Cranmer was born in the Nottinghamshire village of Aslockton on 2 July 1489. He belonged to a family of whom three boys and at least five sisters survived infancy. He began his studies in Cambridge at the age of just 14. In 1511 he graduated BA, and MA three years later, expecting, no doubt, to become a priest. Instead he married, which also prevented him continuing as Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge. Sadly, this marriage did not last long; his wife Joan died in childbirth. Afterwards he was able, exceptionally, to take up his fellowship again and was ordained. By 1520 he was a University preacher.
Meantime Lutheranism was beginning to “infect” Cambridge. There were the secret meetings in the White Horse Inn which involved men like Thomas Bilney and Hugh Latimer, Cranmer’s class-mate in his undergraduate days. Cranmer took no part in these discussions, but he was impressed by “what great controversy was in matters of religion” and studied the issues for himself. He began with a three-year study of the Bible, taking abundant notes as he read, before turning to other writers on both sides of the controversy. It was a time when all Lutheran writings were banned at Cambridge. In any case, as a Roman priest, Cranmer was under obligation to follow the teaching, not of the Bible, but of the Church, and without the slightest reservation. But, although he was beginning to think for himself, he was not yet a Lutheran. About this time he was exclaiming against Luther: “O the arrogance of a most wicked man!” As a University examiner, however, following the award of a doctor of divinity degree in 1526, he refused to pass students who were ignorant of Scripture. Some of the monks and friars, who knew the doctrines of mediaeval theologians but not the Bible, were decidedly irate.
It was in 1529 that Cranmer, still a Cambridge scholar, became involved in Henry VIII’s attempts to be rid of his first wife Catherine of Aragon so that he might be free to wed Anne Boleyn. The King asked him to write a book on the subject. Henry told Cranmer that he loved and respected Catherine but that his conscience was troubled about the lawfulness of his marriage to the widow of his brother Arthur. He insisted to Cranmer that he must consider the matter with complete impartiality, but it was quite in keeping with Henry’s determination to get the result he wanted that he sent Cranmer to live in a house belonging to Anne’s father! In the event, Henry was not to be disappointed; Cranmer’s book came to the desired conclusion.
The next year found Cranmer in Italy as an ambassador for his King, doing his best to represent Henry’s interests in promoting a divorce. In one dispatch from London to Italy, Cranmer was described as a “wonderful and grave wise man” who was urging Henry to obey God’s law and put away Catherine. It was his personal experience of Rome at this time that led him to say a few years later: “Vain glory, worldly pomp, unchaste living and vices innumerable prevail in Rome. I have seen it with my own eyes. The Pope claims by his ceremonies to forgive men their sins; it is a serious error. One work only blots them out, namely, the death of our Lord Jesus Christ. So long as the See of Rome endures, there will be no remedy for the evils which overwhelm us. These many years I have daily prayed unto God that I might see the power of Rome destroyed.
After returning to England, Cranmer became Anne’s chaplain and soon afterwards was appointed a chaplain to the King. Before leaving on another mission to the Continent on behalf of Henry, he became Archdeacon of Taunton. He was moving up the ladder of promotion. But, in God’s providence, this would yet contribute to the furtherance of His Cause in England.
This mission of 1532 took him to Ratisbon as ambassador to Emperor Charles V. En route there, he passed through Nuremberg, a Lutheran town, and was impressed with the practice of reading a chapter from the Bible in church every day. One of Cranmer’s main responsibilities at the Emperor’s court was to further the hoped-for divorce, although Catherine was an aunt of Charles. Yet Henry’s ambassador seems to have here developed some doubts about his master’s conduct. More fundamentally, he saw that the doctrine of the Church required to be reformed. In Nuremberg he was also influenced against priestly celibacy. And he quickly put his new ideas into practice by marrying Margaret, a niece of the wife of Osiander, a prominent Lutheran Reformer. It was an action which was to cause him great difficulty in the future; the authorities would have been much more tolerant if he had lived with her as his mistress.
Before the end of 1532, Cranmer was chosen Archbishop of Canterbury. He was reluctant to accept the appointment and dragged out his journey home as much as he could – over dangerously icy roads which would in any case impede his progress. “There was never man”, he confessed, “came more unwillingly to a bishopric than I did to that.” And he complained, “I see nothing but troubles and conflicts and insurmountable dangers in my path”. He was right. Whatever degree of reformation he hoped for at that point, he knew that Henry was highly likely to stand in the way. But he knew too that it was dangerous to refuse an offer from such a man.
At this point Cranmer was to all appearance thoroughly at one with Rome on all the main points of doctrine. “Who”, asked one of his accusers at his trial in 1555, “was then thought more devout . . . more earnest in the defence of the ‘real presence’ of Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament of the altar than ye were?” On the other hand, the Spanish Ambassador was informing the Emperor that it was widely believed in London that the new Archbishop was a Lutheran. And before Cranmer was consecrated to his new office at the end of March 1533, he privately read out a protestation in the presence of five officials and lawyers declaring that he did not intend any oath to the Pope to be binding if it was against the law of God or against the King or laws of England, and that he left himself free to advise and agree to the reformation of the Christian religion and of the government of the Church of England in any way which furthered the prerogative of the Crown. Merle d’Aubign