Tuesday, 6 July 2010

July 6th, 1535: The Execution of Sir Thomas More

Today marks the anniversary of the beheading of Sir Thomas More (above), the former confidante and adviser of King Henry VIII of England. More, who had provided the eulogy at the funeral of Henry's mother, Elizabeth of York, in 1503, had served as Lord Chancellor from 1529 to 1532, during which time he became increasingly uncomfortable at his master's ecclesiastical policies. He resigned, but was eventually executed for treason three years later.

Canonised by the Roman Catholic Church in 1935, modern perceptions of Sir Thomas vary - at a recent debate on the role of the Catholic Church in history, the British man of letters, Stephen Fry, thundered at Catholic MP and apologist, Ann Widdecombe, that it was a matter almost obscene that somehow like More should be venerated as a saint, particularly as the patron of private conscience, given his treatment of heretics during his time as Lord Chancellor. Widdecombe defended More's canonisation and something of the differing reactions to him can be reflected in cinematic portrayals of him - be it the hagiographic A Man For All Seasons, the intensely critical God's Outlaw or the more balanced characterisation by Jeremy Notham in The Tudors. As with so many of his contemporaries, what we know (or, rather, think we know) about Sir Thomas is based on hearsay or particularly resilient legends. Chief amongst the more nonsensical stories told about him is the idea that he personally tortured the heretics captured with a cat o' nine tails or that he championed Katherine of Aragon and refused to accept Anne Boleyn as the new queen. In fact, perhaps to his credit, More was one of the few people who personally admired Katherine but didn't see her cause and that of the Catholic Church in England as symbiotic. At the time of Anne's Coronation, the man who would be a saint, wrote: -

"So am I he among his Grace's other faithful subjects, his Highness being in possession of his marriage and this noble woman really anointed queen, neither murmur at it nor dispute upon it, nor never did nor will, but without any other manner meddling of the matter among his other faithful subjects, faithfully pray to God for his Grace and hers both long to live and well, and their noble issue too, in such wise as may be to the pleasure of God, honour and surety to themselves, rest, peace, wealth and profit unto this noble realm."

A legal defense of Sir Thomas is mounted by the excellent blogger, Claire Ridgway, here.


  1. Well, there is a difference between "private conscience" and "Catholic conscience" and I think More would have seen himself as defending the latter, rather than the former per se.

    Regarding Anne Boleyn, I've heard that he did, indeed, accept the civil validity of her marriage and elevation to the throne, but that is a different question from whether he accepted the sacramental validity of the marriage.

  2. Thanks for a balanced post, Gareth. I always think it is interesting when people, like Clare whom you link, say that More was involved in the execution of "many" heretics. There were six heretics burned at the stake during More's chancellorship. I know that "many" is a relative term, but the synonyms of many (multifarious, multitudinous, myriad; divers, sundry, various, innumerable, manifold, numerous) certainly don't add up to six. Henry VIII continued to burn Protestants at the stake after More was executed, just as he had Catholics hung drawn and quartered. It may be just a poor choice of words, but it was choice of words. Thomas More would have appreciated it, as he demonstrated at his trial in Westminster Hall.

  3. Super post. I hadn't heard those torture myths before, but they sound as if they were put about by More's enemies. And stuck.

    I realise portraits can lie or be manipulated but I really do think the Holbein portrait caputred a serious, thoughtful and gentle man who eventually had to tackle nationally important questions. Could you credit Holbein in your blog, please, and give the date of the painting.

  4. Matterhorn for some reason your comment failed to publish, for which I apologise. In reference to the theory that More acknowledged the King's civil marriage to Anne Boleyn but not the sacramental nature, I'm afraid that's probably wishful Catholic apologism rather than anything that can be backed up by the sources. The only evidence we have is the letter quoted, in which he does not split hairs and is quite clear on the fact that the King's second wife was "really anointed." Moreover, during his imprisonment he referred to her in conversation as "the Queen." So, without evidence to back-up that theory, I would say it sounds very much as if subsequent generations of pro-Catholic historians didn't like Anne Boleyn very much and hoped More didn't either. I'm fairly certain he wasn't a huge fan of hers, but he didn't let that colour his loyalty to the throne. On the other hand, there IS a case to be made for the fact that More wrote this letter in the "grey area" between the King's marriage to Anne Boleyn being ruled as valid by the English archiepiscopal court and the time it was definitely ruled as invalid by the Vatican. So, who knows? Maybe that had something to do with it.

    On the other point you made, about More seeing himself as defending Catholic conscience rather than the generic personal conscience, I think it's probably even smaller than that. He defended HIS right to private conscience and nobody else's. Historically - and this is JUST my opinion - he was neither the sociopathic persecutor of heretics or the champion of Catholic liberty that subsequent histories have made of him. He never spoke out in defence of other opponents to the new regime, but rather attempted to remain as personally loyal as possible under the (very trying) circumstances.

    Stephanie, thank you so much for your comment - obviously this is your area of expertise! I agree that More's position as the scourge of English heresy has been grossly distorted - as has so much from the period. People's curious ability to try and blame everyone around Henry VIII for policies or actions that were in fact the salient characteristic of his reign seem to have resulted in people seeing More as the author of a temporary English Inquisition, when in fact the high point of religious cruelty (against both sides of the aisle) came in the last decade of Henry's torturous time as King.

    Hels, the legend is that he personally beat them to within an inch of their lives in his mansion at Chelsea. It's just about possible that it's true, but the story may have been based on a confusion with two other genuine stories from the time - the first being that More was a flagellant, something which was regarded as psychologically suspicious by Protestants of subsequent generations. (Then and now, they believed it showed a warped psychology, obsessed with the infliction of pain.) Secondly, Protestant prisoners, like poor Anne Askew, were savagely and viciously tortured in person by a later Lord Chancellor in Henry's reign - Lord Chancellor Wriothesley - and the grotesque stories Wriothesley's chancellorship generated may have subsequently become confused with the investigations into heresy during More's premiership. Of course, the six heresy investigations he authorised do suggest a distinctly unlovely portrait of Thomas More - a million miles away from the saintly introvert of "A Man for All Seasons" - but, as Stephanie points out, the ferocity and frequency of his actions have been hugely exaggerated - and, in some cases, fabricated.

  5. Gareth:

    I seldom comment on posts...I suppose I am just one of those annoying lurkers. But I have long admired your well-balanced posts and am a frequent visitor. I feel the need to give my two cents regarding St. Thomas More as I have recently completed a novel based on the life of his daughter, Margaret Roper. Through my years (and years) of research, I learned quite a bit about this enigmatic man.

    I respectfully disagree with the assertion that one must rely on hearsay or hagiographic biographies to know the man Thomas More. Thanks in large part to Margaret, who saved and concealed many of his writings, he is accessible to us all through his own words. He was a prolific writer (many forget he was the author of Utopia ) and a number of his letters, treatises and plays are easily found. I highly recommend Dr. Gerard Wegemer's works, most notably The Thomas More Sourcebook.

    As for the quote from More's letter regarding the coronation of Anne Boleyn, I don't think one can adequately discern his true feelings on the marriage without also taking into account the letter he also wrote to the bishops who encouraged him to attend the coronation (even sending him money for a new robe for the occasion). The entire letter itself is worth reading. But to summarize, More uses a parable to not-so-subtly suggest that by their attendance the bishops will be “deflowered” only to be eventually “devoured” in the end. More knew well that his refusal to attend Anne’s coronation would speak volumes and his letter to Cromwell, which you cite, is only the work of an astute attorney, parsing words yet never allowing those words to entrap him. He did not eagerly seek martyrdom, in fact he feared his lack of courage greatly.

    Also, I do not see it as merely Catholic apologia to believe More’s decisions flowed from a conscience fully formed through Catholic teaching. He, of all people, saw the danger of adherence to “personal conscience.” Indeed, Henry used that very belief to justify his disposal of the barren Queen Catherine, his break with Rome and his increasing tyranny. Though only Bishop Fisher stood publicly with him in England, More was confident in the truth of his position not because he thought it right, but because after years of study and prayer, he believed it was in line with a thousand years of Church councils and the authority of the Church given by Jesus Christ. At his trial-- only after the guilty verdict was read-- More spoke freely of his belief that he stood with thousands of souls -- not only those living in that time but those who had come before. He understood and took great comfort in the doctrine of the “communion of saints” --the unending relationship between those alive on earth and those who have died in the Faith.

    And finally, while to our contemporary mores, the burning of even one human being is grotesque, we do a great disservice to judge the past based on our current views. Thomas More as Lord Chancellor followed the prescribed law of England and each man was afforded due process. More himself swore to God that under his supervision, no heretic was given so much as a “fillip” on the head. It is difficult to believe that a man who gave up his power, wealth and family all for his belief in truth, would lie about such as that.

    So, all of this to say, Thomas More was not a perfect man. But the Church does not say that saints must be perfect. Save for Jesus Christ, none of us are.

    PS--Being of Irish descent AND a Tennessean, I especially enjoyed your blog about dinner out in Georgetown:) Keep up the good work!

  6. Carden, thanks for the comment. It's fantastic and very much appreciated.

    As you can probably tell, I'm a little bit more ambivalent about Sir Thomas More's legacy. As far as I can tell, writing the letter to Cromwell lavishing praise on Anne Boleyn, but then to insult the bishops who actually attended on her, coupled with the fact that he took their money for a coronation robe but didn't go, makes me a good deal more sceptical than the stories of his heresy hunts.

    But, a multi-faceted man and your defence of him is very eloquent. Thank you!

  7. PS - I'm glad the dinner in Georgetown met with your approval :) Thanks!

  8. Thank you for linking to my article, Gareth, I've been on holiday for the past couple of weeks so only just noticed. Congratulations on your excellent blog too, I'm always recommending it to people because it's always enlightening and entertaining, can't wait to read your book!
    Stephanie, I apologise for the misleading use of the word "many" but I was actually defending More. I would have preferred if he hadn't been responsible for any executions but it is impossible to judge a Tudor character with outr 21st century eyes and views, and More was of course doing what he thought was right and being a true Christian in ridding the country of heretics, just as Mary I was, albeit on a larger scale.
    I have always admired More, ever since I read Utopia at school; he was a remarkable man and it is sad that he paid such an awful price for his beliefs and values.
    Excellent article, Gareth, as always.

  9. Thank you, Claire, and vice-versa.


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