Editor’s Note: Today in history, 16 May 1536, Queen Anne Boleyn gave her last confession to her friend and supporter Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. Soon after, Anne told Sir William Kingston that though condemned the previous day at trial to death, she was “in hope of life” just the same. Did Cranmer give Anne false hope? History does not teach us. What we do know is that Queen Anne Boleyn held the Archbishop in high regard. In this article, Alan Weatherall reflects on why Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury was so important to Queen Anne Boleyn.
Thomas Cranmer was the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, appointed by King Henry VIII in 1532. At the time of his appointment, Cranmer was in Italy, serving as King Henry’s Ambassador to the Holy Roman Emperor, the most powerful man in Europe.
Cranmer’s job as Ambassador was to persuade the Emperor to support Henry’s plea to Pope Clement VII for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
The issue of the annulment of Henry and Catherine’s marriage was simpler than sometimes portrayed. The Book of Leviticus says that a man may not marry his brother’s widow: ‘And if a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless’, Leviticus, Chapter 20, Verse 21. Before her marriage to Henry, Catherine of Aragon had for a few months been married to Henry’s elder brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales. After only a few months of marriage, Arthur had died of the sweating sickness, a common fever at the time.
There was a respectable gap of seven years between Arthur’s death and Catherine’s marriage to Henry; Catherine asserted under oath that her marriage to Arthur had not been consummated.
But Henry’s marriage to Catherine could not have taken place at all if the then Pope, Julius II, had not authorised it by using his Papal authority to override the Bible. If the present Pope, Clement VII, would just agree that his predecessor had been wrong in this case, then Henry’s marriage to Catherine had never existed; Henry would not be married and would be free to marry his love of many years, Anne Boleyn.
Given the political state of Europe, the Emperor could probably have persuaded the Pope if he had wanted to, but the Emperor would not play ball; Catherine of Aragon was an aunt, and he was not going to allow her to be humiliated.
The solution to this impasse was for King Henry VIII and the English Parliament to assert that the Pope had no authority in England. The new Archbishop of Canterbury would then have the authority to annul the marriage, based upon the verses in the Book of Leviticus.
Hence Cranmer’s importance to Anne Boleyn and to King Henry. Unlike his immediate predecessors, Cranmer was not a lawyer. For twenty years at Jesus College, Cambridge, Cranmer had studied the Bible and the associated writings of the leaders of the Christian Church in the first centuries after the death of Christ, and if Cranmer said that such documents did not support the Pope having power in England, then this would give Henry and Anne a sustainable position.
So, after all the years of waiting, in a hearing in Dunstable Priory lasting less than two weeks, Cranmer annulled Henry’s marriage to Catherine. The marriage had never existed. Any pronouncement that Pope Julius II might have made in Rome had no significance in England.
Cranmer then confirmed the marriage of Henry to Anne that had taken place four months previously.
Anne Boleyn was no passive passenger during this process. She had been at the Court of the King of France in Paris for five years and was fully aware of the arguments being raised against the power of the Roman Catholic Church, arguments that had been summarised sixteen years earlier by Martin Luther in his ninety-five theses. These theses had been printed, circulated around Europe and received strong support.
Anne had realised the potential of Cranmer to support her cause while Cranmer was working in the house that Henry had allocated to her father, Durham Place, well situated between the Strand and the River Thames. With her knowledge of the Lutheran movement that was taking place in Europe, she was able to able to reinforce Henry’s commitment to his plan for the break with Rome.
How much earlier Henry had started thinking about independence from the Pope we shall never know, but he may have inherited the idea from his father, King Henry VII. Perhaps, in naming his first son Arthur, King Henry VII had declared his long-term intentions. In the fifteenth century, when Prince Arthur was christened, the now legendary King Arthur was seen as a real historic figure, who had fought valiantly for the independence of Britain. Geoffrey of Monmouth, Bishop of St. Asaph had written about King Arthur in the twelfth century.
Cranmer anointed Queen Anne in Westminster Abbey; it was a measure of Anne’s appreciation of Cranmer, that he was the only person invited to sit at her table during the banquet that followed her Coronation.
Cranmer was later a Godfather to Princess Elizabeth, her daughter, greeted with great rejoicing, even though she was not the longed-for son.
After Anne’s arrest, Cranmer wrote a courageous letter to King Henry, which did not, however, affect the probably inevitable result; Cranmer then took Anne’s final confession.
But the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine, though crucial, was a merely a first introduction to the main act of creating a new church for England, since a new church was needed in England after Henry removed the country from the influence of Rome.
Any stability for the country from the birth of a male heir to King Henry VIII could have been overwhelmed by social collapse and civil war if there had not been a soundly constructed Church in England to replace the Church of Rome. People believed that after their death they would be assigned to Heaven or to Hell based on their thoughts and actions on earth, so the Church was vital to everyone’s daily life in explaining to them what to do in church and how to live their lives to secure everlasting peace in Heaven. How the services were carried out, what the priests said, was being watched by God, and had to be in accord with His wishes.
The church that Cranmer defined had to be Bible-based, distinct from the Roman Catholic Church and yet sufficiently similar for the congregations who were brought up in that faith, distinct from each variant of European Protestantism, carefully ambiguous at appropriate points and elegantly written (in the days of quill pens).
This Cranmer achieved in his time as Archbishop, stutteringly under Henry VIII and then fully blossoming under his son Edward VI. The Protestant Church was nearly destroyed under Queen Mary, and Cranmer himself was burnt alive, as were hundreds of other martyrs (as people had been punished for centuries).
Curiously, Anne’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, was perhaps the main beneficiary of Cranmer’s church. Coming to power after the death of the Roman Catholic Queen Mary, Elizabeth I was able to depend on the church as defined in the reign of her half-brother Edward when she was precariously trying to establish her reign in the face of overt hostility from Europe. Had Elizabeth not had this ready-made, soundly constructed church available to her, England might well have collapsed into chaos and been conquered by either France or Spain.
Queen Anne Boleyn would have been pleased to see her judgment of Thomas Cranmer so vindicated.
I was first drawn to Thomas Cranmer after reading the 1549 version of the Book of Common Prayer, as published during the reign of King Edward VI. Nearly five hundred years later, the Book of Common Prayer is still in use in over fifty countries and in many languages; confirmation of its impressive character. The Forty-two Articles and the Homilies sat alongside the Book of Common Prayer to define the Church.
It seemed that there must have been considerable organising skill, leadership, courage and knowledge to produce in those dangerous times such definitive works.
However, books about Cranmer do not, on the whole, give the impression of a man who was the leader in such a resounding task. Rather Cranmer tends to be portrayed as a coward who slavishly followed the whims of Henry VIII and modified his religious beliefs to suit the occasion. Even the books that defend Cranmer, seem to do so grudgingly.
And Anne Boleyn seems at times to be included in this disparagement; Anne’s support for Cranmer is not generally seen to be to her credit.
Hence, I decided to write a historical novel that is based strongly on the historical facts, Cranmer: Theologian, Archbishop, Matryr. All characters in the book are real, and although all their conversations are hopefully realistic.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alan Weatherall is retired and lives in Hampshire, England. He enjoyed writing during his business career; two different books, both of which were translated into Japanese. He became interested in Thomas Cranmer after reading the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. Cranmer seems to be undervalued by history; he lived in cruel and dangerous times and had to behave accordingly. Arguably, Queen Elizabeth would not have survived the first years of her reign without the church that Cranmer did so much to define. A historical novel, grounded in facts and correct dates, seemed a good way of presenting a more positive side of this major historical figure.