Close Shaves

Gerald Hammond

  • Thomas Cranmer: A Life by Diarmaid MacCulloch
    Yale, 692 pp, £29.95, May 1996, ISBN 0 300 06688 0

The last few years have seen a remarkable surge in studies of the Reformation period and this book by Diarmaid MacCulloch is the piece which completes the jigsaw, putting at the centre of the first half of the 16th century Thomas Cranmer, the archbishop with the beard who created the Church of England. Cranmer’s beard dominates the cover. Instead of the familiar Flicke portrait of a clean-shaven prelate, MacCulloch or his editor (I’d bet it was MacCulloch’s choice) has preferred the inferior and much less attractive portrait preserved at Lambeth House, where his white beard is so emphasised that Cranmer looks more like an Orthodox rabbi than an Archbishop of Canterbury. The beard also figures prominently in the book’s final illustrations, engravings which portray the last hours of his life, his burning at the stake and, just previous to that, two which show the desperate attempts by the Marian hierarchy to suppress his final recantation of his recantation in the University Church at Oxford. One of these illustrations is the official one, as it were, taken from the 1563 edition of Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, in which Cranmer still stands superior to his tormentors, in spite of their attempts to pull him down by his clothes. More dramatic is the alternative engraving of the scene, found in a slightly later book by Foxe’s printer, which MacCulloch suggests was rejected from the book of martyrs, in which a clean-shaven and tonsured monk pulls hard at Cranmer’s beard.

It seems odd at first that the Flicke portrait was not chosen for the cover, because the reading of the details of that portrait given here by MacCulloch adds hugely to our understanding of it and of Cranmer. But MacCulloch is a fine interpreter of all kinds of detail and Cranmer’s beard, it turns out, is of equal interest to the symbolic images and posture of the better known image of the Archbishop, for it signals Cranmer’s deep ambivalence about his relationship with Henry VIII. Henry made him Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533, when Cranmer was 43 years old, and he held the position under four monarchs: Henry himself, Edward VI, Queen Jane and finally Mary, the queen who had him burned. Although this book is an account of his whole life, its chief concern is with his time as Archbishop; by page 37 he is already 40 years old.

When Henry died Cranmer had been his Archbishop for 13 years, through the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn and of Thomas Cromwell. It was Cranmer’s hand that Henry grasped at the last when his power of speech was gone to indicate the confirmation of his assured Christian belief. Legend has it that Cranmer grew the beard as a sign of mourning for the man who had given him power and authority, but, as MacCulloch shrewdly notes, there is another way of looking at the beard: ‘It was a break with the past for a clergyman to abandon the cleanshaven appearance which was the norm for late medieval priesthood ... Henry’s death might rob the Archbishop of a deeply loved friend and cause him to mourn, but it freed him to be himself theologically.’

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