- Emblem of Faith Untouched: A Short Life of Thomas Cranmer by Leslie Williams
Why, I wondered, after Diarmaid MacCulloch's definitive scholarly study, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (1996), do we need another biography of Thomas Cranmer? As one of the most influential theologians and crafters of English Protestantism, Cranmer's life and legacy deserve much wider telling. Williams's short study, in style and intent, serves a much broader audience of curious readers. Professional scholars and more popular readers of history will find herein a refreshing account of this hero of the English Reformation. This readership will also include those interested in Anglicanism writ large, students curious about Tudor history, worshippers accustomed to liturgy shaped by the Book of Common Prayer, as well as those who simply enjoy reading lively historical biographies. Yes, there definitely is a place for Williams's engaging narrative of the life and times of Thomas Cranmer.
The narrative moves briskly, presented free of footnotes and other interrupting academic notations, although a key to quotations and other references is found at the end of the book with brief "notes to pages." Williams's narrative flows forward in short engaging chapters depicting Cranmer's early life and intense scholarly formation at Cambridge. The author tells of his travels as a diplomat interacting with Continental reformers, his first and second marriages, his ability to survive enmeshed political and doctrinal rivalries, his avoidance whenever possible of conflict and plots that were endemic in Tudor royal courts, his natural diplomacy and preference for forgiveness, as well as his carefully shaped theological conclusions, which were deeply grounded in the authority of the Bible.
One of the central dynamics in Cranmer's life is his slowly growing and eventually deep friendship with King Henry VIII. Here Williams is "deeply indebted" (1) to MacCulloch, whom she often quotes directly. One example is MacCulloch's apt description of the early relationship between Cranmer and the king as between a "timid lecturer and the self-righteous, Godobsessed royal bully" (80). Williams's attentive portrait of the king includes the ongoing efforts of Cranmer to ground his king in central aspects of the reformed faith and the protection Henry eventually provided Cranmer in court intrigues. The emotional story of Cranmer's presence as Henry's chaplain as the old king lay dying attests to the extent of their friendship. At times Williams tends to overdraw emotional dynamics, as when she notes, "Henry died with his only friend [Cranmer] by his side" (99). Accounts of Henry's final marriage, to Catherine Parr, provided emotional support, friendship, and happiness for the last four years of the king's life. Readers of Williams's narrative who are new to Tudor history will likely learn as much about King Henry VIII as about his archbishop. [End Page 460]
After Henry's death, the significance of the archbishop's fidelity to the crown continued to direct Cranmer's allegiance to Henry's royal successors, whom he held as divinely appointed. Because Cranmer was a reformer, his second guiding principle, a deep-seated grounding in the authority of scripture, flourished during Edward VI's reign. Cranmer's liturgical brilliance led to the publication of prayer books for English worshippers, and reformers from Tyndale through Coverdale shaped various versions of the Bible in English. Conversely, during Mary Tudor's reign, Cranmer's legacy and theological emphases were overturned. The persecution of reform-minded bishops and ordinary believers alike intensified in the fires of Marian England. Williams is at her best detailing the high drama of Cranmer's and other reformers' degradation under Mary. During the final days of his imprisonment, Cranmer declines in body and mind. Williams reveals to us the despondent archbishop as he defends and then recants aspects of reformed theology, culminating in his dramatic and heroic withdrawal of his last recantation before being burned alive.
Williams's energetic narrative and popularizing style accords well with the dramatic and gripping story she has to tell. The author sets forth clearly needed background for...