‘On the Anniversary of the Death of St Thomas More’, by Peter E. Murray

From the Editor: From the pen of the Newman’s most Anglophilic American, who also happens to be the St Thomas More Lecture Secretary (so he should know his stuff!), here’s a piece about St Thomas More, the University’s protomartyr. The vac, especially the long vac, affords us a bit more time, some time for leisure, so perhaps it’s also a time for slightly longer blog posts. If the spirit moves you, please do get in contact and submit an article! Anyway, that’s enough from me – over to Peter and St Thomas!

For a time, it seemed as though St Thomas More was not merely the “Man for All Seasons,” but also the “person for all persuasions.” To Robert Bolt, More is the martyr for personal conscience. To the Marxists, his relatively humble background and imagined socialist society in his satire Utopia make him a model proto-communist. And to the ecclesiastics in Canterbury, Thomas More is, along with St John Fisher, confusingly remembered in their liturgical calendar, ostensibly as some kind of ecumenical martyr for religious tolerance. (The Roman Church, on the other hand, has not extended a similar courtesy to Tyndale and Cranmer.) 

Recently it seems as though many have begun to revaluate their respect for the good Saint Thomas. This is no doubt due in large part to the creative liberties of Hilary Mantel, but I’d like to believe that in some ways this is the discovery that St Thomas More was, in fact, a Catholic martyr. After all, there can be no true martyr but one for the Catholic faith, and it was an especially Catholic cause for which he died. So today, on the anniversary of his death in the Year of Our Lord 1535, I wish to offer a brief illustration of his impressive life and reflection upon his holy death. 

Thomas More was born in London to Sir John More, a lawyer and judge, and raised as a child of the prosperous middle class of early modern England. Sent to school at St Anthony’s Hospital, St Benet Fink, he was a clever boy and afterwards made a page in the household of the Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Morton, who sent him on scholarship to Oxford. More almost certainly studied at Canterbury College, but records also indicate that he was also at St Mary Hall, a constituent of Oriel College. In Oxford, More showed himself to be remarkably adept in both Latin and Greek, skilled in the classics and divinity. Throughout his life he was among Europe’s greatest humanists, corresponding with the likes of Erasmus and churning out tracts of writing. Even later in his life he managed to finish no less than three books in his Tower prison cell: Comfort Against Tribulation, A Treatise to Receive the Blessed Sacrament, and A Treatise upon the Passion

Following his Oxford years, Thomas More went on study law at the Inns of Chancery and Inns of Law, becoming a lawyer like his father. But despite his intensive legal studies, he became attached to the London Charterhouse. The biographies of More by William Roper and Nicholas Harpsfield record that he spent a full four years living among the Carthusians in contemplation and prayer. Surely this time spent within the austere walls of the Charterhouse helped to fortify him during his eventual stay at the Tower. This stage, he was seriously discerning a vocation to monastic life. And yet providence assigned for him a vocation to public service, so he left the monastery, was elected to the House of Commons, and married. 

More’s career in public office was one of continuous climbing; from MP he went to Under-Sherriff of London, Master of Requests, at various times a diplomat engaged with the Papacy, the imperial court of Charles V, and the Kingdom of France, received a knighthood, Under-Treasurer of the Exchequer, High Steward of the universities, Speaker of the House of Commons, and eventually Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. He was not an ambitious man, and his increasingly lofty offices never tarnished his virtue. He remained, as ever, pious, industrious, and charitable to all who sought his counsel or petitioned for his assistance. His good character and exceeding competence endeared him to King Henry himself. 

As a Privy Counsellor, and friend of the King, Sir Thomas first became involved in the religious controversies of the day. It was More who served as Henry’s chief advisor when he wrote his Defence of the Seven Sacraments, and it was More who wrote the reply to Luther’s rebuttal. He shared the King’s disgust for the evangelical heresy and as a statesman he did much to supress and censor the circulation of Tyndale’s Bible as well as offering eviscerating critiques of its faulty translation. During his career he further dispatched agents to hunt down Tyndale and six unrepentant heretics were burned, something he undoubtedly approved of. Yet More was not by any means the sadistic torturer Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (or Wolf Hall) paints him as, and the pen and censor remained for him his favoured weapons in the fight against heresy. 

Now had King Henry remained an honest man devoted to the defence of Holy Mother Church, More would have continued as a preeminent scholar and statesman of his day, died a good death, and have been forgotten to all but those with a curiosity for the age. Yet the King became obsessed with an annulment and a marriage to Anne Boleyn. He sought the advice of the most senior clerics in the land, virtually all of whom agreed to support his case for an annulment. It was only natural then that the King should seek the support of England’s most eloquent statesman and greatest scholar. But More humbly answered he could not, in good conscience, support an annulment, quoting the Scriptures and the Church Fathers. King Henry was displeased, but he could not believe that so loyal a servant would remain unsupportive forever. And so, for the first time in his life, More received a position not entirely on merit, although he was undoubtedly the most qualified candidate for the job: in 1529, Sir Thomas More was made Lord Chancellor of England following Wolsey’s fall from grace, and the King hoped he would come to rally behind his position. 

The Lord Chancellor was more devoted to the affairs of state than ever before, and worked tirelessly, but he would not and could not, despite the King’s pleadings and promises, support his “Great Matter.” And so he resigned his post just three years later for reasons of health and determined to live quietly in the good favour of the King. He remained silent on the King’s annulment and new marriage, accepting Anne’s queenship but neither admitting nor condemning the marriage’s legitimacy. He was no firebrand, just a pious old scholar wishing to retire quietly. Here again, Sir Thomas More might have been allowed to die in relative obscurity, but when the Act of Supremacy of 1534 decreed the King to be Supreme Head of the Church of England, subject to not even the Pope, More was unwillingly embroiled in the controversy. 

Although retired, More remained the one great layman who remained quiet on the new oath. Even the bishops of England assented; all but Bishop Fisher of Rochester, a scholar of equal repute, assented half-heartedly to the King’s absolute supremacy over Church affairs. The King could not allow so great a man as Sir Thomas More to be silent. He demanded his endorsement. More refused, claiming a scruple of conscience but refused to admit what that scruple was. A lawyer at heart, he knew what to say and what not to say, and he believed his silence would protect him. It did not. He was first accused of taking bribes, but being a man of obvious incorruptibility, the agents of the crown dropped any pretence of justice and jailed the man on suspicion of treason. 

Now is a good moment to reflect on the life of St Thomas More, for henceforth his story is nothing but a drawn-out leadup to martyrdom. He had lived a life as a successful statesman and scholar, a pinnacle man of his time. At the zenith of his influence he was England’s most respected and most powerful politician, a personal friend to the King, and a brilliant writer. Despite his titles and his influence, he remained devoted to God and his family, a charitable man of good character. And when finally forced to choose between the will of the King and the law of God, he excused himself. His persecution was not about what he said or did, but about what he refused to say and refused to do. In our own modern age as much as any other, we are all too familiar with such a predicament. Evil, especially pride, can never stand for those who virtuously ignore it. Pride burns like a fire, demanding fuel to inflate itself; ideological mass movements can never stand for quiet folk. And as there can be no better ringing endorsement than that of an intelligent, virtuous, and universally respected person, evil ideology always demands that endorsement or else cancels the offender. St Thomas More’s cancellation was death. 

Whilst awaiting his fate in the Tower, Sir Thomas received many interrogations and many pleadings. He was entirely alone in his convictions, assailed on all sides by ministers, family, and friends entreating him to swear just one tiny oath so that he may be restored to the King’s good favour and allowed to live in peace. But he would not do this knowing full well that to swear against the laws of God was a sin. 

One day in the Tower he looked out upon the window and saw four men led off to Tyburn. They were Master Richard Reynolds, a Bridgettine monk of Syon Abbey and three Carthusians priors: Dom Robert Lawrence of Beauvale, Dom Augustine Webster of Axholme, and Dom John Houghton of the London Charterhouse where More had once lived. These priests had refused to swear allegiance to the King and to deny the supremacy of Rome. Roper and Harpsfield recall More remarked to his favourite daughter Meg that “these blessed fathers be now as cheerfully going to their deaths as bridegrooms to their marriage.” Surely by now Sir Thomas knew that his fate was to be the same as these good priests. Martyrdom had not been sought by any of them, yet all would take comfort in knowing that their deaths would be God’s triumph. 

Shortly after the execution of the monks was More’s trial where the perjury and lies of Richard Rich provided the evidence to convict More of treason. His sentence was burning, commuted mercifully to beheading. Having been convicted so unfairly, More now felt free to speak his mind. He declared that the supremacy of St Peter’s successors was ordained by God himself and that the Act of Supremacy was thus invalid; he maintained that the act violated the Magna Carta’s first clause which stated that the “English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished and its liberties unimpaired”; and he recalled that England owed her Christian faith to the orders of Pope St Gregory the Great who made the decision to send St Augustine to convert the Anglo-Saxons. And so it was confirmed that he would die for his allegiance to Rome. 

The cause of St Thomas More’s martyrdom is one which is uniquely Catholic. Today the Papacy is (or at the very least should be) cherished by Catholics as the visible sign of Rome’s orthodoxy and the divider between Catholic and schismatic or heretic; and for many converts, it is the eventual acceptance of the Bishop of Rome that brings them around to the whole of the Catholic faith. But in the days of St Thomas More, when there was so much confusion surrounding Roman supremacy and the meaning of it, and when the legacy of conciliarism still left its mark, some genuinely believed that there might be a Catholicism without the Pope. This was, except for Bishop Fisher, the opinion of the English bishops. The Papacy and our loyalty to it was, as Hilaire Belloc points out, the least controversial dogma to question, although I am somewhat sceptical of Belloc’s claim that More himself had been unsure of Roman supremacy as an academic, although Renaissance humanism he was associated with certainly pushed these boundaries. St Thomas More thus died for a point of doctrine readily questioned by many and regarded by others as too speculative and inessential to be worth dying for. The man knew what those bishops who lived to see King Edward’s reign would soon discover, that there can be no Catholicism without the Pope and that those who stray from Rome quickly stray into heresy.  

On July 6th, 1535, St Thomas More paid his executioner and gave him his forgiveness. He received the crown of martyrdom calmly as a loyal servant of the King, but of God first.

St Thomas More, pray for us. 

Peter E. Murray, Theology, Oriel