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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

II. Reformation Literature in England

§ 6. Thomas Cranmer

It is difficult to estimate fairly the character of Cranmer. Called from a quiet position to great scenes, forced to act a part beyond his strength, he showed weakness where it is rarely forgiven. He was pitifully compliant with Henry’s wishes in the matter of his divorce; at the death of Edward, he let himself be hurried into a policy he did not wholly approve; his martyr’s death lost something of its dignity, even if it gained in pathos, by his recantations. His instincts were conservative enough, his mind receptive enough, for the guidance of a great movement, but he failed in decision and power. And yet, no one who reads his letters and writings, or who traces his work upon the prayer-book, can doubt that he represents faithfully much of the mind of the English reformation. His feet stood upon the past, but his outlook was towards the future. He was skilled in all the older ecclesiastical learning, even in the canon law which many of his friends despised; and if, in some points, he would have changed beyond the limits reached, in others he would gladly have kept even more of the past. He had not only liturgical knowledge but also a liturgical interest which belonged rather to bygone times; he added to it an exquisite ear for a language that was just learning its strength. There is all the difference in the world between the crude bareness of the Litany as he found it, and its majestic rhythm when it left his pen. In other works, where he had no help from the past, as, for instance, in his theological writings, his style falls somewhat lower, but, even then, it is always nervous, simple and continuous. His chief writings deal with the Holy Eucharist, and their historical, as well as theological, interest is, therefore, great. His Defence of the true and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ (1550), to which he added while in prison and which was afterwards reprinted, shows his ample learning, and yet, even when dealing with intricate points, it is always simple in phrase and striking in its expressions. Learning was now coming down from its seclusion and addressing itself to a public anxious for enlightenment. Quickly as Cranmer could compose in Latin—his Reply to the Three Articles brought against him at his trial is an instance of his readiness—English came more naturally to him, and, in the continued debates of his trial, the disputants often forsook Latin for English.

The publication of the Defence brought upon him much controversy. Gardiner’s Explication and Assertion of the true Catholic Faith (published in France, 1550) was an able criticism to which Cranmer replied in his Answer (October, 1551). Richard Smyth, formerly professor at Oxford but deprived in favour of Vermigli (Peter Martyr), also attacked him in A Confutation of the true and Catholic Doctrine (1550), and Cranmer included him, too, in his reply to Gardiner.

Cranmer had the receptive mind which often goes with practical weakness; and thus he illustrated in himself the religious changes of his day, although he moved slowly to his final views. At Cambridge, books from Germany had been eagerly read by a little company that gathered at “The White Horse,” and it was through him that German theologians, some of them fugitives because of the Augsburg Interim, were called to the English universities. Peter Martyr came to Oxford (May, 1549) and the more conservative Bucer (1549) with Fagius to Cambridge.

Foreign criticism had been exercised upon the prayer-book of 1549, and Cranmer’s own mental changes worked along with the politics of the time to make its alteration seem desirable. The second prayer-book, therefore, while expressly sanctioning its predecessor as containing nothing but what was agreeable to the word of God and the primitive church, yet made many changes; some slight, others more important, the latter class mainly involving Eucharistic doctrine, upon which point, as upon that of vestments, controversy was most intense. Under Elizabeth, the vestiarian controversy reappeared, until it was swallowed up by the larger and more vital discussion upon church government. But, before that came, the Elizabethan prayer-book had been constructed (1559). The change from the medieval to the modern type had been really completed with the book of 1552, although under James I, as a result of the Millenary petition (24 March, 1603) and the Hampton Court conference (14–18 January, 1604), a few slight changes were made, but not in the direction of puritan complaints. After the Restoration, there was an attempt at closer agreement, but the Savoy conference (15 April, 1661) did little towards attaining it. Parties were too clearly marked: between the puritan who claimed entire freedom for the minister and the bishop who wished to retain ancient use there could be little agreement. Nor, again, was it easy to satisfy at the same time those who believed in episcopacy, and those who maintained an exclusive presbyterianism. The formation of the English prayer-book in itself was now complete formally, as, practically, it had been complete long before. Its liturgical influence has been nearly as wide-spread as its literary example; it has become the parent of the Scots prayer-book, of the American and of the Irish, all with features of their own, but forming one great school after the English model.