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St. Thomas More
Martyr, Chancellor of England

1535 (July 9)

From Lives of Saints with Excerpts from their writings
Published by John J. Crawley & Co., Inc. New York,
Nihil Obstat:  John M. A. Fearns, S.T.D., Censor Librorum
Imprimatur:     +Francis Cardinal Spellman, Archbishop of New York
August 7, 1954


Twice in the history of England there appears the figure of a great martyr who was also chancellor of the realm.  Thomas Becket, whose story appears earlier in this volume, gave his life to keep the English Church safe from royal aggression; Thomas more gave his in a vain effort to preserve it from further aggression.  Each was a royal favorite who loved God more than his king.  The coincidence is striking, although on closer comparison the differences are also striking; first, those of time and statue, between the high ecclesiastic of the late twelfth century and the layman of the Renaissance; and, more importantly, the differences in character and way of life.

            Thomas More's father was a highly-esteemed citizen of London, Sir John More, lawyer and judge; his mother was Agnes, daughter of Thomas Grainger.  He was born on Milk Street, Cheapside, on February 7, 1478.  As a child he was sent to St. Anthony's School in Threadneedle Street, whose director, Nicholas Holt, a fine Latin scholar, taught boys of good family their classics.  At the age of thirteen Thomas was taken into the household of John Morton, archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor, who was soon to become a cardinal.  It had long been a custom for promising youths to be placed in the homes of noblemen and ranking churchmen to learn the ways of great gentlefolk.  Thomas admired Morton and he, fortunately, liked the boy, and was instrumental in having him sent on to Canterbury College, Oxford.  Sir John More was very strict with his son, allowing him money only for necessities.  Later in life Thomas admitted that his father's parsimony during this period had the good effect of keeping him at the studies which he really loved.  Linacre, the finest Greek Scholar in England, was his tutor and inspired him with such a zest for Greek literature that his father feared for the legal career he had planned for his son, and called him home after only two years at the university.  By this time Thomas knew Greek, French, and mathematics, spoke Latin as well as English, and could play the lute and the viol—all proper accomplishments for a young gentlemen of that day.

            In February, 1496, he was admitted as a student to Lincoln's Inn; in 1501, at twenty-three, he was called to the bar, and for three years thereafter was reader in law at Furnival's Inn; then he entered Parliament.  He was already a close friend of the eminent Dutch humanist, Desiderius Erasmus, who had been teaching Greek at Cambridge and Oxford.  Among other friends were Colet, the scholarly dean of St. Paul's, and William Lilly, with whom he composed epigrams in Latin from the Greek Anthology.  He lectured on St. Augustine's City of God at the church of St. Lawrence Jewry, of which Willaim Grocyn was rector.  All in all, Thomas More was a versatile, brilliant, and successful young man, as well as extremely popular and charming.  Of his sense of humor, Erasmus wrote, "From childhood he had such a love for witty jests that he seemed to have been sent into the world for the sole purpose of coining them; he never descends to buffoonery, but gravity and dignity were never made for him.  He is always amiable and good-tempered, and puts everyone who meets him in a happy frame of mind."

            More was seriously perplexed as to his vocation.  He was strongly attracted by the austere life of the Carthusian monks, and had some leaning too towards the Friars Minor of the Observance; but there seemed to be no real call to either the monastic life or the secular priesthood.  Though he remained a man of the world, he kept throughout life certain ascetic practices; for many years he wore a hair shirt next his skin, and followed the rules of Church discipline for Fridays and vigils; every day he assisted at a Mass and recited the Little Office of Our Lady.

            At about this time More met a certain John Colt of Essex, and became acquainted with his family, which included three daughters.  More now took the decisive step of marriage, choosing the eldest daughter, Jane.  According to his son-in-law, William Roper, he thought the second daughter fairest, "yet when he considered it would be both great grief and some shame also to the eldest to see her younger sister preferred before her in marriage, he then, of a certain pity, framed his fancy towards her, and soon after married her."  He and Jane were nevertheless very happy together; he set himself to teach her the literary and musical accomplishments which the wife of a man in More's position needed to have.

            Four children were born to them, Margaret, Elizabeth, Cecily, and John.  In addition, several children of friends were reared in their household, and here More tried out his original ideas in education.  The house was for years a center of learning and culture, and of high good spirits as well.  The girls were taught as carefully as the boys, a practice for which More had the authority of "prudent and holy ancients," such as St. Jerome and St. Augustine.  At mealtime a passage from the Scriptures, with a short commentary, was read aloud by one of the children; afterwards there was singing and merry conversation; cards and dicing were forbidden.  Family and servants met together for evening prayers.  More himself built and endowed a chapel in his parish church of Chelsea, and even when he had attained the rank of Lord Chancellor he sang in the choir, dressed in the ordinary surplice.

            He was extremely sensitive to the sufferings of others.  "More was used," wrote a friend, "whenever in his house or in the village he lived in there was a woman in labor, to begin praying, and so continue until news was brought him that the delivery had come happily to pass. . . .  His charity was without bounds, as is proved by the frequent and abundant alms he poured without distinction among all unfortunate persons.  He used himself to go through the back lanes and inquire into the state of poor families. . . .  He often invited to his table his poorer neighbors, receiving them . . . familiarly and joyously; he rarely invited the rich, and scarcely ever the nobility. . . .  In his parish of Chelsea he hired a house in which he gathered many infirm, poor, and old people, and maintained them at his own expense."  But if the rich were rarely seen at his house, his friends Grocyn, Linacre, Colet, Lilly, and Fisher, all distinguished for scholarship and virtue, were frequent visitors; and famour men from across the Channel sought him out—Erasmus, whom we have spoken of, and Holbein, who has left us a fine portrait of More as well as a beautiful drawing of the More family group. 

            The first years of his married life were spent in Bucklersbury.  Here in spare time More translated from Latin into English the life of the Italian humnist, Pico della Mirandola, and, with Erasmus, some Dialogues of the second-century satirist, Lucian of Samosata, from Greek into Latin.  In 1508 he was abroad visiting the Universities of Louvain and Paris.  He may also have had a hand in Erasmus' most popular work, The Praise of Folly, written in More's house that same year.  More had led the opposition in Parliament to excessive royal taxation, and brought the king's ire down on himself and his father, old Sir John More, who was imprisoned in the Tower for a time and fined a hundred pounds.  In 1509 King Henry VII died, and the accession of the youthful Henry VIII meant a rise in worldly favor and fortune for the More family.  The following year Thomas was elected a bencher of Lincoln's Inn and appointed undersheriff for the city of London, an office of considerable importance.

            An almost the same time, his "little Utopia," as More called the family group, was sadly shaken by the death of his dutiful young wife.  Since More was preoccupied with many diverse interests and duties, he needed someone to care for the four children.  Within a short time, therefore, he married Alice Middleton, a widow seven years his senior, a practical and kindly woman.  Erasmus wrote of this marriage: "A few months after his wife's death, he married a widow. . . .  She was neither young nor fair, with whom he lived as pleasantly and sweetly as if she had all the charms of youth.  You will scarcely find a husband who by authority or severity has gained such ready compliance as More by playful flattery."

            Some years later More bought a new house and garden in Chelsea, then a small country village.  It was his home until his death.  In 1515 he was away for six months in Flanders, as a member of an English delegation to negotiate new trade agreements with the merchants of the Hanseatic League.  In the intervals of leisure between business trips to Antwerp, he now worked on the famous Utopia, which he published the following year.  There is no space here to discuss fully the significance of this remarkable book.  It is proof both of More's thoughtful reading of Plato and of his profound interest in the social, economic, and political problems of his own time.  As undersheriff since 1510, he had been brought into contact with much suffering, destitution, injustice, and unemployment.  His picture of a commonwealth that was happier  and radically different from the realm of England, one that was free from poverty and inequality, was both a challenge to constructive political thinking on the part of the statesmen of Europe and a plea for a better life for people in general.  He wrote the book in Latin, that it might be read by the educated everywhere, and since it was both brilliant and provocative, it produced strong reactions—amusement, horror, or admiration.  Within three years after its first appearance in Louvain it was published in Paris, Basle, Florence, Vienna, and Venice.  It is Utopia that gives More his high place in the fields of social philosophy and letters.

            The king and Cardinal Wolsey were now set on having More's services at the court.  More had no illusions about Henry or court life, and knew that he could do little to remedy the vices which prevailed in the royal circle.  Yet his conscience told him that that was no reason for "forsaking the commonwealth," and that which he could not turn to good, he must "so order that it be not very bad."  In the year Utopia was published he was obliged to accept from the king an annual pension of a hundred pounds; in 1517 he became a member of the King's Council and a judge in the Court of Requests.  As a member of the Council he accompanied Henry to the "Field of the Cloth of Gold," where the kings of England and France vied with one another in magnificence and in making promises that were soon broken.  He was taken as Wolsey's confidant on a diplomatic mission to Calais and Bruges.  In 1521 he was appointed under-treasurer, and privy-councilor, and raised to knighthood.  His awards and honors make a long catalogue: grants of land in Oxfordshire and Kent; Latin orator in 1523, when the Emperor Charles V paid a state visit to London; speaker of the House of Commons, and author of the answer to Martin Luther's attack on the king's book, Defense of the Seven Sacraments; steward of Oxford University in 1524 and of Cambridge University in 1525, and chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster; again, in 1527, with Wolsey to France, and two years later with Bishop Tunstal of London to Cambrai to sign the treaty which meant a temporary pause in the wars of Europe.  In October, 1529, Henry chose him as chancellor to succeed Wolsey, who had roused the king's wrath by opposing his scheme for nullifying his marriage.  Thomas More was the first layman to hold the office.

            Erasmus gives us a picture of More at this period:  "In serious matters no man's advice is more prized, while if the king wishes to recreate himself, no man's conversation is gayer.  Often there are deep and intricate matters that demand a grave and prudent judge.  More unravels them in such a way that he satisfied both sides.  No one, however, has ever prevailed on him to receive a gift for his decision.  Happy the commonwealth where kings appoint such officials!  His elevation has brought with it no pride. . . .  You would say that he had been appointed public guardian of those in need."  Another tribute from More's confessor speaks of his remarkable purity and devotion.  But in spite of his many honors and achievements, the public esteem which he enjoyed, and the many tokens of the royal regard, More knew well that there was no security in his position.  "Son Roper," he once said to his son-in-law, "I may tell thee I have no cause to be proud thereof, for if my head would win him a castle in France, it should not fail to go."

            Although Henry's relations with the Pope had by this time become strained, More's time and thought were largely taken up with the general movement against Church authority in England.  He composed answers to Protestant attacks and dealt with problems of heresy.  Tyndale, then the leading English Protestant, was his ablest opponent.  This scholar and reformer had left England for the Continent, in order to find freedom for the work he wished to do.  At Worms he published the first Protestant translation of the New Testament from the Greek text, and at Marburg a translation of the Pentateuch.  Tyndale was a better popular debater than More; the Chancellor was moderate and fair, and could top off his scholarly argument with a shaft of wit, but his style was less vigorous and trenchant.  As a controversial writer his chief work was A Dialogue . . . Wherein he treated Divers Matters, as of the Veneration and Worship of Images and Relics, Praying to Saints, and Going on Pilgrimage.  With many other things touching the pestilent sect of Luther and Tyndale . . . (London, 1529)  Tyndale replied in 1531, and two years later More published a Confutation, a discursive treatise in which he touched incidentally on the doctrine of the Pope's infallibility.

            In his Apology and again in The Debellation of Salem and Bitance (both in 1533) he defended the principle of punishment of heresy by secular power on the ground that it threatened the peace and safety of the commonwealth.  As Chancellor it was his duty to administer the civil laws of England, which prescribed the death penalty for obstinate heretics.  Nevertheless, during his term of office only four, it seems were burned, and these were replapsed persons, whom he had no power to reprieve.  Actually, it was heresy and not the heretics that More tried to get rid of.

            One of Tyndale's vehement charges against the Catholics was what he called their failure to give the complete Bible to the people in a language they understood.  His own translations were being smuggled into England from the Continent and avidly read.  More favored the dissemination of selected books of Scripture in the vernacular; the reading of other books, he thought, should be at the discretion of every man's bishop, who would probably "suffer some to read the Acts of the Apostles whom he would not suffer to meddle with the Apocalypse."  More added that some of the best minds among the Catholic clergy were also of this opinion.         

            When  at length the break between King Henry and the Pope became open and the English clergy were commanded by Henry to acknowledge him as "Protector and Supreme Head of the Church of England, . . . so far as the law of Christ allows," More wished to resign his office, but was persuaded to retain it and turn his attention to Henry's "great matter"—his petition for a nullification of his marriage with Catherine of Aragon, on the ground that she had previously been the wife of his dead brother Arthur.  The actual reason behind the petition was Henry's desire for a male heir and his infatuation with a young woman of the court, Anne Boleyn.  The idea had been mooted first in 1527, and the failure in 1529 of a papal commission under Cardinal Campeggio to grant Henry's request, had been the cause of the downfall of Wolsey, who, the King thought, might have persuaded Campeggio to decide in his favor.

            This drawn-out affair, which shook Christendom to its very foundations, was indeed so involved as to fact and law, that men of good will might well disagree on it.  More, after much study of Church authorities, had become convinced of the validity of Henry's marriage to Catherine, but, as a layman, had been allowed to refrain from taking sides publicly.  When, in March, 1531, he reported to Parliament on the state of the case, he was asked for his opinion and refused to give it.  In 1532 came the "submission of the clergy," who were now forced to promise to make no new laws without the King's consent and to submit to the laws they had to a commission for revision.  Later in the year an Act of Parliament prohibited the payment of annates, or first year's income from Church appointments, to the Holy See.  At this More could no longer stand by in silence.  To Henry's exasperation, he opposed the measure openly, and on May 16 offered his resignation as chancellor.  He had held the office for less than three years.

            The loss of his office and its perquisites reduced More to comparative poverty.  Gathering his family around him he cheerfully explained the situation, adding, "Then we may yet with bags and wallets go a-begging together, and hoping that for pity some good folk will give us their charity, at every man's door to sing Salve Regina, and so keep company and be merry together."  For the next eighteen months he lived very quietly, occupied with writing.  He declined to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn, though by the King's order three bishops wrote asking him to come and sent him money to pay for the necessary robes.  He kept the money and stayed at home, explaining to the bishops that his honor would not allow him to grant their request, but that he accepted the money with gratitude and without scruple, since they were rich and he was poor.

            More was not permitted to escape the royal displeasure.  The case of the so-called "Holy Maid of Kent" served as a means of incriminating him.  This woman, a Benedictine nun by the name of Elizabeth Barton, had for some time been creating a sensation by falling into trances and seeing visions, on the strength of which she warned evildoers of terrors to come.  Eventually she was prevailed upon to condemn Henry's treatment of Catherine and prophesy his early death.  In consequence she was seized, imprisoned in the Tower, and in April, 1534, executed for treason.  In the bill of attainder drawn up against her were included, as sharers in her guilt, the saintly bishop of Rochester, John Fisher, and Thomas More.  Fisher had been impressed by the nun's revelations, and More had seen and spoken to her, and at first given some countenance to her claims, though he ended by calling her a "false, deceiving hypocrite."  The Lords expressed a wish to hear More for themselves in his defense.  Henry, knowing well that More had many stanch friends in Parliament, had the charge against him withdrawn.

            In March Pope Clement VII formally pronounced the marriage of Henry and Catherine valid and therefore not to be annulled.  A week later an Act of Succession was pushed through Parliament, requiring all the king's subjects to take oath to the effect that his union with Catherine had been no lawful marriage, that his union with Anne Boleyn was a true marriage, and that their offspring would be legitimate heirs to the throne, regardless of the objections of "any foreign authority, prince, or potentate."  Opposition to this Act was declared high treason.  On April 13 More and Fisher were offered the oath before a royal commission at Lambeth; they accepted the new line of royal succession established by the Act but refused to subscribe to it as a whole, since it was a clear defiance of the Pope's authority to decide a question involving a sacrament of the Church.  Thereupon Thomas More was committed to the custody of one of the commissioners, William Benson, abbot of Westminster.  Henry's new favorite, Thomas Cranmer, urged the King to compromise, but he would not.  The oath was again tendered and again refused, and More was imprisoned in the Tower.

            The fifteen months that he spent in prison were borne with a serene spirit; the tender love of his wife and children, especially that of his daughter, Margaret, comforted him.  He rejected all efforts of wife and friends to induce him to take the oath and so pacify Henry.  Visitors were forbidden towards the end, and in his solitude he wrote the noblest of his religious works, the Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation.

            In November he was formally charged with the crime of treason, and all the lands and honors granted him by the Crown were forfeited.  Save for a small pension from the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, his family was almost penniless; Lady More sold her fine clothing to buy necessaries for him, and twice she petitioned the king for his release on the plea of sickness and poverty.  In February, 1535, the Act of Supremacy came into operation; this conferred the title of Supreme Head of the Church of England, without qualification, on the king, and made it treason to refuse it.  In April, Thomas Cromwell, Henry's hardfisted new secretary and councilor, called on More to elicit from him his opinion of this Act, but he would not give it.  Margaret visited him on May 4, for the last time, and from the window of his cell they watched three Carthusian priors and one Bridgittine, who would not acknowledge a civil supremacy over the Church, go to their execution.  "Lo, dost thou not see, Meg," he said, "that these blessed fathers be now as cheerfully going to their deaths as bridegrooms to their marriage? . . . Whereas thy silly father, Meg, that like a most wicked caitiff hath passed the whole course of his miserable life most sinfully, God, thinking him not worthy so soon to come to that eternal felicity, leaving him here yet still in the world, further to be plagued and turmoiled with misery."  A few days later Cromwell with other officials questioned him again and taunted him for his silence.  "I have not," he said gently, "been a man of such holy living as I might be bold to offer myself to death, lest God for my presumption might suffer me to fall."

            On June 22 Bishop John Fisher was beheaded on Tower Hill.  Nine days later More himself was formally indicted and tried in Westminster Hall.  By this time he was so weak that he was permitted to sit during the proceedings.  He was charged with having opposed the Act of Supremacy, both in conversation with members of the Council who had visited him in prison, and in an alleged discussion with Rich, the solicitor-general.  More maintained that he had always refrained from talking with anyone on the subject and that Rich was swearing falsely.  However, he was found guilty and condemned to death.  Then at last he spoke out his mind firmly.  No temporal lord, he said, could or ought to be head of the spirituality.  But even as St. Paul persecuted St. Stephen "and yet be they now both twain holy saints in Heaven, and shall continue there friends for ever, so I verily trust, and shall therefore right heartily pray, that though your lordships have now here in earth been judges of my condemnation, we may yet hereafter in Heaven merrily all meet together to everlasting salvation."

            On his way back to the Tower he said farewell to Margaret, who broke through the guard to reach him, and four days later, now deprived of pen and ink, he wrote her his last letter with a piece of coal, sending with it his hair shirt, a relic now in care of the Canonesses Regular of Newton Abbot.  Early in the morning of July 7, Sir Thomas Pope, a friend, came to inform him that he was to die that day at nine o'clock.  More thanked him, said he would pray for the king, and with talk of a joyful meeting in Heaven strove to cheer up his weeping friend.  When the hour came he walked out to Tower Hill, and mounted the scaffold, with a jest for the lieutenant who helped him climb it.  To the bystanders he spoke briefly, asking for their prayers and their witness that he died in faith of the Holy Catholic Church and as the king's loyal subject.  He then knelt and repeated the psalm Miserere; after which he encouraged the executioner, though warning him that his neck was very short and he must take heed to "strike not awry."  So saying, he laid down his head and was beheaded at one stroke.  His body was buried in the church of St. Peter-ad-Vincula within the Tower; his head, after being exposed on London Bridge, was given to Margaret and laid in the Roper vault in the church of St. Dunstan, outside the West Gate of Canterbury.  There, presumably, it still is, beneath the floor under the organ, at the east end of the south aisle.

            More was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886, along with other English martyrs, and canonized in 1935.  Had he never met death for the faith he still would have been a candidate for canonization as a confessor.  From first to last his life was singularly pure, lived in the spirit of his own prayer:  "Give me, good Lord, a longing to be with Thee; not for the avoiding of the calamities of this wicked world, nor so much for the avoiding the pains of purgatory, nor the pains of Hell neither, nor so much for the attaining of the joys of Heaven in respect of mine own commodity, as even for a very love of Thee."  

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