Saturday, October 26, 2013

English Saints: Thomas More and Thomas Cranmer

By Lauren Gilbert

Religion played a huge part in medieval life. It is not too much to say that religion dominated every aspect of daily life. During the tumultuous time of Henry VIII, the religious life of England was ripped asunder and reshaped.

As we approach All Saints Day and All Souls Day, I thought it would be interesting to discuss two men, contemporaries, who did much to shape the religious debate and in many ways embody the disparate sides, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Sir Thomas More. Both are still the subjects of veneration and discussion today, with one being revered as a reformer and martyr in the Church of England and the other, a canonized Roman Catholic saint, being honored in both faiths.

Although both men are well known, my views were shaped as much by fiction (representations of them in novels, television and movies) as by fact. Clearly, some research was in order. As I was reading about these two men, I became intrigued by their differences, and with their similarity. As fascinating as the religious and political issues are, my area of focus became the personal issues that shaped their thinking and viewpoints later.

Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Thomas More was the elder of the two. He was born February 6, 1478, to Sir John More and his wife Agnes, in London. Sir John More was a man of substance; he had inherited lands, and had been given the right to bear a coat of arms by Edward IV. Sir John became an influential barrister and a judge in the Court of the King’s Bench. The first school Thomas More attended as a boy was St. Anthony’s School in Threadneedle Street, where he was educated in Latin.

At roughly the age of 13, about 1490, he was received into the household of John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury (who was also a close advisor of Henry VII). After about 2 years service, Archbishop Morton sent him to Canterbury College at Oxford (Canterbury College was later absorbed into Christ Church), where he studied Greek and Latin. After only 2 years at Oxford, Sir John called Thomas home.

After some time studying at the new Inn, Thomas was admitted as a student at Lincoln’s inn about 1496, and called to the bar in 1501. He also lectured at St Lawrence’s Church on St. Augustine’s City of God. In 1504, Thomas was elected to Parliament. During this time period, he also became drawn to Christian Humanist philosophy, which combined the study of Greek with the study of the Gospels. Available data indicates he was brilliant and popular, with a whimsical sense of humour; he was also unsure of his vocation. He lived with the London Carthusians for 4 years but ultimately felt no clear call to either the priesthood or monastic life.

In approximately 1505 (roughly age 27), Thomas married Jane Colt, and they had 4 children (Margaret, Elizabeth, Cecilia and John) before Jane’s death in 1511. He remarried, to a widow named Alice Middleton. Thomas’s home became a seat of learning, entertaining visitors including Thomas Linacre (English humanist scholar and physician), John Colet (English humanist, churchman and educator), John Fisher who became Bishop of Rochester (who studied at Cambridge and was Chancellor of Cambridge), among others.

Thomas was as concerned with the education of his daughters as well as his son. His career was also developing.

During Henry VII’s reign, Thomas became a Burgess in Parliament, but came under Henry VII’s displeasure during an issue involving funds for Princess Margaret’s marriage to the King of Scotland (Thomas was against it). Thomas was prepared to leave England, when Henry VII died.

Thomas’s situation improved when Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509. In 1510, he became one of two under-sheriffs of London, and was very active in the courts. With the King’s consent, he was appointed as ambassador twice at the request of the English Merchants to the Merchants of Stilliards.

On his first visit, he was negotiating for the English Wool Merchants in Antwerp when he began writing Utopia in 15115, his time in the Low Countries giving him an opportunity to observe Reformist activity in that region. (He finished and published Utopia in 1516, a satire on the corruption and abuse of power, with individual reason as a method of acquiring faith-the citizens of his mythical world had the freedom to choose their religion, but not the freedom of unbelief. It would seem to indicate that he observed some need for reform within the Church.)

His successes brought him to the attention of the King and Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey placed Thomas in his household, and Thomas was brought to court. Thomas entered the king’s service about 1517, and gained rapid preferment at court, becoming Master of the Requests and receiving a knighthood in 1521 (his father was knighted in 1518).He also became a member of the Privy Council.

He became very popular with the king and queen, who requested his presence frequently (he had to sneak out to visit his family). When the Treasurer of the Exchequer died, Thomas was appointed to that position. In about 1523 (the 14th year of Henry VIII’s reign), Thomas was chosen Speaker in Parliament. He was already actively writing against protestant reformers. His work included helping Henry with Henry’s Assertio (a response to Martin Luther) in 1521, his own Responsio Ad Lutheram (a harsh work in which he accused Luther of heresy), among others.

By contrast, Thomas Cranmer was born July 2, 1489 in Aslockton, Nottinghamshire, the second son of Thomas Cranmer and his wife Anne. The Cranmer family was considered minor gentry, long established in Nottinghamshire but possessed of little fortune. Thomas passed to his son a fondness for country sport (hounds, archery and horsemanship-young Tom was known for his skills with a pack of hound and with either the long bow or the cross bow). Tom’s elder brother inherited the property in 1501, while Tom and a younger brother received small allowances intended for their education. Little is known about Tom’s education as a boy.

In 1503, at about age 14, he was sent to Jesus College at Cambridge, where he studied for at least 10 years, obtaining a bachelor of arts in approximately 1511. One of his contemporaries at Cambridge was Hugh Latimer. Tom studied the scriptures and was exposed to the writings of Erasmus.

Thomas Cranmer by Gerlache Flicke

At this point, Cranmer made what is described as an imprudent marriage to Joan, which caused him to lose his preferment at Jesus College and interrupted his studies. He obtained a lectureship at Magdalen College, which provided a small income. He earned a reputation with his lectures, which were attended by numerous scholars, where he argued against religious superstitions. His wife died in childbirth, with the child, after about a year of marriage.

He regained his preferment at Jesus College, obtaining a master of arts and becoming a fellow as a layman about 1514. The fact that he was able to regain his preferment indicates that he was held in esteem at Cambridge. In 1520, he took orders as a secular priest (not a religious priest-more about this later). Agents of Cardinal Wolsey were looking for a body of learned men to fill Wolsey’s college of Christ Church in Oxford and seem to have offered Cranmer a position.

According to several sources Cranmer elected to stay at Cambridge and became a Doctor of Divinity somewhere between 1523 and 1526. Notes in the margins of the few surviving books from his library indicate his beliefs were still fairly orthodox at this time. He held a lectureship at Cambridge in Old and New Testaments, and was appointed one of the examiners in Theology. He had the reputation of being very strict and requiring his students to be well acquainted with the scriptures. He was also known for his mildness and simplicity.

While Sir Thomas More’s background appears to have been more affluent, these two men are strikingly similar: both of respectable birth, highly intelligent and extremely well educated. Both were exposed fairly early to Humanism and influenced by that philosophy. By all accounts, Oxford was a more conservative institution while Cambridge seems to have attracted a more radical, reformist circle.

Thomas More’s father dictated a change of study to the law after a short time, while Thomas Cranmer was immersed in University studies for over a decade (theological studies). Both seemed to be men of faith and conviction, even though there were differences in their views early on.

It is interesting to note that there would probably have been overlaps in their acquaintances, especially considering that they were both influenced by humanist philosophy. Just to name one, Thomas More’s friend, John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, studied at Cambridge, and was Chancellor of Cambridge-it seems highly unlikely that Thomas Cranmer would have had no acquaintance with him. Both seemed to be well-established in a certain career path.

Marriage is another common point with them. Both men married fairly young; a radical point of separation is the outcome. Thomas More and his wife had 4 children before she passed away after 6 years of marriage. As a widower with children, More’s decision to remarry would have been considered the reasonable decision (if not an essential one). Thomas Cranmer lost his wife and their child after roughly a year of marriage, and was not his father’s heir--another marriage would not have been essential for him.

Thomas Cranmer’s decision to take orders a secular priest seems a logical outcome of the death of his wife after a very short marriage and his immersion in theological study (a secular priest was one who had not taken holy orders as part of a religious community; there is some question about whether or not a vow of chastity was required of a secular priest, according to different works on the subject).

Thomas More’s career in law owed much at this point to his father’s standing and influence, as well as the advantages gained from Archbishop Morton, and subsequently Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII. Thomas Cranmer was much more of a self-made man at this stage of his life. These similarities and divergences show the roots of their later differences: Thomas More, in spite of his humanist leanings, was much more conservative and traditional in his views. Thomas Cranmer was already vocal about his opinions on reform.

We now come to the watershed: in 1526, the King’s Great Matter (his desire to end his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn) escalated to the divorce debate. This polarizing subject engulfed the legal and religious minds of the day in England.

During this time, Cranmer came to Wolsey’s attention and was sent on a minor diplomat mission to Spain from which he returned in 1527 to his position in Cambridge. About 1529, an illness similar to the plague, possibly the “sweating sickness,” broke out. Schools and universities (including Cambridge) were closed, and Cranmer retired to Waltham in Essex to the house of a Mr. Cressy, whose sons were his students and whose education he continued to supervise. He was still in Waltham in 1529.

After the legatine court was dissolved after revoking the divorce case to Rome, Henry went on a summer progress in southern England in 1529. Members of Henry’s court, Fox and Gardiner among others, were invited to Mr. Cressy’s home, where Fox and Gardiner met Dr. Cranmer. Of course, Henry’s divorce was the topic of discussion.

Supposedly, Cranmer the academic suggested that they pursue a collection of opinions of all of the universities in Europe regarding the question “Is it lawful to marry a brother’s wife?”. If yes, the king’s scruples would be satisfied; if no, the pope would have to decide for divorce. This narrowed the central question away from the matter of the dispensation to a point which could allow a decision that the marriage was null.

Fox and Gardiner allegedly brought this to Henry’s attention the next day. Henry met with Cranmer, and sent him to the Boleyn household. The ultimate result was that, after preparing a treatise outlining and defending the course he proposed, Cranmer was appointed to a commission with the Earl of Wiltshire (Anne Boleyn’s father) and the Bishop of London which set out for Rome in 1530. Cranmer was also entrusted with the King’s dispatches and with matters of trade to negotiate for the merchants of England. These activities kept him in Europe for a while, where he became a convert to the Reformation.

The failure of the legatine court to resolve the issue in Henry’s favour resulted in the disgrace of Cardinal Wolsey, who lost the position of Lord Chancellor. The King appointed Thomas More as Lord Chancellor in October of 1529, with More being the first layman to hold this position.

As Lord Chancellor, Thomas More upheld heresy laws, imprisoned Lutherans and other dissenters, and even ordered the burning of six heretics while continuing his writings against reformers. When Henry VIII imposed himself as Supreme Head of the Church of England (even with the limitation of so far as the Law of Christ allows established by the convocation), More wanted to resign as chancellor. However, he was persuaded to stay on and look into the “Great Matter.”

He upheld the validity of Henry’s marriage, but was allowed to stay out of the controversy. However, his opposition to Henry’s proposal to forbid the clergy to prosecute heretics or to hold meetings without his consent, and a later effort to withhold First Fruits from the Holy See resulted in King Henry VIII accepting More’s resignation in May of 1532. Reduced to near poverty, More returned home and lived quietly, engaged in his writing, but staying out of the controversies surrounding the King’s marriage and religious matters.

Ironically, it was in October of 1532 that Cranmer, who was still in Europe, received a message that Henry planned to reward him with the See of Canterbury, which had become vacant upon the death of William Warham.(Another irony: his taking position of Archbishop of Canterbury was dependent upon bulls from the pope.)

Cranmer was troubled by two issues: as a convert to the Reformation, he was not comfortable with the thought of swearing an oath to the Pope; secondly, in 1532, he had remarried. There was a prejudice against married clergy, and Henry, in particular, disapproved.

Henry obtained the bulls in February of 1533 and in March, the consecration took place. There is no indication that he disclosed his marriage or discussed his concerns with Henry or anyone else. However, he took his oaths as Archbishop openly making exceptions, taking it as it was consistent with the Laws of God, the King’s prerogatives and the statutes of the realm. By openly swearing his oath with qualifications, he apparently felt no scruples at accepting the post.

So, at this point, both men were in position for the next development in the drama that was England under Henry VIII. As the influence of one waned, the influence of the other grew. Each had their respective strengths and weaknesses; each played his part as the drama went on, with More being one of the earlier casualties of Henry’s new order, and Cranmer outliving both Henry and his son Edward only to meet his end under Henry’s daughter Mary.

I don’t intend to get into a discussion of the motivations, ethical dilemmas or other issues. What fascinates me are the similarities between these men, something I frankly had not expected. Well educated, dedicated to their careers, passionate about their religious beliefs, sincere in their desires to serve their king. Descriptions indicate that both were personable men that others liked and respected.

I can’t help but wonder if at any time these two men ever engaged in conversation. Their educational background and diplomatic experiences gave them many points in common. While their religious differences were profound, I think these two men could still have found issues on which they could agree, with both having humanist leanings and years of theological studies under their belts.

I also wonder about the age difference; More was 11 years older than Cranmer. Is it possible that, had More been born a bit later, he would have been more open to the Reformation? Would Cranmer have remained more conservative in his outlook if he had been born earlier? At the end of the day, I found both of these men to be much more interesting, engaging and human than I expected.

Sources include:

Walsh, Michael, ed. BUTLER’S LIVES OF THE SAINTS Concise Edition Revised and Updated.New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Wilson, Derek.IN THE LION’S COURT Power, Ambition, and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII.New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2001.

Catholic Encyclopedia website. “St. Sir Thomas More.”

Encyclopedia of World Biography website. “Thomas More Biography.”

European Graduate School website. “Thomas More – Biography.”

Fordham University website. “Modern History Sourcebook: William Roper: The Life of Sir Thomas More.”

Gilpin, William.The Life of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. London: R. Blamire, 1784. GoogleBooks.

Luminarium Anthology of English Literature website. “Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556).

“The Life of Sir Thomas More (1478-1535).”

Both images from Wikimedia Commons.


Lauren Gilbert is the author of HEYERWOOD: A Novel, and a contributor to CASTLES, CUSTOMS AND KINGS: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors.She lives in Florida with her husband.  Visit her website at


  1. Thanks for this. It had never occurred to me to compare these two men. I see your point.

  2. Thank you for the insight and information. I would just like to point out one fact check: More was not actually allowed to live out the rest of his life. He was also martyred. More refused to swear an oath to the King as the Supreme Head of the church which undermined everything Henry VIII was in the process of instituting and despite multiple attempts from Henry and also attempts, I believe, by Cranmer, More held strong to the supremacy of the Pope and was beheaded for his convictions. (I'm actually writing an essay on these very two men).

  3. Thank you for your comment. Neither man lived out his life. More was executed by Henry, and Cranmer by Henry's daughter, Mary. More was more faithful to his convictions, steadfast to the end. To his shame, Cranmer recanted several times but ultimately returned to his faith and died bravely. My post was a discussion of the things that struck me as similarities between these two very different men while living. I did not mean to imply that either lived out his lifetime unscathed.


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