Last night, I was on a panel on Talking History on Newstalk 106, discussing Sir Thomas More (1478-1535). The other panel members on Patrick Geoghegan’s show were Professor Ciaran Brady, who is about to retire from Trinity College Dublin, Professor Raymond Gillespie of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, and Brian Moynahan, author of William Tyndale. If God Spare my Life (London: Abacus, 2003).
We were discussing Thomas More, the great English lawyer, social philosopher, author and statesman at the time of the Tudor Reformation. He is recognised as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, and is also named in the calendar of a number of Anglican churches, but is seen by others as the persecutor and pursuer of early Protestants and Reformers.
More is often known through his portrayal by Paul Scofield in Fred Zimmermann’s 1966 movie, A Man for All Seasons or more recently for his portrayal in The Tudors, the television series filmed in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.
Last week in Castlebar, at the launch of Victory or Glorious Defeat, the new book on Mayo in 1798 edited by Dr Sheila Molloy, I was reminded that General John Moore, the first and only President of Connaught, and the Moore family of Moore Hall, claimed direct descent from Thomas More.
There is renewed interest in More just as the plans are being finalised for the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman next September. More was canonised with Bishop John Fisher in 1835, on the 400th anniversary of More’s execution, but his beatification in 1886 was a strong statement that English Catholicism was authentically English and authentically Anglican. By the second half of the 19th century, the old English recusant families – the sort of families portrayed by Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited – had lost their dominant place in English Catholicism, which was fast becoming the faith of the poor Irish immigrants. At the same time, their claims to Catholicism were being challenged by the new wave of Anglo-Catholicism, led by Charles Gore, and working tirelessly in mission through the “slum priests.”
More is held up as the ideal English Catholic of conscience. But I wondered what would have been his fate if he had survived and his conscience later rejected Papal authority in as mild and as mannered a way as he partially rejected royal authority in Tudor England?
Newman, who is now being held up as ideal English Catholic, was, for his part, a dissident when it came to papal authority, infallibility, the down-grading of the laity and the primacy of papal dogma over individual conscience. “I shall drink to the Pope if you please,” Newman once wrote, “… still to conscience first and the Pope afterwards.” He once wrote of the ageing Pope Pius IX: “He becomes a god, has no one to contradict him, does not know fact, and does cruel things without meaning it.”
Raymond Gillespie pointed out that More was a man of his time – he was born at the end of the late mediaeval period, before Columbus had discovered America; by the time he was executed, Christnedom was no longer a coherent entity, nation states were on the rise, and modern Europe was being formed.
During his life More gained a reputation as a leading renaissance humanist, as an opponent of both Martin Luther’s theology and of William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible into English. But it was difficult to swallow Brian Moynahan’s preposterous argument that More opposed Luther and pursued Tyndale because he saw the Reformation would do away with the Trinity, the Church and the Sacraments. The Trinity, the Church and the Sacraments remain at the heart of both Lutheranism and Anglicanism.
More gave the English language the word “utopia,” the name he gave to the ideal, imaginary island nation whose political system he described in Utopia (1516). Utopia is a Greek pun on ou-topos, meaning no place, and eu-topos, meaning good place. Utopia contrasts the contentious social life of European states with the perfectly orderly, reasonable social arrangements of Utopia and its environs. In Utopia, with communal ownership of land, private property does not exist, men and women are educated alike, and there is almost complete religious toleration. Some see the principal message as the social need for order and discipline rather than liberty. Utopia tolerates different religious practices, but does not tolerate atheists, for if a man did not believe in a god or in an afterlife he could never be trusted because he would not acknowledge any authority or principle outside himself.
More received a classical education in Greek and Latin at Oxford, before studying law at the New Inn and Lincoln’s Inn, and he was called to the bar in 1502. Erasmus says More once seriously contemplated leaving the law to become a Carthusian monk. But in 1504 he was elected an MP and he married his first wife, Jane Colt, in 1505. When she died in 1511, he married a rich widow, Alice Middleton.
More took a serious interest in the education of women, believing women to be as capable as men of academic accomplishment. His children all received a classical education, and his eldest daughter Margaret was admired for her fluency both Greek and Latin.
Diplomat and politician
After a diplomatic mission to the Emperor Charles V, with the Lord Chancellor, Archbishop Thomas Wolsey of York, More was knighted, and went on to become secretary and personal adviser to Henry VIII, Speaker of the House of Commons, High Steward of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
When Henry VIII replied to Luther in 1521 with his Assertio, written with the editorial assistance of More, Pope Leo X honoured the king with the title Fidei Defensor (“Defender of the Faith”).
In 1531, William Tyndale wrote An Answer unto Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue as a response to More’s earlier Dialogue Concerning Heresies. After reading Tyndale’s work, More spent several months writing his 500,000-word Confutation of Tyndale’s Answer, written as a dialogue between More and Tyndale in which More responds to each of Tyndale’s criticisms of Catholic rites and doctrines.
These literary battles convinced More, who valued structure, tradition, and order in society, that Lutheranism and the Reformation were dangerous not only to the Christian faith, but to the stability of society as a whole.
After Wolsey fell, More became Lord Chancellor in 1529. He initially co-operated with the king’s new policy, denouncing Wolsey in Parliament and proclaiming the opinion of the theologians at Oxford and Cambridge that the marriage of Henry to Catherine had been unlawful. But as Henry began to deny the authority of the Pope, More’s qualms grew. He saw heresy as a threat to the unity of both church and society, believing heresy must be eradicated for the sake of peace and stability in society, and seeing heresy as dangerous to the existing order.
In 1531, Richard Bayfield, a Cambridge graduate and former Benedictine monk, was burned to death in Smithfield for distributing copies of Tyndale’s English translation of the New Testament. But during the panel discussion I had to refute the accusation that More as Lord Chancellor tortured those he regarded as heretics while they were being interrogated. These claims are based on the writings of John Foxe and his Book of Martyrs but More forcefully denied those charges as false, “so helpe me God.”
Yet, in total, six heretics were burned at the stake during More’s time as Lord Chancellor: Thomas Hitton, Thomas Bilney, Richard Bayfield, John Tewkesbery, Thomas Dusgate, and James Bainham. Were such deaths a betrayal of More’s humanist convictions? Burning at the stake was the acceptable punishment for unrepentant heretics at the time, even in the thinking of more moderate people like Erasmus and many Protestants.
In 1531, More attempted to resign after being forced to take an oath declaring the king the Supreme Head of the English Church “as far as the law of Christ allows.” When he asked the king again in 1532 to relieve him of his office, claiming that he was ill, Henry acceded to his request.
In 1533, More refused to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn, although he wrote to Henry acknowledging Anne as queen and expressing wishes for the king’s happiness and the new queen’s health.
Soon after, More was charged with accepting bribes, but the charges were dismissed for lack of evidence. In early 1534, he was accused of conspiring with the “holy maid of Kent,” Elizabeth Barton, a nun who had spoke out against the king’s annulment. More quickly produced a letter he had written to her instructing her not to interfere with state matters.
More accepted Parliament’s right to declare Anne Boleyn the legitimate Queen of England, but he steadfastly refused to take the oath of supremacy because of an anti-papal preface to the Act asserting Parliament’s authority to legislate in matters of religion. Nor would he swear to uphold Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Bishop John Fisher of Rochester also refused to take the oath.
More was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he was visited by Thomas Cromwell, who failed to persuade him to take the oath. He went on trial in July 1535 before a panel of judges that included the new Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas Audley, as well as Anne Boleyn’s father, brother and uncle. He was charged with high treason for denying the validity of the Act of Succession. The Solicitor General, Richard Rich, testified that More had, in his presence, denied that the king was the legitimate head of the church. Although two other witnesses denied hearing the details of the reported conversation, More was found guilty under the terms of the 1534 Treason Act.
Before sentencing, More spoke freely of his belief that “no temporal man may be the head of the spirituality.” He was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered – then the usual punishment for traitors who were not members of the nobility – but the king commuted this to execution by decapitation. He was executed on 6 July 1535. On the scaffold, he declared that he died “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”
More was buried at the Tower of London, in the chapel of Saint Peter ad Vincula in an unmarked grave. His head was fixed on a pike over London Bridge for a month until his daughter, Margaret (Meg) Roper, rescued it. His skull is said to rest in Saint Dunstan’s Church, which I once visited in Canterbury. There Meg Roper and her husband’s family are buried in the Roper family vault, and legend has it that Meg wished to be buried with her father’s head in her arms.
Thomas More and his family ... his head is said to be buried in the Roper vault in Saint Dunstan’s Church, Canterbury
‘Defender of all that was finest’
More’s conviction for treason was widely seen as unfair, even among many Protestants. Ersasmus declared after his execution that More had been “more pure than any snow” and that his genius was “such as England never had and never again will have.” When he heard of his execution, the Emperor Charles V said : “Had we been master of such a servant, we would rather have lost the best city of our dominions then such a worthy councillor.”
More was greatly admired by Anglican writers such as Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson. Dr Johnson said: “He was the person of the greatest virtue these islands ever produced.”
Winston Churchill once wrote: “The resistance of More and Fisher to the royal supremacy in Church government was a noble and heroic stand. They realised the defects of the existing Catholic system, but they hated and feared the aggressive nationalism which was destroying the unity of Christendom … More stood as the defender of all that was finest in the mediaeval outlook. He represents to history its universality, its belief in spiritual values and its instinctive sense of other-worldliness. Henry VIII with cruel axe decapitated not only a wise and gifted counsellor, but a system, which, though it had failed to live up to its ideals in practice, had for long furnished mankind with its brightest dreams.”
The steadfastness and courage with which More held on to his religious convictions in the face of ruin and death and the dignity with which he conducted himself in prison and during his trial and execution, enhanced his later reputation, particularly among Catholics. He was beatified by in 1886 and canonised in 1935. In 1980, he was added to the Church of England’s calendar of saints, and in 2000 Pope John Paul II declared him the patron of statesmen and politicians.
Was More guilty of religious fanaticism and intolerance? Did he persecute those he regarded as heretics? In her 2009 novel Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel characterises More as a religious and masochistic fanatic from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, but Cromwell is portrayed favourably.
Jeremy Northam plays More in The Tudors, where he is shown as a peaceful man, a devout Catholic and the devoted head of a family, but who unabashedly expresses his loathing for Lutheranism. The Tudors also shows him engaging in the conversation that Richard Rich claimed took place about the king’s status as Supreme Head of the Church in England.
The debate continues.
You can listen back to the show and access the podcast by going to this link:
http://media.newstalk.ie/podcasts/popup and selecting Talking History > Highlights from Talking History.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin