Thomas More was an Englishman born at a critical time in European History and destined to be one of the main players in the great religious and political upheaval of the 16th century. In him we see a man who came into the world at a particular moment to take a stand on one side of the ideological battle that gripped the continent. More lived of course at the onset of the Great Reformation, and history remembers him as the supporter of the old Medieval system that was then collapsing and giving way to the Modern Age. For right or wrong, ultimately he gave his life for the system he knew and has been regarded by the Roman Church as both saint and martyr.
The famous Londoner was born into a family of privilege which no doubt paved the way for the influence the man would later have at the pinnacle of his career as Lord Chancellor of England, second only to the king. Not that belonging to powerful circles was enough to ensure his path to the top, More’s ascent had just as much to do with his intelligence and character than with the amount of money his family possessed. As all educated men would receive, More was trained thoroughly in Latin which was the Lingua Franca of Europe at the time, not only the language of the Church but of the legal system, commerce, and government. Additionally he studied the Classics and the writings of the Greek and Roman poets and philosophers as well as the scriptures and the writings of the Church Fathers.
The Catholic faith was seamlessly interwoven in the fabric of life not only in England but throughout Europe, and so More’s education naturally had a cornerstone in the religion that was Europe’s heritage for 1000 years. His nation was renowned for its piety in the late 15th century which was evidenced by the multitude of church steeples defining the skyline of London. And Thomas More was certainly a deeply spiritual person from his earliest years.
His biographers report that around the turn of the 16th century he lived in or closely by the Charterhouse, a monastery in London that had a significant impact on his spiritual formation. For four years he lived among the monks and participated in the rhythm of their lives in vigils, fasts, and prayers and was seriously contemplating becoming a priest. His spirituality took on the medieval character of self-mortification in a variety of forms. If he followed the monks in their pattern of prayers, he would have slept only a couple hours before being awoken at 11:00 P.M. for devotions of singing, chanting, and prayer which ran until 2:00 A.M. The monks would then return to their cells to sleep until 5:00 A.M. when they would gather for Mass after which they would take part in manual or intellectual work in their cells until it was time to gather again for corporate prayers. In this regimented environment, the inhabitants of the monastery would also observe other austerities and sacrifices, for among other things silence was observed outside of prayer and meat was forbidden from their diet.
It was during these years that More embraced the spiritual outlook of Thomas a’ Kempis who wrote the classic Imitation of Christ. From this great devotion, Thomas More adopted the belief in the worthlessness of the world and its rewards as well as a desire for solitude, prayer, and the longing for death as the gate to eternity. One of the main teachings of the Imitation of Christ is to recognize the transitory nature of all things. A’ Kempis writes, “Look on all things as passing away, and on yourself as doomed to pass away with them.” More seems to have taken this outlook to heart, for his subsequent writings and the way he lived his life always seem to have this undeniable fact in the background.
Though More never did become a priest after his years at the Charterhouse, his pattern of piety was established for life. Within his home at Chelsea, he had built a private chapel into which he would withdraw very regularly. Within this chapel he would shut himself in on Fridays and Holy Days to fast the whole day long. When he did eat, it was always plain fare and he never gorged himself or indulged in rich foods as did his contemporaries who could well afford it.
He seems to also have adopted the sleep deprivation of the monastic life, for he would slumber from 9:00 P.M. to 2:00 A.M. at which point he would rise to both work and pray until 7:00 A.M. when he would attend Mass. Daily Mass was always a priority and even when he was in the service of the king, he would at times keep Henry VIII waiting until the Mass was over.
In conformance with classical medieval mortification, Thomas More would always wear an itchy hairshirt under his outer garments and he used to scourge himself with a leather thong. But his spiritual disciplines were not all just inwardly directed; More visited the poor and gave liberally of his money. He routinely brought the poor, sick, and needy into his home, and at one point during a famine he was feeding 100 people per day at his manor house.
In our day and age it is almost a contradiction in terms to speak of a devout lawyer, and yet that is exactly the occupation More was trained for. Following in the footsteps of his father, he worked his way up through the ranks of the courts eventually becoming a judge. When he was noticed for his great ability, he became pulled into political positions where as fate would have it, he would become one of the king’s most trusted counselors. Henry VIII utilized him in a number of capacities to serve the crown acting as international negotiator in commerce disputes with the Netherlands and as a diplomat securing peace after the war with France.
As much as Thomas More loved and revered the law, he also was passionate about philosophy and theology. As an accomplished writer he churned out many works including probably the one he is most famous for, Utopia, a novel about an ideal society from which we use the word in every day speech. Indeed More was an idealist and through the prowess of his very analytical mind envisioned a Christian world functioning like clockwork and rooted firmly in the laws of church and state.
It would seem that More anticipated that the Christendom of Medieval Europe, the system that he had always known would continue forever. And so it was quite a shock to him when the first waves of heresy began rippling over the continent in the early 16th century. As many know well, the first “gunshots” of the Reformation were fired in Germany by a monk named Martin Luther, a man who in many ways was the polar opposite of Thomas More.
In a patriarchal age where the authority of the father figure was everything, More lived as an ideal son with paternal devotion whereas Luther was ultimately disobedient to the wishes of his father. More would follow his father’s footsteps leaving the monastery to enter the law school whereas Luther against his father’s desire abandoned the pursuit of law for the priesthood. More would cherish the law and traditions of his fathers as the backbone of the spiritual life, while Luther would seek to expel the law and paternal heritage from religion. One man was about supporting the existing institution and the other about pioneering a way out of the “bondage” of Medieval thought like a 16th century Moses.
A great divide was appearing in Europe with Luther’s brave clash with authority. An ideological battle engulfed the continent between what were seemingly opposing viewpoints. On one side was the Mass and the sacramental system, the visible means of salvation for the people of God. On the other was the subjective conviction of personal salvation and individual grace. The institution clung to the historical faith of the fathers, a set of traditions passed on through the generations while those seeking change emphasized private belief and a “feeling” faith. One camp emphasized corporate ritual and ceremony which was contrasted by the Reformers’ ideal of inner prayer.
While the new ideas were rapidly embraced in Germany, they were not well received in Catholic England. Horrified at the heretical sentiments of Luther, the British Isle took an immediate stand against him initially through the power of the pen. And the man to lead the charge against the new ideas was no less than the king himself. Henry VIII was a talented individual with not only skill as a musician and mathematician but also in linguistics and theology. As a well educated man, he had full command of Latin and in the ancient language composed a rebuttal to Luther’s unorthodox ideas. Supporting the doctrines of the seven sacraments, the Mass, and the authority of the papacy all of which were under attack, he launched a treatise against the German. The Pope was so impressed with the monarch’s zeal for the Catholic religion that he gave him the title, “Defender of the Faith.”
While the Pope might have appreciated Henry’s efforts, Luther certainly did not and wrote back attacking Henry on a personal level. It was then that More was employed to help his master in a polemical war with the Reformer. The king’s great assistant wrote “Response to Luther” again defending the visible and Catholic Church which he claimed were well supported by history, scripture, and tradition. Objecting to the traditions and customs that Luther wanted to wrest free of the church, More praised the order, ritual, and law that were the underpinnings of the faith. While Luther was bucking the system with his concepts of individual faith and conscience, More was towing the party line advocating absolute faith in the precepts of the universal church.
For Thomas More, the age old Catholic Church was a divinely established institution with the weight and testimony of history behind it. As such it was the system that had united Europe for 1000 years and brought stability to the continent holding together all facets of life in the Medieval World. For this reason, More saw all heresy as a disorder, a threat to both religion and the nation which were inextricably intertwined. He understood that both the government and the faith were founded upon divine law and perceived that unorthodox teachings were a menace that could break the system.
That his fears were not unjustified, one only had to hear the news of the mainland where Germany was in a state of civil war fully encompassed by bloodshed, rape, sacrilege, fire, and ruin. For More this was enough proof of what heresy could do, and so he blamed Luther for the chaos. As far as the man was concerned, Luther and his contemporary William Tyndale were the False Prophets of the Book of Revelation, and so he fully expected the Antichrist to come on their heels to wreck havoc in Europe. In no uncertain terms, More viewed Lutherans as “agents of demons” who needed to be dealt with severely. Initially he took up the war against heresy through his writing which he often did late into the night to keep the rebuttals circulating to his rivals’ arguments. More was particularly fearful that the writings of the Reformers would penetrate into the universities and intellectual centers of England as banned books were being smuggled into the country.
Of his many accomplishments in life, Thomas More was perhaps most proud of his work against heresy particularly through his writings which he considered a service to God. Among other things, he wanted it mentioned in his epitaph that “he had always been troublesome to heretics.” More worked closely with the clergy to stamp out unorthodox teachings and when he came into secular power took it upon himself to punish convicted apostates. He enforced a forbidden book list so that those who were found to have them were imprisoned. More wrote that there can be no “covenant” with heretics and at the last they must be “punished by death in the fire.” Indeed he lived up to these sentiments having sent several men to be burned at the stake.
And so we must ask how it is that one who has been regarded as a saint could have been so intolerant and brutally harsh to dissenters from the faith. In our day and age a good man would be respectful of people holding different beliefs and would certainly not seek to kill let alone punish in any way those who had divergent religious convictions. We must answer this question by first recognizing that the human race has morally evolved in the 500 years since the Reformation such that what was acceptable in practice among men and also before God is not necessarily so in the present time. While men of good caliber in the 16th century could advocate the death penalty and by means that we consider cruel and barbarous, it is certainly not so today. And so we must acknowledge that More acted within the bounds of what was considered normal and what conscience would allow in Medieval Europe.
But of course while actions in themselves can be considered intrinsically right or wrong, it is generally the case that one’s motivation behind the action is the greatest factor in determining the morality of any deed. With this being said, it is important to note that More’s zeal for expunging heresy was not out of hatred for his victims but out of love for the European civilization and the continent’s survival which he felt was in jeopardy of doomsday. He saw the heretics at work to destroy the clergy, destroy the Mass and sacraments, and confiscate church property, and with the civil war in Germany he truly believed that no good could come of the new teachings spreading across Europe.
Clearly More’s ruthless suppression of heretics was with the best intentions, for in his estimation they would destroy the infrastructure of society. Though after half a millennium we could say in hindsight that he was wrong about the outcome of the new religion in Europe, this was ultimately irrelevant in God’s eyes. This is to underscore the spiritual principle that it doesn’t really matter whether or not our beliefs are necessarily right or that our fears will be realized; rather it only matters that we are true to our convictions and have the courage to stick to the ideals that are dear to us. This is what God values more than being objectively right or wrong on some issue.
We can only work with the limited knowledge and the “light” that is available to us at the time we are confronted with something. And Thomas More did indeed work as best he could with the information he had within the confines of the world he knew. He could not have known that Europe would recover from the turmoil and continue another 500 years as the innovative and industrial leader of the world. He also could not have known about God’s greater plan for the spiritual progress of humanity. That is to say, the Reformation was not an accident from God’s point of view. At that time in history there was a large population of souls entering incarnation that needed a different path to God than the official Catholic faith. Of course this would have been inconceivable to More and his contemporaries, but the reason there are different religions in the world is because different kinds of souls need to be on varying roads on the journey to God.
A study of history shows that Protestantism wasn’t the first spin-off faith from a major world religion. Roughly 2000 years earlier, Buddhism was born out of the much older Hindu religion in Asia. And about the same time, Zoroastrianism, the faith of the famous Magi broke off from the far more ancient religion of Persia. In God’s Providence, the emergence of these new movements came just at the right point in history, for they each took off like wild fire. That is because so many souls were then living which could benefit from the beliefs and practices that the new faiths promoted.
During the Reformation, there were of course men on both sides of the debate. As zealous as More was for the old faith and tradition of his fathers, his opponents were the same for the new teachings. Clearly at the time, those engaged in the battle felt that one side was right and the other wrong, that one side was promoting heresy and the other clinging to worthless rituals, and that one faction was good and the other evil. Naturally though we don’t always vocalize it, we tend to feel the same way even today in such charged subjects as politics and religion. But it is naďve of us to think this way.
At least in the matter of the Reformation, both sides had something to offer of spiritual value and both parties had good men supporting their cause. Besides Luther, William Tyndale, a fellow Englishmen was one of More’s chief rivals in a polemical war. Tyndale was known to be an unworldly individual, not interested in self-aggrandizement but only in the truth. Shortly before the time that Luther posted his 95 theses in Wittenberg, Tyndale had the reputation of a man with a virtuous disposition who led an unblemished life. He ultimately did a tremendous service to God in translating much of the Bible into vernacular English.
Neither he nor More were monsters, but both were honorable men true to their convictions. Though they opposed each other on the path of faith, we must reiterate that it wasn’t a matter of right and wrong from God’s perspective, but it was about who was living up to the ideals in his heart. While there were certainly many evil people on each side of the divide who rather than embracing ideals were more interested in hatemongering and heaping malice on their opponents, there were others who sacrificed themselves for principle without thought of self preservation or material gain. These were acceptable to God, so that we could undoubtedly say that there were genuine martyrs within each faction, and among them those who achieved sainthood albeit from different angles.
Thomas More was indeed one such martyr, and we continue now the story of how he found himself on the wrong side of the fence as the Reformation continued. That Germany became a largely Protestant nation was probably more for religious reasons than anything else, but this was not the case with England whose path to Protestantism was almost entirely rooted in politics and power.
As previously noted, Church and State were more or less seamlessly intertwined in Medieval Europe and there was little precedent for a nation to ever assert itself sovereignly against the ecclesiastical powers. This was certainly true in England until shortly before the Reformation when a great controversy seized the land. Around the year 1515, Richard Hunne, a wealthy London tailor unfortunately lost one of his infant children as was not uncommon before the modern age. The matter would have been uneventful except that Hunne refused to cooperate with the age old tradition of yielding to the church the infant’s baptismal garment which was customarily given as a mortuary gift. As a result, he was summoned to the local church court at Lambeth Palace, and because he continued to be intransigent, he was summarily excommunicated.
But Hunne did not take the matter lying down. He retaliated suing the church with what was known in England as a Writ of Praemunire. It was a 14th century legal provision which protected the rights of the English Common Law and that of the king against the ecclesiastical and papal courts. Essentially he was asserting that the church had no right to slander him and lay hold of his property because he was ultimately subject to English courts.
The matter became complicated and well known throughout the country because Hunne “coincidentally” was accused of heresy and was imprisoned. Then he died in prison allegedly murdered by a clergyman. This raised the issue of clerical privilege in which churchmen who committed crimes were only subject to trial in church courts. There was at the time no secular justice for clergy.
The whole situation caused a great debate and when the consensus was to turn the matter over to the pope for a ruling, Henry VIII refused to do so. In a somewhat unprecedented way he came down on the side of upholding the Praemunire legal provision and asserting his own authority as an English sovereign against a foreign (papal) court. The event signaled a critical juncture, for England would ultimately exercise Praemunire to the fullest extent within a couple decades of the Richard Hunne incident.
That England would ultimately sever itself from papal jurisdiction was in no small way linked with the personality of Henry. The man was willful and ambitious and used to getting his own way. He also had a thirst for glory which drove him to go fight wars (e.g. against France) that Parliament wasn’t interested in. His opportunistic nature was alluded to by More who said, “If my head could win him a castle in France, it should not fail to go.” Yet for his worldly ambition, there was seemingly a pious side to him, at least in an outward way, for he attended Mass a few times each day, and of course as we have mentioned, he wrote a theological treatise against Martin Luther.
His wife, Catherine of Aragon on the other hand was a bona fide devout woman of faith. Intelligent and well educated, she was the product of Renaissance Spain which placed a value on the education of women as did Thomas More who taught his own daughters at home. She also attended Mass on a daily basis and spent hours kneeling on the stone floor of her chapel each day.
The first 15 years or so of their marriage was fairly happy until Henry began to take an interest in other women of the court. In 1526 he had an affair with Mary Boleyn and then pursued her sister Anne. At this time the historians tell us that the king was conscience stricken about the validity of his own marriage. Catherine had been briefly married to Henry’s older brother Arthur who died prematurely leaving her a widow after a very short time. Then the queen became Henry’s wife, but after researching the scriptures many years later, the king came to the conclusion that he was in violation of a couple laws from Leviticus in having espoused his dead brother’s wife. In one passage we are told, “Do not have sexual relations with your brother’s wife; that would dishonor your brother.” And another Mosaic command warns, “If a man marries his brother’s wife, it is an act of impurity; he has dishonored his brother. They will be childless.”
Catherine had had in total six pregnancies but all of her children died in infancy save one girl named Mary. Henry claimed that he had no male offspring as a punishment for violating these injunctions from the Book of Leviticus. Whether he legitimately felt this way is hard to say, but it is clear that his sexual interest in Anne Boleyn was the main motivation in requesting that the church declare his marriage invalid and grant him an annulment. However the church hardly considered his theological claim to be an open and shut case. It became a matter of debate in ecclesiastical circles whether Henry’s reservations about the validity of his marriage carried any weight.
It isn’t clear why the clergy of the 16th century might have entertained the idea that these precepts of the Jewish Law were still binding in the Christian era, yet it seems that there was enough regard for the Levitical Law to give them thought. But with that being said, it is also unclear why the ordinance of levirate marriage, also described in the Mosaic Law wouldn’t have settled the matter in no uncertain terms. That law states, “If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.” Clearly the scenario of Catherine’s marriage first to Arthur and then to Henry falls into this category, yet perhaps because it seems to be a contradiction to the other Levitical passages it wasn’t clear how to proceed with Henry’s case. So the church remained very hesitant on making any decision on the matter. To complicate matters, Catherine claimed she was still a virgin at Arthur’s death which would seemingly lend more weight to the argument that her marriage to Henry was indeed valid.
This difficult issue wasn’t getting resolved quickly at the local level, and so the Pope was asked to give a ruling on the case. The king certainly desired that the Roman Pontiff would render him a favorable decision and declare his marriage null and void, but as it turned out, politically speaking the Pope wasn’t at liberty to indulge him. The timing of Henry’s marital problem wasn’t at all good, for the Pope was unfortunately the prisoner of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who had invaded Rome barbarously cutting down men and women civilians. Inconveniently for Henry, the emperor was the nephew of Catherine of Aragon, and to make matters worse, Henry was in an alliance with France against the emperor. Clearly, for the Pope to give a judgment in favor of the King of England would be to cut his own throat, and so even if he wanted to he wasn’t free to speak his mind on the issue. So despite lots of correspondence between London and Rome, the Pontiff beat around the bush and avoided dealing with the question directly.
Finally, the Pope sent one of his cardinals to London to hear the case in an ecclesiastical court. Both Cardinal Wolsey, the Chancellor and highest ranking official in England and Cardinal Campeggio, the Pope’s representative presided over the proceedings. Henry had made it clear that Wolsey’s position was on the line if he didn’t steer the trial in the king’s direction. But in this matter, the Chancellor failed his master. The court adjourned without reaching a decision and appealed back to Rome again for a verdict. This infuriated Henry who was no longer willing to be at the whim of the church’s jurisdiction. So he immediately set course on removing England from under the thumb of Catholic Church.
Cardinal Wolsey was summarily fired from his high post, and to teach the church a lesson, Henry decided to appoint a layman as chancellor, the first time in 100 years. That layman was of course Thomas More who was undoubtedly the most qualified man for the job having served as a successful diplomat, statesman, lawyer, scholar, and long-time advisor to the king. Despite these qualifications, the king’s choice was perhaps a little unexpected. More had made it clear that he opposed the king’s annulment, and his support was on the side of Catherine of Aragon. That Henry chose him anyway again appears to have a political motivation, for the people clearly supported Catherine whom they dearly loved. No doubt the king’s appointment of More was a move to save face with his subjects. Certainly Thomas More must have been very uncomfortable to embrace a position contrary to something very near and dear to the king’s heart. That he accepted the position of chancellor despite this was apparently out of a motivation to protect both the church and the queen which he certainly felt were in danger.
More had once expressed to his son-in-law that he had three prayers for Christendom: for the cessation of war between the nations, for unified religion free of all heresy, and for a good conclusion to the king’s marital dilemma. As chancellor, he undoubtedly hoped to facilitate all of these goals, but unfortunately all hope of seeing them realized quickly eroded during his short tenure in the highest political office of the land. Nonetheless he clung to these ideals through his remaining years.
No sooner than More assumed his position, Henry began his campaign to emasculate the power of the church in England. The fall of Cardinal Wolsey precipitated a general anti-clericalism, and Henry appointed as one of his leading statesman a man named Thomas Cromwell who was himself a Reformation sympathizer. He attempted to charge all of the English clergy with breaking Praemunire in appealing to the Roman court on the issue of the king’s marriage. At the same time, Christopher St. German a lawyer and legal theorist began to publish widely his reasons for limited church power. He was ultimately successful in elevating English Common Law above Church Law and removing secular jurisdiction from church courts.
Meanwhile Henry had set a group of scholars to work digging up any references in support of national church sovereignty. Through whatever ancient Anglo-Saxon documents he could find that would support his cause, he convinced himself that the king should have ecclesiastical jurisdiction within his own empire, something that the Reformer William Tyndale had also advocated. At last in 1532 Henry proclaimed himself the head of the English Church in defiance of the Pope. But obviously this was not warmly received by the priesthood. John Fisher, the bishop of Rochester who was later martyred was the first to speak out against it. Another popular priest named Fr. Peto condemned Henry, and in an uncannily accurate prediction foretold of Henry’s demise should he continue his current agenda. He promised the king that dogs would lick up his blood as they did the wicked king Ahab’s in the Old Testament. When obese Henry died in 1547 it is recorded that his coffin had either exploded or began dripping blood. On the morning after his death, a dog was found licking the blood on the floor under the casket.
Though protest was strong and the populace remained fiercely Catholic and supportive of the connection with Rome, Henry relentlessly beat down on the clergy. Through the work of Cromwell, the English bishops and priests were stripped of all power and forced into complete submission to the king. The English Church had lost its independence, and immediately More resigned. It was very apparent that Thomas More’s dreams were being shattered and so he wished to quietly separate himself from a government that had unequivocally become hostile to the universal church of which he was a part. It was certainly a great disappointment to More but it was also a relief for him to be free from the temptation to pride and worldliness that came with his lofty post. Though that trial was over, it was hardly the end of More’s woes, for the ultimate test of his faith was soon to appear on the horizon.
Great portents and omens seemed to appear throughout England in the year 1532 heralding the monumental change that was occurring. Comets were seen regularly and people claimed to see among other things a horse’s head on fire, a flaming sword, and a “blue cross” above the moon. At this time, Thomas Cramner took over as Archbishop of Canterbury. A “yes-man” for Henry, he was appointed as such, for he supported the annulment and went along with whatever else Henry wanted. He ultimately engineered wide spread changes in the Church of England to differentiate it from the Catholic Church.
Cranmer succeeded in getting the now submissive clergy to declare Henry’s first marriage to Catherine invalid, and in 1533 the king married his lover Anne Boleyn. Sticking to his principles, More courageously refused to go to Boleyn’s coronation ceremony for his allegiance still lay with Catherine, but Henry noticed this lack of support and hardened his heart against his faithful counselor. From that time onward, Thomas More began to fear torture and death, because his enemies were attempting to link him with known conspirators. Cromwell and Henry were doing their best to produce evidence that he had consorted with those who were found treasonous including Elizabeth Barton, a renegade nun who opposed the king. But More had been extremely careful never to speak ill of the king or in any way behave in a manner less than a loyal subject. Eventually his name was removed from a bill of traitors, but this didn’t cause the would-be saint to breathe a sigh of relief. Perhaps having an inner sense of his destiny, he remarked, “What is deferred is not avoided.”
Within two years time, in 1534 Henry wished to ensure that every one of his subjects would pledge to support his agenda. The Act of Succession was drafted to acknowledge that the king’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was null and void and to consequently recognize Anne Boleyn as the true queen through which the king’s line of successors would come. In conjunction with these stipulations, the bill also implicitly denied papal authority and jurisdiction over England in any way whatsoever. It was decreed that all English nationals would be required to swear an oath to uphold this act on pain of treason and therefore death.
It was clear now that the “old religion” that Thomas More had known and cherished was about to be systematically destroyed from the top down. Unlike in Germany where there were grassroots uprisings initiating major religious changes, within England the general public had remained very devout Catholics even two decades after the beginning of the Reformation. But after only two generations of governmental suppression of the faith, it was finally expunged from the Anglo identity.
At this point More knew his fate was sealed, for he could never in good conscience support Anne Boleyn as queen let alone the denial of papal jurisdiction over the universal church. It would only be a matter of time before he was forced into an act of treason and executed. So the former Chancellor of England began to meditate heavily on the Passion of Christ in anticipation of his own death. In doing so, he put pen to paper as he so often did to write a treatise on Christ’s Passion.
More was preparing himself to die for his convictions, and we must acknowledge again that it wasn’t necessarily important from a spiritual perspective whether his beliefs were objectively right or not. That is, it didn’t really matter whether it were true that the Pope was the head of the universal church. And it didn’t matter whether or not Protestants would ultimately destroy the church and European civilization. From God’s point of view, it only mattered that Thomas More lived up to the highest ideals he knew. God works with us according to the limitation of our own understanding. He knows where each one of us is at in our development, and he is with us when we cling to the ideals we hold dearly whether or not they are indeed “correct.” Therefore in God’s evaluation of a person, it is of little value how much the individual is actually attuned to objective reality.
Certainly staying true to his convictions was an immense trial of More, for the temptation to preserve the comfortable life he had known was every present until the day he was summoned into the city to publicly take the oath he could never swear to. On the day he would leave his manor home in Chelsea forever, he said good-bye to his family and shut the gate behind him as he went. His son-in-law recalls for us that he said to him at this moment, “I thank our Lord that the field is won.” Apparently Thomas had passed the test of leaving his life behind conquering the feelings he had for his loved ones and his own anxieties about death. In the words of Isaiah the prophet, More “set his face like flint” to the road laid out before him. As Christ set his face resolutely toward Jerusalem where he knew he had to die, so did the English martyr look steadfastly toward the chopping block that was awaiting him.
We can ask at this point why More didn’t flee to the mainland to escape this fate. Of course he was under no compulsion to continue to abide in England and could have easily sought asylum on the continent with the likes of his good friend Erasmus, the renowned theologian and humanist. But he didn’t attempt to do this. Perhaps for some who wished to remain loyal to the Catholic faith it was an option but for the “Man for all Seasons” as he was called, it was not. Undoubtedly this is because More sensed that God was calling him to martyrdom, and to try to avoid it legitimately even without having to swear the oath would have been cowardice for him and a failure in the sight of God.
Along these lines we remember a story from the apocryphal Acts of Peter which tells of the apostle fleeing Rome during a time of persecution. Not that this was wrong in and of itself, but as Peter was leaving the city, he met Jesus who was walking toward the city. Peter asked him in Latin, “Quo Vadis?” meaning “Where are you going?” The Savior replied, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” At that point, Peter knew what his Master was asking him to do, and he courageously returned to the city to continue his ministry. Ultimately he was martyred on a cross upside down, for he said that he was unworthy to die in the same way as Christ.
More perhaps recalled the story of St. Peter at the end of his life and recognized that he needed to appear in London when summoned to take the oath. When he arrived there, other high caliber figures were being asked to swear to the Act of Allegiance and a handful refused like the scholar Nicholas Wilson and the outspoken bishop John Fisher. They were immediately escorted to the Tower of London to await trial. When it was Thomas More’s turn to take the oath, he too refused, but the officials recognizing that this was a man who had served England well were not quick to send him off to the Tower as well. Instead they gave him more time to think about it. But while he was given a small reprieve from the inevitable, the former Chancellor watched as other good men caved under pressure like the cleric Rowland Phillips. Though known for his orthodox stances and devotion to the Catholic faith, he capitulated and signed the oath. Thereafter he was seen down in the local tavern presumably easing his conscience and drowning his sorrows after having failed so miserably. Sadly not all whom God invites to martyrdom have the courage to go through with it. Indeed some of the early Christians chose to burn incense to Caesar rather than face the lions. Such souls will undoubtedly be given an opportunity to make up for their act of weakness at a future time.
We must be very careful not to condemn those who didn’t have the strength to hold fast to their convictions, especially when considering the fate of a traitor in 16th century England. Those who had committed treason faced a grizzly death which entailed first being dragged through the streets of the city over rough stones, mud, and mire. Then the victim was hanged until he lost consciousness only to be revived for further tortures. At that point, his penis was cut off and stuffed in his mouth. His stomach was cut open and his intestines were thrown into a pot of boiling water that the dying man might smell his own mortality. Then as if the suffering couldn’t be any worse, the executioner would pluck the man’s beating heart from his body and show it to the victim. The whole affair was then brought to closure through “mercifully” beheading the victim. The head of the traitor was subsequently boiled and placed upon a stake on London Bridge to serve as a deterrent to any who would betray his country. Clearly the barbarity of mankind was great in Medieval Europe, and we have come a long way 500 years later. But as we alluded to before, that was the extent of the consciousness of the 16th century European who like More could burn a heretic at the stake without thinking twice about it.
Needless to say, the barbarous death that Thomas More faced was a great burden to him, and he feared that while he languished in prison he wouldn’t be strong enough to face the torture that was seemingly inevitable. While incarcerated he had to endure the temptation to give in on a number of occasions, for both his family and Thomas Cromwell urged him to reconsider his position. He was told that all would be forgiven him and that he would be in good stead with the king again whom he had loyally served for so long if he would only pledge the oath. It took a great deal of fortitude, but More resisted the temptation repeatedly.
He sought strength from his spiritual devotions which he continued to practice with as much fervor as before. Fortunately he had the freedom to walk about the compound and so was able to attend Mass everyday within the confines of the Tower. He also had his copy of the New Testament as well as the Psalms and other devotionals to offer him consolation, and he meditated on Peter’s denial, the martyrdom of Stephen, and the Passion of Christ to prepare himself for what was to come. Thomas continued to wear his hairshirt in prison, fasted, and made other penances and devoted himself to prayer by day and night.
In the large stone room where he was incarcerated, he fortunately was able to continue his writing as well, and he wrote Dialogue of Comfort, an overflow of his own feelings and fears in the form of bizarre stories that his imagination concocted. More tried to take a bird’s eye view of life, and so he took consolation that in a real sense, the world itself was a prison in which all men were confined and would eventually die. He would only perish a little sooner than his contemporaries. Certainly that he maintained a firm grasp on the transitory nature of life helped him not to cling too tightly to this short existence that we have in the flesh, for he set his sites on the more permanent reality of heaven.
Thomas More’s family was allowed to visit him which in itself should have been a consolation for the prisoner, but as we mentioned, though offering their love, they couldn’t help but continue to encourage him to do what just about everyone else in the kingdom was doing and take the oath. Even More’s good friend Erasmus couldn’t endorse his decision to willingly sacrifice himself for these convictions and said he should “leave theology to the theologians.” Such friends and family just were unable to understand Thomas More and the motivation for his choices. He was therefore not only alone physically in his cell but mentally and emotionally for no one could embrace the path he had chosen. This in itself is a lesson for us, for it is true that the one who walks by the path of faith often walks alone. Few if any can identify with the man of faith who at odds with his peers is inspired by heavenly guides to do what is often counter-cultural and foolish in the eyes of men. This too is a test for a would-be saint, but it is no less a trial than what the Lord himself endured. We must recall that Jesus was abandoned by his followers when his Passion began and had to rely completely on God for consolation. Ultimately those who tread the path of faith must do the same, but as More had a strong interior life and was used to much solitude in his private chapel over the years he was up to the task. And so he composed his last work in prison called “The Sadness of Christ,” a meditation on the Savior’s suffering which served as an aid to him in the distress of his own impending martyrdom.
More remained in prison for a year after refusing the oath, but by the spring of 1535 circumstances would bring his great test of faith to an end. It was at the end of May that the new Pope Paul III decided to make John Fisher a cardinal, undoubtedly an honor bestowed on him for courageously standing up to Henry’s agenda to break away from the universal church. But not unexpectedly, this enraged the king who saw it as a major affront to promote a “traitor” into a prince of the Church. Though the red cardinal’s hat had been sent from Rome, it is recorded that “the head was off before the hat was on.” John Fisher was dispatched immediately before such honor could reach him in his prison cell. Fortunately for Bishop Fisher, he was too weak at the time to survive the full brutal traitor’s death, and so his sentence was commuted to simple beheading. That God was giving a stamp of approval to the man who boldly defied the king is attested by the eyewitnesses who watched his execution. When the axe fell upon his neck, a great flow of blood issued forth from his emaciated body, much more than would normally be expected seemingly to be a sign of his martyrdom. When his head was on display on London Bridge, it was said to become “ruddy and comely.” Apparently this was another miracle to testify to his sanctity, and this enraged Henry so much that he demanded that his head be thrown into the Thames.
Shortly thereafter, Thomas More entered his formal trial and was found guilty and sentenced to a traitor’s death, yet at the end of his trial he demonstrated the same kind of benevolence as St. Stephen praying that those who accused him of treachery would also join him in heaven. More made his argument flawlessly flowing from the brilliant legal mind that he had, but no one was interested in sympathizing with his logic. It was the king’s will that was prevailing in the land and that is all that mattered.
After the trial, More blessed his children who were present and then comforted the prison warden William Kingston who wept openly at the fate of one of the most honorable men in all of England. He then returned his hairshirt and scourge to his wife Alice as he would not longer be needing to offer any more penances in this life.
At dawn on July 6th, More was informed that he would die a few hours later at 9:00 A.M. And this was a source of comfort to him, because it happened to be a feast celebrating the other English Saint Thomas a’ Becket who was murdered by the knights of King Henry II many centuries earlier. He in a similar scenario to Thomas More had been in conflict with another Henry about the rights and privileges of the church, and so it seemed like a sign from God that More’s death should be aligned with his predecessor in the faith.
When he was led out to execution, More was offered wine, but he refused it saying, “My master had vinegar and gall, not wine, given him to drink.” In an act of mercy, Henry commuted his former servant to death by beheading because of his long years of loyal service. And so Thomas More’s life ended with one stroke of the axe. His body was interred in the church within the Tower and his head was boiled and raised up on a staff on London Bridge after which his daughter obtained it as a relic before it was thrown into the Thames. So ended the life of one of God’s faithful servants, the first English layman to be beatified as a saint and martyr of the Catholic Church.