The Family of Sir Thomas More by Rowland Lockey
after a sketch by Hans Holbein the Younger,
More was a Londoner, born in 1478, to a prominent London jurist who was sufficiently well connected to place his son as a page in the household of Archbishop Morton, the Lord Chancellor of Henry VII. Here More was exposed to the new humanism of the Renaissance and received an excellent education in Latin and Greek. He went on to Oxford but remained only two years when, at his father’s insistence, he returned to London to study at the Inns of Chancery in preparation for a career in the civil service. He went on to Linconl’s Inn in the Inns of Court and was called to the bar in 1502.
More was prepared to cause his father grave disappointment by, like Luther, embracing the monastic life. He lived near the Carthusian monastery, the London Charterhouse, and regularly joined the monks for the Divine Office and other spiritual exercises. However he abandoned the idea of monastic life, finding celibacy a struggle which he did not think he could win. He married Jane Colt in 1504 and they had three daughters and a son before Jane died in 1511. In less than a month after his wife’s death, More remarried. His second wife was Alice Middleton, a widow of considerable means. She was, according to one source, a shrew of the first order and not a pretty woman either. She certainly was a contrast to the gentle and docile Jane. It was not a love match but a marriage of convenience as More needed a mother for his four young children. More adopted Alice’s daughter in to his family as well and raised her as his own. While romance may not have been the motive for the marriage, More deeply loved Alice and she certainly brought life into the household with her fiery temper and outspoken ways. But beneath her attempts to dominate her husband and push his career, she loved him deeply too.
More had been in Parliament since 1504 and served as undersheriff of London, a position which brought him to the royal attention. He was named Master of Requests—a position of handling requests to be brought to the King’s attention and a member of the Privy Council in 1514. He was knighted and made under-treasurer of the Exchequer in 1521 and elected Speaker of the House of Commons in 1525. This last advancement he owed to Cardinal Wolsey with whom he often worked closely in advancing the plans of the King.
Henry took a genuine liking to More. Henry seems to have had a natural bonding with men somewhat older than himself, perhaps due to his strained relationship with his father, Henry VII. In any event, as Wolsey began to fall, More began to rise in the royal favor. This was not an auspicious time to find oneself in the public gaze however, as Henry’s desire of an annulment and his passion for Anne Boleyn were both coming to the boiling point and unless the valve were released, the pot was about to blow. In 1529, with
Wolsey being dismissed from the Lord Chancelorship, More was named to the post. It was a fateful choice.
It was also an interesting choice however. Henry obviously had confidence that More would go where Wolsey could not vis a vis the annulment. Henry had no doubt in More’s absolute loyalty. More, for his part, played the game very cagily. More was opposed to the annulment and refused to sign the petition to Clement VII to annul the marriage. But he was the King’s good servant and played both sides of the street in as that he signed the opinions of the Universities that the marriage to Katherine had been unlawful. When Henry married Anne and had her crowned Queen in June 1533, More avoided going to the coronation, pleading ill health. By that time, however, he had already resigned as Lord Chancellor and so the avoidance, while conspicuous, was not sufficiently grave a misstep to cause him trouble—at the moment.
In any case, it was not his refusal to subscribe to the marriage that was his undoing; it was his avoidance of the issues of the King’s supremacy over the Church, i.e. the rejection of papal authority. More declared that he would subscribe to the 1534 Act of Succession both in recognizing Anne as Queen and in recognizing her offspring as next in succession to the Crown over Princess Mary, the daughter of Henry and Katherine. This is an interesting detail because while we think of the Crown as inherited by the male and then female children of the Sovereign in order of their age, More understood that the English Crown is indeed an elective Crown and that Parliament has a right to choose who will be Sovereign. This principle would not be settled definitively until when in 1688 Parliament took the Crown from James II and gave it to his daughter Mary and her husband, William of Orange, but it had already been established in principle from Anglo-Saxon times and More was affirming that Parliament had a right to choose the Sovereign over any right that an individual might claim as rightful heir of the previous Sovereign.
But, as I said, the issue was not the marriage, it was the Royal Supremacy. Henry’s separation from Rome was not a sudden move nor done in one act. We will look at the process in a future posting, but beginning in 1531 there was a series of bills passed in Parliament weakening the ties with Rome and strengthening the King’s position over the Church in England. The 1532 Act of Submission of the Clergy led More to resign as Lord Chancellor under the pretext of his health. More avoided a face-down with the King—he was no one to go out of his way to die for a principle, even an important one, unless he had no choice. Indeed, in his service to the King he was not unlike some contemporary politicians who have to juggle conscience and public duty. In the end, for More, conscience would triumph, but only in the end. More could see that a break was coming and he wanted no part of it. It was in 1534 that the payment of Peter’s Pence was suspended and later that year that the Pope’s name was removed from the Liturgy. However it was only in 1536 that the final act denying papal authority in England was passed. By that time More was dead.
In 1534 More was arrested for denying that part of the 1534 Act of Supremacy that granted the King headship of the Church. The trial began on July 1, 1535. Anne Boleyn’s father was one of the judges. More had never spoken, even in private, on this matter and claimed that no one knew his thoughts on the matter because he had never shared them, even with his wife or family members. Yet his silence spoke volumes as everyone knew. He was convicted by the perjury of one Sir Richard Rich. More argued
Can it therefore seem likely to your Lordships, that I should in so weighty an Affair as this, act so unadvisedly, as to trust Mr. Rich, a Man I had always so mean an Opinion of, in reference to his Truth and Honesty, ...that I should only impart to Mr. Rich the Secrets of my Conscience in respect to the King's Supremacy, the particular Secrets, and only Point about which I have been so long pressed to explain my self? which I never did, nor never would reveal; when the Act was once made, either to the King himself, or any of his Privy Councillors, as is well known to your Honours, who have been sent upon no other account at several times by his Majesty to me in the Tower. I refer it to your Judgments, my Lords, whether this can seem credible to any of your Lordships.
Only after his conviction did More speak out and affirm his belief that neither King nor Parliament had the right to usurp the authority of the Pope over the Church which came from God’s gift. Five days later, Thomas More was beheaded on the Tower Green in London and his head displayed on London Bridge as a traitor. His request that his body be returned to his family for burial was denied and his headless body was buried in the chapel of St Peter in Chains in the Tower of London. His daughter Margaret paid to have the head stolen from the bridge before it could be tossed into the Thames and it was eventually buried in her husband’s family vault in the Anglican Church of Saint Dunstan in Canterbury.
In his time as Lord Chancellor More had been responsible for the execution of six “heretics” who had been spreading Protestant ideas in England and for the imprisonment of several more. Some were actually imprisoned in his home. John Foxe, the great Protestant Apologist and author of the Actes and Monuments, more commonly known as the Book of Martyrs, claimed that More had been responsible for cruel torture of these prisoners. More, in his own lifetime, denied that he had ever tortured any prisoner and it is likely that they were confined in his home precisely to make sure they were not tortured by jailers. Nonetheless, the facts are not known and it is today more a matter of polemics than of history as we cannot know from an objective source. Of course, whether or not he tortured people before having them burned at the stake makes the torture somewhat of a moot point. Execution of religious dissenters was common at the time and heretics continued to be burned in England even after Henry’s separation from Rome. Henry’s daughter Mary burned several leading Anglicans and that has tarnished her reputation even today. Elizabeth, on the other hand, never executed a person for religious dissent—but she had another way of dealing with those who denied her to be head of the Church. But more on that later.