Thomas Cranmer


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A Life
Revised Edition

Diarmaid MacCulloch

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Thomas Cranmer, the architect of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, was the archbishop of Canterbury who guided England through the early Reformation—and Henry VIII through the minefields of divorce. This is the first major biography of him for more than three decades, and the first for a century to exploit rich new manuscript sources in Britain and elsewhere.
Diarmaid MacCulloch, one of the foremost scholars of the English Reformation, traces Cranmer from his east-Midland roots through his twenty-year career as a conventionally conservative Cambridge don. He shows how Cranmer was recruited to the coterie around Henry VIII that was trying to annul the royal marriage to Catherine, and how new connections led him to embrace the evangelical faith of the European Reformation and, ultimately, to become archbishop of Canterbury. By then a major English statesman, living the life of a medieval prince-bishop, Cranmer guided the church through the king's vacillations and finalized two successive versions of the English prayer book.
MacCulloch skillfully reconstructs the crises Cranmer negotiated, from his compromising association with three of Henry's divorces, the plot by religious conservatives to oust him, and his role in the attempt to establish Lady Jane Grey as queen to the vengeance of the Catholic Mary Tudor. In jail after Mary's accession, Cranmer nearly repudiated his achievements, but he found the courage to turn the day of his death into a dramatic demonstration of his Protestant faith.
From this vivid account Cranmer emerges a more sharply focused figure than before, more conservative early in his career than admirers have allowed, more evangelical than Anglicanism would later find comfortable. A hesitant hero with a tangled life story, his imperishable legacy is his contribution in the prayer book to the shape and structure of English speech and through this to the molding of an international language and the theology it expressed.

Diarmaid MacCulloch is a fellow of St. Cross College and professor of the history of the church, University of Oxford. His many books include A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.

A selection of the History Book Club

"MacCulloch presents not only a new examination of Cranmer, but also new evidence which challenges the older hagiographies and prejudices, revealing Cranmer as a highly complex man. . . . MacCulloch shows that if there was one overall controlling factor it was that nothing and no one must derail the evangelical programme. . . .This tale of Cranmer is beautifully told and illustrated . . . and MacCulloch must be congratulated for writing it."—Bryan D. Spinks, Cambridge Review

"MacCulloch's book will serve as the standard work on Cranmer's religious and political career."—Choice

"This biography addresses two basic issues which until now have not been very clear. First, MacCulloch skillfully traces and keeps distinct the religious and political issues with which Cranmer contended. . . . Second, MacCulloch shows Cranmer as a religious leader wrestling with how to achieve his vision under a particular set of circumstances. . . . MacCulloch's ability to depict both the man and his times with such clarity and dynamism marks this as a work of rare quality."—William L. Sachs, Christian Century

"Thomas Cranmer is without question one of the most important figures in British Christianity. . . . This rich and exhaustively researched new study of Cranmer is likely to become a minor classic. There have been many studies of Cranmer published this century; this one, however, overshadows them all. MacCulloch tells the story of Cranmer's life with great sympathy and intelligence. Not only is the biography a superb source of information and insight; it is a rippingly good read. . . . Anyone with a love of history will find themselves enthralled by this work."—Alister McGrath, Christianity

"MacCulloch's considerable achievement is to give us a magnificent biography that is unmistakably sympathetic to Cranmer without being yet another apologia. . . .A major achievement in Tudor historiography."—Richard L. Greaves, Church History

"A good read. . . . MacCulloch wades through the mass of his material with thoroughness and an engaging lightness of touch. . . . MacCulloch gives a sympathetic and balanced picture of the nuancing of Cranmer's liturgy and theological legacy by the 17th-century divines, but he none the less gives a powerful and convincing interpretation . . . of Cranmer's own developing eucharistic thought through its Lutheran phase in the early 1540's to the more definitely memorialist approach from 1547 onwards."—Kenneth Stevenson, Church Times

"[A] massive new study, up-to-date with recent (and not least revisionist scholarship, more detailed than any of its predecessors, using new material and containing new insights, and altogether providing a balanced and sympathetic estimate of its subject. . . . An example of historical scholarship at its best."—Arthur Pollard, Churchman

"The research for this long book has been extensive. . . . The author handles the theological discussions extremely well and always seems to remember that many readers will not be theologians. One doubts that this book will be replaced for many years to come."—Contemporary Review

"Diarmaid MacCulloch's phenomenal familiarity with so much new, as well as all the old, manuscript, and even topographical material, holds one clamped to his 650 pages. One cannot wait to read what really happened next."—Norman Scarfe, Country Life

"This is certainly the most comprehensive work on Cranmer yet undertaken, Dr. MacCulloch puts the whole Reformed Church in debt with his account of the principal architect and martyr of the Church of England. . . . This is a book not to be missed by anyone wanting to understand the English Reformation."—English Churchman

"At last we have the truth about Archbishop Cranmer, the most controversial bigwig in the history of the English Church. . . . The best biography of Cranmer, sympathetic and candid about Cranmer's shortcomings."—A.L. Rowse, Evening Standard

"This is a superb biography. The reader is amazed at MacCulloch's learning and entranced by his literary skill. So many documents have been tracked down. So much that is in dispute has been carefully assessed. The volume is handsome, the price remarkably low. It is splendid."—Expository Times

"Written with consummate skill . . . [this book] is a very scholarly work . . . and is obviously the outcome of a tremendous amount of very detailed and meticulous research. However, it is by no means a book for experts only—though the experts will surely welcome the new light which it throws on some hitherto unresolved problems and queries. But the ordinary reader, too, will find it extremely rewarding. . . . So it is above all an enormously readable book. Indeed, it is perhaps not too much to suggest that it has some of the characteristics o a great novel."—Faith & Freedom

"[An] excellent book. . . . The chief pleasure of this book is its detail. Through it we see the revolution in slow motion."—Adrian Kerry, Irish Times

"MacCulloch's new account of the archbishop who guided England through the earlier stages of its religious reformation in the sixteenth century is the first major biography for over thirty years and is likely to be the definitive one for many years to come. It is meticulously researched, impressive in its control of detail, and is very lucid and readable, despite its great length. . . . In the absence of new evidence, this fine book gives us as deep an insight into the heart of Cranmer's mystery as we are likely to get."—Alistair Fox, Journal of Ecclesiastical History

"[A] massive, balanced and without doubt enduring biography of Thomas Cranmer."—Philip Caraman, Literary Review

"MacCulloch's life of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer will long be the definitive biography. This is an impressive, thorough, well documented and impeccably researched work. MacCulloch deals superbly with the myriad of conflicts, paradoxes, intrigues and political maneuvering that characterize English reformism during the early sixteenth century."—Andrew M. McLean, Living Church

"[MacCulloch] gets as much under his subject's skin as it is possible for a biographer to do. . . . A passionate, committed biography."—Gerald Hammond, London Review of Books

"One of the virtues of MacCulloch's biography is that he does not hesitate to present his subject in a less than flattering light. he is an honest biographer. More, he is a biographer of Cranmer's mind as well as his life. Thomas Cranmer's transition form a loyal follower of the Roman Catholic Church to a leader of a distinctive English church was a difficult, even tortuous one which involved much intellectual travail. Explicating theology is not often easy, but MacCulloch has done an outstanding job of presenting the intricate arguments which so involved, even obsessed an entire culture, from kings down to commoners."—Michael Witkoski, Magill's Literary Annual 1997

"MacCulloch has given us an extraordinary biography of Archbishop Cranmer and, with him, of the English Reformation. Impeccably researched, with absolute mastery of an overwhelming body of source material and subsequent scholarship, engagingly written, the book is a remarkable achievement."—Marc M. Arkin, New Criterion

"This lucidly written, deeply researched and surprisingly accessible biography of the man who served Henry VIII as Archbishop of Canterbury . . . ably explores both Cranmer's drive and his persistent doubts."—Allen D. Boyer, New York Times Book Review

"MacCulloch conveys convincingly the spirit and sensibility of a man who lived in an age almost beyond our comprehension. This is a rare gift."—Night & Day

"Anyone interested in Cranmer or the prayer-books will read MacCulloch with fascination and gratitude. . . . [A] prodigiously well-researched book."—Ian Robinson, Prayer Book Society

"This masterly and definitive biography. . . is to be unreservedly recommended to anyone seeking to understand the most important figure of the English Reformation and the one who, by his genius, gave the Church of England that masterpiece we now call the Book of Common Prayer. . . . Diarmaid MacCulloch is to be earnestly thanked and heartily congratulated for so much extending our knowledge and understanding of God's Other Englishman."—Margot Thompson, Prayer Book Society

"This is an exceptional book. Despite the subject being well worked over the past four hundred years, Dr. MacCulloch has made new discoveries in the Polish archives which had shed light on the previously very obscure earlier part of Cranmer's life as a young diplomat. The treatment of the Archbishop is sympathetic without being sycophantic and the book is blessedly free from the ugly condescension which mars so many modern biographies."—Rt Rev & Rt Hon Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, Prayer Book Society

"The first full-scale biography of Cranmer since 1962 and will likely become the standard biography. . . . Not only a magnificent biography, MacCulloch's accessible study is also a fascinating cultural examination of the development of the Church of England."—Publishers Weekly

"Thomas Cranmer: A Life is a wonderful book, lucidly written, dense with scholarship, which provides an exhaustive analysis of what could have been and could not have been Cranmer's role in reforming the English Church."—Rudolph P. Almasy, West Virginia University (from Selected Papers from the West Virginia Shakespeare and Renaissance Association)

"MacCulloch has provided a definitive and exhaustive treatment of his subject. . . . To read MacCulloch's Thomas Cranmer is not only to better understand the man; it is to better understand the nature of the English Reformation."—Ronald Fritze, Sixteenth Century Journal

"[A] magnificent new biography. . . . The confessional varnish is stripped away, and we are left with a portrait of extraordinary freshness and depth; complexities and subtleties, long unnoticed, are now clearly revealed. . . . A masterly biography. Cranmer was a highly complicated man, and MacCulloch addresses those complexities with a rare combination of sympathy and critical detachment and a virtuoso command of the relevant archives from Cambridge to Cracow."—John Adamson, Sunday Telegraph

"In one of the best biographies of the year, Diarmaid MacCulloch probes the complexities of Cranmer, the author of the Prayer Book."—Kevin Sharpe, Sunday Times (London)

"Magnificent. . . . What a wonderful book this is! MacCulloch knows the sources like a woodsman who knows every tree in the forest. He writes with a narrative drive and an ability to capture scenes that make us turn the pages with eager anticipation to see what happens next. He handles an enormous cast of characters with the aplomb of one who seems to have conversed with all of them."—Richard Marius, The Guardian

"A massive, powerful and unexpectedly moving reappraisal of the man whose position as the patron saint of the English language has often been overshadowed by his dramatic last-minute recantation before being burned at the stake. . . . A model biography, wise, revealing and wholly absorbing."—Miranda Seymour, The Independent

"Superb. . . . The sheer sweep of the scholarship, ranging from his birth in 1489 to his death in 1556, and covering the main events of Tudor history, simply dazzles and compels to be read."—George Russo, The Record

"MacCulloch's biography is formidable both in length and in learning; it has all the strengths and none of the weaknesses of academic history. . . . The author displays not only a mastery of intricate argumentation but also an alert eye for colourful detail. And it must be said that MacCulloch illumines Cranmer the man as well as the age in which he lived. . . . This is a model study, and will hold the field for years to come."—C.D.C. Armstrong, The Spectator

"Nobody intrigued by Tudor politics should miss this grippingly told reappraisal of the crafty and ambitious archbishop."—Miranda Seymour, The Sunday Times (London)

"[A] magnificent biography, nearly 700 pages, scrupulously researched, and published by Yale at a reasonable price, deserves to find a place wherever the dialogue between Protestants and Catholics continues on a scholarly level. It will remain an authority. . . . MacCulloch's account of Cranmer's trial, recantations, and death achieves a peak of historical writing. . . . [A] magisterial book."—Alan Webster, The Tablet

"[This book] looks marvelous—extremely good to read as well as being a definitive biography."—Robert Harris, The Times (London)

"A major contribution to the history of the sixteenth century. It is an authoritative work which demands to be read and used by anyone studying the period. . . . The narrative is highly accessible and there are useful illustrations. The book is essential for students of 16th-century Anglicanism and so for that form of Christianity's subsequent developments."—Leslie Houlden, Theological Review

"This is a book of quite extraordinary quality. . . . Precise, clear in expression and inventive in scholarly investigation, this is a work of enormous value. Cranmer's frequent recantations of his beliefs, under the pressure of a species of mental torture, and his final astonishing volte face as he went to his death, are here examined with great sensitivity and illuminating commentary."—Edward Norman, Theology

"Only very rarely can the biographer of a major figure in history hope to make such a difference to our knowledge of a life. . . . [A] surely definitive biography of Cranmer. . . . Yale University Press must earn plaudits for producing such a substantially handsome volume."—Patrick Collinson, Times Literary Supplement

"Invaluable. Diarmaid MacCulloch's Thomas Cranmer casts a strong light upon the Tudor Reformation and its combatants."—Peter Ackroyd, Times Literary Supplement

"The word 'magisterial' is much bandied about in the world of criticism, but its use is certainly justified in the case of Oxford lecturer Diarmaid MacCulloch's substantial, arcane, lucid and impeccably annotated study of Henry VIII's architect of the Reformation, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. MacCulloch's book is definitive by any standard and I find it unlikely that in the future any new material of consequence will be unearthed on this complex cleric."—Harry Sayen, Trenton Times

"Definitive. . . . An intellectual biography of a man whose most dramatic personal moments, despite the blood-letting all around him, took place in his mind and soul."—Stuart Ferguson, Wall Street Journal

"A fair and definitive biography of Cranmer. . . . The dramatic story of a decent man's efforts to come to terms with himself and events beyond his control."—Smith Hempstone, Washington Times

"A thoroughly gripping account of a religious schemer is painted by Diarmaid MacCulloch in Thomas Cranmer. Anyone intrigued by Tudor intrigue will find this a spellbinding read."—Yorkshire Post

"For those with a serious interest in the English Reformation, this book is a treasure. It will remain the standard life of Cranmer for a long time."—Stanford Lehmberg, American Historical Review

"In this richly detailed study of Thomas Cranmer, he has not only provided a compelling portrait of the public figure who guided the English church through this tumultuous period, he has also set forth an alternative narrative that questions some recent assumptions about this crucial era."—N.S. Amos, History

"In this unfailingly lively, shrewd and humane biography, exhaustive but never exhausting, MacCulloch ahs penetrated that imperturbable exterior. In the process he has provided an unrivaled picture of the inner workings of the early Reformation in England, and the nearest thing to a portrait of the mind and heart of the architect of that Reformation we are ever likely to have."—Eamon Duffy, Times Higher Educational Supplement

"This magnificent study of Cranmer bulges with telling details . . . and, together with Diarmaid MacCulloch's massive research, engaging prose, and sound judgment, they make this book a stunning achievement. . . . The result is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of Anglicanism and the wider European Reformation. . . . MacCulloch is to be warmly congratulated for writing the best biography of a Tudor individual we have. This is not merely church history but human history at its best."—Sears McGee, Albion

"This is a magnificent book! It deserves to be widely and carefully read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested. . . . MacCulloch provides new historical background, affirming the richness of practical cooperation among theologians and religious leaders, then as now. It is worth getting to know Cranmer and the English Reformation anew through this engaging biography."—Fredrica Harris Thompsett, Anglican Theological Review

"His excellent biography [is] by far the best study Cranmer's life which we have."—A.G.R. Smith, History Today

"The book is written on a monumental scale and is full of insights. It is, in fact, not simply a masterful assessment of Thomas Cranmer's life and work, but a highly original and compelling chronicle of the whole course of the early English Reformation. . . . A masterpiece of historical writing."—Paul Ayris, Anvil

"A major and marvelous gift which enriches us all. Its scholarship is broad, deep, and current; its attitude toward sixteenth-century Europeans is respectful and sympathetic but judiciously skeptical of their own categories and self-understanding. MacCulloch has given us an important biography which substantially advances our understanding of a complex man and the complicated details of his life."—Margaret Christian, Pennsylvania State University, Allentown

"[An] expansive and fascinating book. . . . [MacCulloch] has provided a fascinating and enormously readable introduction into the political, theoretical and academic world of sixteenth-century England."—Sean Lawrence (University of British Columbia), Early Modern Literary Studies

"An enthralling new study."—David Walker, Financial Times

"Magisterial"—P. D. James, Sunday Times

"Diarmaid MacCulloch's Thomas Cranmer brings a figure fixed for most of us in exam-answers instantly and agonisingly to life."—Jackie Wullschlager, Financial Times

"Scholarly but gripping. . . Cranmer stands at the heart and root of Englishness, a source of both its most enduring institutions and of its familiar speech. With both changing fast, we need to know much more about the intellectual godfather who oversaw their birth."—Boyd Tonkin, Independent

"A work of majestic breadth and magisterial authority. . . impressive erudition, great psychological insight, and considerable narrative skill."—R. A. Houlbrooke, English Historical Review

"What is admirable about this book is not only the enormous detail that MacCulloch has mustered, but also his obvious and deep-seated sympathy for the man. . . . A fine, scholarly work which is well worth the read. It conveys a very human figure, "a hesitant hero" and incidentally says much of the providence of God."—Michael Parsons, Baptist Times

Winner of the 1996 Whitbread Biography Award, presently known as Costa Book Awards (UK/Ireland).

Winner of the Duff Cooper Prize

Winner of the James Tait Memorial Prize for Biography
ISBN: 9780300226577
Publication Date: February 28, 2017
704 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
44 b/w illus.