Diarmaid MacCulloch. Thomas Cranmer: A Life. New Haven: Yale UP, 1996. 704pp. ISBN 0 300 06688 Cloth.
Sean Lawrence
University of British Columbia


Lawrence, Sean.  "Review of Thomas Cranmer: A Life." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.3 (January, 1999): 6.1-11 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/04-3/lawrrev.html>.

  1. The subtitle of Diarmaid MacCulloch's expansive and fascinating book, Thomas Cranmer: A Life, is too modest. In fact, MacCulloch's work amounts to a general introduction of the age in which his subject lived. As such, it considers important themes such as the relationship between English universities and their government, and the pan-European eclecticism of humanism.

  3. Academic readers may well find the early chapters of the book, before Cranmer's dizzying rise to positions of power within the administration, to be among the most interesting. Cranmer remained an academic throughout his life, even planning to reform the Canterbury chapter into a teaching institution when he became archbishop (265). To introduce him as a don is not to ignore his politics, however. MacCulloch outlines, through the example of Cranmer's circle, the web of personal, ecclesiastical, official and semi-official connections linking Oxford and Cambridge to Westminster and London. This network, MacCulloch convincingly argues, would only have been strengthened by the endless series of studies and research associated with the king's divorce, "the single most lucrative source of consultancy fees for academics during the whole sixteenth century" (41). During the period 1527-29, Cranmer worked both at Jesus College, Cambridge, and as "an occasional business agent in the affairs of Cardinal Wolsey and the King" (43). Such an overlap of politics and academics is normative in this study: the struggle between Cranmer and the followers of William Warham, his immediate predecessor as Archbishop of Canterbury, is explained in part on the grounds that "Warham was an Oxford man, and so were most of his servants; Cranmer was a Cambridge don who had passed up his chance to join the payroll of Cardinal College, Oxford, in the previous decade" (MacCulloch, 107). When Cranmer was given the power to select preachers for St. Paul's Cross, he appointed Cambridge men (126). The question of how Cranmer was able to maintain a wife before clerical marriage was legalized is resolved by MacCulloch on the grounds that Thomas Thirlby, who led an inquiry into the practice, "was, after all, one of his old Cambridge friends" (251). In a fascinating appendix, the author even goes so far as to compile tables of the "University connections among close relatives, servants and households of Thomas Cranmer and Stephen Gardiner" (639 ff). Apart from the papal delegate, all of the judges who condemned Cranmer were Oxford men, "predictably" (573). In MacCulloch's reading of sixteenth-century politics, academic competition takes on a new and more sinister meaning. The marriage of politics and scholarship was consummated in the destruction of the latter by the former. At the time of the Marian restoration, Cranmer was once again involved in an academic disputation. This time, however, "its purpose was more than to act as a giant theological seminar; it would provide material for a subsequent heresy trial" (564). Cranmer began his career as a don, and ended it disputing for his life.

  5. Among other things, this book could have been subtitled The Decline and Fall of Ecumenical Humanism. The young Cranmer's idea of consulting theologians to decide the legality of the king's divorce may have first brought him to Henry's attention, but it was, in fact, "a humanist commonplace" (46). Eclecticism was still possible up to the 1530s. Simon Grynaeus travelled from Basel to England in 1531, and became friends with Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, Cuthbert Tunstall and possibly even Thomas More (60). In the same year, Philip Melanchthon suggested that Henry should obtain a papal dispensation for his divorce (65), and Gardiner may have recommended Cranmer for a benefice (67). Cranmer later claimed that he had tried to save More in 1534, and MacCulloch is inclined to believe him (137). However, by the time of Cranmer's trial, the relative ecumenism of his humanist academic world had been hopelessly compromised. The participants in Edwardian disputations had been "quite clear that their deliberations would have no effect on the direction of government policy," but "the atmosphere of the Marian disputation was unusually hysterical" (568). Cranmer had himself abandoned "moderate Catholic humanism" in 1537, in response to the violence of the pilgrimage of grace (179).

  7. Nevertheless, MacCulloch's Cranmer remained a product of the earlier period throughout his life. In his visitation articles of 1550, he demanded that the Canterbury Cathedral Library obtain copies of the works of Erasmus (99). Even as late as 1552, he was still seeking ecumenical unity among evangelical churches, appointing foreign divines to a commission on canon law in hopes of giving its conclusions pan-European significance (501). Throughout his life, he was "either blessed or cursed with the ability to see his opponents' point of view" (54). At least for a time, he treated his opponents in the Marian disputations as fellow theologians rather than inquisitors. As a result of his delicate public position, his own convictions on fundamental and pressing theological questions are often, MacCulloch complains, "frustratingly difficult to date"(355). His illegal marriage convincingly demonstrates that Cranmer's private views often ran ahead of what he could publicly espouse. Despite the difficulty of dating changes in Cranmer's personal ideology, there can be no doubt that they occurred, as he frankly admitted in a disputation with Gardiner (467). In a 1551 publication, he carefully distinguished three eucharistic theologies, each of which he had professed in turn: scholasticism, Lutheranism and finally Zwinglianism (181-182). The plurality of these positions is not to be confused with mere indifference or agnosticism. In 1533 he had John Frith burned at the stake for denying the true presence (102); twenty years later, he himself burned. His conversions were not without other costs: he lost his friendship with Gardiner (69), and with Johannes Dantiscus, another humanist with whom he had shared his thoughts and ideas until the 1530s (73). He even broke with Jesus College, which had welcomed him and given him a home after his nearly career-destroying first marriage and the heartbreak of his first wife's death (99). By 1533, according to MacCulloch, "the conservative humanist consensus which had characterized Henry's divorce research team in the later 1520s was long in the past" (109). One element of this earlier context seems to have survived, though, in Cranmer's dogged openness to his opponents' points of view, and his own ability to change his position radically if he became convinced that he had been wrong.

  9. Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer can best be understood in light of his character. It was compiled as an overt attempt at achieving uniformity (222). In helping to compile the earlier Primer, he followed Henry's stated desire to be "all things to all persons . . . that all parties may at large be satisfied" (335). Not only was the Book of Common Prayer an attempt at enforcing unity within the English church, but also Cranmer was concerned "with establishing English doctrine as a standard acceptable to the whole spectrum of Evangelical truth on the continent, from the Lutherans to the Swiss" (393). Early meetings on the Book of Common Prayer included conservatives (396). While this attempt at consensus was abandoned by the evangelicals (399), and Cranmer may have been planning further innovations (410), his prose certainly borrows extensively from a broad selection of sources. It has long been known that Cranmer borrowed heavily from earlier liturgies. MacCulloch makes the extent of his plagiarism dramatic, describing "the three-fold nature of Cranmer's liturgical compilations: adaptation of ancient examples in his own English translation . . . , refinement of existing translations and new texts from contemporaries, and straightforward original composition, the last element being the smallest proportion" (417).

  11. After borrowing almost all of his 1548 Catechism ("a fiasco") from a Lutheran original (387), Cranmer replaced it entirely in the Book of Common Prayer with a text "derived entirely from English official teaching materials of the previous decade" (391). His borrowings extended even to the Spanish Cardinal Francisco de Quiñones, whose breviary was commissioned by Pope Paul III (225). A shortened English translation of Quiñones's introduction is in the book that graces Anglican pews to this day (225). MacCulloch is perfectly willing to acknowledge Cranmer's brilliance at prose, but his involvement with the liturgy is also depicted as merely editing, or even wholesale theft: "Its wonderfully sonorous language conceals the fact that, like all Cranmer's compositions, it is an ingenious effort of scissors and paste out of previous texts; the great liturgist F. E. Brightman was indeed prepared to speculate that the passages that seem original were borrowed from sources which have not so far been identified" (328).

  13. Cranmer habitually used collections of extracts. His secretary, Pierre Alexandre, "during 1549 and 1550 devoted himself to producing volumes of extracts from patristic sources, arranged with elaborate indices for easy reference" (468). Armed as he was with a manuscript search engine, it is little wonder that Cranmer was often caught "flourishing the sentences which he captured from [his sources] like scalps," (467) a habit which left him open to Gardiner's contextualizing attacks (490). In Cranmer's writings, textual freeplay is only barely fettered.

  15. In MacCulloch's reading, the prayer book was intended to be a contingent, living document. "Cranmer . . . prudently put down a marker for the future," in both his prayer books, anticipating the time in which various ceremonies might be abolished (441-412). MacCulloch presents evidence that "given greater leisure and a reformation more firmly consolidated, Cranmer would have moved the liturgy of the Church of England closer to that of Farel and Calvin in Geneva, Poullain in Glastonbury or Laski in the Stranger Church" (512). Only the Elizabethan settlement made Cranmer's prayer book stable, "frozen in time" (620). MacCulloch is bound to ruffle a few traditionalists with his claim that Cranmer is loved "more for his prose than for his theology" (629), and that the Anglo-Catholic practice of using the 1549 liturgy is frankly contrary to its author's intentions (412). MacCulloch draws a contrast between Gardiner's vision of cathedrals "as powerhouses of prayer and beautiful music" and Cranmer's own more educational vision, concluding that "In this respect, Cranmer was far from being an Anglican" (264). On nearly the last page of this long book, he comments on the irony of Cranmer's words surviving most fully in choral evensong services (629). Efforts by recent Anglican polemicists to conscript Cranmer as a hero against the introduction of changes to the liturgy can draw very little support from MacCulloch's biography.

  17. One important element of Cranmer's life is left tantalizingly vague by his biographer. Cranmer married twice, but neither of his wives is described in any detail. Even his first wife's family name is speculation. His entire marriage to her is treated in two paragraphs (21-22). Of his second wife, scarcely more is known. MacCulloch raises, only to dismiss, the rumour that she was kept in a box (250), and faithfully cites provision for her following her husband's execution (556). While neither of these women are central to MacCulloch's study, just enough is revealed about their lives to make them intriguing. Margaret, the second Mrs. Cranmer, would have had to live in England so secretly that even her husband's most bitter opponents never learned of her existence (250). In order to marry for the first time, Cranmer surrendered his fellowship at Jesus College and was reduced to poverty. The experience of married life obviously mattered to Cranmer, one of whose few original additions to the service of Holy Matrimony justified marriage for "mutual society, help and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity" (421). Unfortunately, what makes the women who participated in these contraband or near-contraband marriages so interesting also makes them almost impossible to research. MacCulloch remarks that "a complete silence envelops Cranmer's wife during the 1530s; she probably came to England quite soon after he became Archbishop, but she kept so low a profile as to be invisible. This is really quite astonishing" (250). Moreover, the secrecy which we would expect to surround an illegal activity is compounded by Cranmer's almost complete reticence regarding his family. MacCulloch claims that Cranmer makes only a single reference to either wife in all surviving correspondence (481). None of his children's ages are known with any precision (361). Although it would expand the study, I would be interested in what could be discovered about the life of either Mrs. Cranmer before or after they were married.

  19. Nevertheless, when MacCulloch claims that only one reference to Margaret Cranmer survives, I am prepared to believe him. This is a rich, deeply researched work. Despite omitting most of Cranmer's works on the grounds that they are already catalogued elsewhere, the bibliography fills twenty-six large pages, drawing on manuscript collections from Douai to Uppsala. MacCulloch claims that his biography is not exhaustive (1), but at six-hundred and thirty-two pages, excluding the bibliography, index and three appendices, this volume is likely to define our view of Thomas Cranmer for generations.

  21. The rich detail would become tedious if not presented in MacCulloch's elegant, witty and often satirical prose. In his words, Erasmus becomes a "patron saint of free-lance writers" (98), Nicholas Harpsfield is "a past master of aphoristic sneers about the course of the English Reformation" (51) and later "that fund of malicious stories" (84), Henry VIII, becomes "the murderously eccentric monarch" (66), and Geoffrey of Monmouth is described as "the twelfth-century Welsh fantasist, . . . whose Arthurian fables have met their nemesis in Walt Disney and Monty Python" (55). Diarmaid MacCulloch has done much more than write the definitive biography of an enormously important figure in the English Reformation. He has also provided a fascinating and enormously readable introduction into the political, theological, intellectual and academic world of sixteenth-century England.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).