Thursday, 6 June 2013
The Fall of Thomas More: A Proposal
This is a proposal for a book on the fall of Sir Thomas More, which I wrote about three years ago. Unfortunately, I could not get any agents or publishers interested in the project, so I have had to set it aside, at least for a time. I still think it is a worthy project, but it seems the time is not yet right for it - perhaps one day!
This book, which concentrates exclusively on the fall, trial and execution of Thomas More, begins at the point when Henry VIII made up his mind to divorce Katherine of Aragon. Katherine had failed to give him the son and heir he needed to ensure the security of the succession, and a new wife was, to Henry, the only viable solution to the problem. At about the same time, a young woman named Anne Boleyn, graceful, elegant, intelligent, and with sparkling charisma, entered the English court having spent seven years in France. Henry was enchanted. Anne was the woman he wanted to marry. The danger to Thomas More stemmed from Henry’s attempts to marry Anne Boleyn, and the assault would come on two fronts: the first was Henry’s need to dissolve his first marriage to Katherine of Aragon and his desire for More’s support. The second led directly from the first, and brought Henry into the sphere of those whom More hated most: heretics.
Henry sounded out the question of divorcing Katherine with Thomas More, his ‘good servant’. However, More could find no fault with the Aragon marriage, a verdict that disconcerted Henry, who, nevertheless, took it in good part. The King was not prepared to let the matter rest there and he tried a new approach. He had come to the conclusion that he had never really been married to Katherine after all. The marriage had violated the positive laws of the church and the written law of God, and so the Pope, who had granted the dispensation for the marriage, had no authority to do so. Henry, therefore, was not seeking divorce, but annulment. This new element was disturbing to More because it undermined Papal authority. More declared himself incompetent to advise the king on the matter.
In fact, More had written about divorce some years previously in his book, Utopia. Some have suggested that More makes a defence of divorce and it was this that encouraged Henry to suppose he would support him in his Great Matter. If that were the case, Henry failed to note that, on the island of Utopia, a man who commits adultery more than once will be punished by death.
Henry tried several times to persuade More to accept the annulment, and each time More gave the matter careful thought. He consulted theologians and other scholars, and read widely, immersing himself in all sides of the argument. Still he could not find in Henry’s favour. Excusing himself as unqualified to reach any verdict, he finally persuaded the King to exclude him from the Great Matter.
More, however, had other things to worry about. As the legatine court, set up to try Henry’s marriage to Katherine, got underway, he predicted that heresy would grow. More despised heresy because it threatened the communion of Christ and the faith as embodied in the Catholic Church. It bred sedition, turmoil and civil war, and destroyed the fabric of society. Finally, it led to the corruption of the eternal soul. Henry, as Defender of the Faith, was duty bound to defend the Catholic Church against heresy. As it was, Henry was increasingly willing to consort with heretics if they supported his cause. Henry’s tactics presented a real danger to More, who could not support such views.
As Henry’s determination to discard Katherine and marry Anne grew, More’s defence of the Aragon marriage heightened. Katherine’s nephew, Charles V, wrote to More to thank him for his support, a letter More felt it prudent not to accept. Henry VIII’s attitude towards More, whom he had regarded as a favourite, changed dramatically. Once Henry had promised not to involve More in affairs that went against his conscience, now he exerted increasing pressure on More to conform to his will. More had a fear of tyranny, which stemmed from his experience at the hands of Henry VII, and which is explored in The History of King Richard III. In spite of this, More continued to defy the King.
More was also becoming increasingly concerned about the consequences of Henry’s actions to the Catholic Church. In the face of the Pope’s frustrating procrastination, Henry decided to take matters into his own hands. He made himself Supreme Head of the Church in England and sought to settle his case to his own satisfaction. This was the final straw for More. In an act of public defiance, he resigned as Chancellor the following day.
Anne Boleyn may have been influential Henry’s decision finally to break with Rome. She had a deep intellectual interest in evangelicalism and the new learning, reading reformist works and studying heretical doctrines which spoke of justification by faith alone. She and her family patronised scholars whom More considered heretics. A tradition preserved within the More family insists that Anne played a significant part in the downfall of Sir Thomas. Another contemporary source insists that Anne was, in fact, the driving force behind it. How much of this is true?
The part played by Cromwell in More’s fall is equally ambiguous. Cromwell was a reformer and, with all the zeal of a recent convert, was eager to promote the royal supremacy. He was responsible for guiding the various Acts through Parliament and ensuring that the necessary oaths were sworn, often using violent means to achieve this objective. It was his duty to see that More complied, but how far was he acting under his own volition, how much on the king’s orders? That More, when pleading his case, wrote to Cromwell as well as the king shows that he recognised the royal secretary’s authority and influence. Did Cromwell attempt to save More, or was he guiding the king in the persecution of Thomas More?
Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon was duly annulled by the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. The secret marriage of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn was declared valid. Many of those who had initially opposed the King’s annulment and remarriage, including some of More’s friends, accepted the new situation. Thomas More could not. With his refusal to attend Anne’s coronation, the persecution against him grew more forceful and systematic. Having alienated his friends by accusing them of losing their spiritual virginity for appearing to endorse the new marriage, Sir Thomas set out alone on a path that would inevitably lead to his death on the scaffold.
More was in no doubt as to what was to come and he wanted to prepare his family for it. On one occasion he hired a royal official to come to his home and make to arrest him. When the resultant commotion died down, More warned his horrified family that such a scenario was a very real possibility. The family was not comforted. Since More’s retirement their circumstances and living standards had been somewhat reduced. There was already a sense of unease. Now he was preparing them for even worse things to come.
Among the attacks against More were accusations of corruption, complicity in the alleged conspiracy of Elizabeth Barton, the Nun of Kent, and treason, for having prompted Henry to write the Assertio Septem Sacramentorium. There were serious flaws in these accusations, not least of which was More’s demonstrable innocence in each case.
More continued to send letters to the king and to Cromwell explaining his position. He asserted that he had never spoken against the divorce in the past, nor would he in the future. This was only technically true: he may not have used the spoken word, but his actions and writings were as eloquent and meaningful as any speeches he might have made. More openly attacked, in print, a learned lawyer who had been hired by Henry and Cromwell to promote the reformation and persuade the people to accept it. More chose his approach carefully. He avoided overtly defending the papal primacy, since that would be treasonous. Instead, he concentrated on promoting the autonomy of the church, a finely defined lawyer’s argument.
In the battle between King Henry and his good servant, therefore, More’s weapon of choice was the printed word; Henry’s would be speech. Thus, More’s downfall came, as he feared it would, by means of an oath. The oath he was asked to swear was to the Act of Succession. In the event, More found that he could accept the line of succession as set down in the Act because he recognised that Parliament was competent to enact such a law; had it gone no further, he would have taken the oath. The difficulty lay in what was contained in the preamble to Act: an assertion of the invalidity of the marriage of Henry and Katherine of Aragon and the implicit rejection of papal authority. The first of these More did not agree with, but he had come to terms with it; the second, in his understanding, opened the way to schism, and so to heresy.
When summoned to Lambeth Palace to take the oath, More, with great presence of mind, took the time carefully to read the Act and the oath side by side, comparing the wording of the two documents. He immediately identified discrepancies between them. This, together with the unacceptable content of preamble to the oath, meant that More could not swear. Unwilling to state his reasons, he was committed to the Tower.
More’s cell was cold and damp, although a stove and straw mats helped to alleviate the worst of it. Five days into his imprisonment he watched through the window as Elizabeth Barton and the five priests who had supported her were prepared for their long and agonizing journey to Tyburn, to a fate More worried that he, too, might share in due course.
Still, there were some comforts. More was allowed to maintain contact with his family. Initially he and his daughter, Margaret Roper, exchanged letters, More using charcoal until proper writing materials arrived. Shortly afterwards Margaret was allowed to visit her father. It was imperative to More that his family should understand the reasons for his actions and support him. Some time before he had even discussed martyrdom with them. However, there is serious doubt as to the extent to which they encouraged him to ‘merrily run to death’, as he put it, or that they ever appreciated his reasons for doing so. Margaret appears to have tried her best to sway her father from the path he was taking, but how sincere her efforts were, or whether she was merely trying to mislead the ever-watchful Cromwell, is a matter for debate.
For her part, Dame Alice, More’s wife, rebuked her husband for seeming to prefer his prison cell to their home at Chelsea. She certainly had a point. In spite of his predicament, More appeared to be content where he was. He was visited by his family, with whom he was allowed to walk within the Tower gardens and see the menagerie. He was allowed to attend Mass, either in the chapel of St John in the White Tower or in St Peter ad Vincula. He had his books and writing materials, and he used them well. His prison writings were introspective and deeply pious; in them, he explored two themes that had become very significant to him: suicide and martyrdom.
Thomas More had been obsessed with suicide since his first encounter with it in the case of Richard Hunne. The Chancellor of the Bishop of London had been convicted of Hunne’s murder. However, More believed that Hunne had committed suicide, the victim of the Devil’s intrigues.
A second encounter came in the case of Thomas Philips, a heretic whom More believed was vulnerable to self-destruction. More was also involved with an unnamed man from Winchester, who experienced severe attacks of depression during which he feared he might be tempted to take his own life. More talked to this man, prayed for him and offered sound advice and, as long as the man could continue to talk to More he felt safe and the attacks ceased.
Suicide appears as one of the themes of More’s book, Utopia. He describes how the Utopians view suicide: its meaning, whether or not it is permissible to kill oneself, and if so, under what conditions, what effect it might have on the soul. Perhaps most importantly, in view of More’s ultimate fate, he wondered whether a person could, or should, be pressed into committing suicide against his or her will. Was there a correlation between suicide and murder? This latter question was further addressed in More’s unfinished book, The Four Last Things.
Now, when it was incumbent upon More to save himself if he could, he was uncertain whether he was in his present predicament because God had brought him to it, or was it a cruel trick of the Devil - was More’s resistance to the king an act of suicide, or was he answering God’s call to martyrdom?
This dilemma provides the theme for many of More’s prison writings. In A Dialogue of Comfort, having discussed suicide arising from despair, he then explores it as an act of spiritual pride. He discusses death in terms of good and evil, depending on the circumstances. His spiritual dilemma is to the fore in this work, as evidenced when he turns his attention once more to the theme of martyrdom. Was it a form of suicide? Can it be sought, or must one always be led to it by God?
More’s most poignant work at this time was the Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulations. Within the confines of the Tower he was living the semi-monastic life that had suited him so well in times past. Yet, if More had found a degree of peace and spiritual comfort in the Tower, his family had not. Alice Allington, his step-daughter, tried to intercede on More’s behalf with Thomas Audley, the man who had succeeded More as Chancellor. Her attempt was unsuccessful, but her letter to Margaret, who showed it to More, provided a platform for a heart-rending exchange between father and daughter.
Imprisonment had a detrimental effect on More’s health; his heart problems seemed to worsen and he was troubled by stones. He was also kept awake at night by fears for his family, the church and, perhaps most importantly, his very real fear that he might not have the strength to stay the course. Still, he found support and comfort as a result of his secret communications with Bishop John Fisher, whose predicament was similar to More’s in many respects.
There then came a new development. The ‘Reformation’ Parliament opened its next session and passed a series of new Acts which strengthened the government’s case and further damaged that of Thomas More. A second Act of Succession, and a new oath to go with it, resolved the flaws More had found in the first. Next, an Act of Supremacy formalised Henry’s title as Supreme Head of the Church in England. The limitation, ‘so far as the law of Christ allows’, was removed. Another Act addressed the crime of treason. The first Act of Succession, with its unacceptable preamble, had effectively been a Treason Act, but its effects were not wide-ranging enough. A dedicated Treason Act was passed, albeit with some difficulty, wherein one definition of treason was given as depriving the king of his dignity or title. More had done just that by refusing to acknowledge Henry as Supreme Head of the Church in England, but under the old legislation his crime was the lesser one of misprision of treason. This new Act meant that he could be charged with treason itself, a crime that carried the death penalty. Two Acts of Attainder followed. One was against John Fisher and several others. The second was aimed at Thomas More alone. It denounced him for ‘intending to sow the seeds of sedition’ by refusing to take the oath. It went on to accuse him of having ‘unkindly and ingrately served our sovereign lord by divers and sundry ways’. The attainted More’s property was forfeit to the crown, and his family became impoverished.
Dame Alice wrote to Henry to intercede on her husband’s behalf. She explained that More’s obduracy was an obsession, and one that could lead to her own undoing. Dame Alice clearly did not understand her husband’s views and was unsupportive of his actions. Her attempt was in vain. Henry was not to be moved.
Just prior to More’s attainder, the conditions of his confinement had deteriorated. Now they became even worse. He was allowed no more visitors and was forbidden to attend Mass. He also became the subject of false rumours, some of which insisted that he had, in fact, finally agreed to take the oath.
More had never explained his reasons for not taking the oath. He relied on the legal principle: Silence gives consent. While in the Tower he was interrogated four times in an attempt to make him incriminate himself, but he remained silent. Cromwell told him that one of the primary reasons for his imprisonment was that his resistance to the king’s will and his refusal to take the oath was influencing others to do the same. Here, Cromwell was speaking of the Carthusian friars, and it was probably no coincidence that Margaret Roper was granted special permission to visit her father on the very day the friars were dragged away to their execution.
When it was discovered that More and Fisher had been secretly communicating, More’s conditions worsened still further. The Solicitor-General, Sir Richard Rich, was sent to the Tower to take away More’s books and writing materials. Rich would later claim that, during a conversation that took place in More’s cell at this point, More had explicitly denied the king’s title of Supreme Head of the Church in England. More was interrogated again, this time by two official investigators, accompanied by two witnesses and a notary. Ever the astute lawyer, More was well aware that this was the preliminary to his trial.
The trial and condemnation of John Fisher left More in no doubt as to what the outcome of his own trial would be. However, Cromwell’s ‘remembrance’ at this time clearly shows that More’s fate had not yet been determined. It was not until six days after Fisher’s execution that it was decided that More should be accused of ‘falsely, traitorously and maliciously’ denying the king’s title of Supreme Head. It was under the Treason Act that More would be prosecuted.
At his trial More put up a solid defence. In the end it was the testimony of Richard Rich that sealed his fate. Rich repeated the conversation alleged to have taken place in More’s cell, but how much of Rich’s testimony can be believed? More himself accused him of perjury, and a careful reading of Rich’s original report suggests that More was correct. Nevertheless, Rich’s evidence was accepted by the court. More was found guilty and sentenced to death.
Margaret Roper and her brother, John, pushed through the cordon to embrace their father one last time. The scene was heart breaking, as was More’s final letter to Margaret, written just hours before his execution.
Thomas More was beheaded on Tower Hill. His journey to the scaffold provided the occasion for detractors and admirers to mock, praise or exhort him as their past relationship with him dictated. A woman rebuked him, claiming that he had given her a false judgement; the suicidal man from Winchester desperately wanted to know what he would do now that More, whose prayers had sustained him, was to die.
Following his execution, which was attended by the jests and humour for which More was so famous, Margaret Roper collected her father’s head and kept it with her until her own death, a few short years later.
More’s death shocked Europe, and he was quickly hailed as a martyr. A campaign was launched to discredit him, and it is largely here that his reputation for cruelty towards heretics originates. The culmination of the slanders against More was John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments. Meanwhile, a series of biographies of More appeared, each containing detailed, though sometimes varied, accounts of More’s fall. All except that written by More’s son-in-law, William Roper, remained unpublished in England until the twentieth century. John Foxe’s prediction of More’s canonisation came true in 1935, his cause enhanced by miracle stories that arose surrounding More’s death.
Copyright: Josepha Josephine Wilkinson 2010; 2013
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