“In the midst of life we are in death, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection.”
~~~ Thomas Cranmer, The Book of Common Prayer
Joan Cranmer: For weeks now, I languish in this pitiful chamber. The walls, I do swear, they are closing me in. The window wide ajar, no air comes of it. My back aching, my belly bulging, my legs swollen, my lungs pushed small, the summer heat stifling, my nightgown glued to me with sweat, no comfort eases me. Bored, I yearn for company, yearn for Thomas, yearn for his lessons. I am desperate to learn to read, learn the scriptures, learn all the Greek scholars, learn of Erasmus, Aristotle, all the things rummaging in his mind — anything, just anything to pass the time. Day by day, the room gets smaller, the air staler, the bed harder, the candles dimmer… closing me in, closing me in, closing me in tight. Wide awake, unable to settle myself, distracted by his snoring, again I can’t sleep. All I want to do is sleep, Lord. I beg for respite. Can’t You just grant me that? I try to rise from bed to at least catch a breeze by the window, but it’s no use. For the last fortnight, Thomas has helped me in and out of our bed, and up from my favorite soft chair. God, please, I beg you. Bring this babe to us soon.
I look at my husband, and I’m angry. He did this to me. Yes, he calls himself a religious scholar, but he did this to me. What kind of man does this to a woman? Thomas, that’s who. How dare he sleep while I am so pitiful? Look at him, so peaceful, deep in dreams of God knows what, snoring like a sleeping sow. How dare he? How dare he?
I look again, and guilt suddenly consumes me. Thomas is a good man, a gentle man. My God he is beautiful, just beautiful. I fill with love for him, this Godly man who will never be a priest. No longer the clergy’s, no longer the pilgrims’, no longer even God’s, he is mine, and I need not share him.
I nudge his shoulder. “Thomas?”
I nudge him a little harder, and yet once again. “Thomas?!” Heavens is the man deaf? ”THOMAS?!!… THOMAS?!!”
Thomas Cranmer: Startled, stunned, I awaken, sit up straight, groggy, a tad dazed. Oh my… oh my… I shake the sleep out of my head. It must be time.
”Joan, shall I rush for the midwife?”
My wife, she has been with child since the birth of Eve from Adam’s rib. It must be time.
Joan Cranmer: Men are daft. Soothingly, as I see his panic, I say simply. “No, not yet. Just help me out of bed, love.”
Thomas Cranmer: Joan woke me from the dead to help her out of bed? Even the birds sleep soundly. Why can’t she?
“Yes, Joan. Of course, dear woman.”
I rise, stagger to her side of things, and help her to sit up, move her body gently over the side, and raise her gently upward. Oh my, as my wife stands, I look to her belly. It’s huge and dropped low, so low I believe the babe will drop from it right now, on to the straw, just like that. Now, what is that sound? What? I look down, my eyes wide as the moon is full. The ocean’s currents lay on the floor before me.
Joan Cranmer: “Thomas, I think I just passed the babe’s water.”
I look at him and smile. “Do rise the midwife. I think it’s time.”
Thomas Cranmer: All was planned since I was a babe in the cradle. As the second son, there would be no inherited title. As the second son, there would be no worldly goods passed from one generation to the next. As the second son, there would be no advantageously arranged marriage. So, as the second son, I would enter the clergy.
Ordained from the womb, I knew my role in life. I accepted it. I welcomed it. I cherished it. I embraced it. At Cambridge twelve terms, I finally mastered it, finally was awarded a fellowship, finally grown in my knowledge and studies to begin doctoral work. Once completed, my family’s hopes, prayers and expectations — and my destiny — would be fulfilled, ordination into the priesthood.
I was on my way. I could taste it. I could smell it. As I read the scriptures, Erasmus and Aristotle, I could see. I could touch it. Why am I here with all these rowdy men and barmaids at the Dolphin Inn then? Why do I nervously sit at a back table with the owner drinking stale ale? And why am I a lowly ostler shoveling horse dung, you ask? Well, my world changed on the flip of a crown. One cool autumn day I met her, the exquisitely blonde Joan Black — and now, here through the day and night, then day and now night again, I sit in stunned silence, frozen in fear.
Henry Black: A rowdy night, the revelers carry on, ale pouring freely, the barmaids entertaining the menfolk. The singing, the merriment, the noise bounce off the large wooden ceiling beams and bounce back along the long wooden tables, ring stained from reveler’s past. New straw Thomas needs toss upon the flooring, I note as I pick off a few pesky fleas. Farthings fill the coffers, though, so it’s a good night for my taxes and tithes. I look to poor Thomas, and he worries so. In truth, so do I. My wife long dead from childbed, this is taking too long, much too long. Lord God, I pray, don’t take my daughter, too.
“Thomas? Thomas? Have some more ale, lad. It will take the edge off.”
I motion over the men’s favorite wench, and as she pours the ale, her breasts spill before us. I force a wide smile and nod. “Thomas, all will be fine lad. ‘Tis a first babe, so long we wait.”
I pause, and he looks at me, nods politely and says nothing, drinking the ale down in one long swig. There be thoughts, though, filling that head of his. There always be. That lad always be thinking, always be reading, always be writing on his books, all over the pages yet.
I told Thomas once, “Don’t be doing that. How can you sell the thing once done?”
He looked at me odd-like and said, “I never sell my books. They are part of me, like an arm, like a leg, like my heart, like my soul.”
For a smart young man, he sure be daft.
“Thomas, pray tell me what is on your mind, lad? Let it out before it spills out your ears before it spills out and asunder like Pandora’s Box.”
Thomas Cranmer: Should I tell him? There are no priests to confess to, and this man is gentle-spirited and forgiving, so maybe so. I swallow hard. “When I became a father, I thought it would be to celebrate the Eucharist, hear confessions, counsel the downtrodden, christen infants, marry lovers and bury the dead. I misunderstood God’s will all these many years. He wants me to marry a wife, father children, raise them well. How could I not know? I am unprepared. I studied not for this.”
Henry Black: I laugh. “There be many Godly men who are not priests, Thomas. Look no farther than our glorious king. His Majesty is godly, a husband, and now a father. God will soon give us an heir by the Spanish queen, and a new king will carry on his glorious reign. What say you?”
Smiling I chide before he can answer, “You be smart, but God needs to show you His will, as you are stubborn like the goats in the barn — and He did.”
Thomas Cranmer: I smile. This man humors me so. “All I know is scriptures. The church welcomes not a married man.”
Henry Black: I see now. The lad worries of livelihood. Reassuring I reply, “You tutor the schoolboys, and I will tutor you, Thomas. Look around lad. Once God calls me, all this be yours and Joan’s. I willed it.”
Thomas Cranmer: Christendom just lifted off my shoulders. “Thank you, good man.” We smile and raise our goblets in a toast.
Oh my God in heaven, a crashing shriek cuts through the loud reveling and festivities, cuts straight to my very core. A woman’s voice cries out pathetically, “Noooooooooooooooo, nooooooooooo God!”
No man can stop me, though several try. I run up to the stairs and head straight to our chambers. Oh Lord, the women are crying. I try to open the door, and it’s bolted, locked tight. I start banging on it, again, again.
“Let me in! Damn it, let me in!”
I begin slamming the side of my body against the door to try and force it, beginning to crack the threshold. As I try once again, knowing success is one jarring jolt away, Joan’s father and three other men, God knows who, I care not, hold me back.
He says gently, “Not yet, Thomas. Not yet.”
I look at him, tears streaming, both of us. I say meekly, “No baby cries, but women do.”
I drop down to the floor, huddled, waiting, Joan’s father beside me, helpless. God, please don’t forsake us, not now.
As I sit quietly, waiting… waiting… waiting, hoping, praying, my mind is filled with her, my whole body and soul consumed by her. “Yes, Lord, I fell fast. I fell hard. I’m in deep. Joan’s blonde hair flows long and glistens in the sunlight. Her blue, then green, then blue and green as one eyes look deep, straight through to my soul. Her lilting voice, accented from the south, soothes the demons within me. Her soft skin brushed up against me arouses every sense in my being, every feeling deep within. Yes, Lord, it’s helpless. It’s hopeless. She owns me. Your will? She must be. My will? She is. Yes, I confess as virgin as Christ’s mother, we learned together, exploring each other, molding one to the other, fading into each other. Where Joan ends and I begin, I do not know. God, You did bless us before the parish priest did, my seed growing and the babe quickening within Joan’s belly as we said our vows. I am released from my fellowship. My doctoral studies are terminated. I’m disgraced by my family. Please, the penance is paid. It matters not, really. I will tend the inn’s horses, shovel their stable muck, tutor the town’s school boys, and die without a farthing to be with her. God please, I am happy to shovel the muck. I need crowns not. I need Cambridge not. I need ordination not. I need indulgences not. I just need her, nothing else, nothing ever.”
The door opens. I look up inquisitively. I venture, “My Joan?”
Tears falling, the midwife shakes her head.
Joan’s father, his voice cracking, asks, “The babe?”
Her head looks to the floor, the answer clear.
My heart stops beating. I can’t breathe. Joan’s father helps me rise, and we enter. I want to see, pray to see, afraid to see what I know in my heart now is God’s will. I look with dread and yet wonder. My Joan, my beloved agape, she lays peacefully as if sleeping, in her arms a babe, so tiny. It’s quiet, so quiet it’s deafening, only the sound of the women’s tears, my tears, my internal rage, my swirling thoughts of joining them in leaving this world, filling the room. I look at not knowing what to do. I want to jump into bed with them, hold them, love them. Is that proper? Would God frown? I do not know. At Cambridge, they never taught me. The scriptures, they do not say.
“Thomas…. Thomas,” I hear the midwife call me. “Sit down here, good man.”
I sit in a chair close beside the bed. I watch as she carefully picks up the baby, swaddled in a blanket Joan lovingly sewn.
“A girl Thomas. Look, she is pretty.”
Trembling, I ask the unthinkable. “Can I hold her? Please? I just want to hold her.”
She hands me the babe, my daughter, and I cradle her gently. I open the blanket, and she looks so perfect. She can’t be dead. I poke her gently once, and yes she is. I gaze up and see them leaving, the women, the midwife, and Joan’s father, who with graceful nobility nods and quietly closes the chamber door. Here with my family, with my thoughts, with my tears, with my God, I am but alone.
But lullabies go on and on;
They never die;
That’s how you and I will be.
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Note: Very little is known of Thomas Cranmer’s two marriages, particularly his first. All that is known is that Cranmer married a woman named Joan, surname stated at his heresy trial to be either Black or Brown, between 1515 and 1519. Ralph Morice, Cranmer’s devoted secretary and biographer, details that they were married “within one year” and that Joan died, along with their baby, in childbed. Due to an association undefined with the Dolphin Inn, and the short length of marriage, Roman Catholic detractors labeled Cranmer “an ostler” (a person who takes care of horses stabled at an inn), and scornfully referred to his wife as “Black Joan of the Dolphin”, inferring she was pregnant before marriage.