Papa vs rex – St Thomas More and the Abingdon Missal

Today, 6th July, St Thomas More was beheaded on Tower Hill. His martyrdom seems almost unfathomably distant from us – though sadly not from many of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world – but today we can see, with our own eyes, someone taking the opposite decision, on display at the Weston Library.

The Abingdon Missal, a masterpiece of late medieval illumination, is open at the start of the eucharistic prayer. On the left, at the foot of Christ’s cross, kneels Abbot William Ashenden, who commissioned the missal in 1461. The vicious Wars of the Roses were then engulfing England: the bloodiest battle ever on English soil was fought that year, at Towton in Yorkshire. The Hundred Years’ War with France was just finished and Constantinople had recently fallen to the Turks. But Abbot William commissioned the missal for his monks of Abingdon, only seven miles south of Oxford, a monastery tracing its roots back to the seventh century. Whatever happened, the Mass would be offered and the monks would continue to pray and work. Abbot William’s portrait had a caption, summing up the purpose of their life: We adore Thee, O Christ, and we bless Thee, because by Thy holy Cross Thou hast redeemed the world.

Not even a century later, his successor faced the same decision as St Thomas: would he swear that Henry VIII was the only Supreame Gouvernor of this Realme in all Spirituall or Ecclesiasticall Things or Causes? Abbot Thomas Pentecost swore, and swore with alacrity: he was among the first to take Henry’s oath of supremacy.

We can see his decision on the Missal’s right hand page. The penultimate word has been scratched out and replaced. Mass at Abingdon was no longer offered una cum papa nostro. Now it was with our king, rege nostro: out of communion with the pope and Christendom; subservient to Henry. Abbot Thomas’s submission would not have been surprising. All-but-two of the bishops accepted the supremacy. Among his fellow Benedictine abbots, even two future martyrs – Robert Whiting of Glastonbury and Hugh Faringdon of Reading – assented. Very few were prepared to give their lives for what they were prepared to treat as a form of words; as just a diplomatic spat between Henry and the Vatican.

Perhaps Abbot Thomas thought he could protect his abbey. Priests were obliged to prove that papa had been deleted from their missals. But when Thomas ordered a scribe to insert rege, in an imitation of the original script, he inscribed Henry’s religious settlement into one of the community’s greatest treasures.

If the abbot thought his compromise would save Abingdon, Thomas was gravely mistaken. Having corrupted most of the clergy in 1534, Henry’s aggression towards the church accelerated. His seizure of smaller monasteries in 1536 helped to provoke a massive insurrection in the north, the Pilgrimage of Grace. 40,000 pilgrims confronted the king’s army near Doncaster. The Duke of Norfolk – a one-time friend of Thomas More – was afraid to give battle, so the king feigned

concessions, before unleashing a brutal crackdown, following which the larger religious houses were compelled to surrender.

Abbot Thomas surrendered Abingdon Abbey to the king on 9th February 1538. His betrayal of Christian unity and the papal supremacy had not even bought four years’ peace. He, his prior, Richard Eynsham, and twenty-four monks were forced to leave their home and church, which soon started to collapse. Signing the surrender document earned them at least a pension. Abingdon’s most courageous brother, Thomas Shafisbrook, signed with obedience of affections and will to my superiors; another reminder that the great men of England had abjectly failed their subordinates – John Fisher and Thomas More apart.

The missal itself, bearing the scar inflicted in Henry’s name, came into the hands of Thomas Allen, a crypto-Catholic mathematician, astrologer and fellow of Gloucester College (now Worcester). He left it to a former student, Sir Kenelm Digby, a Catholic intellectual and courtier, whose father was executed following the Gunpowder Plot and whose son fell fighting Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army.

The Abingdon missal thus followed the fates and ill-fortunes of English Catholics for almost two centuries, until Sir Kenelm bequeathed it to the Bodleian. This beautiful, wounded manuscript encapsulates what Thomas More died for: Christian unity, under Christ’s vicar; and Christian liberty from Antichrist tyrants. The missal’s scar faces the image of Christ’s own death; Thomas More, and all martyrs, mirror His sacrifice.

Sancte Thoma More, ora pro nobis!

Omnes martyres huius universitatis, orate pro nobis!

Aloysius Atkinson, President of the Newman Society (2022)