This article is part 3 of a series of 4 articles.
Cranmer survived through all the vicissitudes of his time, not so much because of his subservience to his earthly master, but because his earthly master knew that it was in his own interests to preserve him in office rather than send him to the stake as a heretic. And in 1543, the year of the Prebendaries’ plot, Cranmer stood in urgent need of the King’s protection. Some of the canons of Canterbury Cathedral, inspired by Bishop Gardiner, accused the Archbishop to the King for heresy. When Henry was passing Cranmer’s palace at Lambeth on his barge, he summoned the Archbishop aboard and told him, “I have news for you. I know now who is the greatest heretic in Kent”. Cranmer only asked that a commission be appointed to examine the truth of the charges. Henry agreed and appointed Cranmer as head of the Commission! Cranmer objected to the total unfairness of him trying his own case, but Henry was adamant. However, some members of the Council went to the King with the plea that Cranmer be arrested for heresy. Henry agreed that Cranmer should be detained at a meeting of the Council the next day.
At midnight Cranmer was called from his bed to the King’s presence to be told about the plan for his arrest. Cranmer did not try to argue; he only expressed his assurance that the King would see that he would get a fair trial. “What fond simplicity have you”, replied Henry, “so to permit yourself to be imprisoned, that every enemy of yours may take advantage against you. Do not you think that if they have you once in prison, three or four false names will be soon procured to witness against you and to condemn you, which else now being at your liberty dare not once open their lips or appear before your face. I have better regard unto you than to permit your enemies so to overthrow you.” He then gave Cranmer his ring and, when he was arrested the next day, the Archbishop was to produce the ring. It was a sign that he had the right to have an appeal heard by the King in person. In the event, when the accusers appeared before him with the accused, Henry berated them for their conduct. Jasper Ridley suggests that Henry’s object could only have been to humiliate both Cranmer and his opponents. Certainly Cranmer was afterwards even more anxious than ever to avoid being accused of heresy, and his enemies were careful never to attempt this sort of thing again during Henry’s lifetime.
In 1543 the Bishop’s Book was replaced by the almost identical King’s Book, more formally known as A Necessary Doctrine and Erudition for any Christian Man. The differences, apart from its treatment of purgatory, represented steps away from the Reformation. In spite of all Cranmer’s efforts to persuade Henry otherwise, the King’s book declared that works, as well as faith, were necessary for salvation. In the preface, Henry declared that this book contained “a perfect and sufficient doctrine for the attainment of salvation”. Accordingly, Henry added, to read the Bible was not necessary if it was inconvenient for the Prince; and Parliament had therefore decided to ban anyone under the rank of gentlemen or merchant from reading the Bible, even in private to himself. It is difficult for as to understand how Cranmer could have voted in the House of Lords for the bill containing this prohibition and affirming the doctrine of transubstantiation, but he did. All he could do was prevent the King’s Book being a more reactionary document than in the end it was.
It was probably during 1546 that Cranmer, influenced by Nicholas Ridley, moved from a Lutheran to a Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper. This influence was no doubt bolstered by correspondence with the Strasbourg Reformer, Martin Bucer. Previously he was prepared to take severe steps against those who denied a “real presence”, some of them going to the stake because of what they believed on scriptural grounds. In less than ten years, both Cranmer and Ridley would themselves be going to the stake for adhering to the same views.
Henry’s swings of policy continued almost to the very end. At the beginning of August 1546 he was toying with the idea of again submitting to Rome. Yet towards the end of that month, he was discussing with the French ambassador the possibility of the French King also throwing off allegiance to Rome and of uniting with him in changing the mass into a communion service. Neither scheme got off the ground, and at the end of the following January the King was dead. We have a description of the scene at his deathbed, after Henry had lost the power of speech: “The Archbishop, exhorting him to put his trust in Christ and to call upon His mercy, desired him, though he could not speak, yet to give some token with his eyes or with his hand, that he trusted in the Lord. Then the King, holding him with his hand, did wring his hand in his as hard as he could.” Only the great day will declare the significance of that final action of a man who had lived such an ungodly life, yet was the means of doing some good in the country over which he ruled with such a despotic hand.
Now the nine-year-old Edward VI was king, whom, as the young Josiah, Cranmer directed at his coronation to see “God truly worshipped and idolatry destroyed, the tyranny of the Bishops of Rome banished from your subjects and images removed”. But Cranmer was not the man to seize the opportunity and lead forward a mass movement with a view to reforming the Church. As yet the Reformation had little influence on the bulk of the English people, but in London there was a spate of image-breaking in churches and of opposition to Romish ceremonies.
Back in 1542 Cranmer had prepared a Book of Homilies, a standard set of sermons which could be read in parish churches throughout the country. At that point Henry decided that it would not be a good idea to issue them, but the project was revived early in Edward’s reign. It is understood that, in their 1547 form, Cranmer was the author of three of the 12 homilies: those on salvation; on true, lively and Christian faith; and on good works. Among the “papistical superstitions and abuses” he included not only St Agatha’s letters, beads, shoes, girdles and other relics, but also holy bread, holy water, palms and candles. Things had moved on since the time of Henry, when these ceremonies had been expressly approved in royal proclamations. Cranmer’s main object was to establish that salvation is God’s free gift through faith, but at the same time to show that, although they do not merit salvation, good works are an essential part of the Christian’s life. He pointed to the thief on the cross, who had no time to do good works; “faith only saved him”. He emphasised that a good work cannot exist without faith: “faith it is that doth commend the work to God”.
The Reformation movement continued to make progress during 1548; for instance, the cup was now given to the laity in the Lord’s Supper. Already Cranmer was declaring himself thus: “The oblation and sacrifice of Christ in the mass is so called, not because Christ indeed is there offered and sacrificed by the priest and the people (for that was done but once by Himself upon the cross) but it is so called because it is a memory and representation of that very true sacrifice and immolation which before was made upon the cross”.
While we do not favour set prayers, many would see the Book of Common Prayer, which displays “the majestic rhythms of his prose” (2), as Cranmer’s greatest gift to the Church of England. In the autumn of 1548 Cranmer chaired a meeting of the bishops and other theologians to examine a draft prayer book which he had prepared himself. The outcome was a compromise between the Reformers and the conservatives, because among those “best learned men reputed within this realm” there were “some favouring the old, some the new learning”. But Cranmer and his associates let it be known that a revision was firmly on the agenda; their stated aim was “the setting forth of God’s honour and glory”. What caused most indignation among the common people was that the whole service at the Lord’s table was to be in English. There was a rebellion in the West of England and a petition to the government which stated: “We will have all the general councils and holy decrees of our forefathers observed, kept and performed; and whosoever shall gainsay them, we hold them as heretics”.
The same year saw Cranmer beginning the most important of all his books, his work on the Lord’s Supper, which was published in the summer of 1550. “The great reason”, we are told, “that moved him to write this book was that he might the more effectually purge the Church of popery.” “What availeth it”, he asked, “to take away beads, pardons, pilgrimages, and such other like popery, so long as two chief roots remain unpulled up? . . . The very body of the tree, or rather their roots of the weeds, is the popish doctrine of transubstantiation, of the real presence of Christ’s flesh and blood in the sacrament of the altar (as they call it) and of the sacrifice and oblation of Christ made by the priest for the salvation of the quick and dead” – what he describes as “that greatest blasphemy and injury that can be against Christ”. Cranmer states his own position: “Although Christ in His human nature substantially, really, corporally, naturally and sensibly be present with His Father in heaven, yet sacramentally and spiritually He is here present”. He used his undoubted learning to prove his case, not only from the Scriptures, but from the early Christian Fathers, so often claimed as buttresses for Roman Catholic doctrines.
In this work he made some criticism of a book by Bishop Gardiner which had come out two years earlier. Gardiner, the arch-conservative Bishop of Winchester, had been sent to the Tower of London and used some of his ample spare time there in replying to Cranmer. Cranmer in turn replied in 1552, but this volume was much more complicated and far less easy to read; accordingly, it was the earlier edition that was republished in the 1980s. There was a further reply from Gardiner, but by the time Cranmer put pen to paper again to answer that reply, it was he who was the prisoner in the Tower. Later, when he was in prison in Oxford, Cranmer was rushing against time to finish off the final revision of his treatise before the sentence of death against him was put into effect. However, the first two parts of this version of his work were destroyed by the authorities and the third has been lost.
Mid-December 1549 saw a major four-day debate on the Lord’s Supper in the House of Lords. Cranmer argued forcefully for the Reformed position, supporting Ridley in his argument that “the evil man cannot receive the body” of Christ. The Archbishop went on, “I believe that Christ is eaten with the heart. The eating with our mouth cannot give us life. For then should a sinner have life. For eating of His body giveth life.” Peter Martyr, the Italian Reformer who was now a refugee in England and lecturing at Oxford University, sang Cranmer’s praises: “Our most Reverend fights strenuously and with the highest commendation of all good men. . . . I see that there is nothing more difficult in the world than to found a church. The stones are generally rough and very unpolished; hence, unless they are rendered plane and smooth by the Spirit, the Word and examples of holy life, they cannot easily be made to fit each other. May the Lord grant that among us there may be rightly planted a vine which in due time may produce fruit delicious both to men and to God!” (3)
The Book of Common Prayer was criticised by the continental Reformers as soon as it was published; Calvin was one of those who pointed out its imperfections. By January 1551, discussions were in progress among the bishops, and between Cranmer and Peter Martyr, on the subject of revision. In fact, every part of the book, except the marriage service, was substantially changed before it was reissued the next year. In 1551, Cranmer was also working on a doctrinal statement for the Church of England. He produced a set of 45 Articles which were published in 1553 as the 42 Articles, later to be reduced to 39. However, on 6 July 1553, Edward VI died, and much of the vine, which Peter Martyr so graphically described, rapidly withered and every effort was made to dig it up by the roots.
1. Continued from last month. Cranmer became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1532. Under the erratic rule of Henry VIII, Cranmer cautiously tried to roll back the corruptions of the centuries, although he sometimes allowed himself to be carried backwards by the stream.
2. The phrase is McCulloch’s, in his Thomas Cranmer, p 629.
3. Quoted in McCulloch, Thomas Cranmer, p409.
This article is part 3 of a series of 4 articles.