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Author Interview: Susan Wabuda

The author of Thomas Cranmer takes a moment to discus her new book and explain how the enigmatic archbishop shaped Tudor society. 

What got you interested in Thomas Cranmer?

The life of Thomas Cranmer (1485-1556), the sixty-eighth archbishop of Canterbury, interested me because he is among the most challenging of all the major figures of Tudor England to understand. His Book of Common Prayer defined habits of worship for generations of English-speaking people, but his career was filled with contradictions. How could Cranmer serve Henry VIII when frequently the king opposed what he wanted to achieve? How did his spiritual development change over time? How well did Cranmer work with Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell? Although intense disagreements divided Protestant leaders, during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI how did Cranmer try to build consensus in the face of opposition and possible defeat? In the reign of Mary Tudor, why did Cranmer attempt to save his life after he was condemned for heresy by retracting the opinions he had worked so hard to establish for the English Church?

Writing his biography meant that I had to try to solve a series of difficult problems about Tudor England. Some of the changes Cranmer implemented for the English Church were not reconciled during his lifetime. Some have never been fully overcome.

The role of a historian is to ask questions that will reveal something new or important about the past. I was fortunate to be trained in London by A. G. Dickens and at Cambridge by Patrick Collinson, who taught me that each generation has its own questions to solve.

Why did this book need to be written?

Cranmer’s story is important because his achievements transformed England culturally and politically in his lifetime and beyond. In a series of wrenching blows, he launched a distinctive national Church that was Protestant. He wanted England to be politically independent from the papacy, but his greatest motive was to save souls. That may be hard to understand today in our multi-cultural society, but it defined the ways that people once thought and lived.

My intention in Thomas Cranmer is to provide a guide to the life and achievements of one of the most problematic figures who ever presided over the English Church. In writing this book I have been able to answer many of my own questions about Thomas Cranmer, and I hope that readers of my book will find in it some of their own answers about Tudor history.

What findings in writing/researching the book surprised you?

Perhaps the most surprising discoveries I made in researching Thomas Cranmer were the records of his ordination to the priesthood. No one had found them before now. In the sixteenth century, Cranmer’s first biographers told the story that he had been forced to leave a fellowship at Jesus College in the University of Cambridge because he married a mysterious lady whose name has not come down to us except as `Black Joan of the Dolphin’. We cannot know that her name really was Joan, or if indeed she had beautiful dark hair. They were said to live at the Dolphin Inn near St John’s College while he supported them by lecturing at Buckingham College (now Magdalene College). The marriage was brief: it lasted a year or less before both Joan and their baby died in labour. Then, according to the story, Cranmer was allowed to resume his fellowship at Jesus. The story was so convincing that it became one of the myths associated with Cranmer. Then it became even more complicated because Cranmer married again, illegally, after he became a priest, when he was a diplomat in Nuremberg, before he knew that Henry wanted him as his next archbishop of Canterbury.

The problem was that once I discovered Cranmer’s ordination records, the story could not be true in the way that we have received it. Now we know for the first time ever that Cranmer was ordained to the priesthood in 1515. He did not give up his fellowship because he must have married while he was still an undergraduate. He needed seven full years before he completed his first degree in 1511: an early marriage would explain why he needed more than the usual time to finish. Perhaps Cranmer had not originally intended to enter a career in the Church. Perhaps his first marriage came about because he fell in love and married before he was fully prepared to support a family. It is important now to know that our understanding of what happened changes when we discover new evidence. In his second marriage, we learn how deeply Cranmer was influenced by Lutheran ideas about the importance of a married clergy.

How would you describe the book in a sentence?

Thomas Cranmer
is about the reluctant martyr who established the legitimacy of a Protestant Church in England.

Susan Wabuda

About the Author

Susan Wabuda is Associate Professor of History at Fordham University, New York, USA. Her previous works include Preaching During the English Reformation and she is currently writing a new comprehensive study of Hugh Latimer.

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