We are searching data for your request:
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.
Sir Thomas More and the Heretics
More is often thought of as a gentle family man who died for his principles, not as a disciplinarian and burner of heretics.
The fame of Sir Thomas More, who became Henry VIII's Lord Chancellor in 1529, rests in great part upon his authorship of Utopia. This novel, written in Latin and published in Louvain in 1516, is generally regarded as the quintessence of Christian humanism in its English context, a brilliant manifesto of social idealism within the tradition of the reforming ideas of Erasmus.
More’s vision of human progress was modelled on Plato’s Republic and conceived in terms of imagining a perfect society as the best means of achieving at least its partial realisation in an imperfect, materialist world. Subtitled ‘The Best State of a Commonwealth’, Utopia held out the promise of a basic subsistence to the working-classes, a six-hour working day, national health, state education, universal adult suffrage, religious toleration, and the ordination of women.
To continue reading this article you will need to purchase access to the online archive.
If you have already purchased access, or are a print & archive subscriber, please ensure you are logged in.
Thomas More (1478 - 1535)
Sir Thomas More © More was an English lawyer, scholar, writer, member of parliament and chancellor in the reign of Henry VIII. He was executed for refusing to recognise Henry VIII's divorce and the English church's break with Rome.
Thomas More was born on 7 February 1478 in London, the son of a successful lawyer. As a boy, More spent some time in the household of John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury. He later studied at Oxford, and qualified as a lawyer, although he did contemplate becoming a monk. From 1510 to 1518 he was one of the two under-sheriffs of London and in 1517 entered the king's service, becoming one of Henry VIII's most effective and trusted civil servants and acting as his secretary, interpreter, speech-writer, chief diplomat, advisor and confidant. In 1521 he was knighted, in 1523, he became the speaker of the House of Commons and in 1525 chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
At the same time More was building a reputation as a scholar. He was close to the radical catholic theologian Erasmus, but wrote polemics against Martin Luther and the protestant reformation. Around 1515, he wrote 'The History of Richard III' which established that king's reputation as a tyrant and has been described as the first masterpiece of English historiography. In 1516, he published his most important work 'Utopia' - a description of an imaginary republic ruled by reason and intended to contrast with the strife-ridden reality of contemporary European politics. More remained a passionate defender of Catholic orthodoxy - writing pamphlets against heresy, banning unorthodox books, and even taking responsibility when chancellor for the interrogation of heretics.
More took the post of lord chancellor in 1529, just as Henry had become determined to obtain a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. The previous chancellor, Lord Wolsey, had failed to achieve this objective. Henry was close to breaking with the Church of Rome, and the so-called 'Reformation parliament' was about to convene.
When Henry declared himself 'supreme head of the Church in England' - thus establishing the Anglican Church and allowing him to end his marriage - More resigned the chancellorship. He continued to argue against the king's divorce and the split with Rome, and in 1534 was arrested after refusing to swear an oath of succession repudiating the pope and accepting the annulment of Henry's marriage. He was tried for treason at Westminster and on 6 July 1535 was executed on Tower Hill.
11th century Edit
- (1068–1070) , count of Sées and bishop of Salisbury (c. 1070) , Archdeacon of Le Mans (c. 1078) , Preceptor of Rouen (c. 1085-before 1091), later Archbishop of York (after January 1091) (1094–1101)
12th century Edit
- (1101–1102) (1102–1107) (1107–1123) (1123–1133) (1133–1135) (Keeper of the Great Seal) (1135–1139) , Dean of Lincoln (1139–1140) , Dean of York (1140–1141) (1141–1142) , Dean of York (1142–1154) , Archbishop of Canterbury (1155–1162) , Archdeacon of Canterbury (1162–1173) , Treasurer of York (1173–1181) , Plantagenet (1181–1189) , Bishop of Ely (1189–1197) (1197–1199) (Keeper of the Great Seal)
- Eustace, Dean of Salisbury (1198–1199)
13th century Edit
- , Archbishop of Canterbury (1199–1205) ?"Bishop of Lichfield"?, 1214–15 Bishop of Worcester, from 1215 Archbishop of York (1205–1214) (1214–1226), from 1217 Bishop of Durham , Bishop of Chichester (1226–1240) , Abbot of Evesham (1240–1242) , Bishop of Chichester (1242–1244) , Archdeacon of Chester (1244–1246) (Keeper of the Great Seal) , Provost of Beverley (1246–1247) (Keeper of the Great Seal) (1247–1248) (Keeper of the Great Seal) (1248–1249) (Keeper of the Great Seal) (1249–1253) (Keeper of the Great Seal) , [nb 1] Queen Consort and Regent of England (1253–1254) (Keeper of the Great Seal) (1254–1255) (Keeper of the Great Seal) (1255–1260), from 1259/1260 Bishop of London , Archdeacon of Ely (1260–1261) , Archdeacon of Bath (1261–1263) , Archdeacon of Ely (1263) , Archdeacon of London (1263–1264) , Archdeacon of Stafford (1264–1265) (1265) (Keeper of the Great Seal) , Bishop of Bath and Wells (1265–1266) , Archdeacon of Wells (1266–1268) , Dean of St Paul's (1268–1269) , Archdeacon of Northumberland (1269–1272) , Archdeacon of Bath (1272–1274) , Bishop of Bath (1274–1292) , Archdeacon of Dorset (1279) (Keeper of the Great Seal) , Canon of Lincoln (1292–1302)
14th century Edit
- , Dean of Chichester (1302–1305) , Dean of York (1305–1307) , Bishop of London (1307) , Bishop of Chichester (1307–1310) , Bishop of Worcester (1310–1314) , Canon of Lincoln (1314–1318) , Bishop of Ely (1318–1320) , Bishop of Norwich (1320–1323) , Archdeacon of Middlesex (1323–1326) , Bishop of Norwich (1326–1327) , Bishop of Ely (1327–1328) , Bishop of Lincoln (1328–1330) , Bishop of Winchester (1330–1334) , Bishop of Durham (1334–1335) , Archbishop of Canterbury (1335–1337) , Bishop of Chichester (1337–1338) , Bishop of London (1338–1339) , Archbishop of Canterbury (1340) , Bishop of Chichester (1340) (1340–1341) (1341–1343) (1343–1345) , Dean of Lincoln (1345–1349) , Bishop of Worcester (1349–1356) , Bishop of Winchester (1356–1363) , Bishop of Ely (1363–1367) , Bishop of Winchester (1367–1371) (1371–1372) (1372–1377) , Bishop of St David's (1377–1378) (1378–1380) , Archbishop of Canterbury (1380–1381) (1381) (Keeper of the Great Seal) , Bishop of London (1381) (1381–1382) , Bishop of London (1382–1383) (later Earl of Suffolk) (1383–1386) , Bishop of Ely (1386–1389) , Bishop of Winchester (1389–1391) , Archbishop of York (1391–1396) , Bishop of Exeter (1396–1399) , Archbishop of Canterbury (1399)
15th century Edit
- , Archdeacon of Lincoln (1399–1401) , Bishop of Exeter (1401–1403) , Bishop of Lincoln (1403–1405) , Dean of York (1405–1407) , Archbishop of Canterbury (1407–1410) (1410–1412) , Archbishop of Canterbury (1412–1413) , Bishop of Winchester (1413–1417) , Bishop of Durham (1417–1424) , Bishop of Winchester (1424–1426) , Archbishop of York (1426–1432) , Bishop of Bath (later Archbishop of Canterbury) (1432–1450) , Archbishop of York (1450–1454) (1454–1455) , Archbishop of Canterbury (1455–1456) , Bishop of Winchester (1456–1460) , Bishop of Exeter (1460–1467) , Bishop of Bath (1467–1470) , Archbishop of York (1470–1471) , Bishop of Bath (1471–1473) , Bishop of Durham (1473–1474) , Bishop of Rochester (1475), (Keeper of the Great Seal) , Bishop of Lincoln (1475–1483) , Bishop of Lincoln (1483–1485) , Archbishop of York (1485) , Bishop of Worcester (1485–1486) , Cardinal Archbishop of Canterbury (1486–1500)
- Commissioners of the Great Seal
- Commissioners to hear causes and others
- Commissioners to hear causes in the Court of Chancery
- and others
- and others
The Great Seal was captured and destroyed by Parliament on 11 August 1646
Sir Thomas More Appointed Lord Chancellor of England
Today on October 26 1529, King Henry VIII appointed Sir Thomas More to Lord High Chancellor of England.
Sir Thomas More was an English lawyer, philosopher, author, and statesman. More importantly, he was a devout Catholic and was utterly opposed to the protestant reformation. In 1516, he published his famous literary work called Utopia, a fictional book covering the political, sociological, and religious makeup of a society living on an isolated island. He served as a Member of Parliament and was briefly the Speaker of the House of Commons.
In 1529, King Henry VIII appointed More as Lord High Chancellor of England, the second-highest political ranking. However, the relationship between the King and More quickly deteriorated. Three years later, More resigned his role as Chancellor and left the House of Commons, citing poor health however, his real reasons are likely centered on his disapproval of Henry’s religious actions. Henry was beginning to move against the Catholic Church and the Pope for refusing to annul his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.
The following year, More refused to attend the coronation of Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, who was a protestant. This was a massive insult to the king and in April 1534, More had broken the final straw. He publicly refused to swear to Henry’s Act of Succession and Oath of Supremacy. More essentially refused to acknowledge Henry as the Head of the Church of England. He was quickly arrested on charges of treason and imprisoned in the Tower of London. The next year he was beheaded and his famous last words before the execution were: "I die the King's good servant, and God's first."
Thomas More: saint or sinner?
History has left us two Thomas Mores – the flawless Catholic saint, and the cruel ogre, hellbent on burning Protestants. Both, however, are fallacies. So who is the real, flesh-and-blood More lurking behind the myth? Joanne Paul investigates
This competition is now closed
Published: October 26, 2020 at 2:15 pm
As the sun set over London on 30 April 1517, tensions in the city were ready to ignite. The sweating sickness had struck the city the year before, and it had been an especially harsh winter. Londoners vented their miseries against the city’s foreigners. Ambassadors fearfully reported that “there was a plot to cut to pieces all the strangers in London” on May Day 1517.
Rapidly losing their nerve, London’s officials called a meeting at the Guildhall that very evening. They needed someone with court connections to seek assistance from the Privy Council and the lord chancellor. They decided on a young lawyer and undersheriff of London named Thomas More.
But their efforts came too late. By 11pm violence was breaking out in the heart of the city. Shortly after, More intercepted a group of rioters in the foreign neighbourhood of St Martin’s Le Grand, just north of St Paul’s. Faced with a mass of torches and rage, he somehow managed to calm them.
The peace was only momentary. Within seconds, bricks and hot water were hurled down from the windows onto rioters. One of More’s companions shouted “Down with them!”, and the riot began again. It raged until the early hours of the morning, ending only when the nobles of the court arrived with more than 5,000 troops. Later, the Venetian ambassador noted that the quick response and lack of severe damage was due in large part to the fact that the lord chancellor had been “forewarned”. He doesn’t mention that it was by More.
Though unfamiliar to us now, this is the image that William Shakespeare, writing several decades later, sought to immortalise in his play Sir Thomas More. Shakespeare gave More a poignant monologue, in which he implores the rioters to consider “the strangers’ case” and their own “mountainish inhumanity”. The play that Shakespeare co-wrote was shut down by 16th-century censors, who declared that to perform it was “at [the playwrights’] own perils”.
Today, More remains a controversial figure, and to write about him retains an edge of peril. Is he a saintly scholar, as presented by the historian RW Chambers and immortalised in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons? Or is he the stubborn zealot described by historians Richard Marius and GR Elton, and famously portrayed in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall? We are told we must pick a side.
This division over More’s character has its own history. These two ‘Mores’ were the product of the divide between Protestants and Catholics, and emerged out of the decades that followed More’s death in 1535. As More’s extended family produced hagiographic biographies to convince the pope to make him a saint, Elizabethan chroniclers like Edward Hall and John Foxe painted More as a fool and fanatic. To borrow the words of 19th-century socialist Karl Kautsky: “To most of the biographies of More, a certain fragrance of incense clings.” It can be difficult to see through the fog.
In order to understand the real Thomas More, not as self-righteous villain nor as saintly hero but as flesh-and-blood individual, we have to find the Thomas More who walked the streets of London and called Cheapside home. We have to understand his cares and his concerns, which were intimately wrapped up with his sense of duty to his community. It is in Cheapside that we will find the man, as separated from the myth.
Destined for greatness
More was born on Milk Street, Cheapside on 7 February 1478. We can be fairly certain of this date, because his father recorded the birth on his copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. He was named after the 12th-century bishop Thomas Becket, who also happens to have been born just steps away from More’s home. It seems that from birth the young Thomas More was destined for great things.
Although Cheapside later gained a reputation for poverty, the name comes from the Old English ‘ceapan’ – to buy. This is why most streets in the area – including Milk Street – refer to the products that could be bought there. More didn’t grow up in lowly Putney, like his adversary Thomas Cromwell, but it was a far cry from the refined country upbringing that many have attributed to him. Although his father was a well-connected lawyer, More’s next-closest ancestors were genuinely a brewer, a baker and a candlestick maker.
More’s first brush with wealth and power came in 1489, when he joined the household of the lord chancellor, John Morton. Morton’s household was at Lambeth Palace, across the Thames from Westminster. At Lambeth, the young More would have overheard England’s leading nobles and politicians discuss the tumultuous state of the realm, only years after Henry VII had snatched it from Richard III.
Sponsored by Morton, More spent two years at Oxford, but returned to London without his degree in 1494 to study law. By 1501, having finished his studies, he was living in or near the Charterhouse, the home of Carthusian monks. Some have suggested that More was ‘testing’ himself for the religious life, and that his departure and marriage in 1505 is evidence that he was a “sex maniac”. However, he may simply have chosen to live nearby, taking advantage of the Charterhouse’s widely praised mass and library, while remaining close to the Inns of Court in Holborn and his family in Cheapside.
More certainly wasn’t a recluse at this time, and he had begun building connections with one of the most powerful guilds in the city: the Mercers’ Company. By the 16th century, the guilds – and the Mercers in particular – controlled much of the trade and politics of London. In 1509, the Mercers made More a ‘freeman’ of the city, and he quickly began to acquire powerful positions, including justice of the peace for Middlesex, MP, and undersheriff of London. He also acquired from the Mercers a house in Bucklersbury, a five-minute walk from his father’s home in Milk Street and a stone’s throw from the Guildhouse, where city business took place.
In 1515, More was sent to Bruges and Antwerp by Henry VIII and some of London’s leading merchants, who knew how accomplished he was in the art of negotiating. By the time he returned, he was in the sights of powerful men like the lord chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, but refused to enter royal service. He did not, in his own words, want to “leave my present post in London, which I do prefer even to a higher one”. After periods in Lambeth Palace, Oxford, the Charterhouse, Inns of Court and even abroad, More’s home, it seemed, would remain in Cheapside.
But the violent riots on the so-called ‘Evil May Day’ of 1517 changed everything. Historians have overlooked the importance of this moment. More had committed his life to his community, only to see it turn against itself, divided from within. It took the power of the realm to bring order and a sense of unity once again.
By early 1518, More was in the king’s service. His sense of duty was redefined, and he now looked not to the city, but to the realm. Within a few years, he moved his entire family out of Cheapside, and to Chelsea, the fashionable village for members of the court, well outside of London proper.
On 12 May 1521, almost exactly four years after the Evil May Day Riots, another scene of incendiary rage took place in Cheapside, but this time it was publicly sanctioned. Wolsey, under a golden cloth of state, “as if the pope in person had arrived”, presided over a ceremony at St Paul’s. As John Fisher, bishop of Rochester preached a sermon condemning Martin Luther as a heretic, Luther’s books were “burned in the church yard”. This was the first public book burning in England. But it would not be the last. Within days Wolsey was sending out orders to search homes for copies of Luther’s heretical texts.
It is unclear whether or not More was in attendance at the book burning there is no mention of him in the records. Instead, he was probably with the king, who was ill with a fever. More was, by now, the Master of Requests, which meant that he was almost always at his side, managing the various entreaties put to the king. In particular, he was the voice of Wolsey to Henry, when the corpulent cardinal could not follow the energetic young king around the country. The letters exchanged show a close relationship between Wolsey and his ‘beadsman’, or petitioner, More, but there was also a growing relationship between More and the king. By 1521, not even the cardinal could send a letter to Henry without it going through More.
More has been branded a cruel zealot, but books and people were being burned before his rise to power. Twelve people died in the flames under Henry VII, and two more endured this grisly fate in Kent in 1511 for denying that the bread of the Eucharist was the body of Christ.
When More did enter the debate over Lutheranism, it was at the king’s request. In 1523, he wrote his Response to Luther, answering a scathing attack that the radical German theologian had launched on Henry VIII. Luther had called the king “strumpet-like”, “swine”, “lying buffoon” and, worst for Henry, “effeminate”, and wrote of him vomiting pus and excrement. More responded in kind, calling Luther a “mad friarlet and privy-minded rascal with his ragings and ravings, with his filth and dung, shitting and beshitted”. As Erasmus said, More could teach even Luther a thing or two about vehemence. Nevertheless, though More may have exceeded other polemical authors of the time in the level of his vitriol, it was in keeping with their tone – and he wouldn’t re-enter this dispute for another six years.
By the end of 1529, More had replaced the fallen Wolsey as lord chancellor and was thus responsible for the maintenance of religious uniformity in England. Two years later, on 20 November 1531, he found himself once again in Cheapside, at St Paul’s Cathedral, where Wolsey’s book burning had taken place a decade before. This time it was not books that were about to be put to the flame, but a person: Richard Bayfield, who would shortly become the first Protestant martyr burned in London.
For More and others of his time, heresy was akin to treason but far more dire, as it was treason against God as well as the king. More feared that such disorder – caused, in his view, by pride – would lead to anarchy, and he saw evidence of this in the nascent wars of religion on the continent. As he put it: “The Catholic church did never persecute heretics by any temporal pain or any secular power until the heretics began such violence themselves.” In other words, for More, the heretics started it.
His dedication to his community had been redefined once again, moving from the realm, to the whole of Christendom, which he saw as a single body of people, stretching across time and space. The heretics threatened to tear that community apart, which is what made their crime so much worse than treason.
Fire and hell
We cannot know how much of a personal hand More took in the fight against heresy in England. He denied allegations that he tortured evangelicals in his own backyard, but did maintain that he had and would punish them, just as he would any thief or murderer who would be likely to cause more pain if he was allowed to go free.
In England and elsewhere this punishment had long been by fire, a position he supported whole-heartedly. Comparing heretics to branches cut off from the vine of Christ, More wrote that they would be “kept but for the fire first here and after in hell”, unless “they repent and call for grace, that may graft them into the stock again”. Following Bayfield’s execution, two more men would be burned as heretics in London under More’s chancellorship. Many more would follow his resignation as chancellor in May 1532.
He submitted that resignation in protest at the Submission of the Clergy (in which the Church of England had given up its power to formulate church laws without Henry’s assent) and the declaration of the king as head of his own Church in England.
It was a dangerous move. The ground had shifted beneath More, and the position he had once adopted to support the king, now became an attack on him. Defending Christendom was not the same thing as defending England. More prioritised the former. He was not oblivious to the perils involved. By 1534, he had already escaped the charge of treason once, if not twice. He would not escape it again.
As 16th-century biographers tell it, More’s final arrest took place on the streets of Cheapside, like so many of the key events in his life. Following mass at St Paul’s, More would have followed the familiar route along Cheapside back to his old home in Bucklersbury. Heading north after exiting the cathedral, he would have turned right at St Martin’s Le Grand, where he had confronted the mob on Evil May Day. Shortly afterwards, he would have passed Milk Street on his left, where he was born and grew up. Bucklersbury was only a few streets down, where his adoptive daughter and her husband lived.
At some point during this short walk, More was stopped and handed a summons to appear before the Privy Council at Lambeth Palace. He never returned to Cheapside. Within a few days, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. He was executed on 6 July 1535 for refusing to acknowledge Henry VIII as head of his own church in England. He died attempting to defend his sense of community, which, for him, was threatened every bit as much by Henry as the heretics.
There is an old saying: “In order to truly know someone, you must walk a mile in their shoes.” For More, that mile is from a little side street in Cheapside to St Paul’s Cathedral and back again. By retracing these steps we come to know More neither as saint or villain, but flesh-and-blood individual, who was dedicated to his community, whether Cheapside, England or all of Christendom.
It can be tempting to take up positions like Shakespeare’s More, railing against the “mountainish inhumanity” of figures in the past. But this clouds our view of how someone like More was in fact attempting to defend his view of humanity, no matter how villainous we may think it now. As More himself wrote: “Let historians begin to show either prejudice or favouritism, and who will there be to lend any credence at all to histories?”
Dr Joanne Paul is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Sussex. She is the author of books on Thomas More (Polity, 2016) and the Dudley family (forthcoming, 2021).
Career as king’s servant of Thomas More
On May 1, 1517, a mob of London apprentices attacked foreign merchants in the city. More’s role in quenching this Evil May Day riot inspired a scene, attributed to Shakespeare, in Sir Thomas More, a composite Elizabethan play. More’s success in the thorny negotiations with the French at Calais and Boulogne (September to December 1517) over suits born of the recent war made it harder for him to dodge royal service. That year he became a member of the king’s council and from October was known as master of requests. He resigned his City office in 1518. While yielding to pressure, he embraced the chance of furthering peace and reform. The lord chancellor, Thomas Wolsey, now looked ready to implement some of the political ideas of the Christian humanists.
Between 1515 and 1520 More campaigned spiritedly for Erasmus’s religious and cultural program—Greek studies as the key to a theology renewed by a return to the Bible and the Church Fathers—in poems commending Erasmus’s New Testament. More’s Latin poems were published in 1518 under one cover between his Utopia and Erasmus’s Epigrammata they are extremely varied in metre and matter, their main topics being government, women, and death.
Erasmus offered his London friend as a model for the intelligentsia of Europe in letters to the German humanist Ulrich von Hutten (1519) the Paris scholar Germain de Brie (1520), with whom More had just engaged in a polemic and Guillaume Budé, whom More had met in June 1520 at the Field of Cloth of Gold, the meeting ground, near Calais, between Henry VIII and Francis I. According to Erasmus, simplicity was More’s mark in food and dress. He shrank from nothing that imparted an innocent pleasure, even of a bodily kind. He had a speaker’s voice and a memory that served him well for extempore rejoinders. “Born for friendship,” he could extract delight from the dullest people or things. His family affections were warm yet unobtrusive. He gave freely and gladly, expecting no thanks. Amid his intense professional activity, he found hours for prayer and for supervising his domestic school. Most of his charges were girls, to whom he provided the most refined Classical and Christian education.
In 1520 and 1521 More took part in talks, at Calais and Brugge, with the emperor Charles V and with the Hansa merchants. In 1521 he was made undertreasurer and knighted. His daughter Margaret married William Roper, a lawyer. For Henry VIII’s Defense of the Seven Sacraments, More acted as “a sorter out and placer of the principal matters.” When Martin Luther hit back, More vindicated the king in a learned, though scurrilous, Responsio ad Lutherum (1523). In addition to his routine duties at the Exchequer, More served throughout these years as “Henry’s intellectual courtier,” secretary, and confidant. He welcomed foreign envoys, delivered official speeches, drafted treaties, read the dispatches exchanged between the king and Wolsey, and answered in the king’s name. Often he rode posthaste between the cardinal’s headquarters at Westminster and Henry’s various hunting residences. In April 1523 More was elected speaker of the House of Commons while loyally striving to secure the government’s ends, he made a plea for truer freedom of speech in Parliament. The universities—Oxford in 1524, Cambridge in 1525—made him their high steward.
By 1524 More had moved to Chelsea. The Great House he built there bore the stamp of his philosophy, its gallery, chapel, and library all geared toward studious and prayerful seclusion. In 1525 he was promoted to chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, which put a large portion of northern England under his judiciary and administrative control.
On More’s return from an embassy to France in the summer of 1527, Henry VIII “laid the Bible open before him” as proof that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, who had failed to produce a male heir, was void, even incestuous, because of her previous marriage to Henry’s late brother. More tried in vain to share the king’s scruples, but long study confirmed his view that Catherine was the king’s true wife. After being commissioned in March 1528 by Bishop Tunstall of London to read all heretical writings in the English language in order to refute them for the sake of the unlearned, More published seven books of polemics between 1529 and 1533—the first and best being A Dialogue Concerning Heresies.
Hilary Mantel has recently come under attack for her portrayal of Sir Thomas More in her novels, Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012). It has even been suggested that Mantel's "anti-Catholicism" is a product of her convent education. (1)
However, it was the recently broadcast TV drama based on her novels that has increased the amount of people accusing her of being a "fierce critic of Catholicism". The Catholic Herald has reported that Bishop Mark O&rsquoToole of Plymouth said there was a &ldquostrong anti-Catholic thread&rdquo in the series. He went onto argue that the drama appeared to connect More and his Catholic faith to religious fundamentalism in the 21st century. "Those modern parallels need to be cautiously drawn. Hilary Mantel does have this view that being a Catholic is destructive to your humanity. It is not historically accurate and it is not accurate in what the Catholic faith has to contribute to society and to the common good as a whole. There is an anti-Catholic thread there, there is no doubt about it. Wolf Hall is not neutral.&rdquo (2)
The newspaper goes on to quote Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury who said: &ldquoWe should remember Wolf Hall is a work of fiction. It is an extraordinary and perverse achievement of Hilary Mantel and BBC Drama to make of Thomas Cromwell a flawed hero and of St Thomas More, one of the greatest Englishmen, a scheming villain." I also have problems with Mantel's portrayal of Thomas Cromwell, but More is far from being one of the "greatest Englishmen" and I would argue he was one of the nation's greatest villains.
Sir Thomas More & Hans Holbein
Art critics have also got involved in this debate. Jonathan Jones, writing in The Guardian, questions Mantel's view of More: "Why does Wolf Hall demonise one of the most brilliant and forward-looking of all Renaissance people? Its caricature of Thomas More as a charmless prig, a humourless alienating nasty piece of work, is incredibly unfair. Why did Hilary Mantel choose to portray him in a way that flies in the face of all the evidence?" (3)
Jones is of course wrong about this. Mantel has always insisted that her novels are based on a considerable amount of research. The historian Jasper Ridley, looked at all the available evidence for his book, The Statesman and the Fanatic (1982), a study of Sir Thomas More and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and came to the following conclusion: "More's love for his family is largely a myth and that the saint was the worst kind of intolerant fanatic, an idealist gone astray, who began as a brilliant intellectual but developed first into a sycophantic courtier and then into a persecuting bigot, before he redeemed himself, at the eleventh hour, by a brave if muted stand for his principles which cost him his life." (4)
The main evidence that Jones provides for his view of More is the painting by Hans Holbein. "Thomas More and his family were still settling into their new house near the river Thames when they all posed for Holbein. It was a new kind of portrait &ndash an emotional revolution, even. For this Tudor statesman did not just want Holbein to paint him, but to include all his nearest and dearest in what was clearly intended as a companionate image of family life, like nothing hitherto seen in Britain. Women and men all gather together sociably in a little community. On the compositional drawing that survives, More has annotated Holbein&rsquos design. Next to Holbein&rsquos depiction of his wife kneeling, More asks for a change &ndash she should be sitting in a chair, not kneeling like a servant!" (5)
It seems to me that a painting is not very good evidence of a person's character. In a fascinating TV documentary, Holbein: Eye of the Tudors, the art critic, Waldermar Januszczak argued that Holbein's paintings and drawings of More are the most important factor in our interpretation of the man. (6) In an article that accompanied the programme Januszczak states: "Holbein's glorious portrayals of all the main players in Henry's drama - the king Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour Sir Thomas More - are so vivid, so life-like, that the entire cast feels as if it is still with us." (7) Januszczak points out that Holbein was a Catholic propagandist. He says if anyone doubts this they should compare Holbein's portraits of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell.
Thomas More by Hans Holbein (1527)
The documentary evidence does not support the idea that Thomas More was a loving husband and father. Jasper Ridley claims that "Sir Thomas More, a brilliant lawyer, writer and intellectual who was a particularly nasty sadomasochistic pervert. He enjoyed being flogged by his favourite daughter as much as flogging heretics, beggars and lunatics in his garden. He humiliated his wife by pointing out to his guests, in her presence, how ugly she was in order to show that he had not married her because he was lusting for a beautiful woman." (8)
Thomas More's Utopia
Jonathan Jones rejects Hilary Mantel's portrait of More "as a charmless prig, a humourless alienating nasty piece of work" partly because of his book, Utopia (1516). "The most compelling proof of Thomas More&rsquos wit, warmth and original way of seeing things is his masterpiece, Utopia. Anyone who dreams of a better world should revere More, because in this 1516 book he created the very idea of utopianism &ndash and named it. Yet his imaginary island somewhere in the Americas is not all it seems. Utopia is simultaneously a serious discussion of the ideal society (which, according to More, would be communist) and a text that mocks itself. More introduces jokes that undercut the book&rsquos apparent message. The result is a complex intellectual balancing of ideas: we need ideals. We need to dream of a better society. We also need to beware of those dreams." (9)
This is a complete misreading of More's book. More was not interested in a debate on the future of society. More's refused permission for the book to be published in English and it was only available in Latin as he only wanted it to be read by an intellectual elite. The book tells of a seaman who has discovered an island called Utopia ("Utopia" is Greek for "nowhere"). The people on this island live in a completely different way from the people of Tudor England. In his book people elect their government annually by secret ballot wear the same kind of clothes and only work for six hours a day. There is no money or private property on the island. Free education and health care is available for all. All goods are stored in large storehouses. People take what they want from the storehouses without payment. Both men and women can be priests. People are able to hold whatever religious beliefs they want.
More's defenders have suggested that More was describing his vision of what England should be like. This is not true. The book was a work of satire. His entire career was based on fighting these ideas. Some people did believe this kind of society was possible. This included the Cathars who lived in the south of France. They protested against what they perceived to be the moral, spiritual and political corruption of the Catholic Church. Fighting in wars, capital punishment and the killing of animals was abhorrent to the Cathars and their belief that men and women were equal also upset Pope Innocent III. In 1208 he gave orders for the Cathars to be either converted or exterminated.
The crusader army came under the command of the papal legate Arnaud-Amaury, Abbot of Cîteaux. In the first significant engagement of the war, the town of Béziers was besieged on 22nd July 1209. The Catholic inhabitants of the city were granted the freedom to leave unharmed, but many refused and opted to stay with the Cathars. When the Abbot gave orders for all the inhabitants to be killed, one of the soldiers asked how they would distinguish the Cathars from the Catholics. He replied: "Kill them all. For the Lord knoweth them that are His." It is estimated that over 15,000 people were executed that day. (10)
These ideas spread to England and were articulated by the English priest and theologian John Wycliffe. In 1374 "he began to attack Rome's control of the English Church and his stance became increasingly anti-Papal resulting in condemnation of his teachings and threats of excommunication." (11) Wycliffe developed a strong following and those who shared his beliefs became known as Lollards.
As one of the historians of this period of history, John Foxe, has pointed out: "Wycliffe, seeing Christ's gospel defiled by the errors and inventions of these bishops and monks, decided to do whatever he could to remedy the situation and teach people the truth. He took great pains to publicly declare that his only intention was to relieve the church of its idolatry, especially that concerning the sacrament of communion. This, of course, aroused the anger of the country's monks and friars, whose orders had grown wealthy through the sale of their ceremonies and from being paid for doing their duties. Soon their priests and bishops took up the outcry." (12) In 1382 John Wycliffe was condemned as a heretic and was forced into retirement.
If you find this article useful, please feel free to share on websites like Reddit. You can follow John Simkin on Twitter, Google+ & Facebook or subscribe to our monthly newsletter.
It has been claimed that the teachings of Wycliffe influenced the thinking of young priests such as John Ball. In 1381 Ball led a march to London complaining about the Poll Tax. As Thomas Walsingham pointed out. "John Ball taught the people that tithes ought not be paid. He also taught the wicked doctrines of the disloyal John Wycliffe." Jean Froissart commented at the time: "A crazy priest in the county of Kent, called John Ball. told the peasants that the nobility should not have great power over the the common people. John Ball had several times been confined in the Archbishop of Canterbury's prison for his absurd speeches. It would have been better had he locked him up for the rest of his life, or even had him executed. for as soon as he was released, he went back to his former errors."
Ball is reported to have said in one sermon: "Why are those whom we call lords, masters over us? How have they deserved it? By what right do they keep us enslaved? We are all descended from our first parents, Adam and Eve how then can they say that they are better than us. At the beginning we were all created equal. If God willed that there should be serfs, he would have said so at the beginning of the world. We are formed in Christ's likeness, and they treat us like animals. They are dressed in velvet and furs, while we wear only cloth. They have wine, and spices and good bread, while we have rye bread and water. They have fine houses and manors, and we have to brave the wind and rain as we toil in the fields. It is by the sweat of our brows that they maintain their high state. We are called serfs, and we are beaten if we do not perform our task." Ball was arrested and was hung, drawn and quartered on 15th July, 1381. (13)
The Lollards were eventually destroyed and by the time More wrote Utopia it was the Anabaptists who were promoting the philosophy of equality. More wrote to a friend that of all the religious groups he especially hated the Anabaptists: "The past centuries have not seen anything more monstrous than the Anabaptists". As More's biographer, Jasper Ridley, has pointed out: "It is unquestionable that More, like other persecutors throughout history, believed that the foundations of civilisation, and all that he valued as sacred, were threatened by the forces of evil, and that it was his mission to exterminate the enemy by all means, including torture and lies. The worst of all the heretics were the Anabaptists, the most extreme of all the Protestant sects, who were already causing great concern to the authorities in Germany and the Netherlands. They not only rejected infant baptism, but believed, like the inhabitants of Utopia, that goods should be held in common." (14)
More's biographer, Raymond Wilson Chambers, pointed out the irony of the fact that the word "Utopia" has come to mean an ideal society which is incapable of realisation, whereas More saw it as a warning of what might become possible. (15) More wrote Utopia in Latin, as he intended it to be read by the intellectuals of Europe, not by the common people. (It was not translated into English for another 35 years.) When it was published it was "acclaimed by scholars throughout Christendom". According to More, some readers took it so seriously that they believed that the island of Utopia really existed, and one of them suggested to More that missionaries should be sent to convert the Utopians to Christianity. (16)
Man of All Seasons
The Catholic writer, Peter Stanford, has argued in The Daily Telegraph that Hilary Mantel has attempted "to turn the conventional reading of English Reformation history on its head" by attacking Thomas More "the historical equivalent of a national treasure". Stanford goes on to suggest that "among the craven politicians of his day, he was a man of unbending principle who refused to fall in with Henry VIII&rsquos self-serving plan to set up his own church, and who chose execution rather than go against his conscience". (17)
Stanford is probably right and that this is probably the majority view of Thomas More. This has nothing to do with what historians have said about More in the past but more about another popular work of art, A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt. It was originally a play first performed on the radio in 1954. This was followed by a version on television (1957) and a play at the Globe Theatre (1960). However, it was the multi-Academy Award winning 1966 feature film that most people remember. Bolt's interpretation of More's character had the same impact on the public at the time as Mantel's has had since the publication of Wolf Hall in 2009.
Melanie McDonagh has argued: "In Wolf Hall, you don't get the author of Utopia, Erasmus's favourite companion (these things are mentioned but with a sneer). You don't get the humanist and the humorist. What you get is a heretic-hunter, whose wit is turned to dry sarcasm and whose world view is simple religious fanaticism. This is Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons turned on its head. Granted, Bolt's play wasn't historical verity either but it was, in depicting Thomas More as the martyr of conscience, truthful." (18) It is this view of More that resulted in him being made patron saint of politicians by St John Paul II in 2000.
The historian, David Starkey, disagrees with Bolt's view of More. &ldquoThe real problem with all of this, goes back to Robert Bolt and A Man For All Seasons, with Paul Scofield playing Thomas More &ndash and didn&rsquot he agonise well? But it was historical rubbish that presented More as a kind of Gladstonian liberal, when he was nothing of the sort.&rdquo (19) Starkey argues that More, like the rest of the Catholic hierarchy, was an opponent of modern democratic values. &ldquoFreedom of speech wasn&rsquot won by being nice, it has been won by struggle with religion.&rdquo (20)
Bolt's play deals with the dispute that took place between Thomas More and Henry VIII after Pope Clement VII announced that the king's marriage to Anne Boleyn was invalid. Henry reacted by declaring that the Pope no longer had authority in England. In November 1534, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy. This gave Henry the title of the "Supreme head of the Church of England". A Treason Act was also passed that made it an offence to attempt by any means, including writing and speaking, to accuse the King and his heirs of heresy or tyranny. All subjects were ordered to take an oath accepting this. (21)
Sir Thomas More refused to take the oath and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. More was summoned before Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell at Lambeth Palace. More was happy to swear that the children of Anne Boleyn could succeed to the throne, but he could not declare on oath that all the previous Acts of Parliament had been valid. He could not deny the authority of the pope "without the jeoparding of my soul to perpetual damnation." (22)
Thomas More was eventually tried for treason. More denied that he had ever said that the King was not Head of the Church, but claimed that he had always refused to answer the question, and that silence could never constitute an act of high treason. The prosecution cited the statement that he had made to Thomas Cromwell, where he argued that the Act of Supremacy was like a two-edged sword in requiring a man either to swear against his conscience or to suffer death for high treason.
The verdict was never in doubt and Thomas More was convicted of treason. Lord Chancellor Thomas Audley "passed sentence of death - the full sentence required by law, that More was to be hanged, cut down while still living, castrated, his entrails cut out and burned before his eyes, and then beheaded." (23) Henry VIII commuted the sentence to death by the headsman's axe and he was executed on 6th July, 1535. Thomas More told his executioner: "You will give me this day a greater benefit than ever any mortal man can be able to give me. Pluck up thy spirits, man, and be not afraid to do thine office. My neck is very short take heed, therefore, thou strike not awry for saving of thine honesty." (24)
Thomas More was obviously a very brave man. He had chosen to die for his religious beliefs. That is he chose the authority of Pope Clement VII over that of the English king. I understand this position was welcomed by the Catholic Church in Rome and one can see why he was canonised in 1935 (at a time when the Roman Catholic Church were signing deals with Benito Mussolini and was unwilling to criticise the fascist government in Nazi Germany), but is Bishop Mark Davies right to call him one of the "greatest Englishmen"?
William Tyndale & the English Bible
It is worth looking in detail why people such as Hilary Mantel have been so critical of Thomas More. He was appointed Lord Chancellor in October, 1529. More was a strong supporter of the Catholic Church and he was determined to destroy the Protestant movement in England. As a writer, More was aware of the power of books to change people's opinions. He therefore drew up a list of Protestant books that were to be banned. This included the English translation of the Bible by William Tyndale.
More attempted to make life difficult for those publishing such books. He introduced a new law that required the name and address of the printer to be printed in every book published in England. People caught owning Protestant books were punished by being sat facing back-to-front on a horse and forced to wear placards explaining their crimes. They were then walked through the streets of the town where they came from. More also organized public burnings of Protestant books. People found guilty of writing and selling Protestant books were treated more harshly. Like those caught making Protestant sermons, they were sometimes burnt at the stake. The first person to be treated in this way during More's reign of terror was Thomas Hitton who was executed in Maidstone on 23rd February 1530. His crime was distributing religious books and pamphlets that had been been published in the English language.
Hitton's death marked a new development in the fight against heresy. The last recorded heretic executed in England before More became Lord Chancellor was in 1519. As Jasper Ridley, the author of The Statesman and the Fanatic (1982) pointed out, no heretics were burned between 1521 and 1529 when Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was Lord Chancellor. However, things changed when More replaced Wolsey: "Apart from other factors, these heretics were burned when More was Chancellor because they refused to recant, or, having recanted, relapsed into heresy, whereas in Wolsey's time all the heretics whom he examined recanted at their trial. But there is no doubt that at least part of the reason is that More was a far more zealous persecutor than Wolsey." (25)
In 1530 More issued two proclamations proscribing a number of publications and banned the importation of any foreign imprints of English works. More imprisoned a number of men for owning banned books. Seymour Baker House has argued: "The vigour with which More pursued heretics through the courts was mirrored by the relentlessness with which he fought them. The times demanded strictness, he repeatedly argued, because the stakes were so high. No other aspect of More's life has engendered greater controversy than his persecution of heretics. Critics argue that as one of Europe's leading intellectuals, and one with particularly strong humanist leanings, More should have rejected capital punishment of heretics. His supporters point out that he was a product of his times, and that those men he most admired. lamented but accepted as necessary the practice of executing heretics." (26)
Thomas More wrote that of all the heretical books published in England, Tyndale's translation of the New Testament, was the most dangerous. The book had been published in Worms in 1526. (27) Tyndale arranged for these Bibles to be smuggled into England. Tyndale declared that he hoped to make every ploughboy as knowledgeable in Scripture as the most learned priest. The Bibles were often hidden in bales of straw. Most English people could not read or write, but some of them could, and they read it out aloud to their friends at secret Protestant meetings. They discovered that Catholic priests had taught them doctrines which were not in the Bible. During the next few years 18,000 copies of this bible were printed and smuggled into England.
More did what he could to stop the distribution of Tyndale's Bible. (28) He also wrote a book, Confutation of Tyndale's Answer, explaining why Tyndale was such a threat to the Catholic Church. More began the book with a striking opening sentence: "Our Lord send us now some years as plenteous of good corn we have had some years of late plenteous of evil books. For they have grown so fast and sprung up so thick, full of pestilent errors and pernicious heresies, that they have infected and killed I fear me more simple souls than the famine of the dear years have destroyed bodies." (29)
One of Tyndale's associates, John Frith arrived in England in July 1531 to help distribute Tyndale's New Testament. Frith was arrested when he was suspected that he might have stolen goods hidden in his bag. When the bag was opened they discovered that it contained English Bibles. After the authorities discovered his real name he was sent to the Tower of London. Frith was burnt at the stake on 4th July 1533. It was reported that "Frith was led to the stake, where he willingly embraced the wood and fire, giving a perfect testimony with his own life. The wind blew the fire away from him, toward Andrew Hewet, who was burning with him, so Frith's death took longer than usual, but he seemed to be happy for his companion and not to care about his own prolonged suffering." (30)
Thomas More was determined to destroy his main enemy, William Tyndale. More sent a close friend, Sir Thomas Elyot, to try to arrange the arrest of Tyndale who was living in Brussels. This ended in failure and the next person to try was Henry Phillips. He had gambled away money entrusted to him by his father to give to someone in London, and had fled abroad. Phillips offered his services to help capture Tyndale. After befriending Tyndale he led him into a trap on 21st May, 1535. (31) Tyndale was taken at once to Pierre Dufief, the Procurer-General, who immediately raided the house where he was staying and took away all Tyndale's property, including his books and papers. Luckily, his work on the Old Testament was being kept by John Rogers. Tyndale was taken to Vilvorde Castle, outside Brussels, where he was kept for the next sixteen months. (32)
The death of William Tyndale, from Foxe's Book of Martyrs (1563)
Pierre Dufief had a reputation for hunting down heretics. He was motivated by the fact he was given a proportion of the confiscated property of his victims, and a large fee. Tyndale was tried by seventeen commissioners, led by three chief accusers. At their head was the greatest heresy-hunter in Europe, Jacobus Latomus, from the new Catholic University of Louvain. Tyndale conducted his own defence. He was found guilty but he was not burnt alive, as a mark of his distinction as a scholar. On 6th October, 1536, he was strangled first, and then his body was burnt. John Foxe reports that his last words were "Lord, open the king of England's eyes!" (33)
The Burning of Heretics
Bishop Mark O&rsquoToole of Plymouth has argued that Hilary Mantel has produced a distorted picture of More: &ldquoThe picture of More is dark. More was a man of his time and heresy was the big sin, really, it was the big wrong on both sides. It is hard for us in our modern mentality to see it as wrong. They looked on heretics as we look upon drug traffickers. But it is inaccurate to say that he (St Thomas) condemned people to death." (34)
Bishop O'Toole is clearly wrong about More's responsibility for people being burnt at the stake. One of his biographers, Seymour Baker House, has found evidence of ordering the execution of three heretics and publicly approving the burning of eight others. (35) He is also wrong to suggest that all people in Tudor England shared his belief that heretics needed to be burnt at the stake. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey did not order the burning of one heretic during his eight years in power. There were others who were totally opposed to the idea of capital punishment. More, on the other hand, believed strongly in burning heretics and was one of England's main supporters of the Spanish Inquisition. (36)
Colin Burrow of All Souls College has also criticized Hilary Mantel's interpretation of Thomas More: "Thomas More is here a dogmatic persecutor of heretics (which he was), a man perhaps unhealthily obsessed by his daughter Meg (which he may have been), and someone who makes cruelly unfunny jokes about his second wife, Dame Alice (which he did). He is not much else (although he was). Here Mantel&rsquos revisionary eye seems cruel, or to have missed something. Her Wolsey has an instinctive ability to see into events and into people, and has wit and warmth. Her More is a stubborn old Catholic sexist." (37)
Burrow goes on to point out that More held enlighted views on women's education. Alison Plowden, the author of Tudor Women (2002) has argued. "More was the first Englishman seriously to experiment with the novel idea that girls should be educated too. This may have been partly due to the fact that he had three daughters and an adopted daughter but only one son, and was undoubtedly helped by the fact that the eldest girl, Margaret, turned out to be unusually intelligent and receptive." (38) However, surely More should be judged on his attitude towards his education of all girls, not just his own daughters. His record shows that he persecuted groups such as the Anabaptists who held progressive views on sexually equality.
The main reason that More was such an unpleasant human being was that he lacked empathy. He was incapable of feeling the pain suffered by those who he sent to be burnt at the stake. Lacey Baldwin Smith, the author of Treason in Tudor England (2006) provides an insight into More when he discusses his reaction to the May Day riots of 1517. Smith argues that modern historians explain the disturbances on domestic economic distress caused by fast rising prices. However, More blames it on agents provocateurs and conspirators. "Once the Reformation broke out, conspiracy took on more sinister and far more cosmic proportions, but nevertheless the conviction prevailed that heresy and its uglier stepsister sedition were the product of tiny groups of conspiring individuals determined upon private profit. Despite the extraordinary speed with which Protestant ideas spread and their obvious association with the basic economic, political and psychological needs of the century, More. continued to view the religious upheaval as the work of a handful of evil men and women set upon corrupting innocent but, alas, gullible subjects." (39)
More's defenders would argue that he was a product of his times. Of course, he was, but others were able to imagine what it was like to live a less privileged life and were willing to introduce reforms to alleviate this pain. Let us compare the way that Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who was Lord Chancellor at the time of the May Day riots, reacted to this event. More than 400 prisoners were taken during the riots and they were tried and found guilty of treason. They were brought to Westminster Hall in the presence of Henry VIII. He sat on his throne, from where he condemned them all to death. Wolsey then fell on his knees and begged the king to show compassion while the prisoners themselves called out "Mercy, Mercy!" Eventually the king relented and granted them pardon. At which point they cast off their halters and "jumped for joy". (40)
10 Worst Britons
In 2005 the BBC History Magazine asked a group of historians to make "a list of the 10 worst Britons of the last 1,000 years". Given his record, one what have expected More to have been on the list. For example, Archbishop Thomas Arundel is on the list: "Archbishop of Canterbury in 1397 and from 1399 until his death, he persecuted the Lollards, a group calling for reform of the Catholic Church by promoting a lay priesthood and translations of the Bible." Yes, Arundel, did something similar to More, and is on the list. (41)
Also on the list is Sir Richard Rich. The historians explained why this rather obscure figure was on the list of worst Britons: "Throughout his life he shifted his political and religious allegiances to further his career. During Henry VIII's reign he gave evidence against Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher which helped to convict them of treason, for which they were executed." So the man responsible for burning at the stake for rebelling against the teaching of the Catholic Church is excluded, but the man who gave evidence against him is.
I do not object to Rich being on this list because he did one terrible act of inhumanity. He was the man who tortured Anne Askew in order for her to name other heretics. When she was fifteen her family forced her to marry Thomas Kyme. Anne rebelled against her husband by refusing to adopt his surname. The couple also argued about religion. Anne was a supporter of Martin Luther, while her husband was a Roman Catholic. (42)
From her reading of the Bible she believed that she had the right to divorce her husband. For example, she quoted St Paul: "If a faithful woman have an unbelieving husband, which will not tarry with her she may leave him"? Askew was well connected. Alison Plowden has argued that "Anne Askew is an interesting example often educated, highly intelligent, passionate woman destined to become the victim of the society in which she lived - a woman who could not accept her circumstances but fought an angry, hopeless battle against them." (43)
In 1544 Askew decided to travel to London and request a divorce from Henry VIII. This was denied and documents show that a spy was assigned to keep a close watch on her behaviour. She made contact with Joan Bocher, a leading figure in the Anabaptists. One spy who had lodgings opposite her own reported that "at midnight she beginneth to pray, and ceaseth not in many hours after." (44)
In March 1546 she was arrested on suspicion of heresy. (45) She was questioned about a book she was carrying that had been written by John Frith, a Protestant priest who had been burnt for heresy in 1533, for claiming that neither purgatory nor transubstantiation could be proven by Holy Scriptures. She was interviewed by Edmund Bonner, the Bishop of London who had obtained the nickname of "Bloody Bonner" because of his ruthless persecution of heretics. (46) After a great deal of debate Anne Askew was persuaded to sign a confession which amounted to an only slightly qualified statement of orthodox belief. (47) Askew was released and sent back to her husband. However, when she arrived back to Lincolnshire she went to live with her brother, Sir Francis Askew.
In February 1546 conservatives in the Church of England, led by Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, began plotting to destroy the radical Protestants. (48) He gained the support of Henry VIII. As Alison Weir has pointed out: "Henry himself had never approved of Lutheranism. In spite of all he had done to reform the church of England, he was still Catholic in his ways and determined for the present to keep England that way. Protestant heresies would not be tolerated, and he would make that very clear to his subjects." (49) In May 1546 Henry gave permission for twenty-three people suspected of heresy to be arrested. This included Anne Askew.
Gardiner selected Anne Askew because he believed she was associated with Henry's sixth wife, Catherine Parr. (50) Catherine also criticised legislation that had been passed in May 1543 that had declared that the "lower sort" did not benefit from studying the Bible in English. The Act for the Advancement of the True Religion stated that "no women nor artificers, journeymen, serving men of the degree of yeomen or under husbandmen nor labourers" could in future read the Bible "privately or openly". Later, a clause was added that did allow any noble or gentlewoman to read the Bible, this activity must take place "to themselves alone and not to others". Catherine ignored this "by holding study among her ladies for the scriptures and listening to sermons of an evangelical nature". (51)
Gardiner believed the Queen was deliberately undermining the stability of the state. Gardiner tried his charm on Askew, begging her to believe he was her friend, concerned only with her soul's health, she retorted that that was just the attitude adopted by Judas "when he unfriendly betrayed Christ". On 28th June she flatly rejected the existence of any priestly miracle in the eucharist. "As for that ye call your God, it is a piece of bread. For a more proof thereof. let it but lie in the box three months and it will be mouldy." (52)
Gardiner instructed Sir Anthony Kingston, the Constable of the Tower of London, to torture Askew in an attempt to force her to name Catherine Parr and other leading Protestants as heretics. Kingston complained about having to torture a woman (it was in fact illegal to torture a woman at the time) and the Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley and his assistant, Richard Rich took over operating the rack. Despite suffering a long period on the rack, Askew refused to name those who shared her religious views. According to Askew: "Then they did put me on the rack, because I confessed no ladies or gentlemen, to be of my opinion. the Lord Chancellor and Master Rich took pains to rack me with their own hands, till I was nearly dead. I fainted. and then they recovered me again. After that I sat two long hours arguing with the Lord Chancellor, upon the bare floor. With many flattering words, he tried to persuade me to leave my opinion. I said that I would rather die than break my faith." (53) Afterwards, Anne's broken body was laid on the bare floor, and Wriothesley sat there for two hours longer, questioning her about her heresy and her suspected involvement with the royal household. (54)
Askew was removed to a private house to recover and once more offered the opportunity to recant. When she refused she was taken to Newgate Prison to await her execution. On 16th July 1546, Agnew "still horribly crippled by her tortures" was carried to execution in Smithfield in a chair as she could not walk and every movement caused her severe pain. (55) It was reported that she was taken to the stake which had a small seat attached to it, on which she sat astride. Chains were used to bind her body firmly to the stake at the ankles, knees, waist, chest and neck. (56)
So Richard Rich is described as one of the a list of the 10 worst Britons for giving evidence against Thomas More but not for torturing Anne Askew. Does this mean that historians value the lives of the persecutors of heretics over those like Askew, a member of a minority religion, who was fighting for freedom of expression. Who do we have to thank for having the democratic rights that we enjoy today, More or Askew?
In a 2002 BBC Poll of the general public on the 100 Greatest Britons, Thomas More came in 37th place. At least William Tyndale finished higher at 26th. So did Thomas Paine at 34th. Mind you, to put it into perspective, the entertainer, Michael Crawford, was in 17th place. (57)
Henry VIII vs. Thomas More
Sir Saint Thomas More was an English lawyer, author and statesman, a Renaissance humanist, and a Catholic saint. However, he is most known for being the Lord Chancellor of England from October 1529 to May 1532. More resigned his position in 1532, because King Henry VIII claimed spiritual authority over the Catholic Church in England. Henry VIII wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn. The Pope did not allow this, and it led to Henry’s claim of spiritual authority. Eventually, More was publicly executed for his steadfastness to the Truth, refusing to approve of Henry’s marriage and claim to spiritual authority.
Thomas More was born on February 7, 1478 in London, England. He was the first son born to a devout Catholic family, and was the second of six children. More considered becoming a priest at a Carthusian monastery at one point, even going so far as to join them for prayers as much as physically possible for four years. However, the man realized that he was called to be a lay person in the Church. Thus, Thomas More did not join the clergy and remained a lay man for the rest of his life.
Instead of becoming a priest, Thomas More followed in his father’s footsteps and became a lawyer. He enjoyed studying the liberal arts, but he chose to follow his father’s career because his father thought it was best for him. He married his first wife, Jane Colt, sometime in late 1504 or early 1505. The couple had four children together before her untimely death in 1511 at the age of twenty-three. The next month, Sir Thomas More got remarried to Alice Middleton, a widow who was several years his senior. While his second marriage produced no children, he did raise her daughter from her first marriage as his own child. More had to get a dispensation of his own to get married so fast. However, biographers often attribute it to him wanting a mother figure for his children.
Even though More remained a lay man the rest of his life, he was known to rise early, pray, fast and wear a hair shirt. He was a frequent reader of the Bible and the Church Fathers, all of which deepened his Catholic Faith. As a devout Catholic, Thomas More believed that marriage was an indissoluble bond between a man and a woman. God and the Catholic Church remained the focal point of More’s life, until his 1535 execution.
Thomas More was also an influential humanist in his day. He had many connections on the continent, including the Dutch humanist, Desiderius Erasmus, better known as just Erasmus. The two met in late 1499, through a mutual friend. More was still a student in London while Erasmus visited the city. Even though Erasmus was ten years older than More, the two remained friends until More’s execution three and a half decades later. Erasmus stayed at More’s house when he came to England from the mainland of Europe. An interesting note is that Erasmus wrote his Praise of Folly while staying at his friend’s house. The work was written in Latin, which was the custom of Erasmus. The Latin name of this work is Moriae Encomium. This title can translate to In Praise of More, which is a pun on the name of his friend. Erasmus claimed that More was the one who came up with this title, and pushed him to publish it. This work quickly became one of the most popular works of the Renaissance humanist movement, and it is still read today.
Since Thomas More was connected to Erasmus, he was well-known in the circles of humanists. In addition to his friendship with Erasmus, Thomas More also wrote several works, including Utopia. This work was published in 1516 and it describes a world that is self-contained, an intricate island society. It is noteworthy that this is the first time that the word “utopia” is used. According to the British Library, it is not clear if More thought the island life was better or if he was using it as a satire to comment on the world around him. It can be interpreted either way, and this work was an instant hit among political leaders and humanists. The fact that he was well-known in the humanist circles posed a threat for the King because this could influence how others thought.
Most notably, Thomas More was a well-known politician in his nation. He started as an under-sheriff in London in 1517. Over the next few years, the politician rose through the ranks of the political hierarchy. He was knighted in 1521 and two years later he became the Speaker of the House of Commons. In addition, Thomas More became the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1525. In 1529, he was the Lord Chancellor to the King, and they were known to be close friends. During his time in this position, the King declared himself to be the head of the Church in England. Henry had declared himself the head of the Church in England because the Pope at the time had refused to grant him an annulment to his first wife, Catherine (or Katherine) of Aragon. Henry wanted to end his marriage to Catherine because she had been briefly married to his older brother Arthur, and Henry did not believe it was biblical. The pope did not allow this, however, because of a previous dispensation that Henry had received to marry her. Because Henry VIII had declared himself the head of the Church, he now had the authority to dissolve his marriage and get remarried.
More kept his silence on the subject. The chancellor wanted to stay true to his conscience, but he also did not want to cause political upheaval, especially with the War of the Roses a generation earlier. In 1532, More resigned his position in the government, citing failing health. In a letter to his friend Erasmus, More says that the King “respectfully ordered the Duke to proclaim publicly that he had unwillingly yielded to my request for resignation.” However, the timing of the resignation strongly suggests that it was because the King was pushing him to publicly agree to the divorce and remarriage.
The next year in 1533, Sir Thomas More was invited to the King’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, but he did not attend the wedding. The King was not happy with this decision because he wanted his friend to publicly agree. King Henry VIII realized that More’s refusal to approve of his decisions could inspire others to do the same. Thomas More’s name was listed in a document against Elizabeth Barton, who prophesied against the annulment. Their only contact was for him to tell her to stop. He was questioned, but released soon after because of his popularity. Around this time, Henry VIII got Parliament to pass the Act of Supremacy. This document made it treason to not agree that the English monarch was the head of the Church in England. In addition, it specified that the line of succession was the eldest surviving son, and, if no such heir existed, that Elizabeth would succeed King Henry VIII. This new law also required all citizens to take this oath.
However, Sir Thomas More did not sign this document because it was in direct violation of his religious beliefs. He was not opposed to Anne being the queen, but he was opposed to Henry being the head of the Catholic Church in England. While these were his thoughts, the former English chancellor remained silent on the issue and he did not speak out directly against the monarch’s demands. King Henry VIII wanted the man to be clear on his position regarding the new law, and he did not find his friend’s silence acceptable, deeming him a threat. As a result, the English government arrested Sir Thomas More in 1534 on charges of treason.
Sir Thomas More was held in the Tower of London for over a year after his 1534 arrest. During this time, Henry tried to pressure his friend into signing the Act of Supremacy. While in the tower of London, More wrote to his daughter that the King demanded: “I should either acknowledge and confess it lawful that his Highness should be Supreme Head of the Church of England or else to utter my plain malignity.” Clearly, Henry wanted a clear answer, and silence was not an acceptable answer. During his trial, Sir Thomas More was interrogated multiple times. The point of these interrogations was to force him to agree to the demands of the English monarch. As his biographer Anne Murphy notes, “More was not given a copy of the grounds for indictment before his trial, and only had it read out to him in court. He had had to conduct his own defence, could call on no witnesses, and could expect the jury to comply with the wishes of the bench.”
Thus, the court was a mere formality, and not an actual trial. The verdict was clear before the trial even commenced. The jury found him guilty of treason on June 26, 1535. In their book about More, biographers Louis W. Karlin and David R. Oakley note that he was, “sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered…The Crown mitigated the punishment.” Only the King could make such decisions. This indicates that, while he was considered a traitor to the Crown, King Henry VIII did recognize the contributions that More had made to the English realm.
As a result of the verdict, Sir Thomas More was beheaded on July 6, 1535 on Tower Hill. Before he was beheaded as a traitor to the English Crown, More asked the crowd to pray for him in this life, that he would pray for them in the next. Then he commented that he was, “the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” This statement shows that he did care about England and her king, wanting to see her succeed. However, to Sir Thomas More, his religious beliefs were more important.
After the sentence was carried out, “the executioner picked it up and displayed it to the crowds with the shout ‘Behold the head of a traitor.’” The English monarch viewed More as a traitor to the Crown, and thus he needed to be disposed of. This execution successfully ended the life of Sir Saint Thomas More on July 6, 1535. While the bodies of most traitors were thrown into the river, his body was given a more proper burial at a local church. Even though he was viewed as a traitor to the English Crown, his executioners recognized his legacy and respected it by letting him receive a proper burial.
King Henry VIII wanted to make an example of Sir Thomas More through his execution in the summer of 1535. During the reign of Henry VIII, most of his subjects did do as the king wished, but there were a few who resisted the Crown. However, his fame grew across the world. Devout Catholics became attracted to his life and, more importantly, the circumstances that led to his execution. To this day, Catholics across the globe still admire Sir Thomas More for his actions against the Crown. He was beatified on December 29, 1886. This proclamation made Thomas More a “Blessed,” as well as being the first English lay person to be beatified as a martyr. Christians refer to him as “Sir Saint Thomas More.” The title of “Saint” indicates that the Englishman was canonized, and now is venerated as a holy person in his church. Pope Pius XI canonized him 400 years after his death on May 19, 1935. Catholics celebrate him on his feast day of July 6, the date of his execution.
King Henry VIII achieved what he wanted in the short run. He received the submission of his subjects. However, the King’s tactic of forced submission to the Crown did not work in the long run because the legacy of Thomas More is respected. He is a well-known figure in Catholic circles, and even today Catholics look up to him as a heroic model.
English Historical Fiction Authors
Religion played a huge part in medieval life. It is not too much to say that religion dominated every aspect of daily life. During the tumultuous time of Henry VIII, the religious life of England was ripped asunder and reshaped.
As we approach All Saints Day and All Souls Day, I thought it would be interesting to discuss two men, contemporaries, who did much to shape the religious debate and in many ways embody the disparate sides, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Sir Thomas More. Both are still the subjects of veneration and discussion today, with one being revered as a reformer and martyr in the Church of England and the other, a canonized Roman Catholic saint, being honored in both faiths.
Although both men are well known, my views were shaped as much by fiction (representations of them in novels, television and movies) as by fact. Clearly, some research was in order. As I was reading about these two men, I became intrigued by their differences, and with their similarity. As fascinating as the religious and political issues are, my area of focus became the personal issues that shaped their thinking and viewpoints later.
Thomas More was the elder of the two. He was born February 6, 1478, to Sir John More and his wife Agnes, in London. Sir John More was a man of substance he had inherited lands, and had been given the right to bear a coat of arms by Edward IV. Sir John became an influential barrister and a judge in the Court of the King’s Bench. The first school Thomas More attended as a boy was St. Anthony’s School in Threadneedle Street, where he was educated in Latin.
At roughly the age of 13, about 1490, he was received into the household of John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury (who was also a close advisor of Henry VII). After about 2 years service, Archbishop Morton sent him to Canterbury College at Oxford (Canterbury College was later absorbed into Christ Church), where he studied Greek and Latin. After only 2 years at Oxford, Sir John called Thomas home.
After some time studying at the new Inn, Thomas was admitted as a student at Lincoln’s inn about 1496, and called to the bar in 1501. He also lectured at St Lawrence’s Church on St. Augustine’s City of God. In 1504, Thomas was elected to Parliament. During this time period, he also became drawn to Christian Humanist philosophy, which combined the study of Greek with the study of the Gospels. Available data indicates he was brilliant and popular, with a whimsical sense of humour he was also unsure of his vocation. He lived with the London Carthusians for 4 years but ultimately felt no clear call to either the priesthood or monastic life.
In approximately 1505 (roughly age 27), Thomas married Jane Colt, and they had 4 children (Margaret, Elizabeth, Cecilia and John) before Jane’s death in 1511. He remarried, to a widow named Alice Middleton. Thomas’s home became a seat of learning, entertaining visitors including Thomas Linacre (English humanist scholar and physician), John Colet (English humanist, churchman and educator), John Fisher who became Bishop of Rochester (who studied at Cambridge and was Chancellor of Cambridge), among others.
Thomas was as concerned with the education of his daughters as well as his son. His career was also developing.
During Henry VII’s reign, Thomas became a Burgess in Parliament, but came under Henry VII’s displeasure during an issue involving funds for Princess Margaret’s marriage to the King of Scotland (Thomas was against it). Thomas was prepared to leave England, when Henry VII died.
Thomas’s situation improved when Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509. In 1510, he became one of two under-sheriffs of London, and was very active in the courts. With the King’s consent, he was appointed as ambassador twice at the request of the English Merchants to the Merchants of Stilliards.
On his first visit, he was negotiating for the English Wool Merchants in Antwerp when he began writing Utopia in 15115, his time in the Low Countries giving him an opportunity to observe Reformist activity in that region. (He finished and published Utopia in 1516, a satire on the corruption and abuse of power, with individual reason as a method of acquiring faith-the citizens of his mythical world had the freedom to choose their religion, but not the freedom of unbelief. It would seem to indicate that he observed some need for reform within the Church.)
His successes brought him to the attention of the King and Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey placed Thomas in his household, and Thomas was brought to court. Thomas entered the king’s service about 1517, and gained rapid preferment at court, becoming Master of the Requests and receiving a knighthood in 1521 (his father was knighted in 1518).He also became a member of the Privy Council.
He became very popular with the king and queen, who requested his presence frequently (he had to sneak out to visit his family). When the Treasurer of the Exchequer died, Thomas was appointed to that position. In about 1523 (the 14 th year of Henry VIII’s reign), Thomas was chosen Speaker in Parliament. He was already actively writing against protestant reformers. His work included helping Henry with Henry’s Assertio (a response to Martin Luther) in 1521, his own Responsio Ad Lutheram (a harsh work in which he accused Luther of heresy), among others.
By contrast, Thomas Cranmer was born July 2, 1489 in Aslockton, Nottinghamshire, the second son of Thomas Cranmer and his wife Anne. The Cranmer family was considered minor gentry, long established in Nottinghamshire but possessed of little fortune. Thomas passed to his son a fondness for country sport (hounds, archery and horsemanship-young Tom was known for his skills with a pack of hound and with either the long bow or the cross bow). Tom’s elder brother inherited the property in 1501, while Tom and a younger brother received small allowances intended for their education. Little is known about Tom’s education as a boy.
In 1503, at about age 14, he was sent to Jesus College at Cambridge, where he studied for at least 10 years, obtaining a bachelor of arts in approximately 1511. One of his contemporaries at Cambridge was Hugh Latimer. Tom studied the scriptures and was exposed to the writings of Erasmus.
At this point, Cranmer made what is described as an imprudent marriage to Joan, which caused him to lose his preferment at Jesus College and interrupted his studies. He obtained a lectureship at Magdalen College, which provided a small income. He earned a reputation with his lectures, which were attended by numerous scholars, where he argued against religious superstitions. His wife died in childbirth, with the child, after about a year of marriage.
He regained his preferment at Jesus College, obtaining a master of arts and becoming a fellow as a layman about 1514. The fact that he was able to regain his preferment indicates that he was held in esteem at Cambridge. In 1520, he took orders as a secular priest (not a religious priest-more about this later). Agents of Cardinal Wolsey were looking for a body of learned men to fill Wolsey’s college of Christ Church in Oxford and seem to have offered Cranmer a position.
According to several sources Cranmer elected to stay at Cambridge and became a Doctor of Divinity somewhere between 1523 and 1526. Notes in the margins of the few surviving books from his library indicate his beliefs were still fairly orthodox at this time. He held a lectureship at Cambridge in Old and New Testaments, and was appointed one of the examiners in Theology. He had the reputation of being very strict and requiring his students to be well acquainted with the scriptures. He was also known for his mildness and simplicity.
While Sir Thomas More’s background appears to have been more affluent, these two men are strikingly similar: both of respectable birth, highly intelligent and extremely well educated. Both were exposed fairly early to Humanism and influenced by that philosophy. By all accounts, Oxford was a more conservative institution while Cambridge seems to have attracted a more radical, reformist circle.
Thomas More’s father dictated a change of study to the law after a short time, while Thomas Cranmer was immersed in University studies for over a decade (theological studies). Both seemed to be men of faith and conviction, even though there were differences in their views early on.
It is interesting to note that there would probably have been overlaps in their acquaintances, especially considering that they were both influenced by humanist philosophy. Just to name one, Thomas More’s friend, John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, studied at Cambridge, and was Chancellor of Cambridge-it seems highly unlikely that Thomas Cranmer would have had no acquaintance with him. Both seemed to be well-established in a certain career path.
Marriage is another common point with them. Both men married fairly young a radical point of separation is the outcome. Thomas More and his wife had 4 children before she passed away after 6 years of marriage. As a widower with children, More’s decision to remarry would have been considered the reasonable decision (if not an essential one). Thomas Cranmer lost his wife and their child after roughly a year of marriage, and was not his father’s heir--another marriage would not have been essential for him.
Thomas Cranmer’s decision to take orders a secular priest seems a logical outcome of the death of his wife after a very short marriage and his immersion in theological study (a secular priest was one who had not taken holy orders as part of a religious community there is some question about whether or not a vow of chastity was required of a secular priest, according to different works on the subject).
Thomas More’s career in law owed much at this point to his father’s standing and influence, as well as the advantages gained from Archbishop Morton, and subsequently Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII. Thomas Cranmer was much more of a self-made man at this stage of his life. These similarities and divergences show the roots of their later differences: Thomas More, in spite of his humanist leanings, was much more conservative and traditional in his views. Thomas Cranmer was already vocal about his opinions on reform.
We now come to the watershed: in 1526, the King’s Great Matter (his desire to end his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn) escalated to the divorce debate. This polarizing subject engulfed the legal and religious minds of the day in England.
During this time, Cranmer came to Wolsey’s attention and was sent on a minor diplomat mission to Spain from which he returned in 1527 to his position in Cambridge. About 1529, an illness similar to the plague, possibly the “sweating sickness,” broke out. Schools and universities (including Cambridge) were closed, and Cranmer retired to Waltham in Essex to the house of a Mr. Cressy, whose sons were his students and whose education he continued to supervise. He was still in Waltham in 1529.
After the legatine court was dissolved after revoking the divorce case to Rome, Henry went on a summer progress in southern England in 1529. Members of Henry’s court, Fox and Gardiner among others, were invited to Mr. Cressy’s home, where Fox and Gardiner met Dr. Cranmer. Of course, Henry’s divorce was the topic of discussion.
Supposedly, Cranmer the academic suggested that they pursue a collection of opinions of all of the universities in Europe regarding the question “Is it lawful to marry a brother’s wife?”. If yes, the king’s scruples would be satisfied if no, the pope would have to decide for divorce. This narrowed the central question away from the matter of the dispensation to a point which could allow a decision that the marriage was null.
Fox and Gardiner allegedly brought this to Henry’s attention the next day. Henry met with Cranmer, and sent him to the Boleyn household. The ultimate result was that, after preparing a treatise outlining and defending the course he proposed, Cranmer was appointed to a commission with the Earl of Wiltshire (Anne Boleyn’s father) and the Bishop of London which set out for Rome in 1530. Cranmer was also entrusted with the King’s dispatches and with matters of trade to negotiate for the merchants of England. These activities kept him in Europe for a while, where he became a convert to the Reformation.
The failure of the legatine court to resolve the issue in Henry’s favour resulted in the disgrace of Cardinal Wolsey, who lost the position of Lord Chancellor. The King appointed Thomas More as Lord Chancellor in October of 1529, with More being the first layman to hold this position.
As Lord Chancellor, Thomas More upheld heresy laws, imprisoned Lutherans and other dissenters, and even ordered the burning of six heretics while continuing his writings against reformers. When Henry VIII imposed himself as Supreme Head of the Church of England (even with the limitation of so far as the Law of Christ allows established by the convocation), More wanted to resign as chancellor. However, he was persuaded to stay on and look into the “Great Matter.”
He upheld the validity of Henry’s marriage, but was allowed to stay out of the controversy. However, his opposition to Henry’s proposal to forbid the clergy to prosecute heretics or to hold meetings without his consent, and a later effort to withhold First Fruits from the Holy See resulted in King Henry VIII accepting More’s resignation in May of 1532. Reduced to near poverty, More returned home and lived quietly, engaged in his writing, but staying out of the controversies surrounding the King’s marriage and religious matters.
Ironically, it was in October of 1532 that Cranmer, who was still in Europe, received a message that Henry planned to reward him with the See of Canterbury, which had become vacant upon the death of William Warham.(Another irony: his taking position of Archbishop of Canterbury was dependent upon bulls from the pope.)
Cranmer was troubled by two issues: as a convert to the Reformation, he was not comfortable with the thought of swearing an oath to the Pope secondly, in 1532, he had remarried. There was a prejudice against married clergy, and Henry, in particular, disapproved.
Henry obtained the bulls in February of 1533 and in March, the consecration took place. There is no indication that he disclosed his marriage or discussed his concerns with Henry or anyone else. However, he took his oaths as Archbishop openly making exceptions, taking it as it was consistent with the Laws of God, the King’s prerogatives and the statutes of the realm. By openly swearing his oath with qualifications, he apparently felt no scruples at accepting the post.
So, at this point, both men were in position for the next development in the drama that was England under Henry VIII. As the influence of one waned, the influence of the other grew. Each had their respective strengths and weaknesses each played his part as the drama went on, with More being one of the earlier casualties of Henry’s new order, and Cranmer outliving both Henry and his son Edward only to meet his end under Henry’s daughter Mary.
I don’t intend to get into a discussion of the motivations, ethical dilemmas or other issues. What fascinates me are the similarities between these men, something I frankly had not expected. Well educated, dedicated to their careers, passionate about their religious beliefs, sincere in their desires to serve their king. Descriptions indicate that both were personable men that others liked and respected.
I can’t help but wonder if at any time these two men ever engaged in conversation. Their educational background and diplomatic experiences gave them many points in common. While their religious differences were profound, I think these two men could still have found issues on which they could agree, with both having humanist leanings and years of theological studies under their belts.
I also wonder about the age difference More was 11 years older than Cranmer. Is it possible that, had More been born a bit later, he would have been more open to the Reformation? Would Cranmer have remained more conservative in his outlook if he had been born earlier? At the end of the day, I found both of these men to be much more interesting, engaging and human than I expected.
Walsh, Michael, ed. BUTLER’S LIVES OF THE SAINTS Concise Edition Revised and Updated.New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
Wilson, Derek.IN THE LION’S COURT Power, Ambition, and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII.New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2001.
Encyclopedia of World Biography website. “Thomas More Biography.”