06 July 2019
Jan Hus and Thomas More:
two contrasting Reformation
figures executed on 6 July
Today marks the anniversary of the execution of two key and contrasting figures in the European Reformations: Jan Hus and Thomas More were executed 120 years apart, but were key people in formulating the ideas of both the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation.
On 6 July 1415, Jan Hus (1369-1415), the Bohemian preacher and the forerunner of the Protestant Reformations, was burned as a heretic in Constance, Germany.
Jan Hus was inspired by the teachings of John Wycliffe and was a key forerunner of the later Reformation in the 16th century. He criticised religious and moral decay in the Catholic Church, and he believed the Mass should be celebrated in the local language, rather than in Latin.
Hus was finally condemned by the Council of Constance and burned at the stake in 1415, leading to the Hussite Wars.
The Jan Hus Memorial stands in the Old Town Square in Prague. This huge monument depicts Hus with Hussite warriors and Protestants who were forced into exile 200 years after Hus in the wake of the lost Battle of the White Mountain during the Thirty Years’ War, and a young mother who symbolises national rebirth.
The monument was so large that the sculptor, Ladislav Šaloun, designed and built his own villa and studio to complete the work. It was unveiled in 1915 to mark the 500th anniversary of Jan Hus’s martyrdom.
The Moravian Church or Unitas Fratrum, the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren, which was reconstituted in 1918, and the Czechoslovak Hussite Church all see themselves as the spiritual heirs to Hus and his followers.
To the people of Bohemia, Jan Hus became a symbol of dissent and national resistance, and later became a symbol of opposition to Habsburg rule. During Communist rule, sitting at the feet of the Jan Hus memorial became a way of quietly expressing opposition. The memorial was restored in 2007.
Sir Thomas More was executed for treason on 6 July 1535, having recently resigned as Lord Chancellor of England.
Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) was a 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 movie, A Man for All Seasons (1966), or more recently for his portrayal in The Tudors, the television series filmed in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.
Thomas More was born in Milk Street, London then in the parish of Saint Mary Magdalen, and was probably baptised there.
One of his early mentors and tutors was the Vicar of Saint Lawrence Jewry, William Grocyn, the English Renaissance scholar credited with reintroducing Greek to the academic curriculum in England. Erasmus described Grocyn as ‘the patron and preceptor of us all.’
While Grocyn was Vicar of Saint Lawrence Jewry (1496-1517), Thomas More lectured in the church in 1501 on Saint Augustine’s De Civitate Dei (The City of God), which was formative in his thinking on church-state relations. Appropriately, he is commemorated in a window above the pulpit.
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.
He 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.
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’).
After Wolsey fell, More became Lord Chancellor in 1529. 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.
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.’
General John Moore, the first and only President of Connaught in 1798, and the Moore family of Moore Hall, claimed direct descent from Thomas More.
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.
Some years ago [27 June 2010], I was on a panel on Talking History on Newstalk 106, discussing Sir Thomas More. The other panel members on Patrick Geoghegan’s show were Professor Ciaran Brady of 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).