This article is part 2 of a series of 4 articles.
Soon, however, Anne was out of favour, accused of adultery and sent to the Tower. The supporters of Rome rejoiced. Anne’s arrest seemed to signal a change in Henry’s religious policy, for Anne was closely associated with the Reforming movement. Cranmer wrote to the King counselling him to stick to his existing policy. However, no change in policy was intended. Cranmer, ever the King’s faithful servant, was involved in hurried divorce proceedings in which he gave judgement in Henry’s favour, holding that the marriage to Anne was null from the beginning. Diarmaid MacCulloch, Cranmer’s most recent biographer, pronounces this judgement “a stain on Cranmer’s reputation, the unacceptable face of his loyalty to the Supreme Head” (2). Anne was quickly sent to the block, and before long Jane Seymour had taken her place as Queen of England. During the afternoon of the day on which Anne was beheaded, Cranmer told a friend, “She who has been the Queen of England on earth will today become a Queen in heaven”. Then he broke down in tears; he clearly did not consider her guilty.
That summer of 1536, a doctrinal commission under Cranmer brought out the Ten Articles. They tended to the Lutheran position. In general, they condemned the doctrines behind the traditional ceremonies while leaving the ceremonies unchanged. Only three of Rome’s seven sacraments received a mention: baptism, the Lord’s Supper and penance. At this stage, however, Cranmer accepted all seven as sacraments but he was prepared to give some a higher status than others.
This was the view which Cranmer presented to a meeting of bishops probably in 1537. The Scottish reformer Alexander Aless was brought to the meeting by Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s right-hand man in running the country, and Cranmer invited him to speak. Aless went further than Cranmer; he argued that there were only two sacraments. The Scot became involved in a furious argument with Bishop Stokesley of London, Aless contending for the supremacy of Scripture while Stokesley asserted the authority of unwritten tradition. At 12 o’clock, when the meeting ended, Aless was still speaking. He offered to prove, the next day, that the Christian faith rested on the Bible alone.
However, when the next day’s session was about to begin, a message reached him from Cranmer telling him that his words the previous day had aroused great resentment among the bishops. It was felt that another contribution from Aless would be counter-productive. Aless was forthright to the point of bluntness in supporting his position – he intended to accuse Stokesley of “shameful cavillation and blasphemy” – Cranmer, on the other hand, was aiming for the most favourable compromise he could achieve. Yet these Ten Articles did give a definition of justification which was free from the Romish confusion of that doctrine with sanctification, and declared that “the only sufficient and worthy causes” of justification are “the only mercy and grace of the Father, promised freely unto us for His Son’s sake, Jesu Christ, and the merits of His blood and passion”.
Earlier, at the end of 1534, Cranmer proposed petitioning the King to select good men to translate the Bible. At first sight, it seems strange that this suggestion should have had the support of many of the conservative bishops, but their objective was to have an authorised translation of the Bible in the place of Tyndale’s, with its strongly Protestant notes. The work of revising an existing translation went ahead, but Stokesley refused to have any part in it. This led a witty priest to remark that Stokesley was not prepared to spend any time on the New Testament since he had realised that Christ had bequeathed him nothing in His testament, and that he would have nothing to do with the Acts of the Apostles because the Apostles were simple and poor, while Stokesley was certainly neither simple or poor.
It is interesting to note Cranmer in early 1535 sending a long list of orders to the cathedral Priory at Worcester, at the head of which was a direction to the monks to attend a reading from Scripture for one hour each day throughout the year, during which they were to hear the whole Bible read. At this stage too, Cranmer was making it plain, in a letter to the government’s chief representative in Calais, that he was not satisfied to see the break with Rome as a dispute with an individual pope; it was with “the very papacy and the see of Rome, which both by their laws suppressed Christ and set up the bishop of that see as a God of this world”.
Preaching at Paul’s Cross, Cranmer’s main theme was that the Pope was Antichrist. The next year we find Cranmer silencing a Suffolk friar because of the doctrines he was preaching: among them was the idea that to say the Lord’s prayer once when directed by a priest was worth as much as to say it 1000 times without any such prompting. It is likely that by then Cranmer had rejected Roman views on the value of confession to a priest. About that time he was writing, “There was never anything by men so well devised or so surely established which in age and continuance of time has not been corrupted”. Always Cranmer was trying, cautiously and gently, to roll back the corruptions of the centuries, although he was sometimes allowing himself to be carried backwards by the stream.
In the summer of 1537 Cranmer was writing to Cromwell afraid that, because of the opposition to its publication, the translation of the Bible into English would not be available until “a day after doomsday”. However, before long Cromwell was directing that a copy of the English Bible should be placed in every parish church by August 1. This was the edition which became known as Matthew’s Bible, a substantial part of which was the work of William Tyndale. His translation had been continued largely by John Rogers, who used the pseudonym Thomas Matthew. Cranmer sent a copy to Cromwell asking him to show it to the King and to obtain a licence allowing everyone to read it. When this licence was obtained, Cranmer assured Cromwell that it had made him happier than if Cromwell had given him £1000.
In early 1538 Cranmer was in correspondence with the King about what became known as the Bishops’ Book. Again and again Henry tried to move its teachings in the direction of the doctrine that man cooperates with God in salvation. Where Henry found the statement, “We may attribute all unto Thy godly will”, he changed it to, “We may attribute all to our desert”. Cranmer held out for what is scriptural. Good works, he also argued, were only good because they proceeded from God’s gift of “very pure Christian faith and hope”. That faith was not merely intellectual faith, which could be exercised by “all devils and wicked Christian people”. “Perfect faith”, he argued, “is nothing else but assured hope and confidence in Christ’s mercy.”
The summer of 1538 has been described as the high-water mark of the Reformation in the time of Henry VIII. Incidentally, Cranmer seems to have been the first to make use of that expression when he wrote about “this world of reformation”, although this use of the word did not catch on until later. Fearing joint action against him by France and Spain, Henry began negotiations with the Lutherans of Germany. Cranmer did his best to achieve doctrinal agreement, but three main obstacles stood in the way: private masses, the denial of the cup to the laity in the Lord’s Supper, and priestly celibacy. Henry refused to discuss these three points, and the bishops who supported Roman doctrines also proved awkward. So, after two full months, negotiations broke down in spite of some compromise on various doctrines.
Cranmer himself already opposed private masses and had moved away from transubstantiation towards the Lutheran position; by the next year he was in favour of administering the Lord’s Supper in both kinds. Besides, as we have previously noticed, he was already married. However, in 1539, when the Act of the Six Articles was passed, he was obliged to send his Margaret back to Germany; they were both liable to be hanged if they did not separate. Only in 1543, after a discussion with the King, did he feel free to bring his wife back to live with him. By then, in any case, the law against married priests was no longer being enforced. The Cranmers had a family of one son and two daughters. It is interesting to note that a son-in-law of Cranmer was the first to translate Calvin’s Institutes into English, in 1561.
Although Cranmer had given up his belief in transubstantiation, he still at this stage held to the “real presence” of Christ in the Supper. And, when Francis Lambert was brought to trial before the King and the bishops to answer for his opposition to this doctrine, it was Cranmer who argued with the prisoner on Lambert’s second point of objection: that Christ, being in heaven could not be physically present in the sacrament, for He could not be in two places at once. As Lambert refused to recant, the outcome of the trial was a foregone conclusion. He was condemned to burn at Smithfield, and the sentence was carried out in a particularly cruel manner.
In May 1539, Henry moved to roll back the Reformation. He appointed a committee to consider six points relating to the Lord’s Supper, confession to priests, and celibacy. Probably the committee had no real authority, and very quickly the Six Articles – which have been called the whip with six strings – were brought before the House of Lords. At least during the first day’s debate in the House, Cranmer argued against them – very respectfully, of course – in Henry’s presence. In the end, Cranmer gave in – in deference, no doubt, to the authority of the King, although one member of the House claimed that Henry had finally “confounded them all with God’s learning”.
Perhaps the one gain in these Articles was the dropping of the word transubstantiation from the section on the Lord’s Supper. But in spite of his opposition to the Six Articles, Cranmer had of necessity, in view of his position as Primate of England, to involve himself in enforcing them. The outlook for the Reformation was bleak. The French ambassador commented that King Henry had “taken up again all the old opinions and constitutions, excepting only papal obedience and destruction of abbeys and churches of which he has taken the revenue”.
However, it was not long before the outlook for the Reformation brightened again. By September Henry was once more alarmed at the growing friendship between the kings of France and Spain. Again he looked to the German Lutherans for support and was persuaded to marry one of them, Anne of Cleves. That autumn the Archbishop had seen to the publication of what has become known as “Cranmer’s Bible”. Henry had already issued a proclamation which gave permission to his subjects to read the Bible for themselves but forbade them to read it aloud to anyone else – this in a country where most people were still illiterate.
But only one year later, Cranmer again had to involve himself in divorce proceedings. Henry had found Anne very unattractive from the start, and Cranmer was one of a committee which conveniently concluded that the marriage was void. He also gave his vote against Robert Barnes in the House of Lords. Barnes was accused of unspecified heresies, but clearly they could only have been doctrines on which Cranmer had expressed the same opinions the previous year. Cranmer was himself now in serious danger, but his conduct can only be explained, however unsatisfactorily, by his peculiar sense of duty to the King.
We may note d’Aubigné’s analysis of such actions: “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, his moderation, gentleness and plasticity of character and – in some respects – of principle, prevented his applying to the work with the decision of a Luther, a Calvin, or a Knox. Tyndale, if he had possessed the influence that was his due, would have accomplished a reform similar to that of those great leaders. To have had him for a reformer would have been the source of great prosperity; but such a thing was impossible: his country gave him, not a professor’s chair, but exile. Cranmer moved forward slowly; he modified an evangelical movement by a clerical concession. When he had taken a step forward, he stopped suddenly, and apparently drew back – not from cowardice, but because his extreme prudence so urged him. The boldness of a Farel or a Knox is in our opinion far more noble; and yet his extreme moderation saved Cranmer, and English Protestantism with him. Near a throne like that of Henry, it was only a man of extreme caution who could have retained his position in the see of Canterbury.”
1. Continued from last month. Cranmer was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1532, which was followed by Henry VIII’s split with Rome. He had taken a leading part in the business of the King’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, which led to Anne Boleyn becoming queen in her place. By 1536, Cranmer was showing some small signs of moving to a more scriptural position.
2. Thomas Cranmer, p 158.
3. The Reformation in England, vol 2, p 212.