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By Diarmaid MacCulloch. Pp. Xii + 692. 44 illustrations. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1996. ISBN 0 300 06688 0. 29.95 [pounds sterling]
A new full-scale biographical study of Thomas Cranmer has long been needed. The last--by Jasper Ridley--is now thirty-five years old, and much new work has been done on Cranmer in the intervening period. This exhaustive study-not far short of twice the length of the earlier biography--admirably fulfills that need and incorporates not only the author's own extensive work on the sources but distills a gratifying quantity of new research that has been conducted by other Reformation scholars over the years, as Diarmaid MacCulloch's copious footnotes and bibliography bear witness.
Anyone who has trawled through even a fraction of the material that relates to this most turbulent of periods in English Church history cannot but feel admiration for MacCulloch's achievement in disentangling what is often a complex story in the face of evidence so frequently fragmentary, tantalising, and seemingly contradictory. In the past, Cranmer's public career has been subjected to so much scrutiny by partisans on both sides of the Reformation divide that there seems to be an almost unbridgeable chasm between those who have portrayed him as a martyr hero and those who see him as a craven, time-serving villain. The problem for any biographer in Cranmer's case is to make sense of these apparent contradictions and to find some coherence in the life of a subject who, as MacCulloch reminds us, was a very private person who revealed little even in his surviving correspondence of his attitudes and motives in the events and crises of the Reformation in which he was caught up.
Two themes which provide some of this coherence are identified by MacCulloch. The first was Cranmer's determination to promote the `evangelical' reform of the Church--understood, as he explains, in the wider sense employed by some modern historians to describe the `religious reformism which developed in England during the 1520s and 1530s' in preference to `he narrower (and often misapplied) term `Lutheranism' or any other variety of continental Protestantism. It was this evangelical drive, MacCulloch argues, `coupled' (as he observes) `with a remarkable penchant for temporary adaptations to circumstance, and adaptations of alien means to evangelical ends' that informed his part in those episodes that have proved most damaging to his reputation, rather than the instinct for self-preservation or personal advancement. The beginnings of this evangelicalism he associates with the early 1530s (rather than the final years of his time at Cambridge), particularly Cranmer's encounter with the Lutheran Osiander at Nuremberg in 1532 and his subsequent marriage to Margaret, `the one inescapable fact demonstrating his commitment to the evangelical cause'. By 1533 this new direction had turned into an increasing bitterness against the Roman Church and the papacy (now identified as the antichrist) and this antipathy was to remain with him for the rest of his life, interrupted briefly at the time of his recantations early in 1556 only to be reasserted with even more …