Saints and Heroes Since the Middle Ages - George Hodges


Thomas Cranmer


The divorce of Henry the Eighth, which made Thomas More a martyr, made Thomas Cranmer an archbishop.

Cranmer was a professor in the University of Cambridge. He was a quiet man, well liked by those who knew him, a pleasant person, a student, fond of books, fond also of hunting, and of riding difficult horses. "He was a slow reader," says one of his biographers, "but a diligent marker of whatsoever he read; for he seldom read without pen in hand, and whatsoever made for either one part or the other of things being in controversy, he wrote it out if it were short, or, at least, noted the author and the place, that he might find it and write it out by leisure."

This habit of considering both sides of matters in dispute was characteristic of him, and was of large importance when he became a leader of the English Reformation; though it brought him to be misunderstood ever since by those who wish their heroes to be not only upright but downright, with no uncertainty. Cranmer was like More in his sympathy with both sides. They differed in that More inclined on the whole to the old ways, but Cranmer to the new.

Cranmer would have been contented to live out all his life, reading and lecturing, studying the Bible and teaching it, taking no part in the commotions of the great world. But, one summer, the plague came to Cambridge, and closed the university, driving everybody out; and Cranmer went to stay with two of his pupils at Waltham, in the country. At the same time, the king, with some of his chief officers, was making a visit in the neighborhood, and two of the great men were lodged in the hospitable house in which Cranmer was staying. They were old Cambridge men, acquaintances of Cranmer’s, and meeting thus at dinner they naturally fell to talking about the matter which all England was discussing, the question of the king’s divorce.

Not only was that question undecided, but there seemed to be no speedy prospect of decision. According to the general opinion of the time, the proper person to decide it was the pope. It was a pope who had permitted Henry, twenty years before, to marry his brother’s widow; if that permission was wrong, and against the will of God, as some said, it ought to be reversed in the Pope’s Court. But the pope was in a difficult position. France and Spain were fighting over Italy. Whichever won became, by his victory, the master of the pope. At first, the French were victorious, and the pope sent word to England that Cardinal Wolsey might try the case; knowing, of course, that Wolsey would decide against Catherine. But then the Spaniards overcame the French, and the pope sent another word to Wolsey to stop him; for Catherine was the conquering emperor’s aunt. The king’s matter was postponed and postponed; and his anger was increased by the fact that the pope dared to say only what the king of France or the king of Spain, whichever was in power, told him to say. Thus the interests of England, so far as they depended on the pope, depended really on the courts of France or Spain to which he was in subjection. The king of Spain was thus able to say to the king of England, "You may not be divorced. I will not permit it. I will tell the people to prevent you." It was not only the pope’s refusal of the divorce which made Henry reject the papacy, but the fact that, under the political circumstances, obedience to the pope meant obedience to the king of Spain, his master.

Thus Cranmer and Fox and Gardiner sat about the table after dinner, discussing this situation. And the Cambridge professor made a new suggestion. Why depend, he said, upon the judgment of the pope? This is a matter of plain right and wrong. If the king’s marriage was illegal, according to the teaching of the Bible and the law of the Church, then it was illegal, and that is the end of it. Why not submit the question to learned men who understand the Bible and the law? They are likely to know better than the pope. Why not refer the matter to the Christian universities of England and Europe?

This suggestion was reported to the king, and there is a tradition that he said, "I will speak to him. Let him be sent for out of hand. This man, I trow, has got the right sow by the ear." Cranmer was brought to the king, and ordered to set down his ideas in writing. He returned to the university no more. He entered into the service of the king.

Cranmer’s plan was tried, but without much success. The universities were asked to say whether, in their opinion, the king might properly put away his wife. Some of the learned men were very prudent and would not risk the king’s displeasure; and some were bribed, some were compelled. It was plain, however, that the true judgment of wise men was against the king. At last, Henry took the matter into his own hands. He declared his independence of the pope. The case should be decided, not in Italy, but in England. And the man who should decide it was Thomas Cranmer himself.

For the king had found, in Cranmer, a man after his own heart. He had advanced him from one position to another. He had sent him as ambassador to Rome; He had sent him as ambassador to Germany. In 1533, only four years after the conference between the professor and the king at Waltham, Cranmer had become Archbishop of Canterbury. He summoned the queen to appear before him, and when she refused he declared her marriage null and void. He sanctioned the marriage between Henry and Anne; he crowned Anne as queen of England.

Our sympathy in this matter is against the archbishop and the king. We feel that Cranmer was neither saint nor hero. It must be remembered, however, that the situation was confused and difficult. There were good men who honestly believed that the only hope for England, both as a church and as a nation, lay in making the king independent of the pope. There were good men who believed also that the king had had no right to marry his brother’s widow, and that his union with Catherine ought to be dissolved. Cranmer was one of these.

For good or ill, the thing was done. In 1535, Parliament declared that the king "justly and rightfully is, and ought to be, the Supreme Head of the Church of England." The authority of the pope was ended. In the place of the Papal Supremacy there was now a Royal Supremacy. The king had all power in his hands. One after another, he struck down all possible resistance. The monasteries were on the side of the pope. Henry put them on trial; proved to his satisfaction that the friars of St. Francis and St. Dominic were only idle beggars, and the monks of St. Benedict and St. Bernard were only selfish landowners, caring for nothing but ease and money; turned them all out, pulled down their houses, and took most of their treasures to enrich himself and his friends. The Church was, for the most part, on the side of the pope. Henry directed what ceremonies should be used and what disused, and what should be believed and disbelieved, and told the preachers what to preach. Many of the great nobles were against these changes; Henry cut off their heads, beginning with Sir Thomas More. As for the people, they dared not speak. The Parliament obeyed the king. The land lay under a reign of terror.

Cranmer, always a gentle and submissive person, stood as far apart from all this as he dared. Twice he ventured to speak. Once to beg for the pardon of Anne Boleyn, again to beg for the pardon of Thomas Cromwell, the king’s right-hand in all this business, when these two evil spirits of Henry’s reign had fallen from their high estate and were under sentence of death. He was, indeed, archbishop, the last archbishop under the pope, the first under the king. But the conditions were such that even a man like Becket could have accomplished nothing. Cranmer was very unlike Becket: a Cambridge professor, a man of books, brought against his will intot he midst of all these fierce commotions.

In one matter Cranmer was successful. He was able to get the Bible in English into the hands of the people.

Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible was by this time hard to read; because, since his day, the English language had changed. There were many different words and different spellings. William Tyndale had therefore taken in hand the work of translating the Bible into English which people actually spoke. This he had done for the New Testament and for the Old Testament through the historical books, making practically the Bible, thus far, which we read to-day. But Tyndale’s Bibles had been burned in England, and he himself had been put to death. This was largely because he had filled the margins of his Bible with notes in which he attacked the Church and pointed out the errors of the pope. This was before Henry had begun his quarrel. That quarrel once being begun, it was plain to Henry and his advisers that an English Bible in the hands of the people would be a reinforcement to his side. In the meantime, Miles Coverdale had translated the poetical and prophetical books of the Old Testament, which Tyndale had left untranslated, and John Rogers had put Tyndale’s work and Coverdale’s together. This Bible, at Cranmer’s suggestion, was put in all the churches.

Otherwise, the Reformation in England stopped short at the expulsion of the pope. The king was never a Protestant, and as the years went by he was less and less disposed to favor Protestant ideas. But he liked Cranmer. The men of the Old Learning hated Cranmer. They suspected him, with good reason, of being in sympathy with the changes in ceremonies and in beliefs which were taking place in Germany.

One time, they drew up a solemn accusation against the archbishop and presented it to the king. A few days later, Henry was in his boat on the river, and was being rowed past Lambeth, where Cranmer lived, and there was Cranmer standing by the water on the steps. The king called him to come and sit beside him. "Ha," said the king, "I have news for you: I know now who is the greatest heretic in Kent!" And he pulled out the paper which Bishop Gardiner and the others had written. Cranmer asked to have a commission appointed to give him a fair trial. "That I will do," said the king, "I will appoint a commission, and the head of it shall be yourself, and the others shall be such as you may choose! And your commission shall examine these brethren and their plot against their archbishop."

Another time, the Council demanded that Cranmer should be imprisoned in the Tower. Late that night, Henry sent for the archbishop and told him. Cranmer said that he was willing to go to prison, if he might be fairly tried. "No, not so, my Lord," said the king. "I have better regard unto you than to permit your enemies to overthrow you. Go to the Council when they call you, and require them to bring forward your accusers. Then if they refuse, and command that you be imprisoned, show them this ring." And the king gave Cranmer the ring which meant that whatever mater was in dispute much be immediately referred to him. So the Council met, and sent for the archbishop, and kept him waiting for half an hour outside the door, intending to insult him. When they let him in they accused him of poisoning the minds of the people with heresy. To the Tower he must go. Then Cranmer showed them the king’s ring. At once, the meeting was broken up, and they all went, pale and trembling, to the king. "Ah, my Lords," he cried, "I had thought that I had a discreet and wise Council, but now I perceive that I am deceived. I would you would well understand that I account my Lord of Canterbury as faithful a man toward me as ever was prelate in this realm, and one to whom I am many ways beholden by the faith I owe to God; and therefore whoso loveth me will regard him hereafter."

One step Cranmer was able to take toward that translation and revision of the services of the Church which was his greatest contribution to religion. In 1545 there appeared by the king’s permission a primer for the used of the people; that is, a book containing the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments in English, together with simple instructions in faith and conduct; and in the primer was a litany in English. It was the Latin litany, to which the people were accustomed, translated and improved. Made out of old materials, and keeping the responses which had long been used, it was put into the language of the nation, into sentences so stately that no English writing has ever surpassed the, by the hand of Cranmer. This is the litany which still stands in the Book of Common Prayer.

Then Henry the Eighth died, holding Cranmer’s hand, and Edward the Sixth reigned in his stead.

Edward was only nine years old, and the government of England came into the hand of great nobles, first Somerset, then Northumberland. With these ambitious men the reformation was a matter of politics rather than of religion. What they wanted was such a compromise between the old learning and the new as should continue them in power. In Somerset’s time the compromise favored the old ways; the purpose was to reform the Church, but not to make such changes as to drive the conservative people out. In Northumberland’s time, the compromise favored the new ways; changes were made more freely. Under these conditions Cranmer put forth two prayer-books, one in 1549, the other in 1552. His own disposition was in agreement with the temper of the time. He believed in compromise. He desired to keep all good people in the Church of England. At the same time, his own beliefs were slowly changing from the old doctrines to the new. All this appears in the two books. He did not have a free hand like Luther in Wittenberg or Calvin in Geneva. He was the chief officer of a church which had exchanged the authority of the pope for the authority of the king. He had to do what the king’s representatives told him to do. His work had to be done in conference with committees and submitted to Parliament. Still, the two books were for the most part made by him, and bear the impression of his genius.

The first book was translated from the ancient forms of the missal and the breviary, and differed from them mainly in being in English instead of Latin, and in being shortened and simplified. The services, which had been so complicated that only priests and monks could follow them, were now adapted to the use of all the people. The first book was revised to make the second by little changes here and there, to command it to the favor of reformers. Thus in 1549, the priest, when he gave the bread to the people in the Holy Communion, said, "The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ"; that seemed to be in accordance with the doctrine of the Middle Ages. But in 1552, he was instructed to say, "Take and eat this in remembrance," and that seemed to be in accordance with the doctrine of the Reformation.

The second book had hardly appeared before the young king came to the end of his short life, and Mary, the daughter of the queen whom Henry had divorced, came to the throne.

At once, the whole face of affairs was changed. The progress of the Reformation was sharply checked. The men who had been prominent in religion in the days of Edward, began to run away. Bishops and deans, doctors of divinity and preachers, fled across the English Channel for their lives. Crammer remained. Inclined as he was to compromise, and to see truth on both sides, gentle and humble-minded and retiring, he was no coward. He made a public declaration of his belief that "all the doctrine and religion set forth by our sovereign lord, King Edward VI., is more pure and according to God’s word than any other that hath been used in England for these thousand years." He was immediately committed to the Tower, and was imprisoned in the cell from which Northumberland had just been taken to execution.

The great offense of Cranmer was his part in the divorce of Catherine. Her daughter could not forgive it. But Mary was not only Catherine’s daughter but a zealous believer in the old ways. She hated the Reformation and everything connected with it. The former customs were restored. The use of the English prayer-book was forbidden. The Latin mass came back. England submitted to the pope. There was no place in the nation for a Protestant archbishop. Parliament passed an act of persecution, making it lawful to burn heretics. And the burning began. Within six months fifty eminent and devout men, some of them being bishops, had perished at the stake. Cranmer himself saw Bishop Ridley and Bishop Latimer burned alive in Oxford beside the wall of Balliol College. "Be of good cheer, Master Ridley," cried Latimer. "Be of good cheer, and play the man, for we shall light this day such a candle in England as by the grace of God shall never be put out."

Cranmer was held for further trial. He was kept in prison, where he lay for two years. He was subjected, sometimes to arguments, sometimes to threats, sometimes to promises. The purpose, from the beginning, was to kill him, but there was hope that he might be tricked into a denial of the principles of the Reformation. Then the pope and the queen would have the satisfaction, not only of burning the leader of the reforming movement, but of condemning the movement by his own words. And the trick succeeded. After his long imprisonment, they succeeded in working upon his belief, which he held in common with most people of his time, that the royal authority was the voice of God: "the powers that be," as St. Paul said, "are ordained of God." Queen Mary, then, must be obeyed. There he was alone; all his friends were fled across the sea; only his enemies were about him. Many matters which are now clear to us were very confused them. He saw also that amongst all the wrongs of the old ways there was much which was right; and that the reformers had made some mistakes. His mind was curiously modern in his perception of the fact that only the ignorant may honestly claim that they know everything. Thus they overbore him, and he signed what they gave him to sign.

But one thing remained. He was to be burned to death, but before that, he was to be brought to Church in the presence of the people. He had been imprisoned in Oxford, and this last scene was in St. Mary’s Church. There he stood on a platform opposite the pulpit, and listened to a sermon. Curiously, the preacher comforted the martyr by reminding him how the three Hebrews of the old time, refusing to worship the idols of a wicked king, had passed unharmed through the burning, fiery furnace. Then all knelt for prayers, and when the prayers were ended, Cranmer arose. He began to declare what he believed. "Now," he said, "I come to the great thing that so troubleth my conscience more than any other thing that I said or did in my life: and that is my setting abroad of writings contrary to the truth, which here now I renounce and refuse as things written with my hand contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart and written for fear of death, and to save my life, if it might be; and that is all such bills as I have written or signed with mine own hand since my degradation. And forasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart, it shall first be burned. And as for the pope, I refuse him as Christ’s enemy and Anti-Christ, with all his false doctrines. And as for the Sacrament—" But here his enemies rose up with a great cry and tumult, and stopped him. He was dragged out of the Church to the place where Ridley and Latimer had suffered. As the flames arose around him, he said, with a loud voice, "This hand hath offended," and held it steadily in the fire. Thus he died a martyr for Christ and the Church, true to the convictions of his conscience.

There is an evident difference between bravery and boldness. The bold man, having a stout will, a natural inclination to fight, and an absolutely clear conviction that all the right is on his side, does not know what fear is. The brave man, humbly doubting his own wisdom, anxious to do right, now advancing and now retreating as he makes his difficult way, and horribly afraid, gains at last the victory over his fears. Trembling, he compels himself to go on. This battle, Cranmer fought and won.

He was, indeed, unlike St. Michael in the pictures, who, without a sign of struggle, his face serene, and not a feather ruffled in his wings, holds the defeated devil down. He resembled Thomas, the apostle whose name he bore, who, after painful difficulties of disbelief, cried, "My Lord and my God!" The fact that he failed, and only through failure succeeded, makes him one of the most human and appealing of the English saints.