Thomas Cranmer: The Yes-Man Who Said No: Richard Wilkinson Elucidates the Paradoxical Career of One of the Key Figures of English Protestantism

By Wilkinson, Richard | History Review, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Thomas Cranmer: The Yes-Man Who Said No: Richard Wilkinson Elucidates the Paradoxical Career of One of the Key Figures of English Protestantism


Wilkinson, Richard, History Review


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One of Thomas Cranmer's few qualifications when Henry VIII made him Archbishop of Canterbury in March 1533 was obsequiousness. It was indeed a strange appointment. Cranmer was an obscure, naive Cambridge theology don with recent but very limited experience of diplomacy. Typically when he put in for his expenses, he swindled himself. He had heretical leanings and was on his second marriage, his first wife having died in childbirth. In order to procure his official cloak, the pallium, Cranmer had to commit perjury in promising obedience to the Pope. However, Henry needed a yes-man and, as a natural bully, he could recognise one when he saw one. Like many throughout history Cranmer turned subservience into an art-form. 'Mild, tractable, loath to displease', Cranmer actually elevated obedience to the ruler into a moral principle, established in the Bible. Cuius regio eius religio (the ruler decides the religion) was a familiar sixteenth century adage; but Cranmer was exceptional, even in a king-worshipping age, by arguing that it was morally right. So he condemned the West Country rebels in 1549 as brutally as Luther had damned the German peasants in 1525. Were there any values which rivalled Cranmer's obligations to the crown? This article explores the conflicts which produced English Protestantism.

An Uncomfortable Fudge

To be fair to Cranmer, he needed other qualities if he was to fulfil his ambition to create a Protestant nation. He was genuine in his wish to exclude papal influence from England. He substituted the authority of the Bible and wished it to be available in the vernacular for all his fellow citizens. Likewise, he aimed at church services in English and not Latin. Not the least of his problems was that his formidable and erudite monarch, who with some justification fancied himself as a theologian, had to be convinced that England needed any settlement more radical than 'catholicism without the pope'.

In the short term Cranmer's task was to terminate Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon and replace her with Anne Boleyn, the 'goggle-eyed whore' --as the London mob called her--with whom Henry had fallen in lust. That having been done, what next? The parliamentary campaign to pass the necessary legislation by which Henry replaced the Pope and the systematic looting of the medieval church were masterminded by Thomas Cromwell, the king's piggy-eyed vice-gerent. Cranmer was not involved. But he had to surmount an embarrassing blip when Anne the Protestant heroine disgraced herself by producing a daughter and then allegedly sleeping around in order to provide her impatient lord with a son. (Incidentally, has any historian pointed out the significance of Anne's alleged adultery with her own brother? A baby boy who resembled a Boleyn would arouse no suspicion.) Anyway, Cranmer's role was to hear Anne's confession, which convinced him of her innocence, and to intercede unsuccessfully with her husband. The Protestant cause was now at risk.

Cranmer's enemies--and there were many, whether inspired by envy or doctrinal disagreement--had several opportunities to destroy him. For instance, when Anne's replacement Jane Seymour died in childbirth, the Protestant cause very nearly hit the buffers due to Cromwell's arrangement of a royal marriage with the 'mare of Flanders', Anne of Cleves ('full of bad odours' according to her gallant husband). Down went Cromwell, and Cranmer almost went down with him. Cranmer's survival throws interesting light on his alleged psycophancy Not only did he plead the cause of Thomas Cromwell unsuccessfully again but perhaps winning the grudging respect of his royal master--but he also defended Thomas More, to say nothing of Princess Mary, drawing the prophetic comment from Henry that he might well live to regret Mary's survival. Henry came to admire his archbishop's guileless defence of the vulnerable, even to his own disadvantage. …

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