As the Archbishop of Canterbury during the tumultuous reign of Henry VIII, Thomas Cranmer was in an extraordinary position to effect changes in England's political and religious direction. Through his writings, Cranmer laid the foundations for establishing the Church of England and moved England into the path of the growing European Reformation Movement.
By facilitating the numerous divorces of Henry VIII, he helped to weaken the authority of the Pope in England and contributed to the greater hold of the King.
This paper examines the effects of Cranmer's developing theology on the history of Tudor England. The first part of the paper looks at the role Cranmer played in justifying the theological bases of Henry VIII's numerous divorces. The next part then examines Cranmer's religious convictions, as enshrined in the Ten Articles and later, in the two versions of the Book of Common Prayer.
In the last section, the paper evaluates Cranmer's continuing legacy in the areas of English culture, literacy and especially, on the flourishing in England of the Anglican faith.
Cranmer and Henry VIII
Cranmer enjoyed a close, though definitely not equal, relationship with Henry VIII. This relationship stemmed from Henry VIII's desire to dissolve his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, for her failure to provide him a male heir. Upon being released from his marital vows, the monarch was determined to marry palace lady Anne Boleyn. Only the specific disapproval and warnings of the pope prevented Henry VII from consumating his divorce and second marriage.
By this time, Cranmer, then a fellow at Jesuit College at Cambridge, had expressed the opinion that there was a solid theological basis for dissolving the King's marriage to Catherine. Catherine had been previously married to Henry VIII's brother. As a result, Cranmer argued that the monarch's marriage to his brother's former wife was null and void from the very beginning, based on Leviticus 20:21 (Tucker).
These views attracted the attention of Henry VIII, who promptly appointed Cranmer as chaplain to the king. Cranmer was then sent to Italy, to argue the case for the monarch's divorce directly to Pope Clement. The appeals, however, failed as the pope refused to grant Henry VIII the divorce.
Despite this failure, Henry VIII appointed Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest office in the Church of England. In his position as Archbishop, Cranmer then drafted an influential treatise aimed at convincing the academic leaders. The treatise again argued the case for the King's divorce, based on Leviticus 20:21. Though the treatise was ignored by most European universities, Cranmer's writings managed to convince the dons of Oxford University and the University of Paris to side with the King's divorce.
After assuming the post of archbishop, Cranmer convened an ecclessiastical court on May 23, 1533 to invalidate the marriage of Henry VIII to Catherine. A few days later, he then declared the marriage of the monarch to Anne Boleyn was lawful. This ecclesiastical decision had two immediate effects. First, it earned Cranmer the enduring affection of Henry VIII, who made the archbishop godfather to his daughter Elizabeth, the future Elizabeth I. Second, the decision also earned the enduring enmity of Henry and Catherine's daughter Mary, a devout Catholic who was rendered a bastard by Cranmer's ecclesiastical ruling.
However, Cranmer's actions concerning Henry VIII's subsequent marriages and divorces present a black mark in Cranmer's convictions.
While his previous ecclesiastical rulings concerning Catherine were based on his interpretation of Leviticus and his growing suspicion of papal authority, Cranmer's later dispensations could not be justified on the same grounds.
In 1536, when Anne herself failed to produce a male heir, Cranmer was forced to declare Henry's second marriage void based on allegations of Anne's sexual dalliances with several men including her own brother Thomas. Because the divorce was granted based on sexual infidelity, Cranmer played an important role in the beheading of the former queen. Like her cousin before her, this decision also served to bastardize Elizabeth.
Cranmer continued to grant Henry VIII dispensations for divorce. After the death Jane Seymour, who had finally provided the male heir, Cranmer presided over Henry VIII's marriage to Anne of Cleeves, a marriage that Cranmer was forced to dissolve just three years later. In 1541, Cranmer again granted the monarch a divorce, after allegations of infidelity and loose morality were levied against Catherine Howard. The archbishop's ruling for a divorce thus paved the way for the execution of yet another of Henry VIII's wives.
Many historians see Cranmer's actions regarding the divorces as a weakness. Biographers like Diarmaid MacCulloch, for example, wrote that the decision regarding Anne Boleyn was "a stain on Cranmer's reputation, the unacceptable face of his loyalty to the Supreme Head" (MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer 158).
However, others recognize that Cranmer arrived at the divorce decisions based on the archbishop's conviction of the irrelevance of papal authority in England. Others believe that Cranmer's acquiescence was the only cautious course of action in the face of Henry VIII's erratic moods. Merle d'Aubigne thus argued that "the natural timidity of his character, the compromises he thought it his duty to make with regard to the hierarchy, his fear of Henry VIII" were in keeping with the archbishop's moderation (212). Instead, the clerical concessions made by Cranmer enabled him to pursue his other reformist agendas, particularly the reform of popish canon law.
Cranmer's teachings and writings
Even before assuming the office of the archbishop, however, Cranmer had already begun to drift away from Catholicism.
In 1532, for example, Cranmer rejected the Catholic Church's doctrine of priestly celibacy when he secretly married Margaret, the 20-year-old niece of a Lutheran reformer. His choice of marriage partner - a young citizen of a reformist-oriented country -- also signaled his growing acceptance of European doctrine.
By 1536, Cranmer convened a doctrinal commission, wherein he released the Ten Articles, which was the first declaration of faith made by the Church of England. These articles collectively showed a drift towards the reformist positions in general. Cranmer's actions further ally England with the Lutheran Churches of Germany and Switzerland in particular, an alliance that Henry VIII actively pursued in 1538 by opening negotiations with representatives of German Lutherans.
In 1537, the revised version of the Ten Articles were codified into the Bishop's Book. The Bishop's Book revealed its Catholic roots in discussions regarding the sacraments of baptism, penance and the Lord's Supper. However, the Bishop's Book was conspicuously silent on the sacraments of matrimony, confirmation, the assumption of religious orders and the last rites. The Bishop's Book also condemned many of the Catholic Church's traditional doctrines, even the ones behind the rituals that the Church of England adopted (MacCulloch Thomas Cranmer).
By August 1537, Cranmer turned his attention to the creation of the English Bible, petitioning Thomas Cromwell for permission to sell copies of the Bible to the public. Earlier, in 1534, Cranmer had petitioned to King to convene a group of men to translate the Bible to English.
The new version was completed in 1541. It was referred to as the Great Bible because of its heft, and was then distributed throughout churches across England.
Though the distribution of the Great Bible in lieu of the older Matthews version was also made possible by Thomas Cromwell's political efforts, the Great Bible was also alternatively known as Cranmer's Bible.
It should be noted that during this time, the reading the Bible was considered a sacred activity. In fact, the English Parliament passed a 1543 law forbidding the reading of the Bible at home by women and other lesser folks.
However, in the preface to the Great Bible, Cranmer specifically writes that this Bible was targeted to:
men, women, young, old, learned, rich, poor, priests, laymen, lords, ladies, officers, tenants and mean men, virgins, wives, widows, lawyers, merchants, artificers, husbandmen -- and all manner of persons, of what estate or condition soever they be -- may in this book learn... what they ought to believe, what they ought to do, and what they should not do."
The preface is significant because it lays out Cranmer's conviction that salvation lay not in a devotion to the Catholic Church's pronouncements, catechisms and proposals. Rather, salvation lay in a person's understanding of and devotion to the Verbum Dei, or the "Word of God."
Cranmer thus instructs people who read the Great Bible to bring "a firm and stable purpose to reform his own self according thereunto; and so to continue, proceed, and prosper from time to time, showing himself to be a sober and fruitful hearer and learner."
In this passage, Cranmer practically argues against looking towards Rome for guidance and salvation. Instead, the members of the Church of England should study the Verbum Dei themselves.
By the mid-1530s, the Reformation Movement in England was in full swing. Cranmer himself had made several enemies due to his unorthodox religious views. In 1536, the archbishop had already abolished holy days, including the feast of St. Thomas a Becket. He forbad the veneration of relics…