Prayer and foodies win top literary awards

A new life of Thomas Cranmer, one of the architects of the Church of England and creator of the Book of Common Prayer, is the surprise winner among this year's Whitbread literary awards, announced today.

From marriage "till death us do part" to burial as "ashes to ashes, dust to dust", Cranmer's language has punctuated English-speaking life for more than 400 years

The 600-page life of Cranmer, by Diarmaid MacCulloch, a Tudor historian who lectures in the theology faculty at Oxford University, beat studies of George Eliot by Rosemary Ashton, of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson and of Queen Caroline by Flora Fraser (Lady Antonia's daughter) to win the pounds 2,000 prize for biography.

John Lanchester's flamboyant foodie thriller, The Debt to Pleasure, won the award for a first novel, while Beryl Bainbridge's Booker-short-listed Titanic tragi-comedy Every Man for Himself gained the general prize for fiction. Seamus Heaney's collection The Spirit Level won the poetry award. The category winners now go forward to be judged for the overall Whitbread Book of the year Award, worth an additional pounds 21,000, on 21 January.

Talking to The Independent yesterday, Dr MacCulloch emphasised that Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer "is not just a religious document but a cultural artefact. Cranmer is one of the select band of writers - William Shakespeare and William Tyndale are the other two - who have changed the way we speak". From "peace in our time" and "lift up your hearts" to "in sickness and in health", language from Cranmer's prayer books and homilies saturate everyday English speech. Millions of people who otherwise never enter a church expect to be hatched, matched and despatched according to his formulations. Dr David Starkey, who teaches Tudor history at the London School of Economics and is writing a biography of Henry VIII, describes Cranmer's work as "the great quarry of English commonplaces".

Cranmer, who championed Henry VIII's break with Rome as Archbishop of Canterbury from 1533, issued two versions of the Book of Common Prayer during the reign of Edward VI, in 1549 and 1552. He also drew up the Thirty- Nine Articles of the Anglican faith, to which clergy must still subscribe. Persecuted as a Protestant under the Catholic restoration of Mary Tudor, Cranmer first abandoned his views and then renounced his recantation. When he was burnt at the stake for heresy in 1556, he put his hand into flames, saying, "This was the hand that wrote it [the recantation], therefore it shall first suffer punishment".

Dr MacCulloch stresses that "without Cranmer, England's Reformation would not have been a Protestant Reformation because Henry VIII was so confused about what he believed". He also points out the huge gap between Cranmer's conception of the Church and the modern institution: "Cranmer believed that Henry had been personally chosen by God to lead His church. I don't think that archbishops today would take that view."

However, Dr Starkey maintains that "Cranmer is essential to what is happening in the Church of England now. The whole debate concerns what is meant by a national church, and how that relates to a universal church." He claims that "the church that Cranmer created looks as if it might topple into the arms of Rome", welcomed back by some future, more ecumenical Pope as a national branch "within some sort of loosely run Roman church".

Starkey argues that "the age of Henry VIII gave us a powerful sense of national identity" which the promise (or threat) of European integration has forced the country to reassess. That makes MacCulloch's scholarly but gripping biography, originally seen as an outside candidate, a timely choice for a major award. Cranmer stands at the heart and root of Englishness, a source of both its most enduring institutions and of its familiar speech. With both changing fast, we need to know much more about the intellectual godfather who oversaw their birth.

t"Thomas Cranmer: a life"; Diarmaid MacCulloch; Yale University Press (pounds 25).

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