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4.6 out of 5 stars
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4.6 out of 5 stars


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on 27 June 2015
This is intended as a comparison between two different Thomas Cranmers: Jasper Ridley’s version (Thomas Cranmer (Bello)) and the version of Diarmaid MacCulloch. Before making this comparison it is perhaps worthwhile explaining why I think either book is worth reading. The books should appeal to anyone with an interest in any of the following:
- 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.
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on 4 June 2017
Wonderful writer.
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on 19 May 2014
I choose this rating because it is, without question, a well written book by a great author.
Thomas Cranmer was a great scholar during the reign of Hery V111. He was the giant of English verse and is
the person who put together, from monastic worship, the English Prayer Book. He lived a life often on a knife edge.
He suffered under Mary Tudor for his belief as a Protestant, finally being put to death. The book goes into great detail
of his early life and his difficult life with Henry and Mary. A very good book for the historian, although the general reader may
find it hard going at certain times. I strongly recommend this book for your library if you are a Tudor enthusiast.
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on 6 August 2011
As other reviewers have commented, this is not light reading, but contains a huge amount of information of interest to anyone interested either in history or theology. I felt I got a much deeper feel of both the Machiavellian complexities of Tudor court politics and the way the Church of England and its liturgy were developed. Harold Wilson said "A week is a long time in politics"; I had never realised that it applied just as much in Henry VIII's day, and of course the consequences for people like Anne Boleyn and Cromwell (and eventually Cranmer himself) could be much more serious than just losing your office .... McCulloch's writing gives a detailed and balanced portrait of Cranmer the man, sympathetic but not hagiographic, and likewise for all the other protagonists. The general reader will enjoy the narrative, but the work is also impeccably referenced through extensive footnotes for the academic.
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on 20 June 1998
MacCulloch has penned a prodigious and comprehensive biography of Thomas Cranmer. Serious questions about the development of his thought, theology and ecclesiology are given special attention. These are cast in relations to the contemporary political (local and international) situtations to better enable a reader to understand the man, his times and his influence. Given the stages over which the Henrician and Edwardian church reformations progressed, understanding Cranmer's central and guiding actions seems to be MacCulloch strongest sections. Emphasis, then, on Cranmer's central work in life is properly and comprehensively treated, without being severely colored by all that has been penned about his final days. Nevertheless, MacCulloch has done a convincing job of helping one to see Cranmer's sincerity of reform purposes, his pragmatic concerns about the pace of change, his understanding of the needs of commonfolk (as opposed to the middle and upper classes), his fierce opposition to established orders (friers and, later, radicals [nonconformists]). Especially instuctive is the secion on Cranmer's Prayer Book writing purpose, style and method, his borrowings, his innovations, and his synthses. For a 600 page, book, I found it a thoroughly compelling reading experience from first to last (about 6 days).
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on 7 October 1997
Exquisely researched and engagingly written, Diarmaid MacCulloch brought to life a figure who played a substantial role in both English and church history during the Reformation, and whose legacy lives on. I feel that for the first time in more than 30 years of bumping into Henry VIII's Archbishop of Canterbury, and of regularly using the Book of Common Prayer that he master-minded, I have properly met the man. MacCulloch obviously adores Cranmer, but is not blind to his shortcomings. He also shows the cost to Cranmer of bringing about fundamental change in the English Church -- ultimately losing his life. I came away from the book marveling at the richness and stature of the Anglican way of believing, and the part Cranmer played in making it happen. I have been heralding it from the housetops! Like all good books, I was sorry when it ended.
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on 9 March 2002
Thomas Cranmer was one of the inexperienced of all the 103 Archbishops of Canterbury when he was elevated from his brief tenure as Archdeacon of Taunton, after 20 years as a don at Cambridge, however despite this was to prove one of the most significant occupants of St Augustine's throne: his liturgy, the Act of 39 Articles, most of them identical to his 42 Articles, and the Royal Supremacy remain on the statute book to this day. In this magnificent and beautifully written book, MacCullock weaves together the theological and political parts of Cranmer's life, and provides a comprehensive account as to how these two motivations, often in conflict, impacted upon him.
Thomas Cranmer is a complex character, and MacCullock deals fully with his contradictions: burning with hatred for the heresies of Rome, yet unusually (for the times) compassionate and often forgiving to his critics; uncertain and treading a very cautious path with Henry VIII, yet showing an absolute determination to push the Church of England towards a more evangelical perspective whenever he was given a free hand; weakened and broken by his imprisonment, yet finally triumphant in his last denunciation of all that Mary's church stood for. MacCullock clearly admires the Archbishop, but this does not make him blind to his faults: in praise or censure however he always presents all of Cranmer's actions in their political and theological context.
While the book is fully comprehensive on the political aspects of the mid 16th century, where MacCullock really stands out in is his detailed and highly precise awareness of theological controversies of the time. MacCullock has studied a vast array of 16th century theologians, and examined how they fitted into Cranmer's life. His grasp of these nuances is essential to an understanding of how and why both Cranmer himself, and the emerging Church of England developed. Any glance towards the footnotes illustrates the depth of research that MacCullock has undertaken to make sure that he has precisely captured Cranmer's changing views throughout his life.
The book is very long, as is necessary for comprehensiveness, however one never feels that it is too long: it is very well phrased and all terms and concepts are fully explained. This remains one of the best biographies of any figure that I have ever read: Cranmer has finally received a treatment worthy of his long and varied career.
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on 15 November 1998
Traditionally, one is to give something up or take something on as a Lenten discipline. I did the latter, albeit inadvertently. Around Ash Wednesday of 1998, I began Darmaid MacCulloch's magisterial biography of Thomas Cranmer (Yale University Press 1996). I finished this magnificent tome on Holy Saturday. As the time passed, I came to realize that this Lent was for me a time to study a key figure in the Church and compare his often--to modern Episcopalians-- unorthodox theology against what I have come to believe.
Thomas Cranmer is a pillar of Episcopal history (and hagiography). One literally cannot participate in a Sunday service without reciting or hearing his words. In 1549, he compiled the first Book of Common Prayer. Many of the collects we say are either his original compositions or alterations upon existing texts. MacCulloch says of the Collects:
There is little doubt we owe him [Cranmer] the present form of the sequence of eighty-four seasonal collects and a dozen or so further examples embedded elsewhere in the 1549 services: no doubt either that these jewelled miniatures are one of the chief glories of the Anglican liturgical tradition, a particularly distinguished development of the genre of brief prayer which is peculiar to the Western Church. Their concise expression has not always won unqualified praise, especially from those who consider that God enjoys extended addresses from his creatures; but they have proved one of the most enduring vehicles of worship in the Anglican communion.
To me, today, the Collects focus and gather the scripture for each service.
Cranmer's beliefs were distinct, certain, and in some respects quite different from what I had thought. He was a strong predestinarian, and for this reason felt that "good works" had no effect upon where a soul went after death. He viewed the Pope as the Antichrist, and profoundly believed that the Ruler of England was the Head of the Church. (This led to his profound spiritual disorientation and crisis when the Catholic Mary succeed Edward VI; suddenly the person whom he viewed as Head of the Church was allied with evil personified).
Cranmer was decidedly "low church" in his beliefs and liturgy. The Eucharist, for him, was purely a memorial, and the bread and wine were not the true Christ. In his view, Christ was sacrificed once only at Golgotha; to say that each Eucharist was a new sacrifice was for him anathema. (A vestige of Cranmer's clear belief survives in the language of the Rite One Eucharist--"one oblation of himself once offered.") During his time, he had rood screens and images removed from churches, removed many saints' and holy days from the Church calendar, moved altars away from the church wall and toward the worshipers (this, at least, agrees with our modern theology), and changed the language of worship to English.
What made the Cranmer biography a Lenten discipline, and not just leisure reading, was for me to see again how literally every rite, word and image in our service comes from serious theological reflection and humankind's continuing effort, sometimes stumblingly, to find and reflect God's will in worship. I do not agree with Cranmer's view on predestination, although I certainly understand the sincerity with which it was held, and the struggles which brought him there. I have always found the Eucharistic language "one oblation of himself once offered" terribly stilted and prosaic; I now understand that Cranmer and subsequent Prayer Book compilers said exactly what they meant to say. (One of the great gifts of the "big tent" of Episcopalianism is that all of us --both those who view the Eucharist as memorial only and those who see the true body and blood transformed--may worship at the same table). While and since reading this fine biography, I find myself approaching almost everything we say and do in worship in a different, more reflective, posture. Next year for Lent I perhaps will give up chocolate. (I have tried this in other years, never making it as far as Refreshment Sunday.) Reflective Christians, however, who do not mind serious scholarship (this is not light reading) conveyed through lively prose could do worse than to take up this life and biography of Archbishop Cranmer.
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on 9 January 2010
Brilliant! Full of fascinating information about Cranmer and the times he lived in. A must for anyone studying the period.
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on 28 November 2012
A good read that gives a good account of the early development of the English church.
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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