Thursday, March 20, 2014

Thomas Cranmer's Everlasting Legacy ~ Poetic Prose

by Beth von Staats

Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury (Jesus College, Cambridge University)

BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury

Thomas Cranmer on this day especially is remembered as a great Protestant martyr, a tortured soul who found his courage just in time to die with the knowledge that his salvation was only guaranteed by his faith and his faith alone.

Most history lovers think of Thomas Cranmer as the man plucked up from obscurity to become Archbishop of Canterbury for the specific role of settling King Henry VIII's "Great Matter" once and for all, a task he dutifully committed by finding the King's marriage to Catalina de Aragon invalid. Others think of Cranmer as the ever cautious reformer, who, hiding behind the front man and principle driver Thomas Cromwell, helped pave the way to the Henrican Reformation and introduction of an English language Bible. Then there are those who also look to him as the lead and principle change agent for the sweeping Protestant reforms that ravaged through England during the reign of King Edward VI.

As memorable as these historical events were, and as dramatic and heroic his ultimate martyrdom was, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer's greatest gift to the world is something most people never think about, his brilliance in composing a liturgical vernacular written specifically to be read aloud, the literary genre we now know as poetic prose.

1549 Book of Common Prayer
The Book of Common Prayer, Thomas Cranmer's lasting liturgy for the Church of England, now extended worldwide to the Anglican Communion, is a literary masterpiece -- his words contained profoundly embedded into the very cultural soul of the British people, the lyrical vernacular deeply imprinted into every English speaking person worldwide. As Cranmer openly admitted, The Book of Common Prayer was not his entire original creation. Through his scholarship of theology, Cranmer dove head first into the Latin of the English Catholic Church, most notably a book known as the Sarum Missal, the liturgy of choice of the priests and monks of Salisbury Cathedral. Cranmer also borrowed from the liturgy of the Reformed Church of Cologne and prayers from the the Byzantine rite.

Though today some may call this literary plagiarism, these compositions were written in Latin for the clergy. Thomas Cranmer's intent instead was to create an English language liturgy that was universally gospelled throughout all parishes of the Church of England, one whose beauty laid in its simplicity and scriptural truth. Cranmer's steadfast and primary goal in his religious reformation was to insure every person, whether educated or illiterate, could understand God's word. Thus, he didn't trifle with originality, but instead celebrated the richness of English religious traditions then only understandable to Latin scholars and translated them with his gifted hand of literary genius.

This acknowledged, it is critical to note that much of the most eloquently written and profoundly beautiful collects and prayers of The Book of Common Prayer, notable for their grace, simplistic grandeur, idioms, imagery, repetitions, contrasting reversals, general rhythms and lyric poetic cadence were of Thomas Cranmer's original composition.

Even Cranmer's writings in general through his scholarly articles and personal letters hold beauty and depth of feeling. Thus there is no Tudorphile alive who cannot quote Cranmer's professed love for Queen Anne Boleyn, "Now I think that your Grace best knoweth, that, next unto your Grace, I was most bound unto her of all creatures living...".


"See a prayer book in his hand, 
True ornaments to know a holy man." 
 William Shakespeare (Richard III)


William Shakespeare
Since the inception of The Book of Common Prayer, countless novelists, screenplay writers and poets show plainly in their writing styles and plots strong influence from the poetic prose of Thomas Cranmer. The first notable author to look to Cranmer for inspiration was none other than William Shakespeare. In fact, literary historian and Professor Daniel Swift argues that The Book of Common Prayer was absolutely essential to the playwright.

Although some historians believe Shakespeare was Roman Catholic, Swift convincingly demonstrates the playwright's use of Cranmer's liturgy in his early comedies, while the marriage rite is used in other plays. Also pronounced is Shakespeare's focus on church ceremonies for the departed in the connected rites of Communion and burial. Macbeth is the play Swift notes is most influenced by Thomas Cranmer's liturgy, demonstrating without question that Shakespeare clearly utilized The Book of Common Prayer as source material for his writing, taking what he wished and leaving the rest.

Charlotte Bronte
So engraved is Thomas Cranmer's literary style in English vernacular, many writers and composers, knowing and often unknowing "borrow" from it, enhancing the quality, rhythms and poetic cadences of their work. Most commonly this takes the form of the use of triplet repetitions, which is often seen in the writing of Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austin. It's no surprise to learn then that both women were daughters of Anglican clergymen. Examples of Cranmer's use of commonly known "triplets" include:

"...Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection..."

"What the heart loves, the will chooses and the mind justifies."

"O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed; Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give..."

Thomas Cranmer's poetic and rhythmic liturgical vernacular is as pronounced in our modern times as it was to Shakespeare, Bronte and Austin. Regardless of religion, many of us when marrying vow, "... to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health...".

Thomas Cranmer's prayer for the dead lives on eternal, as well. David Bowie and Faith No More fans sing aloud in the shower to tunes entitled "Ashes to Ashes", a theme continued in the novel titled Ashes to Ashes, by Tami Hoag and a play titled the same by Harold Pinter. Perhaps most notably, in Great Britain viewers tune in faithfully to BBC One's popular science fiction and television police drama Ashes to Ashes. 

"Give peace in our time, O Lord."

President Barack Obama
World War II history buffs will harken to Neville Chamberlain's policies of appeasement, declaring the most cherished "peace in our time", a theme continued in a politically charged song by Elvis Costello. Even President Barack Obama controversially invoked Thomas Cranmer in his second inaugural address, again striving for "peace in our time". Conservatives slammed Obama in the social media incorrectly citing Chamberlain as the source.

Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury was a literary genius, who if novels had been envisioned in his lifetime, would surely have crafted masterpieces rivaling the greatest fiction writers in history. Cranmer's brilliance lay in his sonorities and structure of the English sentence and his knack of being as astute a listener as he was an author. Thus, on this anniversary of Thomas Cranmer's martyrdom, rather than remembering the circumstances of his tragic death, celebrate instead the man with the depth and quality of composition that leads literary historians to place him alongside William Tyndale and William Shakespeare as the pronounced founding influences of the English language as we know it now to be.

Many people today will remember the right hand of Thomas Cranmer. After all, it signed the recantations that Cranmer told those listening to his last speech "troubleth my conscience", so much so that he announced and then did thrust it first into the fire that consumed him.

Instead, today I prefer to cherish the words that flowed from the quills it held, and the man who wrote with " outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace."


Aitkin, Jonathan, Common Prayer, Uncommon Beauty, The American Spectator

Swift Daniel, Shakespeare's Common Prayers: The Book of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Age

Woods, James, God Talk, The Book of Common Prayer at 350, New Yorker Magazine

Beth von Staats is a short story historical fiction writer and administrator of 



  1. I enjoyed your article very much Beth. Every book I have read portray this man as an ogre and you showed me another side of him. I will certainly see if i can read up on him a bit more. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for your kind thoughts, Donna. From a 16th Century mindset, Thomas Cranmer was actually one of the least manipulative of men in King Henry VIII's and King Edward VI's inner circles. He was a steadfastly loyal, honest and highly cautious man who was actually quite politically naive. Obviously, the accepted behavior of the times does not fit in neatly with our modern sensibilities.

  3. Tweeted this. Pleased to become more familiar with your historical writing, Beth, and the man you channel so well.

  4. Thank you, Linda. I am surprised that there is not more biographical fiction highlighting Thomas Cranmer as a major character, but I am certainly not complaining. :-)

  5. Dear Beth where can I find the other book by you called revelation?
    Thank you very much in advance


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