|Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury|
We have looked at some of the key players in the separation of the English Church from the Roman Communion. We have seen Henry VIII, of course, and his queen, Katherine of Aragon. We have looked at wife and queen 2, Anne Boleyn. And there has been Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas More. Now let’s look at Henry’s compliant Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. Cranmer was born in Nottinghamshire in 1489 to a small farmer, not a member of the aristocracy, much less the nobility. His older brother inherited the family farm and so Thomas had to make his way in the world. After initial studies in a village school he entered Jesus College, Cambridge, at age 14. By 22 he had his bachelor’s degree and by 25 his master’s. He was elected a fellow of the College but abandoning the path towards priesthood he married and consequently lost his position in the College. (At that time it was expected that the residential fellows of a College would be clerics.) When he was widowed after only a few years of marriage, he applied for ordination and was also named a University Preacher—a sign of the high regard in which he was held. By age 37 he had attained the doctorate in theology.
By the 1520’s Luther’s ideas had spread to various European Universities and Cambridge had become a hothouse of reformed ideals. Cranmer was a habitué of the White Horse Tavern where Lutheranism was embraced with impunity. The White Horse Tavern was often called “Little Germany” for its connection with Lutheranism and its clients were a virtual Who’s Who of the Anglican Reformation: Hugh Latimer, Miles Coverdale, Robert Barnes, John Bale, William Tyndale, Nicholas Shaxton and even Stephen Gardiner whose career would go in quite a different direction after several convoluted turns.
Cranmer came to Wolsey’s attention and shortly before Wolsey’s fall entered the King’s diplomatic service in a minor role. His friendship with Stephen Gardiner, formed at the White Horse tavern, let to Cranmer suggesting to Gardiner that Henry, rather than appealing for a Roman annulment, should canvas the theological faculties of Europe’s universities for their opinion on whether or not the marriage of Henry and Katherine was valid. Henry, at this point having great difficulties with the proceedings in Rome, liked the idea—as did the King’s Chancellor, Thomas More. Cranmer was put on the team to solicit the opinions. The Universities, of course, overwhelmingly gave their opinions in the King’s favor. It was in this work that Cranmer first started a correspondence with Simon Gyranaeus, a disciple of the Swiss reformer, Martin Bucer. Later that summer, Henry sent Cranmer as ambassador to the court of Charles V, the nephew of Katherine of Aragon. It was a delicate and difficult position, but being in Germany it afforded Cranmer with direct contact with the Lutheran reformers among whom was Andreas Osiander. Despite his priestly commitment to celibacy, Cranmer secretly married Osiander’s niece. There was a formal marriage but it had to be kept secret as Henry, though he was indifferent to any man’s chastity, insisted on celibacy for the clergy.
On October 1, 1532 Henry appointed Cranmer Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer was in Italy with the Imperial Court at the time and was summoned home. The break with Rome was not yet formalized and Henry followed all the correct procedures. The monks of Christchurch Cathedral at Canterbury duly “elected” Cranmer; the King petitioned Pope Clement for all the proper bulls authorizing the consecration. On March 30th 1533 Cranmer was consecrated Archbishop in St. Stephen’s Chapel in Westminster by the John Longland, Bishop of Lincoln; John Vesey, Bishop of Exeter; and Henry Standish OFM, Bishop of St Asaph in Wales. Ironically all three bishops were conservatives and would die within the Roman Communion.
Cranmer’s first task was to find a solution to the royal mess in which Henry found himself. At the time of Cranmer’s consecration, Henry had two wives—he had secretly married Anne (who was pregnant) about eight weeks before—but had not yet been annulled of Katherine. On April 7th Henry had Parliament pass the Act in Restraint of Appeals which declared that all legal actions were to be decided in England without appeal to foreign power. This meant that the annulment was to be heard in England and by an English court, not in Rome by a papal one. Five days later Cranmer was authorized by Parliament to hear the case. He convened a court at Dunstable for May 10. Katherine refused to appear in court, either in person or by proxy as that would acknowledge its legitimacy. On May 23rd the decision was announced in Henry’s favor and on May 28th Cranmer declared the January wedding of Henry and Anne to have been a valid marriage. Three days later, June 1, Archbishop Cranmer crowned Anne as Queen in Westminster Abbey. The crowds massing outside the Abbey booed Anne and pelted the procession with garbage.
Anne had used her position with Henry to nominate Thomas Cranmer to be Archbishop. It is difficult to know precisely what connections existed between Cranmer and the Boleyn family but they were confident that he would take the necessary steps in favor of securing her position. Anne Boleyn and her family were religious conservatives and while they were obviously not attached to the papacy were not known to be in favor of Lutheran ideas. Anne’s connections in France with Marguerite of Navarre, sister of Louis XII, disposed her to religious reform but more in the line of Erasmus than of Luther; that is to say an institutional and scholarly reform more than doctrinal upheaval or the sort of religious revolution proposed by the more radical reformers. In fact in the few years left to Anne little would change—the Mass would be in Latin, priests would be forbidden to marry (Henry either not knowing about or choosing to ignore Mrs. Cranmer), monks and nuns would continue to live and pray in their abbeys. There would be statues in the churches and Holy Communion would be given in only one kind. Masses would be offered for the dead, confessions would be heard, and those with Lutheran ideas—excepting the Archbishop of course—would be burned at the stake. Cranmer himself however would continue to evolve theologically from Lutheran to Calvinist to Zwinglian in his ideas, ever more radical against the day when he could introduce true Protestantism into the ancient English Church. More on that in the future.