as to dismiss him, believing he compromised far too much under Henry VIII. Others, however, are more sympathetic, believing he was carefully walking a nearly impossible political tightrope, namely, trying to institute the Protestant reform slowly under a king who could be unsympathetic and even violent towards those who were too aggressive in their advances. Tell us, how critical should we be of Cranmer and what was it about Cranmer that enabled him literally to “keep his head,” navigating Henry’s reign as a committed Protestant?

Cranmer had read, studied, and carefully assessed Reformation ideas and I believe that Cranmer got his hopes up when Henry became head of the English church and appointed him Archbishop. Cranmer realized fairly quickly, though, that Henry had no intention of reforming much of anything except the top of the church’s hierarchy—by substituting himself for the Pope and severing England’s ties with the church in Rome. For the most part, the theology, the doctrine, the worship, and the practices would remain “Catholic” in all but name under Henry….with threat of death to those who disagreed. The king’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell was a Reformation ally, working with Cranmer to secure Parliamentary approval for the transition. Cromwell tried to strengthen political ties with Reformation Germany by arranging a marriage with Anne of Cleves, but Henry found her unattractive and had Cromwell put to death. Before Cromwell died, he told Cranmer what a lucky man he was, because Cranmer could say or do anything he wanted and the king defended him.

Cranmer dared to disagree with Henry about how far reform should go, but he also knew when to keep his mouth shut. I wonder if he didn’t realize that he would be more valuable to the Reformation if he managed to stay alive and outlive Henry—which is exactly what happened. The real reforms in the church took place under Henry’s son, Edward.

Cranmer never stopped pushing—subtly, sometimes overtly—for church reform. One of the reforms under Henry included the publication of “The Great Bible” in English instead of Latin, so the people could read it. Cranmer also most likely wrote the “Ten Articles” of the new faith, which were the first step in reforming the doctrine and worship of the church. Five articles concerned doctrine: (1) the Scriptures and three Creeds summarize the faith, (2) baptism is necessary for remission of sins and to receive the Holy Spirit, (3) penance (contrition, confession, and reformation) is necessary to be saved, (4) the elements of the Eucharist contain the body and blood of Christ, and (5) we are justified by the merits of Christ, but good works are important. Five articles concerned the saints and ceremonies. Cranmer objected to 82 of 250 of the king’s revisions to “the Bishops’ Book”—an attempt to put more teeth into the Ten Articles.

Finally, the Articles were whittled to the Six Articles, the “whip of six strings” reasserting Catholic doctrine against those with Protestant leanings. For three days Cranmer stood alone arguing against Parliament and the king, who was determined that the Articles be passed. The king had to ask him to leave when it came time to vote. Other records also indicate that Cranmer was not the wimp or the pushover his detractors claim he was.

When Henry died, Cranmer was at his side, holding his hand. In an almost symbiotic relationship, Cranmer may have been the only one who truly understood his monarch, and some have speculated that Henry was as influenced by Cranmer as Cranmer was by Henry.

One of the most intriguing aspects of your biography is the way it acts as a window into Cranmer’s diverse friendships with Henry’s wives, some of whom were executed. For example, the reader can feel the heartbreak Cranmer experienced as he cries over Anne just after her execution. You write, “He wept for a friend and advocate he had lost, and perhaps for his own role in her death.” Cranmer seems utterly crushed as he is caught between being a friend and a subject of his king. How do moments like this inform our picture of who Cranmer was, not only in his role next to the king but as a Christian, as a man?

I have no doubt that Cranmer was a kind man in a cruel and malicious environment. He supported Cromwell when the rest of the nobility turned against him; and he stood up on Anne Boleyn’s behalf before her execution—both times writing dangerous letters that could have resulted in his own decapitation. He defended himself when attacked in writing, but forgave many of his enemies who slandered him, calling him a “hostler,” or those who bruited about in pubs that he was as ignorant as a goose on the green. More serious enemies plotted to discredit him, throw him in prison, and, again, he reacted with forgiveness.

Though he’s known for his central role in religious and political issues, he was also a family man. He was married twice—the first time to Joan, a relative of the owner of the Dolphin Inn in Cambridge, who died in childbirth. He was willing to sacrifice his job, his status, and his living at Jesus College to marry her. The second time, he married a German reformer’s niece, Margaret, who bore him two children, and who had to come and go between England and the Continent depending on the political/religious climate. Cranmer was very private about his personal life, but from what I gleaned, he was a committed Christian in the way he handled his relationships.

Arguably, the Book of Common Prayer may be Cranmer’s most significant legacy. What is it about this prayer book that so strategically led the church away from Rome and into the Protestant fold, though admittedly very slowly at times and over the course of decades?

When Parliament and Convocation met in November 1547, Cranmer and Ridley said the opening mass in English—a novel form and “market testing” for the first Book of Common Prayer, published later. Some revolted against the first book, and it was revised within three years. However, it made some substantial changes, and the Act of Uniformity passed by Parliament in 1549 ensured that it was to be used throughout the realm. What follows are a few brief highlights of how the 1549 Book of Common Prayer ushered the English church into the Protestant fold.

First, it combined the separate Roman books used by the priests, uniting the Missal (liturgy for the Eucharist), the Breviary (daily offices), the Manual (used for special services such as baptism, weddings, funerals), and Pontifical liturgies (confirmation and ordination).

Second, it encouraged greater participation by the congregation. It was written in English, the language of the people; the Eucharist was offered weekly instead of annually at Easter; both the bread and the wine were offered at communion instead of the bread alone.

Third, it cut down on “popery”—elaborate vestments, elevation of the host in processions, and language that referred to the altar as a table, etc.

Fourth, it subverted the need for people to pay the priests to say prayers for the dead and the whole notion of Purgatory by cutting down the burial service to a graveside service.

Fifth, it tried to appeal to the widest number of Reformation Eucharistic theologies, deleting the language of Transubstantiation (“This is my body and blood”) and replacing it with “Eat and drink this in remembrance of me.”

Fifth, it removed the necessity of individual aural confession with a priest before Communion by using the General Confession, if desired.

These are just a few of the bare-bone highlights of how the first Book of Common Prayer helped turn the carrier from Rome toward the Reformation.

Walk us through the final days of Cranmer’s life and give us insight as to why Cranmer’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, would prove to be a “hill to die on” as Cranmer took his final stand against Mary and Rome.

The last few years of Cranmer’s life were a torment of conflicting passions. The doctrine of Transubstantiation had become a lightning rod in England under Henry’s reign, and martyrs such as Anne Askew had been burned because they refused to believe that during the words of institution, the bread and the wine became the literal and actual body and blood of Christ—a major plank in Catholic doctrine. After much study and revision, Cranmer’s view of the Eucharist came to be that Christ’s presence at the Eucharist is in the hearts of the believers who partake of the bread and wine. His view was different from the doctrine of Real Presence or Consubstantiation, other Reformation views. Once he had come to this view, he could not give it up.

One problem for Cranmer at the end is that Transubstantiation had become such an enormous issue; it was a rallying cry, or a benchmark of being a “true” Christian under Mary. Cranmer simply could not go backwards in his beliefs and retain his spiritual integrity. He believed the Reformation theology with all his heart, and especially this Eucharistic tenet, and once he’d been converted, could not return to Rome.

The terrible torment for him came from his equally deep commitment—a direct contradiction and irreconcilable belief—that the sovereign of the state is also the earthly sovereign of the faith.

Near the end of your biography, you capture the enormous tension in Cranmer’s own soul as he faced his final decision: whether to submit to his queen (Mary) or to the Scriptures. By framing Cranmer’s many recantations in this light, the reader can see just how seriously Cranmer took the biblical command to obey those in power. Yet, Cranmer demonstrates that his final allegiance is to God and the scriptures as he makes his final and very public recantation of his previous recantations. One of the most vivid scenes is the very end, when Cranmer is being burned to death and he places the hand used to sign those recantations in the fire first. In what ways does his death demonstrate his commitment to sola scriptura, even within this complicated matrix involving his loyalty to his king or queen?

Under duress, Cranmer wrote several recantations that subtly undermined the doctrine of Transubstantiation; for example, on whether Christ was “really” present the bread during the Eucharist, Cranmer interpreted “really” to mean “effectually,” not “corporally,” which was the opposite of what the Catholics wanted him to say. Finally, his opponents wrote a recantation that made it clear that he believed in their Eucharistic theology and forced him to sign it.

The morning he died, Cranmer was allowed his last words, and he had another recantation literally up his sleeve. In this final statement of his faith, he called the Pope “Christ’s enemy,” affirmed his Reformation Eucharistic conviction, and said he believed “every word and sentence taught by our Savior Jesus Christ, his apostles and prophets, in the Old and New Testaments.” Cranmer had resolved the problem, and he chose God and the Scriptures over his queen.

Cranmer had worked his whole life to free England from Rome; to write his people a prayer book they could understand; to write sermons for his preachers that were clear, Scriptural, and orthodox; to unify doctrine for the whole country; to give congregations a means to read the Bible and worship; and to allow religious discussion without the death penalty. For all he knew at that moment when the crowds pulled him off the platform and led him to the pyre, his life’s work was in vain.

Yet, when he recanted his forced recantation and stuck his hand first in the martyr’s fire, he saved the Reformation. Mary wanted Cranmer as the top prize for Catholicism, but the image of Cranmer at the stake, with his hand in first, imprinted itself on the mind and spirits of the people and kept the Reformation alive.

Leslie Winfield Williams is an English professor, writer, and three-time Fellow of Yale Divinity School. Her other books include The Judas Conspiracy and When Anything Goes: Being Christian in a Post-Christian World.