Thomas Cranmer is both the best and the worst of biographical subjects. He was the longest lived of the tiny band of survivors at the court of that English bluebeard, Henry VIII, managing to retain not only his head, but the affection, loyalty and active support of his ferocious master, while abler politicians - and better men - went down like nine-pins around him. He was midwife to the Church of England, that extraordinary religious hybrid that combined a stark, mainly Swiss Protestant theology with a virtually unreformed Catholic structure and much of the liturgical and devotional ethos of the late middle ages. He was the author of one of the formative monuments of English culture, the Book of Common Prayer, whose sublime prose and austerely homely religious vision shaped English sensibility for the next four centuries. And when, after months of terrified dithering, he died nobly in Mary Tudor's reign for the Protestant cause, he helped cement into English consciousness the identification of popery with tyranny. To understand Cranmer is to reach to the roots of what has made England.
Yet he built round himself an almost impenetrable emotional and intellectual shield. His letters and theological writings lack the flashes of self-revelation that are everywhere in the correspondence and polemic of contemporaries such as Thomas More or Hugh Latimer. We know next to nothing of his friendships, his relation with his wives or his feelings for his children. Even the evolution of his religious opinions has to be pieced together from scattered clues like the mostly uninformative marginal jottings in his books.
Now, in Diarmaid MacCulloch's splendid biography, we have at last a full and mostly convincing picture of this elusive figure. MacCulloch has an unrivalled grasp of the network of contacts, patronage and clientage that underlay the life of Tudor England. With extraordinary sure-footedness, he has pieced together Cranmer's career, from his East Midland roots (a family not far above the level of yeomen but prickly jealous, as the archbishop was to remain, of their gentry status), through early Tudor Cambridge, into the labyrinth of the Tudor court and, at last, to martyrdom by fire and immortality.
In the process, MacCulloch demolishes many myths and revises old certainties. He demonstrates, for example, that Cranmer did not, as has always been assumed, first spring from academic obscurity into royal favour in 1529 on the back of the divorce issue: he had served and met Henry on a minor diplomatic mission to Spain in 15. In a brilliant piece of theological detective work, he shows that the detestation of the papacy that lay at the heart of Cranmer's mature religious views was nowhere in evidence in the late 1520s. Marginal annotations in Cranmer's copy of John Fisher's attack on Luther show Cranmer cheering for Fisher and denouncing Luther's scandalous anti-papalism. His journey away from the humanist Catholicism he had imbibed in Fisher's Cambridge was a slower process than has generally been thought.
MacCulloch is always interesting on Cranmer's theological development. Drawing both on his own mastery of the archives and, with generous acknowledgement, on a generation of new theological research, he is concerned to show the radically Protestant thrust of the archbishop's thought and his eagerness to link the English Reformation to European pan-Protestantism. MacCulloch is especially dismissive of earlier attempts to turn Cranmer into the patron saint of an Anglican via media: at one point, he talks of the "theological fool's gold" of Anglo-Catholic attempts to read Cranmer's first Prayer Book of 1549 as a moderate "Catholic'' document. These are salutary correctives, though in making them MacCulloch sometimes over-interprets his evidence. The seal Cranmer designed for his faculty office in the late 1530s is, as MacCulloch says, a noble renaissance artefact, but in view of its portrayal of the Crucifixion it hardly qualifies as a manifestation of evangelical iconography "untainted by popish image-worship''.
MacCulloch's Cranmer is a man whose moral warts are much in evidence. There is no attempt, for example, to palliate the shabbiness of the protestation Cranmer made before his consecration as archbishop, in effect declaring that when he took the required oath of obedience to the pope, he would not mean a word of it. MacCulloch is clear, too, about the naked fear for his life that motivated Cranmer's acceptance of the conservative Act of Six Articles, which more principled reformers refused. MacCulloch's brilliant and moving portrayal of the archbishop's last months - with its violent swings of emotion, belief and allegiance - is all the more effective because he is unblinking about the archbishop's human frailty and refuses to milk the material for the pathos it undoubtedly holds.
All the same, one may feel that MacCulloch is sometimes too kind to his subject. The author shows us, but does not much reflect on, the financial and political ineptitude that prevented Cranmer's putting up any effective resistance to the stripping of the archbishopric of much of its influence, revenue and prerogatives. He is impressed, as anyone with a heart must be, by what he calls the "muddled heroism'' of Cranmer's belated refusal to recant, and the courage with which, at the last, he faced his terrible death.
Indeed, in the hesitations and inconsistencies that preceded his death, MacCulloch sees something endearing, a sensibility to which the late 20th century can relate more easily than to the heroic self-confidence of less fragile zealots. In place of the founding father of the via media, the author offers us the patron saint of "honest doubt and hesitancy''. Above all, his Cranmer is dedicated to the creation of a Protestant England, but he is a private man with a questing mind, strong on human decency but less strong on fixed certainties.
His prime example of the archbishop's decency is the letter he wrote to Henry VIII in May 1536 on hearing of Anne Boleyn's arrest for adultery, incest and treason. Anne was innocent, a victim of court intrigue and Henry's bitter disappointment at her failure to produce a male heir. Cranmer owed a good deal to her patronage, and his letter to Henry is a nuanced masterpiece. It recalls his indebtedness to the disgraced queen (which he could not conceal), expresses amazement that she should be accused of such crimes, yet declares that if she were indeed guilty then all true supporters of the Reformation she had patronised must detest her and desire her death.
MacCulloch considers the letter "a model of pastoral wisdom and courage'', loyal to Anne and fatherly to Henry. It reads more like a brilliant exercise in damage limitation, as Cranmer extricated himself and, in the process, the Protestant cause, from the wreck of Anne's fortunes. The letter is far from contemptible on any count, but it is a prime example of the skills that enabled Cranmer to survive in Henry's court, and it suggests a colder, more calculating sensibility than MacCulloch is always prepared to acknowledge.
If doubt remains about Cranmer's motives and stature, however, that was Cranmer's own intention. The archbishop's secretary and admirer, Ralph Morice, commented on the imperturbable front he presented to the world, so that even his intimates "never or seldom perceived by no sign or token of countenance'' his response to events: he would have been a formidable poker player. In this unfailingly lively, shrewd and humane biography, exhaustive but never exhausting, MacCulloch has penetrated that imperturbable exterior. In the process he has provided an unrivalled 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 is reader in church history, University of Cambridge.
Thomas Cranmer: A Life
Author - Diarmaid MacCulloch
ISBN - 0 300 06688 0
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £29.95
Pages - 692