Today I am reviewing an excellent novella-length book, Thomas Cranmer in a Nutshell by Beth Von Staats.
First, let’s look at the blurb:
“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.”
The book is part of MadeGlobal’s History in a Nutshell Series, which “aims to give readers a good grounding in a historical topic in a concise, easily digestible and accessible way.” In this case, mission accomplished, because it was a succinct yet meaty overview of Cranmer’s very eventful life.
I was exceptionally pleased at how well written and well researched the book was. There was a massive amount of information in this small volume, and I was impressed by the breadth and depth of the knowledge it contained. I’ve undergone (for lack of a better word) monstrous academic tomes about Cranmer that didn’t hold as much information about the man and weren’t nearly as enjoyable to read as did this small volume. Plus, Cranmer touches against so many other historical figures – Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, Thomas Cromwell – that you get assorted other fun facts in the book along with a pithy but thorough view of Cranmer’s life.
For example, one of the many, many things I learned in this book is that Cranmer was opposed to arranging Henry VIII’s match with Anna of Cleves:
“Cranmer steadfastly disagreed with the match, despite being commanded one the primary negotiators for it. In his mind Cranmer believed “it most expedient the King to marry where that he had his fancy and love, for that would be most comfort for his Grace.” Furious, Cromwell snapped, “There are none meet for him within this realm!” Cranmer chimed back, “… it would be very strange to be married to her that he could not talk withal!” Both men dug in their heels. Just this once, Thomas Cromwell should have deferred.”
I also found the book to be a very sympathetic portrayal of Cranmer. Although it wasn’t hagiography and it showed the man’s weaknesses, it was assiduous about praising his strengths. Among Cranmer’s myriad good point was the fact that he was “a man that delighted not in revenging”, and someone who sought to assist the boy-king Edward VI without an eye toward the political gain for himself. Moreover, Von Staats points out that Cranmer should be recognized as a writer, as well as a theologian.
“Cranmer 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 clay in his sonorities and the structure of the English sentence and his knack of being as astute a listener as he was an author. Thus, it is no surprise that literary historians place him alongside William Tyndale and William Shakespeare as the pronounced founding influences of the English language as we know it now to be.”
She also goes into a full account of the most likely reason why Cranmer ‘recanted’ his Protestantism under Mary I. It wasn’t the threat of death; it was the ceaseless badgering of his captors along with periods of solitary confinement, which created a kind of Stockholm Syndrome in Cranmer, and made him desperate to please them rather than be left alone to rot in Barcordo prison. Nevertheless, Cranmer found the courage to refute his recantations as he waited to be burned alive for heresy. In fact, he was so ashamed he had capitulated by signing recantations that he put his right hand first into the flames that surrounded him, to punish himself for ever having wavered in his faith.
I strongly recommend this book to anyone who wants a compact but comprehensive resource regarding Thomas Cranmer, or anyone who is a Tudor period history buff.