Saint Thomas More

What you have hunted me for is not my actions, but the thoughts of my heart. It is a long road you have opened. For first men will disclaim their hearts and presently they will have no hearts. God help the people whose Statesmen walk your road.

(Thomas More addressing his accusers at his trial in A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt.)

Sir Thomas More (1477–1537), one of the greatest men of the Renaissance, was beatified in 1886, canonised in 1935 and is the patron saint of lawyers, statesmen, politicians, adopted children, difficult marriages and large families (this list is not exhaustive). More is one of the most human of saints. As Bolt observed, he adored and was adored by his own large family. He parted with more than most men when he parted with his life.

Born into a top London family, well educated, he originally set his sights upon the priesthood. However, in 1501 he entered the bar to please his father (himself a barrister and judge), and was later elevated to a judgeship. Not only was More an important scholar, writer and translator of Greek and Roman classics, he produced his most famous original work Utopia in 1516. Desiderius Erasmus, the greatest classical scholar of the Renaissance, was a personal friend. More’s first wife Jane bore him four children, his eldest being his beloved daughter Margaret. When Jane died in 1511, he married Alice soon after.

When Martin Luther broke with the Vatican in 1517 and attacked Henry’s Defence of the Seven Sacraments, More replied on the King’s behalf. He increasingly became one of Henry’s closest advisers and rose to be one of the great men of the realm. However, he had no illusions of his association with the King. “If my head would win him a castle in France, it should not fail to fall,” he said. More was knighted in 1521 for his services to the King.

By 1527, frustrated that his marriage with Catherine of Aragorn had not produced a son, it became essential for Henry to find a bride who could give him a son to provide a line of succession and thus prevent a revival of the disastrous civil wars of the previous century. Henry relied upon the Biblical injunction against a man marrying his brother’s wife. In fact, Henry’s older brother Arthur had married Catherine (at the urgings of Arthur’s father Henry VII to cement an alliance with Spain, the most powerful country in Europe at the time). When Arthur had died unexpectedly, it had been left to Henry, at his father’s insistence, to marry Catherine (his brother’s wife) and continue the alliance. The Pope had granted a dispensation at Henry VII’s request for the marriage to take place.

Henry now sought to use his marriage as a lever to break with Rome, found his own Church, and marry Anne Boleyn. In Henry’s eyes, the matter was simple - he was in a state of sin because his marriage was forbidden by God. God had exacted the punishment due to such sinners by denying Henry a male heir. Henry had been forced into this state of sin by his own father with the connivance of the Pope. By refusing to annul the marriage, and by forcing Henry to remain in a state of sin, the Pope renounced all claims to being the Vicar of God and head of the Church of England. Divorce Catherine, marry Anne, breed male heirs and Henry’s and England’s greatness would be assured. Ironically, such greatness was only achieved after Henry’s death by his daughter, Elizabeth I, the child of Anne Boleyn.

More at first dutifully tried to find Biblical support for the King’s view, but concluded that Henry was legally and morally married to Catherine. After Wolsey’s disgrace in 1529, More became Lord Chancellor of England (Prime Minister). In 1530, despite doing Henry’s work in all other matters, More refused to sign the letter to the Pope seeking the annulment of the marriage. In 1531, More tried to resign but without success. However, in 1532 claiming ill health he tendered his resignation on the very day the bishops formally agreed to act only with royal consent thereby accepting Henry as Head of the English Church. More gave up his social and political standing and his wealth as a consequence.

He lived for a while in privacy and relative poverty. In 1533 he refused a gift of 5,000 pounds for his writings against heretics because that could have been seen as a bribe. More also refused to attend Queen Anne’s coronation, and he fell even further into Henry’s disfavour. More then survived several trumped-up charges raised against him, choosing silence on the subject to be his best refuge. However, in March 1534, Parliament passed the Act of Succession which in part required an oath to acknowledge that the issue of Henry and Anne were the legitimate heirs to the throne. More had no difficulty with this part, but the oath also included a clause which repudiated "any foreign authority, prince or potentate" – namely, the Pope. More refused to take the oath and was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

In 1535, after a year in the Tower, he was finally brought to trial. His judges included Queen Anne’s father, her brother and her uncle. Richard Rich, who had earlier conspired against More and was by then Solicitor-General, perjured his testimony saying that More had denied Henry’s title. More was found guilty of high treason and condemned to be hung, drawn and quartered – a traitor’s death. However, Henry commuted this to death by beheading – a nobleman’s death.

On 6 July 1537, More was beheaded. On the scaffold, he declared that he was dying “in the faith and for the faith of the Catholic Church, the King’s good servant and God’s first.” His head was displayed on London Bridge for a month. His daughter Margaret bribed the man who was supposed to throw it into the river, and he gave it to her instead. She kept it until she died and had it buried with her. Her husband, Will Roper, wrote More’s standard biography.

After More’s death, Erasmus described him as the complete man, omnium horarum homo – “A Man for all Seasons”. Robert Bolt wrote his famous play, and later the screenplay for the Academy Award winning film of the same name, setting out the last years of More’s life. In his introduction to the play, Bolt sets out what attracted him to More as the subject for his drama:

…I am not a Catholic nor even in the meaningful sense of the word a Christian. So by what right do I appropriate a Christian saint to my purposes? Or, to put it another way, why do I take as my hero a man who brings about his own death because he can’t put his hand on an old black book and tell an ordinary lie?

For this reason: A man takes an oath only when he wants to commit himself quite exceptionally to the statement, when he wants to make an identity between the truth of it and his own virtue; he offers himself as a guarantee… And from this it’s possible to guess what an oath might be to a man for whom it is not merely a time-honored and well understood ritual but also a definite contract….

At any rate, Thomas More, as I wrote about him, became for me a man with an adamantine sense of his own self. He knew where he began and left off, what area of himself he could yield to the encroachments of his enemies, and what to the encroachments of those he loved… Since he was a clever man and a great lawyer he was able to retire from those areas in wonderfully good order, but at length he was asked to retreat from that final area where he located his self. And there this supple, humorous, unassuming and sophisticated person set like metal, was overtaken by an absolutely primitive rigor, and could no more be budged than a cliff.

Source material for the above came from:

  • A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt (1960, Heinemann Educational Books (UK))
  • Wizard Study Guides (1994, Wizard Books, Ballarat, Australia)
  • Oxford Dictionary of Saints (5 th ed. 2004, Oxford University Press UK), and
  • Catholic Encyclopaedia @ http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14689c.htm