Archive for March 21st, 2008

1556: Thomas Cranmer, architect of Anglicanism

7 comments March 21st, 2008 Headsman

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(Part of John Merbecke‘s plainsong rendition of the Book of Common Prayer, as performed by the Virginia Theological Seminary motet choir. Via.)

Good Friday falls early this year, and gives pause to recollect the burning this date of Thomas Cranmer, Henry VIII’s Archbishop of Canterbury, author of this gentle prayer for Holy Week:

Almighty and everliving God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be make partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God,for ever and ever. Amen.

Thomas Cranmer was an obscure middle-aged priest when happenstance acquainted him with the circle then endeavoring to engineer Anne Boleyn‘s elevation from Henry VIII‘s enamored to Queen of England.

Cranmer enthusiastically supported Henry’s position that his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon should be annulled, and the perspicacity of the doctrinal case he developed to that effect saw him admitted into the inner circle of royal theologians.

The papal case foundered because Catherine’s kinsman Charles V happened, in the course of politics on the Italian peninsula, to be holding the pope a virtual hostage in Rome. On such accidents of history do faiths arise — and the faithful burn.

The Break With Rome

The 16th century, yeasty with religious disputation widely circulated by the printing press, is thick with folk who are one sect’s martyrs and the other sect’s villains.

Cranmer is just such a character.

One could charge him — and Catholic partisans have, many times — with blowing with the wind, granting theological license to the whims of his sovereign. Henry pressed through Cranmer’s appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533, just in time for Cranmer to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine and validate the secret vows he had taken with Anne, earning both bishop and king excommunication.

That Cranmer rose with Anne but was ready to hold against her when she fell from favor, that he authorized the king’s famous pattern of discarding his past wives, that he signed off on the crown’s seizure of monasteries — that, in the end, he navigated Henry’s bloody reign with his position intact and even enhanced puts the whiff of opportunism about him. As Cranmer expert Ashley Null says (the link is a .pdf):

Like his first royal master, Cranmer did not make himself easy to love. In an era noted for the fervent courage of many martyrs for faith, Cranmer’s very survival under a king as unprincipled, or at least unpredictable, as Henry VIII has made him suspect. His late vacillation under Mary has only seemed to confirm the image of a man ruled more by the grip of fear than the assurance of the faith.

Whatever kernel of truth one might discern in such a charge, the fact remains that the church Cranmer built has by the test of centuries proven itself far more spiritually significant than mere opportunism could have admitted.

The Archbishop truly came into his own after Henry’s death.

For six years during the regency of Henry’s sickly, doomed son Edward VI, Cranmer hammered together the Anglican liturgy, wrote prolifically and beautifully, and assembled the Book of Common Prayer, a text which still guides Anglican services to this day.

His words still retain their power, and in some cases, their recognizability:

One can read Cranmer, especially in this mature stage, through many prisms — the competing threads of Catholicism, Lutheranism and Calvinism in his developing thought; the attempt to steer his institutional church towards his vision of the Reformation; and certainly as an inconstant individual — for his recantation when the Catholic Mary Tudor took the throne shows us a man as prone as any to folly and weakness.*

It is not the headsman’s purpose, and certainly not on this day, to render judgment on Cranmer’s soul; still less to unpack his theology. If we find him a man of flaws to compensate his genius, we must do him the justice of remembering also his firmness at the last hour, dramatically abjuring the recantation that had been forced upon him and thrusting the offending right hand that had signed it first into the flames.

* Cranmer had endorsed Mary’s rival Lady Jane Grey in the contentious succession that followed Edward VI; for this, he was convicted of treason in a trial managed by his old friend and fellow-survivor Thomas Howard. (Source) The Queen spared him execution on this charge in order to have him up on heresy instead, and it was this that Cranmer attempted to avoid by submission to the pope.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,God,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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