Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Critical Introduction by J. Churton Collins
Thomas Cranmer (14891556)
[Thomas Cranmer, the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury and one of the most illustrious of English churchmen, was born at Aslacton in Nottinghamshire, 2nd July 1489. After receiving the rudiments of his education at the Grammar School of his native village, he matriculated at Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1503. Of this College he subsequently became Fellow, and a resident Fellow he remained, except for the brief interval of a year, during which he married and lost his wife, for some sixteen years. In 1523 he took the degree of Doctor of Divinity, and read the theological lecture at his college. In 1529 an accident introduced him to the notice of Henry VIII., and his introduction to the king initiated that part of his life which belongs to history. He was made one of the Commissioners appointed from the Universities to determine the question of the Divorce of Henry from Catharine of Arragon, against the Popes dispensation. In this capacity he was sent as ambassador to the Court of Rome, and in the following year to the Court of Charles V. (January 15301). Having already been promoted to the Archdeaconry of Taunton and been made one of the Kings Chaplains, he was elected, on the death of Warham, 23rd August 1532, to the See of Canterbury, being consecrated Archbishop, 30th March 1533. Between that date and the date of his martyrdom at Oxford, 21st March 1556, his biography is little less than the history of the Reformation in England at its most critical period. The works of Cranmer are somewhat voluminous, consisting of controversial treatises both in Latin and English, of speeches delivered before Convocation or in the House of Lords, of state papers relating to ecclesiastical matters, of letters, of prefaces, and of homilies and sermons. Of his controversial treatises, which are of no interest now, the most important are: An Answer unto a Crafty and Sophistical Cavillation devised by Stephen Gardiner against the True and Godly Doctrine of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Jesus Christ, in five books. The Answer of Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury, against the False Calumniations of Doctor Richard Smith. Both of these works are contributions to the Eucharistic controversy. The treatise entitled A Confutation of Unwritten Verities appears to have been a compilation derived from materials furnished by Cranmer; it appeared many years after his death. The most interesting of Cranmers writings are his Short Instruction into Christian Religion, translated from Justin Jonas, his Preface to the Bible of 1540, his Preface to the Common Prayer Book of 1549, the three homilies Of Salvation, Of the True, Lively, and Christian Faith, and Of Good Works, which are no doubt rightly ascribed to him; to these may be added, though more doubtfully, A Sermon on Rebellion. The complete works of Cranmer have been collected and edited in four volumes by the Rev. Henry Jenkyns, and also by the Rev. John Edmund Cox for the Parker Society, in two volumes.]
AMONG the classics of English prose literature a prominent place must be assigned to Cranmer. It is not merely the writings which appear under his name in his collected works that we have to consider in estimating his genius and his influence as a master of style. There can be little doubt that the greater portion of the addresses, collects, and prayers in the Book of Common Prayer of 1549 either came from his pen or were carefully revised by him. And to say that the style and diction of those compositions have in point of purity, dignity, and sweetness never been surpassed, and that in charm of rhythmic harmony and expression they never can be surpassed, is to say what everyone will acknowledge. As the translation of the Bible, says Mr. Froude, bears upon it the imprint of the mind of Tyndale, so, while the Church of England remains, the image of Cranmer will be seen reflected on the calm surface of the liturgy. The most beautiful portions of it are translations from the Breviary: yet the same prayers translated by others would not be chose which chime like Church bells in the ears of the English child. The translations, and the addresses, which are original, have the same silvery melody of language, and breathe the same simplicity of spirit. What Mr. Froude describes as silvery melody of language is the leading and distinguishing characteristic of Cranmers prose. Cicero himself had not a nicer and more exquisite ear for rhythm, for the rhythm of prose as distinguished from the rhythm of poetry. Cranmers sentences are not like those of Hooker and the Elizabethan rhetoricians framed on the Latin model, and his music is not the music of the Ciceronian period. But as Cicero modified the harmony of Isocrates to suit the genius of the Latin language, so Cranmer modified the harmony of Ciceronian rhetoric to suit the genius of our vernacular. He adjusted with exquisite tact and skill the Saxon and Latin elements in our language both in the service of rhythm and in the service of expression. He saw that the power of the first lay in terseness and sweetness, the power of the second in massiveness and dignity, and that he who could succeed in tempering artfully and with propriety the one by the other, would be in the possession of an instrument which Isocrates and Cicero might envy. He saw too the immense advantage which the co-existence of these elements afforded for rhetorical emphasis. And this accounts for one of the distinctive features of the diction of our liturgy, the habitual association of Saxon words with their Latin synonyms for purposes of rhetorical emphasis.
It would be perilous to assert that Cranmer was the creator of our liturgic diction. The book, as Mr. Blunt admirably puts it, is not identified with any one name, but is the work of the Church of England by its authorized agents and representatives, and as we reverence the architects of some great Cathedral, for their works sake without perhaps knowing the name of any one of them, or the portions which each one designed, so we look upon the works of those who gave us our first English Book of Common Prayer, admiring its fair proportions and the skill which put it together, and caring but little to inquire whose was the hand that traced this or that particular compartment of the whole. But when we compare the style of Cranmers acknowledged writings with that of his contemporaries or immediate predecessors,with the style, for example, of More, of Tyndale, of Hooper, of Ridley, of Miles Coverdale, of Latimer, or with that of any of those associated with the numerous translations of the Bible, and the composition of the Homilies, it is impossible not to be struck with its distinctness. We feel almost certain that he must have stood in pretty much the same relation to the liturgy of 1549 as Pope stood to the translation of the Odyssey, and that his coadjutors caught his note and were as completely under his dominion and influence as director and reviser, as Broome and Fenton were under the dominion and influence of Pope.
Of the characteristics of Cranmers style we have already spoken, but its dominant, distinguishing, and essential quality is its silvery melody. And this silvery melody has chimed like church bells not in the ears of the English child only, but generation after generation in the ears of many of the greatest masters of prose expression in our language. We have the note of Cranmer vibrating in the prose of Jeremy Taylor, when that prose is at its best, in such a sentence as this, for example
Can a man bind a thought in chains or carry imaginations in the palm of his hand? Can the beauty of the peacocks train or of the ostrich plume be delicious to the palate and the throat? does the hand intermeddle with the joys of the heart? or darkness that hides the naked, make him warm?
That is Cranmers note. It vibrates also in the prose of De Quincey, in the prose of Cardinal Newman, in the prose of Mr. Froude and of Mr. Ruskin. It is greatly to be regretted that by far the larger portion of Cranmers acknowledged writings should be devoted to subjects which have long ceased to interest, being almost entirely either controversial or epexegetical. We have endeavoured in the extracts selected, to illustrate it on as many sides as possible, and so we have given specimens from his polemical writings as well as from his correspondence.