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Thomas Cranmer: A Life Paperback – 4 Dec 1997
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Thomas Cranmer was the architect of Henry VIII's unprecedented divorce and established the first stage of the reformed English church, while supplying its standard liturgy - the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. This book traces Cranmer's life from his Midlands roots to death at the stake in Oxford.
About the Author
Diarmaid MacCulloch is a Fellow of St. Cross College and Lecturer in Church History in the Theology Faculty at the University of Oxford.
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- Tudor history
- Christianity (the Anglican church in particular)
- The politics of power
- The politics of expediency
You most certainly do not have to be a Christian to enjoy either book. There is more than enough here to appeal to the most ardent of atheists. However, it needs to be said that you cannot understand Tudor England without understanding a little about Christian philosophy: the reader may not believe, but must realise that the protagonists in this great story genuinely did. Both of these books will tell you how the Great and the Good used religion to control their compatriots and to forge alliances. These books will also show you how the powerful can quickly become the vulnerable and how their strategies for ruling can be supplanted by a need for strategies for survival.
I came to Cranmer via MacCulloch, led to him from MacCulloch’s excellent history of Christianity (A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years), which had as its focal point the Reformation. I progressed to MacCulloch’s earlier book ‘Reformation’ (Reformation : Europe's House Divided 1490-1700) and found at the core of this Cranmer. It would have been natural to have followed the trail back to what was arguably the author’s first major work; ‘Thomas Cranmer’. To be frank what really put me off was the cost, for a fraction of the price I found Ridley’s version on Kindle and reading the free taster I could see that this was an intelligent and fairly comprehensive biography – why not?
Having finished Ridley I was entirely satisfied with what I consider to be a good and educational read. Nevertheless, there was part of me that wondered if I was missing something and so I ended up spending somewhat more than if I had just bought the more expensive option in the first place and reading two versions of the same story in very quick succession. It was unplanned but now I feel that I have to give my efforts some justification by inflicting my thoughts on the casual reader of this review.
Both books describe the same person, this may sound like a statement of the blindingly obvious (they are after all both entitled ‘Thomas Cranmer’) but it is possible to read biographies that so distort their subject that it is difficult to see the original person and at such a long distance in time it would be very easy to create two completely different Cranmers: although the events might remain the same, the character’s motivation and the inner journey that the biographer describes could have been easily moulded to suit each author.
Both MacCulloch and Ridley describe an individual who had strong beliefs that changed with time. Neither author was sufficiently arrogant as to judge Cranmer’s beliefs or to assume they must have been falsely held because as modern writers they might feel them inconsistent with intellectual norms. Similarly, neither author was so foolish as to suggest that these beliefs remained unchanged throughout Cranmer’s turbulent life. Both authors accept that as a young man Cranmer was a Catholic Humanist, believing (like Erasmus) in transubstantiation and many other items of faith that he would later reject as superstition. Even at this stage his faith was, if not Sola Scriptura, certainly centred on scripture and he already was a passionate advocate for instruction in the vernacular. Both authors accept that he later became a genuine (if unconfessed) Lutheran, rejecting transubstantiation but fully accepting the real presence and that salvation could only be achieved through the grace of God (Sola Gratia) and through faith (Sola Fide). Finally, the authors agree that his beliefs hardened around a Swiss (Zwinglian) position, rejecting the real presence in the Eucharist that he had previously so ardently supported: both authors agree that all these shifts in belief were not for mere expedience but genuine Damascene conversions.
In my opinion the authors do diverge in their belief about the motivation for Cranmer’s frequent and often shocking acts of hypocrisy, where his actions belied the beliefs they assume he genuinely felt: supporting the downfall of Anne Boleyn and then Cromwell; acquiescing in the 6 articles and sending Lambert to his fiery death. For Ridley the excuse was that Cranmer put his Christian duty to obey his sovereign above all other considerations. Overtly MacCulloch shares Ridley’s acceptance that Cranmer’s belief in devotion to a Christian Prince was not only genuine but paramount; to quote 'Supreme Headship as exercised by this tyrant [Henry VIII] expressed God’s will better than the traditional headship of the Western Church'. However, I’m afraid I think the Cranmer that emerges from the pages of MacCulloch’s book seems less concerned with the spiritual benefits of fidelity to secular authority and more concerned with Realpolitik (not to mention his very human fear of the personal consequences of opposing a none too stable monarch). I must declare that I find this version far more convincing.
So if a reader had to decide on reading just one of these biographies which should be chosen?
Ridley’s version is more focused on the facts of his hero’s life while MacCulloch’s more extensive work dwells on the philosophy, for my taste MacCulloch wins in this respect. Ridley’s book is well written and fairly accessible, but as anyone who has read any of MacCulloch’s other works would assume, MacCulloch is difficult to beat in accessibility and elegant prose. A word of warning though, this is the third of MacCulloch’s books I have read and although of very high standard it is mostly not quite as free flowing as his other work, perhaps because it was an earlier book it in parts reads a little more like a PhD thesis than popular history. An exception is the excellent chapter on the Prebendaries Plot evocatively entitled ‘A problem of survival’. The Plot is summarised succinctly by Ridley, with even the famous incident of the King’s ring presented without any dramatic artifice. MacCulloch presents the Plot in a manner reminiscent of Len Deighton; a real thriller with heroes like Legh and Morice battling the villainous Gardiners. My one criticism of this Chapter is that MacCulloch dwells a little bit too much on the sources of his information and on his fairly irrelevant contention that the plot should not be named after the prebendaries who (he claims) actually played rather a small part.
It would be easy to assume that MacCulloch’s portrayal of Stephen Gardiner as a Machiavellian villain during the Prebendaries Plot reflects a greater level of bias on his part in favour of the Reformation and against what would one day become Anglo-Catholicism (MacCulloch does indeed describe Gardiner as a proto-type Anglo-Catholic in none too flattering terms). However, Ridley is equally biased – I would contest that there is not a single biography worth reading that can truly be described as unbiased. Furthermore, when MacCulloch reaches the trial of Gardiner at the hands of a vengeful Cranmer, MacCulloch lets Gardiner’s genius shine through at the expense of Cranmer, who comes across at this point as a little petty and certainly not as intellectually agile as his long standing enemy. Ridley’s description of this period is once more far less colourful. This does not mean that Ridley is incapable of writing passionately. When we reach Cranmer’s brutal death Ridley describes it gloriously as a justification of his hero’s life. For MacCulloch this is simply a tragedy cutting short a life that still had much to give (a future he outlines in a small counterfactual exercise in his chapter on the aftermath of Cranmer’s death). It must be said that MacCulloch’s description of this tragedy is beautifully written and very dramatic (I would even suggest it owes more than a little to Ridley’s version).
Ridley’s book offers all the key facts a reader needs to claim a basic understanding of the early reformation in England and despite MacCulloch’s vaunted use of ‘new’ sources his biography does not in my opinion provide the reader with any critical new facts that would change their basic understanding of the period; Ridley has the advantage in this respect of giving a more concise version. MacCulloch has the advantage if the reader is looking for trivial (but interesting) details, there are certainly more characters in his opus.
If I had to choose just one Thomas Cranmer to read it would on balance be MacCulloch’s, but I am glad I have read both and if you have the time (and free cash) that would be my advice to you. Thomas Cranmer, much more than Henry or Cromwell, was the father of the English reformation, he was a deeply flawed character (by which I mean he was human) and understanding this will help to understand events that happened 500 years ago, but which have immense ongoing significance. So I guess he deserves our attention.
Macculloch's sentence structure can make reading a slow unscrambling. In my paper back edition the punctuation was not always clear to my old eyes.
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