Today is the anniversary of the execution of Thomas More. In brief More was a Catholic opposer to the English reformation who rose to the dizzy heights of Lord Chancellor in Henry VIIIs court. He was a Lawyer, social philosopher and Renaissance humanist. Not only did he leave his legacy in history standing up for what he believed in, but he also left a legacy of work including Utopia and writing on religious polemics.
Like many in the Tudor world of politics he would find himself on a scaffold for nothing more than holding an opinion on faith and following his conscience. After the fall of Catherine of Aragon, in 1533, the rise of Anne Boleyn and the subsequent English reformation that would allowed Henry to get his own way, Thomas More found himself on the wrong side of Henry and in dangerous waters.
His first mistake was to refuse to go to the coronation of Anne. Despite writing to Henry acknowledging Anne and wishing his majesty happiness in his new marriage, Henry felt personally insulted by the lack of attendance and he was not a man who forgave and forgot.
Court rivals and politics swung into action and start accusing More of accepting bribes within his role as Lord Chancellor. These were quickly quashed for lack of evidence – reality is of the many characters within the court of Henry VIII, More is the least likely to have been involved in bribery and blackmail – there was no evidence.
But Tudor courts are like the African plain and it is survival of the fittest. The rest of the court could see More’s star begin to wane and his enemies tried again to depose and eliminate him. At the beginning of 1534 More was accused of conspiring with the holy maid of Kent, one Elizabeth Barton, who was preaching against the English Reformation and prophesying the death of Henry should he remarry – to forecast the death of a king was in fact Treason. More, who may have agreed with her views on the reformation most certainly would not have been naive or stupid enough to encourage or engage with such speak especially after she started philosophising the death of Henry. More was able to produce record of correspondence to the maid saying that she should not get involved in politics or state matters. For now he had escaped the axe.
That was however a brief reprieve. In April 1534 Thomas was summoned to swear to the Act of Succession – a parliamentary bill that stated Anne as the legal queen and that Henry was the supreme head of the Church in England. It was the last part of the act that More had issue with as he was a Catholic. By not swearing the oath, he was publicly refusing to recognise the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. This was enough for his enemies to strike, they had the evidence they needed to arrest him on the charge of High Treason. On 17th April More was sent to the Tower.
The Tower was his home for the last 15 months of his life. While there he did pen Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation a work that reflects on the role of Christ in worldly power, the transience of pleasure as well as Christ redemption. The work is a dialogue set in Hungary during Ottoman rule. It is widely thought that its political as well as spiritual in nature. The fact that under such circumstances he was able to produce such a piece of work is staggering and a testament to the man’s mental strength.
Eventually he was brought to trial on 1st July 1535, his judges were hardly unprejudiced as they were made up of Anne Boleyn’s family and the man who got his job as Lord Chancellor. Throughout the trial More remained silent – a legal precedent called “Qui tacet consentire videtur”- in the hope that if he remained silent he could not therefore deny that Henry was the supreme head of the Church and therefore not implement himself for the crime of High Treason. His plan did don’t work, the solicitor general Richard Rich, went on to testify that More had in his presence denied that the king was the legitimate head of the Church in England. More denied this saying
“….in so weighty affair as this, act so inadvisedly as to trust Mr Rich a man I had always so mean opinion of in reference to his truth and honesty …impart to Mr Rich the secrets of my conscience in respect to the Kings supremacy …. and only point about which I have been pressed to explain myself?”
In many ways the trial was just a show, a tick box exercise in order to legally kill him. It took less than 15 minutes for the judgement to be made that he was guilty. His punishment was hanging drawning and quartering however Henry showed kings clemency and instead allowed for More to have a swifter end of beheading – normally only reserved for the nobility.
On 6th July 1535, 5 days after he was found guilty in Westminster Hall, Thomas More was lead to scaffolding on Tower Hill. He declared to the crowd that he died “the kings good servant but God’s first”
It is thought that Henry would soon regretted this execution deeply and it is thought it haunted him for the rest of his life.
His story is not quite finished there, his foster daughter Margaret Clement was said to have rescued her fathers head. No one can agree if the head is in St Dunstan’s Church Canterbury or in Chelsea Old Church were the Margaret and her husband are buried. Either way his head is not with his body in St Peter ad Vincula with the rest of his remains.
In 1886 the pope, Leo XIII started the process of sainthood for More and others including John Fisher, who also refused to swear the oath, by beatifying them. They were formally canonised by Pope Pius XI on May 19th 1935 and Mores feast day was officially made 9th July. He is the Patron saint of Politicians and statesmen. I fear even in death the poor man has a hard job!