"The King's good servant, but God's first"

An Essay By Ben // 10/8/2004

Dear Homeschooling Friends,

What a long time it's been since I wrote last! My life has been very centered around my work these past months. I'm working in the admissions office as Assistant Director of Admissions here at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in NH. Since I'm so busy, I thought I'd share one part of my business with you: an article I wrote for a Catholic journal on the school's patron saint, Sir Thomas More. I learned a lot about this man while writing this "mini-biography" - and I really like him! I hope you enjoy reading it....

Whenever we are in danger of characterizing the martyr as a person far-sighted, eager to abandon this life for the next, we should remember St. Thomas More (1478-1535). This saint gloried in the mundane. He liked puns, a fact confirmed by his coat of arms which bears six moorcocks and a Moor’s head. He wrote Utopia, an enormously influential work which also happens to be a satire. He loved the paradoxes of life, two extremes right next to each other. He was a man who wore a gold chain on the outside and a hair shirt against his skin. His good friend, Erasmus, famously writes:

His countenance is in harmony with his character, being always expressive of an amiable joyousness, and even an incipient laughter and, to speak candidly, it is better framed for gladness than for gravity or dignity, though without any approach to folly or buffoonery.

Thomas More's household was a festive place. Everyone played at least one musical instrument, a hired jester came in to entertain, and, at certain times, the guests would be introduced to the pet monkey or an exotic bird. More had four children: Margaret, Elizabeth, Cecilia, and John. These were the children of his first wife, Jane, who he married at the age of 27. Jane had two sisters, one of whom More had at first favored. But, as his son-in-law, Roper, tells us, "when he considered that it would be great grief and some shame also to the eldest to see her younger sister preferred before her in marriage, he then, of a certain pity, framed his fancy towards [Jane]." We have proof that their marriage was a happy one, as eloquent and self-giving as the courtship. And so when Jane died six years later, More experienced deep sorrow, but realized the children needed a mother very soon. Within a month he married a widow, Alice Middleton. This woman was seven years older than he, a wonderful (if rather straightforward) wife and mother. There are many anecdotes telling how More lovingly poked fun at his wife, she blissfully unaware that the subject of laughter was her.

It is said that More gave his children the best of educations—an education he himself enjoyed. The intellectual life was extremely important to this saint. As a child he learned Greek and Latin, and at Oxford he translated a Latin biography, studied classical literature, and wrote his own comedies and poetry. More was a great letter-writer: all his life he corresponded, writing to Erasmus, to his family, to the Bishop of Rochester (St. John Fisher), even to Martin Luther. More also studied the church fathers and delved into the study of law, which included canon law. He became known throughout England for his skill and justice as a lawyer and a judge. As Chancellor of England he had unparalleled success. He dispatched cases so quickly that a well-known rhyme commemorated his tenure:

When More some time had Chancellor been
No more suits did remain.
The like will never more be seen,
Till More be there again.

Perhaps all of us know how St. Thomas More's career ended; how King Henry VIII rebelled against the Church, how almost everyone seceded with him, and how More, faithful to the close, refused to take the oath and was beheaded. But the story bears repeating.

Duke of Norfolk: Sir Thomas More, ye see that ye haue heinously offended the Kinges Maiestie; howbeit we are in very good hope (such is his great bountie, benignitie and clemencie) that if you will forethinke and repent your selfe, if you will reuoke and reforme your wilfull, obstinate opinion that you haue so wrongfully mainteyned and so longe dwelt in, that ye shall taste of his gratious pardon.

By the time these words were spoken, Thomas More had been imprisoned for 15 months in the Tower of London. He was too weak to stand at the trial. And so, sitting in a chair brought out for him, he defended himself against the long list of charges. "I plead not gilty … I can say nothing but this: that of malice I neuer spake any thing against [the King and his late marriage] ... Truely, if the rule and Maxime of the ciuill lawe be good, allowable and sufficient then Que tacet, consentire videtur ['he that holdeth his peace seemeth to consent']."

The tribulations began almost three years before, when Thomas More stepped out of public life in order to avoid direct confrontation with his King. By 1533, Henry had already become obsessed by the desire for a male heir, and since his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, failed to produce a son, he sought annulment from Pope Clement VII. The Pope refused every request, and so Henry separated the Church of England from Roman Catholicism, divorced Catherine, and married the pregnant Anne Boleyn. More would not acknowledge the divorce, and did not attend the coronation of the new queen. Most of all, he could not willingly acknowledge Henry as the "Supreme Head" of the Church, although most of the clergy did. By resigning, More lost most of his income. Yet he went on living quietly in the hopes that he and his family might escape danger. Not so: in 1534 he was accused of complicity with Elizabeth Barton, the nun of Kent, who opposed the break with Rome. Still, More remained impassive, neither attacking nor submitting. Finally, when compelled to swear to the Act of Succession and the Oath of Supremacy, More refused and was committed to the Tower of London on April 17.

Even in 1525, when the King would come to More's house at Chelsea uninvited for dinner and walk in the garden with his arm around More's neck--even then More intuited where such a loving clasp might end. "If my head should win him a castle in France," he said to his son-in-law, "it should not fail to go." Thomas More was never one to delude himself. All his life he respected and imitated the humble prayer and penance of the monk. He lived in a monastery while he studied law, and seriously considered that vocation. "The one thing that prevented him from giving himself to that kind of life," writes Erasmus, "was that he could not shake off the desire of the married state." This may seem to indicate a weakness on More's part, but perhaps it only reveals his great reverence for the individuality of each person's calling and conscience. "In thinges touching conscience, euery true and good subiect is more bounde to haue respect to his saide conscience and to his soule than to any other thing in all the world beside."

Certainly, this side of More is less easy to understand. He never judged those who abandoned the Catholic Church and her teachings to save their lives, even insisting that, for them, such an act might not be damning, while for him such an act would. More's greatest literary accomplishment, Utopia, perplexes us in the same way. The Marxist sees it as a political platform; the philosopher treats it as another Plato’s Republic; even the literary critic lays more emphasis on the wit of its author than on the nature of the joke. Most of us pass over the subtleties of the work. We do not notice the implications when the court jester at the beginning pronounces truth--for More is reminding us that jokes are serious things. And Utopia does speak of things serious: our desire for a new city, a third age, a time when asceticism and the splendor of abundance may live side by side. The imaginary world of Utopia leads us toward the spiritual world of heaven.

In prison, More suffered greatly from "his old disease of the chest ... gravel, stone, and the cramp," but he remained cheerful. When he had no visitors (which was much of the time) he prayed, did penance, and wrote A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation on the Passion of Christ. He never finished this work. Toward the end of the book, the character “Anthony” poses the question:

Why, then, I say, should not reason thus furthered with faith and grace be much more able to engender in us an inclination—and afterward, through long and deep meditation on this subject, so continue that inclination that it will turn into a habitual, steadfast, and deep-rooted resolve—to suffer patiently the painful death of this body here on earth in order to gain everlasting abundant life in heaven and to avoid everlasting painful death in hell?

Cromwell, along with Sir Richard Rich, visited More's prison cell repeatedly to interrogate him. The pressure was high, even from More's own family, to take the oath. In an urgently beautiful letter to his daughter, Margaret, More returns to the thought brought up in A Dialogue of Comfort: "But I shall pray, and I pray thee, mine own good daughter, to pray with me, that it may please God that hath given me this mind, to give me the grace to keep it." In these darkest of hours, More recognized how dangerous was his position: not only his faith was at stake, but also his reason. Soon after this letter, all writing implements were taken from More, forcing him to write on stray scraps of paper with a charred stick or piece of coal.

Sir Richard Rich: May it be caused that Sir Richard Southwell and Master Palmer, who were in the chamber with Sir Thomas More and myself, may be sworn what words passed between us?

Sir Richard Rich, a man More knew only too well, swore More had revealed his malicious intentions to him in conversation. This, of course, was perjury. Neither Southwell nor Palmer would say what they heard. However, Richard's testimony supplied the court with what it wanted: an excuse to find More guilty. We can well imagine Thomas More at this point in the trial--betrayed, condemned, too tired to stand, but still sharp in mind and speech.

Thomas More: I will nowe in discharge of my conscience speake my minde plainlye and freely touching my Inditment and your Statute withall. Forasmuch as, my Lorde, this Indictment is grounded vppon an acte of parliamente directly repugnant to the lawes of god and his holy churche, the supreme gouerment of which, or of any parte whereof, may no temporall prince presume by any lawe to take vppon him, as rightfully belonging to the See of Rome, a spirituall preheminence by the mouth of our Sauiour himself, personally present vppon the earth, only to St Peter and his successors, Byshopps of the same See....

Sir Thomas Audley: Sir Thomas More, you are to be drawn on a hurdle through the City of London to Tyburn, there to be hanged till you be half dead, after that cut down yet alive, your bowels to be taken out of your body and burned before you, your privy parts cut off, your head cut off, your body to be divided in four parts, and your head and body to be set at such places as the King shall assign.

For the last six days of his life, Thomas More fasted and prayed. At some point during this time, he learned the King had reduced his sentence to beheading, a last favor to an old friend. Alice More, his wife, visited him. What words they spoke, we do not know; however, More did write an unfinished letter blessing his family and exhorting them to pray for his soul. The last day came. More wished to dress for his execution as though he were going to a banquet but was not allowed. Roper tenderly relates the final moments of Thomas More's life:

And so was he brought by Mr. Lieutenant out of the Tower, and from thence led towards the place of execution, where going up the scaffold, which was so weak that it was ready to fall, he said to Mr. Lieutenant, "I pray you, I pray you, Mr. Lieutenant, see me safe up, and for my coming down let me shift for myself." Then desired he all the people thereabouts to pray for him, and to bear witness with him, that he should then suffer death in and for the faith of the holy Catholic Church, which done he kneeled down, and after his prayers said, he turned to the executioner, and with a cheerful countenance spake unto him. "Pluck up thy spirits, man, and be not afraid to do thine office, my neck is very short. Take heed therefore thou shoot not awry for saving thine honesty."

Thomas More knew life was a joke: a serious thing. He lived, and died, accordingly. We should not forget that his wit, his married life, his many friendships, his insights, and his political defiance point toward a courageous spirituality. These details tell of a man moderate in everything but love. In 1935, Pope Pius XI canonized St. Thomas More. We need not hesitate to imitate him in our personal lives, our social interactions, and our political alliances. For, truly, Thomas More is a man for all seasons.


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