Sunday, 8 February 2015


2. Thomas More - The Making of a Catholic Martyr

When Henry VII turned his back on Thomas Wolsey the main cheer leader was Thomas More. Addressing the opening of parliament in November 1529, he complimented the king's sagacity. 'His Grace's sight was so quick and penetrable that he saw ... through him, both within and without'. Like a wise shepherd Henry had removed a 'rotten and faulty' ram from the flock. As the new Lord Chancellor, More had to distance himself from the attitudes and policies of the previous regime. At 51, he had reached the pinnacle of worldly ambition and if he had been nothing other than a sycophantic royal servant, it is possible (though not very probable) that he would have survived. But he was always a torn man, a creature of contradictions. He was a member of the new wave of international humanist scholars while remaining committed to the old church. Though a skilful orator with a gift for language, he descended to vulgar abuse when attacking adversaries (such as William Tyndale). He argued passionately for the eradication of social ills but did not throw his political weight behind programmes of reform. He claimed freedom of conscience for his own beliefs yet persecuted those whose conscience led them in other directions.

Nothing illustrated better his Janus career than his ambitious pursuit of personal advancement and his disdain of public office. He explained to his friend, Erasmus, 'It was with great unwillingness that I came to court'. His famous book, Utopia, contains a passage in which he debates whether a philosopher should remain aloof from the corrupting influence of politics or do what he can to guide the formulation of policy.

It was as a philosopher and wit that Henry valued More. He had known the prominent lawyer and international scholar since his childhood and, like other Renaissance princes, there were times when he found stimulating the conversation of men steeped in classical learning. According to William Roper, More's son-in-law and first biographer, More steadily advanced from court hanger-on to royal intimate, though we should be careful about taking at face value Roper's picture of his father-in-law's friendship with the king. More was certainly under no illusions about the character of his sovereign. In a Latin poem 'To a Courtier' he wrote, 'You often boast to me that you have the king's ear and often have fun with him, freely and according to your whims. This is like having fun with tamed lions - often it is harmless, but just as often there is fear of harm. Sometimes he roars for no known reason, and suddenly the fun becomes fatal'. He once made the grim joke that if his head might win for his mercurial and ruthless master a castle in France, it would immediately become forfeit. Since he was aware of the hazards of life in the Tudor court, where, as Thomas Wyatt observed, 'it thunders round the throne', why did he not seek some way to withdraw from public office before it was too late? Perhaps because there was a strong ascetic element to this councillor who wore a hair shirt next to his skin to mortify the flesh. Perhaps because he believed that someone in authority should make a stand against misguided royal policy, though it might cost him his life.

Ironically, the conflict between allegiance to the king and allegiance to the pope which had brought Wolsey down proved also to be More's undoing - but for different reasons. The Cardinal would have fallen over backwards to secure a political settlement in Henry's favour. More a mere layman, could not bring himself to sanction the royal divorce and the rejection of papal authority which it implied. As long as Henry pursued this policy More could not be the public face of government policy. But Henry was determined to have the public endorsement of his virtuous chancellor and refused More's request to yield up the Great Seal in March 1531. More's resignation was eventually accepted in May 1532.

The king had now found in Thomas Cromwell, a legal and political genius whose radical ideas were able to untie the tangle of the divorce negotiations. More hoped to be left in peace in his home at Chelsea, although he did not shun the light of publicity. He continued in print his war against heresy. The nation was riven with discord, some supporting the king and some adhering to his discarded Queen Catherine. Some championed religious reform and some clung to the old ways. With the government sponsoring a pulpit and pamphlet propaganda campaign and suspected opponents of official policy being imprisoned and interrogated, the issue of 'king versus pope' was seldom out of the 'headlines'. While nailing his colours to the mast in matters of faith, More refused to be drawn into any political argument. But neutrality was not possible. The ex-Chancellor was too popular and his beliefs too well known for Henry to allow him to indulge what his new wife, Anne Boleyn, insisted was sullen silence.

Matters came to a head in April 1534. Cromwell was dotting the Is and crossing the Ts of Reformation legislation, forcing all the king's subjects to endorse anti-papal policy or face the consequences. Parliament had passed an Act of Succession, vesting the crown in the issue of Henry and Anne and it was now to be imposed by means of a sworn oath. When More's turn came to sign, he accepted the succession issue but could not endorse the Act's anti-papal preamble. This was acceptable to Archbishop Cranmer and, probably, to Cromwell but Henry would brook no compromise. He ordered More to the Tower. From that point his condemnation and execution were inevitable. On 6 July 1534 More was beheaded, insisting at the last, that he died 'the king's good servant but God's first'. For Henry there could be no such dichotomy. He seriously believed that his will and the dictates of Providence were one and the same. This conviction had separated England from Christendom. Thomas More had been the standard-bearer of Christendom. He was, therefore, wrong. And defiantly wrong. King and ex-minister were locked in a battle of wills. In such a conflict no opponent of Henry VII ever came off best.
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Further reading:
W. Roper, The Life of Sir Thomas More in R.S. Sylvester and D.P. Harding, eds., Two Early Tudor Lives, New Haven, 1962
R. Marius, Thomas More, London, 1985
N. Harpsfield, The Pretended Divorce Between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, Camden Soc., 2nd ser., xxi (1878)
G.W. Bernard, The King's Reformation, New Haven, 2005
J. Guy, Tudor England, Oxford, 1988
D. Wilson, In the Lion's Court: Power, Ambition and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII, London, 2002

Next Week:  3. Thomas Cromwell - The Best Servant Henry Ever Had 

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