March 30, 1533—Thomas Cranmer achieved the dream of many British clergymen, before and since, when he was formally consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury. Yet the cleric’s immediate actions demonstrated that he was now in a position of extraordinary ambiguity, even danger. First, though he had secretly taken a wife while on a trip to Germany in the past year, he kept her out of public view lest he anger his monarch, King Henry VIII, who still believed in the Roman Catholic norm of priestly celibacy.
Second, though he was also obliged to take an oath of obedience to the pope along with one to the king, he insisted, in a secret oath immediately taken before it, that allegiance to the pontiff extended only insofar as it was consistent with loyalty to Henry.
The second action, in fact, underscored a prime concern of Cranmer for the next two decades: words. Words had the potential to bring him to the scaffold, as it would his clerical colleague, Bishop John Fisher, and a layman renowned for his intellect and faith, Sir Thomas More.
Yet words were also what he worshipped fervently only slightly less than God. They comprised his extensive library, which, at 700 volumes, exceeded not only private collections but those of Oxford and Cambridge in his time; they were what he insisted that students know thoroughly, as part of the Bible, when he taught at Cambridge; and they were the weapons he would use to transmit Protestantism and contribute to the literary landscape of Great Britain.
There is little if any reason to doubt that Cranmer was the most controversial figure of the English Reformation. If there is any historian who doesn’t agree that Henry was a capricious, cruel king, I would like to meet him. Similarly, for all the expert revisionism supplied by Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell remains best known as the ambitious roughneck who speeded the looting of the abbeys and the execution of those who ran afoul of Henry in the monarch's quest for a wife who could make him happy and produce an heir.
In contrast, Cranmer is seen, depending on one’s point of view, as the courageous herald of a new faith, a slippery theological facilitator of his king’s desires, or as a vacillating prelate who watched—and, on occasion, revised—what he wrote or said.
This post won’t review this contentious question. It will confine itself to how he got his position in the first place, and to an area on which much more agreement rests: his secure place in English letters.
Cranmer owed his position partly to an accident of fate: a plague, the so-called "sleeping sickness," that drove him away from Cambridge and out to Essex, where he was staying in the same neighborhood where Henry was lodging. It came to the attention of Henry and his counselors that Cranmer had found a justification for the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon (a passage from Leviticus 20:21 against wedding the widow of one’s brother) and a means by which to implement it (a decision by the nation’s canonists and universities that marriage with a deceased brother's widow was illegal, thus bypassing the by-no-means-certain approval of Pope Clement VII).
At the direction of Henry, Cranmer put aside all his other labors to securing the monarch’s desire. In the summer of 1532, the death of Archbishop William Warham of Canterbury allowed Henry to replace an aged prelate who had finally dared to break with him over his increasing estrangement from Rome with someone far more compliant.Yet the new appointee, undoubtedly sensing what he might be in for, delayed his return to England for seven weeks in the hope that something might happen to prevent the appointment. But the paperwork came back from Rome (an institution that would, in time, excommunicate Cranmer) and he began his uncertain and dangerous work.
Within two months after his consecration, Cranmer had granted Henry his divorce. Amazingly, as others (including Cromwell) incurred the monarch’s displeasure and suffered the fatal consequences, Cranmer managed to outlive the king.
Cranmer’s dramatic death in 1556, in the short reign of the Catholic Queen Mary—first recanting his views, then publicly recanting the recantation, thus bringing about his immediate execution—secured his place among Britain’s Protestant martyrs. In the decade before his death, however, he made a lasting contribution to the new faith and his nation’s language.
In 1549, at Pentecost, his Book of Common Prayer was introduced, followed by a revision three years later. Written in English, it embodied his belief that services should be conducted in a nation’s language rather than the universal language of Latin mandated by the Catholic Church. Together with the King James Bible introduced in the following century, it formed the foundation of worship in now-Anglican England.
The Cambridge History of English and American Literature (1907-1921) aptly summarized the influence of Cranmer through The Book of Common Prayer: “There is all the difference in the world between the crude bareness of the Litany as he found it, and its majestic rhythm when it left his pen.” Though not the sole author of the book, he is generally acknowledged as its prime mover and principal inspiration, in a way considerably different from the more committee-written King James Bible.
Through the following centuries of British life, as the country’s flag came to be flown through a worldwide empire, the cadences of The Book of Common Prayer became instilled in millions. Cranmer’s use of idiom, cadences, imagery, repetition, contrast and general rhythm impressed itself on the ear and heart. Using the simplest, most monosyllabic of (usually Anglo-Saxon based) words, he managed to imprint on generations of worshippers—and even those of his countrymen who have long fallen away from the faith—sentences and phrases impossible to forget:
“We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.”
“We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.”
“Give peace in our time, our Lord.”
“Deceits of the world, the flesh and the devil.”
“To have and to hold from this day forward, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.”
“In the midst of life we are in death.”
Earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes.”
This work has also contributed phrases that have become titles of well-known books: P.D. James’ Devices and Desires, Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, and Ernest Hemingway’s A Movable Feast. It has also even informed the work of others who have not shared the prelate's beliefs in any manner, such as Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett. Even New Yorker literary critic James Wood, an avowed atheist, on the 350th anniversary of its slight amendation, noted that the “acute poetry, balanced sonorities, heavy order, and direct intimacy of Cranmer’s prose have achieved permanence.”