Cranmer’s letter to Henry VIII

There are two extant letters handwritten by Archbishop Cranmer to Henry VIII which are worded almost the same, addressed, sealed and delivered on the same day in 1533.¹ The appearance of these two near clones in the King’s secretary’s record-keeping system is a strange sight and can seem somewhat bewildering. However, a comparison of the texts explains their relationship, and provides a unique view of the role of the King’s secretariat.

One version is identifiable as the first written and delivered because the same version is copied into Cranmer’s letter-book. He thought the matter was dealt with. If we compare this to the other version we can conclude that the first most have been reviewed by Henry’s secretarial staff and found wanting. The differences are clearly edits. The improved version includes a number of changes, possibly dictated to Cranmer by someone like Thomas Cromwell:

This comparison I created from the modernized texts published in Miscellaneous Writings and Letters of Thomas Cranmer edited by John Edward Cox (1844).

To see why these edits where thought necessary we have to look at the subsequent response authorizing the Archbishop to proceed with the divorce from Catherine. Some of the language used in the license — “order, judge, and determine”, “examination and final determination” — is language added to Cranmer’s request. So, what to me sound like the legal or administrative requirements of the license text were also considered requirements of the request. This is what made it necessary to retroactively change what Cranmer was asking for.

The pair of letters show us that from the perspective of the King’s Secretary the chronological sequence of request and response is not necessarily a restriction on his action. Within his realm of incoming and outgoing mail the Secretary may take whatever action is possible to further the interests of his master. As Ann Stockho describes the role of secretary: “A secretary was an agent of his master, there to articulate the latter’s will, to carry out that will, and even to help formulate that will.”² In this instance we can see how the secretary can go further than this, amplifying what’s possible. Sender and recipient become mere conventions of form.

This extension and magnification of the will of the recipient can be seen in some of the other edits to the letter. These perhaps are intended to strengthen the rhetoric for propaganda purposes, but seem to follow from the Secretary’s single-minded selflessness. Henry does not have “predecessors” but “progenitors”: his kingship is the culmination of natural forces, not mere office holding. In one deft edit Cranmer’s agency is diminished and the petitionary nature of the letter, already advanced, is further emphasized: rather than the author beseeching on his knees to Henry, he is placed prostrate at his feet by the Secretary.

1. Both of these documents are preserved in the National Archives of the UK (SP 1/75 ff. 78-81). Cranmer’s letter-book is now in the British Museum, (Harl. MS. 6148, f.4.)
2. Stockho, Ann Catherine, “The Master’s Voice: Secretarial Information Management and Gendered Authorship in Works” (2011). English Graduate Theses & Dissertations. Paper 19. (p.2)

Thank you to Louis Cabri and Rhoda Rosenfeld for their performance of the letters at the Projector Verse event on July 23rd.