Thomas Cranmer

(1489 - 1556)

Biography of Cranmer

Thomas Cranmer was the main impetus behind the Protestant Reformation in England, the institution of the Church of England and the creation of the first English Prayer Book (the Book of Common Prayer, 1549). Cranmer was accused of heresy under the reign of Queen Mary and imprisoned in the Tower of London. He signed a recantation under threat of death, which he later renounced. He was burned at the stake in Oxford. An apocryphal story relates how when the flames were spreading around him, he thrust the hand which signed the recantation into the fire first and burned it off. The Anglican Church celebrates his feast day on March 21. In the process of translating the Roman (Latin) liturgy into English and creating the first Book of Common Prayer, Cranmer was faced with the difficult task of creating a new English liturgy. One of his decisions had lasting consequences for English speaking peoples, namely, the rejection of congregational hymn singing. Cranmer rejected the Lutheran chorale in favor of Metrical Psalmody. There was a brief period in the days of Henry VIII (1491-1547) that Lutheranism seemed likely to have some influence in English reform. Miles Coverdale's Goostly Psalmes and Spirituall Songs (1537-43) represented an attempt to import Lutheran hymnody into England but this book was soon suppressed (burned). After some hesitation, Cranmer came down on the side of Calvin, thus turning church song in the direction of Metrical Psalmody. Consequently, Cranmer dispensed with metrical hymns altogether. The one exception was the office hymn, Veni Creator Spiritus. This hymn is a prayer for the coming of the Holy Spirit and exists today in several English translations and is uses especially in connection with ordinations of clergy, consecrations of bishops, the laying of foundation stones, and the consecration of churches. Two other prose hymns were also kept: Te Deum laudamus and Gloria in excelsis Deo. Cranmer re-instituted congregational singing in the form of Metrical Psalms, however as far as other music was concerned, Cranmer's rubrics for the Book of Common Prayer provided only for the singing of canticles, psalms, and anthems.

Letter from Thomas Cranmer to King Henry VIII, 1544 -- from Miscellaneous Writings and Letters (Cambridge, 1846), p. 412


It may please Your Majesty to be advertised that, according to Your Highness' commandment, sent unto me by Your Grace's secretary, Mr. Pagett, I have translated into the English tongue, so well as I could in so short time, certain processions to be used upon festival days if after due correction and amendment of the same Your Highness shall think it so convenient. In which translation, forasmuch as many of the processions in the Latin were but barren, as meseemed, and little fruitful, I was constrained to use more than the liberty of a translator: for in some processions I have altered divers words; in some I have added part; in some taken part away; some I have left out whole, either for because the matter appeared to me to be little to purpose, or because the days be not with us festival days; and some processions I have added whole because I thought I had a better matter for the purpose than was the procession in Latin.

The judgment whereof I refer wholly unto Your Majesty, and after Your Highness hath corrected it, if Your Grace command some devout and solemn note to be made thereunto (as it is to the procession which Your Majesty hath already set forth in English). I trust it will much excitate and stir the hearts of all men unto devotion and godliness.

But in my opinion, the song that should be made thereunto would not be full of notes, but, as near as may be, for every syllable a note, so that it may be sung distinctly and devoutly as be in the matins and evensong Venite, the hymns, Te Deum, Benedictus, Magnificat, Nunc dimittis, and all the psalms and versicles; and in the mass Gloria in excelsis, Gloria Patri, the Creed, the Preface, the Pater Noster, and some of the Sanctus and Agnus. As concerning the Salve festa dies, the Latin note, as I think, is sober and distinct enough, wherefore I have travailed to make the verses in English and have put the Latin note unto the same.

Nevertheless, they that be cunning in singing can make a much more solemn note thereto. I made them only for a proof, to see how English would do in song. But because mine English verses lack the grace and facility that I wish they had, Your Majesty may cause some other to make them again that can do the same in more pleasant English and phrase. As for the sentence, I suppose it will serve well enough.

Thus Almighty God preserve Your Majesty in long and prosperous health and felicity!

From Bekisbourne, the 7th of October
Your Grace's most bounden chaplain and beadsman,
T. Cantuarien
To the King's most excellent Majesty

Necessary Doctrine by Thomas Cranmer

Thomas Cranmer and the Book of Common Prayer

The 1549 Book of Common Prayer

An Account of Cranmer's Death

Check out the 100 Hymn Tunes You Should Know

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Site last updated: January 17, 2007