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Cranmer, Thomas (1489–1556) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

cranmer’s articles theological anglican

The second son of Thomas Cranmer and Agnes (née Hatfield), Cranmer was born in Nottinghamshire. Because his father had only enough property to endow his eldest son, Cranmer pursued a career in the church. To this end, he went to Cambridge in 1503, where he received a fellowship at Jesus College in 1510 or 1511. When he married his first wife, his fellowship was revoked; it was restored soon afterward when his wife died in childbirth. Through dedicated study, Cranmer became a learned, if not thoroughly original, theologian who maintained throughout his life his scholarly drive to reexamine his beliefs.

Cranmer’s early beliefs were already leaning away from Catholic orthodoxy. Around 1520 he participated in discussions with a group of Cambridge scholars concerning theological problems arising from Luther’s challenges to Catholicism; by 1525, Cranmer was praying for the abolition of papal power in England. Thanks to Henry VIII’s desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon, those prayers were inadvertently realized. In 1529, Cranmer privately suggested to two of Henry’s councillors that the king ought to rely upon English theologians in the matter of his divorce. Acting quickly upon this suggestion, Henry instructed Cranmer himself to work toward a divorce. Cranmer wrote a treatise arguing the king’s case and ultimately was dispatched to Rome in 1530, along with other diplomats, to argue Henry’s cause. In 1532 he was sent to Germany in order to serve as ambassador to Charles V and to establish contact with Lutheran princes. There, he met Andreas Osiander, whose moderate theological position between Lutheran and Catholic beliefs appealed to Cranmer and whose niece he secretly married. This second marriage suggests that Cranmer did not expect nor seek high promotion in the church, for in the event of promotion, his marriage, if discovered, would spell trouble; as events proceeded, in fact, Cranmer was unable to acknowledge his wife publicly until 1548.

Cranmer’s high promotion, in fact, came quickly; in 1532, William Warham, archbishop of Canterbury, died, and the king appointed Cranmer to the position. By March 1533, when Cranmer was consecrated, Anne Boleyn’s pregnancy made the divorce a matter of pressing importance. Cranmer took the obligatory oath to the pope but first declared that he did not consider the oath binding if it were against the laws of God or England. He then ruled the king’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon void and validated the marriage to Anne Boleyn. Cranmer’s continued obedience to Henry put him in awkward positions in the future. In 1536, Cranmer reversed his earlier decision and deemed the marriage to Anne Boleyn invalid. Continuing to assist Henry, in 1540, he helped free his king from his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, and in 1542 he participated in the proceedings against Catherine Howard that led to her execution.

While maintaining obedience to Henry, however, Cranmer was able to advance a moderate Reformation in England despite the king’s general resistance to change. Together with Cromwell,* for example, he promoted the publication of an English Bible. During his long tenure as archbishop, his theology developed along increasingly Protestant lines; he gradually abandoned his belief in transubstantiation, though retaining his belief in the real presence, and by 1545 he had composed a reformed litany for the Church of England. After the Act of Six Articles (1539), however, his position was endangered by the country’s increasingly conservative religious climate. His enemies tried several times to convict him of heresy but were prevented by Henry’s persistent, lifelong attachment to his archbishop; as Cromwell once remarked to Cranmer, “[D]o or say what you will, the King will always well take it at your hand.’’

Upon the young Edward VI’s accession, the government advanced the Reformation of the English church considerably. Cranmer assisted the Protestant cause through his interests in educating the laity and promoting Protestant doctrine. In 1547 he was responsible for the publication of a Book of Homilies designed to aid inadequate ministers in their preaching, and in 1548 he was involved in the English adaptation and publication of a Latin catechism. His first, moderate prayer book was published in 1549, followed by a more definitely Protestant revision in 1552. In 1553 Cranmer produced the English church’s first doctrinal formulary, the Forty-two Articles, to which all clergy, schoolmasters, and university degree candidates were required to subscribe and which served as the basis for the Thirty-nine Articles of 1571. During 1550, he published his Defense of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament , a work defending a decidedly sacramentarian view of the Eucharist. Cranmer also desired to revise the canon law of the English church; his proposal, never enacted, was published, fifteen years after his death, in 1571 as the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum . His contributions to the Church of England’s liturgy and doctrine have influenced the liturgical and theological debates of that church to the present day.

Just before Edward VI’s death, the obedient Cranmer swore against his better judgment to join the king in supporting Northumberland’s attempt to settle the Crown not on the Catholic princess Mary, but on Henry’s great-niece, the Lady Jane Grey. Proclaimed queen, Grey was deposed nine days later. Upon Mary I’s accession Cranmer was accused of treason; this charge was soon superseded, however, by charges of heresy. Indeed, Cranmer probably preferred a charge of heresy, for to a man who had devoted his life to obedient service a charge of treason was unconscionable; to die for Christ was infinitely more acceptable. Cranmer underwent a heresy trial in September 1555, the verdict of which was never in doubt. On 14 February 1556, he was degraded from his episcopal and sacerdotal offices in preparation for execution. Following his trial, Cranmer was put under intense pressure to recant. Desperately lonely and broken, Cranmer at last signed a series of six recantations, the last of which rejected his entire theological development. Although the more traditional practice was to impose a lesser sentence on recanted heretics, Mary maintained that Cranmer should burn. On 21 March 1556, Cranmer was to recant publicly, using a speech that had been endorsed by the government before suffering his punishment. Instead, he stunned the authorities and the gathered crowd by recanting not his earlier theological positions but the recantations themselves. He then ran to the stake and steadfastly held his right hand, the hand that had signed the recantations, in the fire. His heroic end undid much of the government’s planned propaganda against him and his Protestant cause and earned him an honored place in Foxe’s catalog of Protestant martyrs.


Predictably, critical reception of Cranmer’s works from the sixteenth century forward has varied with the religious sympathies of the recipients. The Marian government, for example, found Cranmer’s doctrine of the Eucharist particularly repugnant; in the fullest recantations, the government ensured that all of Cranmer’s writings against transubstantiation were revoked. His doctrinal stances, mediated through his influence upon the Thirty-nine Articles and later versions of the prayer book, have influenced Anglican debates from the sixteenth century to the present day. In the seventeenth century, controversy developed between Charles and his Parliament over the issue of predestination as outlined in the seventeenth of the 1571 Articles, an article whose differences from Cranmer’s are slight. In 1628 Charles issued a proclamation against Puritans’ understanding of the article, urging them to interpret the articles according to a “plain and literal sense’’; Parliament’s Puritans angrily responded that they had constantly affirmed the originally intended meaning of the doctrines in the Thirty-nine Articles. This struggle over the location of the articles’ “plain” meaning continued with their first modern historian, Charles Hardwick. Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, Hardwick argues that the articles are essentially Lutheran and therefore, for him, moderate. Following in his steps, other Anglican historians have occasionally de-emphasized Reformed influence on the articles. On issues where Lutheran and Reformed views diverge, however, the articles, due to Cranmer’s theological influence, take the Reformed position, thus meriting their inclusion in the 1581 Geneva volume A Harmony of the Confessions of the Faith of the Orthodox and Reformed Churches . Recent controversies over subscription to the articles and adherence to the prayer book evaluate Cranmer’s doctrinal positions in order to debate the relevance of his theology’s official incarnations to current Anglican thought. The Anglican theologian Oliver O’Donovan, for example, acknowledges Cranmer and his articles as embracing a Reformed position not always consistent with current Anglican theology, thus recognizing both similarities and differences between twentieth- and sixteenth-century incarnations of the Church of England. The still unrepealed 1662 Book of Common Prayer , significantly influenced by Cranmer’s 1552 version, is also a point of debate. Endorsing Cranmer’s theology, Samuel Leuenberger claims that the changes made to the 1552 version have no other purpose but to “return to the pure word of God” (123) and warns that recent attempts to alter Anglican liturgy may contribute to a separation of the close relationship between theology and liturgical practice that Cranmer established. Cranmer’s theological positions, alternatively seen as essentially Anglican and as one of many historical incarnations of Anglican thought, continue to provoke reevaluations and unresolved controversy.

In terms of historical assessment, Cranmer is similarly a controversial figure. To many Catholic historians over the four centuries since Cranmer’s death, Cranmer is not only a heretic but an opportunist who readily adapted his theological views to current tastes in order to advance his career. In the sixteenth century, the pro-Catholic author of Bishop Cranmer’s Recantacyons lambasted Cranmer for theological vacillation, such as his submission under the Six Articles. Later writers voiced similar reserve; Sanders in The Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism (1877) mocks Cranmer for shifting his theological views from Henrician to Lutheran to Calvinist depending, presumably, upon the current political climate. Most Protestant historians, on the other hand, see Cranmer as a genuinely devout man upon whom the truth gradually dawned; his recantations are largely forgiven him because of his martyrdom. Foxe advances this view most strongly in his Actes and Monuments ; for Foxe, Cranmer is a mild and forgiving man whose character, though not perfect, cannot be easily superseded. In the twentieth century, this Protestant line continues in Pollard’s Thomas Cranmer and the English Reformation (1904), which, although offering a spirited defense of his subject, is marred by the author’s bias. Ridley’s is the most authoritative and balanced recent biography of the archbishop. After an opening chapter that details these persistent biographical controversies, Ridley finds an ironic consistency in the archbishop’s actions. Ridley argues that Cranmer, like many of his contemporaries, believed in royal absolutism and felt that the Christian’s principal duty was to serve his king unless ordered to sin. Thus, Ridley finds that Cranmer repeatedly struggles over whether to submit or resist when faced with religious policies with which he disagreed; this struggle between obedience to God and obedience to monarch is consistent, though the actions resulting from that struggle may not be. Ridley notes that “Cranmer… was obviously aware that obedience meant continued residence at Lambeth, and that resistance would bring him to the stake. But this is not the same thing as deliberate time-serving; and when in 1553 the issue was too plain for mental evasion, Cranmer was prepared to choose the hard road” (12). Indeed, Cranmer’s final choice has argued most strongly for more sympathetic assessments of his life and actions. Participation in Tudor government meant that Cranmer knew only too well the costs of religious resistance; in his homily Of Faith , however, he also acknowledges the power of martyrdom, noting with admiration that “some [have been] brent without mercy, and would not be delivered, because they looked to rise again to a better state.” Strype, Cranmer’s seventeenth-century chronicler, is inspired with a similar admiration by Cranmer’s own death:

His body was not carried to the grave in state, nor buried, as many of his predecessors were, in his own cathedral church, nor enclosed in a monument of marble or touchstone. Nor had he any inscription to set forth his praises to posterity: no shrine to be visited by devout pilgrims….Cranmer’s martyrdom is his monument, and his name will outlast an epitaph or a shrine.

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