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Thomas Cranmer’s Everlasting Gift: The Book of Common Prayer

Tudor History Tours with the Tudor Society

Book_of_common_prayer_1549Thank you to Beth von Staats for joining us here on the Tudor Society today as part of her book tour for Thomas Cranmer: In a Nutshell. She is here to share an excellent article on Thomas Cranmer and the Book of Common Prayer - thanks Beth!

Over to Beth...

Through the encouragement and patronage of the reigning monarchs of the 16th and 17th centuries, most notably King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I, literature, poetry, screen play and biographical diarist composition authored in the English language flourished. Thus, the remarkable compositions of Saint Thomas More; Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey; Sir Thomas Wyatt; Sir Philip Sidney; Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke; John Foxe; George Cavendish, and most notably William Shakespeare captured the imagination of those literate enough to read their stellar accomplishments.

With the advent of the Henrician and Protestant Reformations, translations of works written originally in Latin, Greek, German and other languages also came to the forefront. Thus through the painstaking work of religious scholars such as William Tyndale, John Frith and Miles Coverdale, literate Englishmen for the first time read biblical scripture for themselves, while also being introduced to the religious writings of Lutheran and Evangelical authors.

Who of these exquisite writers, poets and translators most profoundly captured the imagination of the people of the Tudor Era realm of England and Wales? Well given the vast majority of people who lived in the era were unable to read and had no access to Shakespearean plays performed in the 17th century, the answer is actually “none of the above”. Instead, the man whose writing most influenced the common man, as well as nobility and royalty, was Thomas Cranmer, England's first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury.

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_by_Gerlach_FlickeMost 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 Henrician 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.

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 dived 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 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) -

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.

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 tuned in faithfully from February 2008 to May 2010 to BBC One's popular science fiction and television police drama Ashes to Ashes.

Give peace in our time, O Lord.

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 not a clergyman but instead a writer by trade, 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, through his creative genius and writing giftedness, Thomas Cranmer wrote 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.

thomas_cranmer_smallBeth von Staats is a history writer of both fiction and non-fiction short works. A life-long history enthusiast, Beth holds a Bachelor of Arts degree, magna cum laude, in Sociology from the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. She is the owner and administrator of Queen Anne Boleyn Historical Writers website, QueenAnneBoleyn.com.

Beth’s interest in British History grew through the profound influence of her Welsh grandparents, both of whom desired she learn of her family cultural heritage. Her most pronounced interest lies with the men and women who drove the course of events and/or who were most poignantly impacted by the English Henrician and Protestant Reformations, as well as the Tudor Dynasty of English and Welsh History in general.

In Thomas Cranmer in a Nutshell, Beth von Staats discusses the fascinating life of Thomas Cranmer, from his early education, through his appointment to Archbishop of Canterbury, his growth in confidence as a reformer, the writing of two versions of the English Book of Common Prayer and eventually to his imprisonment, recantations and execution.

Beth von Staats, creator of the popular “QueenAnneBoleyn” website brings together what is known about Thomas Cranmer and clearly explains his role in English history.

Thomas Cranmer: In a Nutshell is available from Amazon.com, Amazon UK and Amazon's other stores, as well as through your usual book store.

Notes and Sources

  • 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.

There are 13 comments Go To Comment

  1. Eliza /

    The truth is that I got to learn about Thomas Cranmer by reading about Anne Boleyn. His quote “She who has been the Queen of England on earth will today become a Queen in Heaven” always touches me.

    But Cranmer is a very interesting figure- regardless of his patrons. What were the chances of him becoming Archibishop? Yet he did. And then, he fell, as too many Tudor courtiers/diplomats/clergymen did before him. These highs and lows make his life fascinating to me.

  2. Susan Breen /

    I had no idea he had such a far-reaching influence on the way we write and think. I’ve always been intrigued by the way the church has influenced vocabulary, but never thought about how it influenced the very cadences with which we speak. Thank you for such an interesting article.

  3. catherine /

    He is rapidly becoming a force in my life!

  4. Banditqueen /

    The prayer book service is still one of the lovely services still available today, that Prayer Book Society promotes the book and its history. The ironic thing is that today many people love the rite, whether or not they grew up with it, even young people. However, when the prayer book was new it sparked rebellions as people wanted the old Catholic Church Mass or its immediate replacement. The book was modified more than once, finally changing to the 1666, resisted in Scotland, which we have today, that incorporates the main parts of Cranmer, with additional material. The new replacement does not have the same beauty as the old.

  5. TerryLee Warren /

    I have quickly became a fan of Thomas Cranmer. he is quickly becoming a big force in my life, and I enjoy learning about him. I don’t know that much about him but I’m learning fast. Lol thank you for this opportunity

  6. Kathy /

    I have read a lot about Wolsey and Cromwell, But I didn’t know much about Cranmer. It is very interesting to learn how much impact he had in every bodies life then and now. Specially under circumstances of his time. How under appreciated his geniosity was.

  7. Esther /

    Thank you for the article. I would think that a Catholic Shakespeare could be affected by Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer (especially if he attended services, just to avoid the fines, before the Church banned such conformity), just as a modern non-Christian could be affected by the poetry of the KJV — the widespread use of the work by others means that it would be known to those who do not necessarily agree with the religious teaching.

  8. Fran Nasiatka /

    I did not know that he had done so much for the churches and what he has written for all to ready. i need to fine out more about him. i know some about him but not as much as i though i did. thanks

  9. Maria Elena Bello-Perez /

    I first read of Thomas Cranmer when I first read the biography of Catalina de Aragon. As I became more interested in the Tudor era, and read about all of Henry VIII’s wives, I couldn’t help but wonder how a man who was so willing to do his master’s bidding; regardless of cruelty, insanity and macabre, Thomas Cranmer could write so beautifully and be so inspirational and influential in the Protestant movement of the 16th Century.
    What kind of man was he really? Was he evil, corrupt, superbly ambitious; yet, God fearing? Totally a fascinating man! This is the opinion of an observant Roman Catholic I’d like to learn more to see how and if he had any impact on the Catholic Counter Reformation that followed after the Council of Trent.

  10. Michelle Nasello /

    I didn’t know that Shakespeare used Cranmers writings. That’s really cool. Very fascinating article, thanks Beth. I will be adding this to my ever growing reading list. Thank you.

  11. susan freiman /

    Most interesting is to see how Cranmer struggles with his competing loyalties, to his job and king, and to his conscience.

  12. Denise Duvall /

    Being Catholic,I didn’t realize, that he wrote the Book of Common Prayer. I still wish, that I had the 200 year old+ edition, that my parents’ had as antique dealers many years ago. That you for the giveaway.

    denannduvall(at)gmail(dot)com

  13. Claire Ridgway / Post Author

    Congratulations, Susan Freiman! You are the winner.

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Thomas Cranmer’s Everlasting Gift: The Book of Common Prayer