Monday, 11 May 2015


6. Thomas Cranmer and Henry's Ghost

In the dark early hours of 28 January 1547 a pain-racked Henry VIII was told that he was dying. The man he sent for to be with him at the end was Thomas Cranmer. The last face that Henry saw in this world was, therefore, that of his Archbishop of Canterbury. In those solemn hours all titles and ranks counted for nothing; a dying man was simply receiving from his priest the consolations of religion. Cranmer performed his pastoral duty diligently and with real feeling. Afterwards he quite sincerely mourned the king's passing. From that moment he allowed his beard to grow, seemingly as an enduring act of remembrance.

He had every reason to be grateful. In 1532 Henry had raised an obscure Cambridge academic to the highest position in the English church, over the heads of all his bishops and senior ecclesiatics. As with all the other Thomases, save one, Henry had demonstrated that he prized loyalty and talent above rank and birth. Of course, he had his own, completely selfish motives for promoting Cranmer to high office. He was getting nowhere with his campaign to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled and Cranmer came up with the suggestion of bypassing Rome by canvassing the opinions of university academics throughout Europe.

But if the archbishop was useful to the king, the king was also useful to the archbishop. Cranmer was committed to religious reform and throughout the 1530s he worked closely with Thomas Cromwell to steer the English church in a Lutheran direction. It was a narrow and hazard-strewn path to walk as Cromwell discovered when he was toppled by the machinations of traditionalist enemies in 1540. Every step in dismantling the medieval church had to have royal approval and that meant that Cranmer was frequently called upon to discuss with his royal master changes of doctrine and liturgical practice.

There were times when it seemed that Cranmer might go the same way as Cromwell. His most perilous moment came in 1543 when the Catholic faction set in motion a sophisticated and elaborate plot to have him indicted for heresy. Had the conspirators achieved their objective the archbishop would have been stripped of his office, imprisoned and, in all likelihood, burned at the stake. It was Henry who came to his rescue. Summoning the archbishop for a nocturnal, private interview, he warned Cranmer what was afoot and gave him a ring to show the Council when they tried to arrest him. It was the sort of coup de theatre that Henry loved and it saved Cranmer's life.

In January 1547 Cranmer had a little more than nine years of that life left. He used the time to lay the foundation of the Church of England - its theology and its liturgy. During the reign of Edward VI he had the support not only of the precocious young king, but also of the leading councillors, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, and John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, as he carried the Reformation rapidly forward. Churches were stripped of the last vestiges of popery and reactionary bishops were removed from office.

The survival of this work depended on one thing: the success of what the old king had intended when he set the Reformation in motion - the continuance of the Tudor male line. The shade of Henry VIII still drifted through the interconnecting chambers of Westminster and Greenwich, willing his son to have sons of his own but ghosts - even Henry VIII's ghost - are powerless. Edward succumbed to tuberculosis in July 1553, at the age of fifteen. In the political debacle that followed, Henry's elder daughter, the grievously wronged Mary Tudor, seized power and - her Catholic faith hardened by the humiliation she had suffered at the hands of her father - she set about exacting her revenge against those who had been the instruments of England's descent into heresy. Thomas Cranmer was the name at the top of her list.

He was imprisoned, first in the Tower and latterly in Oxford, while the new regime worked out what to do with him. Mary wanted not just the old man's (he was 66 at the time of his death) murder, but his humiliation. He was pressured into agreeing a series of recantations which effectively confessed that the whole progress of English religion for the last twenty years had been a monumental, diabolical error. Moreover, so that there should be no possibility of any Protestant apologists claiming that a confession had been forged, Cranmer was required to make a public statement renouncing his errors, immediately before his execution.

The University Church in Oxford was crowded for what was billed as a PR triumph. But Cranmer turned the tables on his tormentors. On this his death-day he performed the most famous act of his life and one remembered down the centuries. At the end of his long speech he announced that the principal act he had to repent of was not his heresy but the recantations of his heresy which he had signed out of fear of death. As his shocked tormentors rushed to pluck him from the platform, he shouted out, 'As for the pope, I refuse him as Christ's enemy and Antichrist with all his false doctrine!' When he was tied to the stake, he had one more statement for the watching crowd. Holding out his right arm, he said, 'Since this hand has most offended in signing my false confession, it shall be the first to taste the fire.' He had made the moment his own. But perhaps it was from his old master, Henry VIII, that he had learned the effectiveness of the theatrical gesture.
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Further Reading:
John Foxe, Acts and Monuments, ed. S.R. Cattley, London, 1839, Vol.8

D. MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer, New Haven, 1996

D. Wilson, In the Lion's Court - Power, Ambition and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII, London, 2001

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