Chapter 4: The Martyrdom of Thomas More (1478-1535), by Mathew Kuruvilla
Thomas More was born in a solidly prospering London family in 1478, and educated at St.Antony’s School and Oxford. In 1494 he began the study of law at New Inn. As More continued his legal studies in London, other interests engaged his attention. During this time he met Erasmus, a Dutch scholar and philosopher and became his life-long friend. It was during these years More firmly established himself as a leader among the group of humanists, whose activities were then centering in London. About Nov. 1504, he married Jane Colt and four children were born to them before Jane’s death in 1511. In 1510 he became the Sheriff of London. And then his activities centered on the life of the King Henry’s court. In 1523 he became the speaker of the House of Commons. Then in 1529 he was honored as the Lord Chancellor. Later in some religio-political developments, he disagreed with the King on his divorce issue and he refused to take the oath to the Act of Supremacy. Then More was sent to London Tower. He was tried under a new act, the Act of Treason for refusing to the King his titles. He was tried on 1st July 1535 and executed -- five days later. The Roman Catholic church canonized him in 1935.
More’s Political Life
More’s political life may be said to have begun almost at the same time as the reign of Henry VIII. (Hutton William Holden, Sir Thomas More, London: Matheun & Co., 1895, p. 143.)
More proved himself to be an extremely able member of the council, acting on occasion as a secretary who transmitted reports to or from Cardinal Wosley, the kings chancellor, and king. During the 1520s More participated in the campaign against Lutheran literature which was beginning to flood England.
In 1527 Henry VIII informed his wife that they were not truly husband and wife and could not continue to live together. Since the two had been married for seventeen years; this was astounding news for Catherine of Aragon. Henry’s quest for a divorce was to overshadow for the next half a decade the foreign and domestic affairs of England and eventually led to the detachment of the English church from its Roman matrix.
Cardinal Wolsey, thought too self-confidently that Henry’s request would encounter no complication in Rome. But after Henry realized that he could expect no help from that quarter, in Oct. 1529 Wolsey was indicted for violation of the law and he lost the chancelorship, to be succeeded by Thomas More. (New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol.9, p. 1138.) Henry VIII had consulted More as early as 1527 with regard to his proposed divorce from Catherine of Argon; and after a long study of the problem More had told the King that he could not support this case.
Since More opposed the King’s divorce, Henry permitted that he would not have to be involved. Thereby the King’s highest official remained aloof from the major political issue of the day. In 1530 the attorney general filed charges against the English clergy for their recognition of foreign authority in the pope. The clergy were stunned, but in convocation they quickly regained their equilibrium. Subsidies were offered as grants to the king in gratitude for his defense of the faith. In plain language, these grants were meant as bribes. Henry wanted the clergy to acknowledge their guilt and the king’s position as protector and the only supreme head of the English church and clergy This acknowledgement of royal headship was in a way nothing more than the extension of existing trends involving the ever greater political control over the church. In 1532 when parliament passed the conditional restraint of Annates, which prohibited the payment of Annates to Rome, Henry meant to tighten the financial screw and deprive the people of his English revenue. When the clergy agreed to obtain royal assent for all new constitutions, cannons and ordinances, Thomas More pleaded ill health and resigned from his office as Chancellor. (Hillerbrand J. Hans, The World of the Reformation, p.118.)
More’s Religious Life and Theological Thinking
During his legal studies, an intense spirituality emerged, in More that was later a fundamental feature of his personality. For about four years he lived with Carthusian monks at the London Charter house. (New Catholic Encyclopedia, p. 1136.) It was during More’s time the Lutheranism and Tyndalism prevailed in England. And Thomas More was asked to respond to Luther’s argument. More recognized that some of Luther’s complaints were just, but an entirely different threat to the faith came when Luther went further and questioned the validity of sacraments and later developed his doctrine of justification by faith alone.
More had, three or four years earlier, predicted that Luther’s teaching must result in a disruption of the church and later we find that it was true; when Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote "one wonders how it was Luther’s action led to consequences which were the direct opposite of what he intended. He decided a real unity for the church and for western Christendom, but the consequence was the ruin of both. He sought the freedom of Christians and the consequence was apathy and barbarism. He hoped to see the establishment of a genuine social order free from clerical privilege and the outcome was the peasant’s war and soon afterwards the gradual dissolution of all cohesion and order in society." (Book of Christian Martyrs, p. 112.) More argued against Luther that scripture and tradition cannot be opposed to each other He thought that without the authority of the church the Christian left to scripture alone would fall into error. More emphasized that the church was established before the Gospels were written and it was the church that fixed the Canon of the scripture without denying humanism and the rights of critical reason. More justified the authority of the church instituted around Pope by appealing to the tradition of universal Christianity. In his eyes the authority of the visible church was derived from the authority of Christ to teach the meaning of scripture and demonstrate the doctrine. More was fearful of the private interpretations that the unlearned would read into the Bible. More says that all readers can find spiritual nourishment in the scriptures. His charge against Lutherans and Tyndalists was that in their pride of intellect, they had discarded the traditional teaching and interpretation of the church and had colored their translations to support their doctrines.
More declared that faith was before scripture chronologically as well as logically. More’s criticism of the reformers translation is extremely bitter. He distrusted the spirit in which it was undertaken and pointed out many instances in which new readings of words had been adopted for the purpose of concealing the meaning of the original. Turning to argument with heretics, More cited a number of examples to prove that images were not forbidden to Christians. On the marriage of the clergy, More says that the church binds no man to chastity against his will, for men only take sacred orders by their own desires.
Thomas More, an Eminent Humanist
More’s ideologies and teachings are very clearly dug out from his literary work. Especially from his main work Utopia. (Paraphrase -- Sir Thomas More -- Utopia a Critical Study, M.A. English I Year Paper I, Modern Literature 1, Annamalai University, pp. 68-72.) More wrote many pamphlets against those who attacked the Catholic religion. In Utopia More discussed certain important social, political and religious questions, with great insight. He had dealt with various areas such as agriculture, old soldiers, public health, war treaties, capitalism, capital punishment, coinage, communism, land, old age pensions, divorce, artificial insemination, slaughter houses, reformation of criminals, tramps money, over population and others. Utopia is written in two parts. The first Book of Utopia is mainly introductory. More invents a sailor called Hytholoday who had visited the land of Utopia. The first book gives main emphasis to two topics.
Why do men become thieves and, would a philosopher take service under a prince. The first reflects More’s experience as an Undersheriff or magistrate in London during the previous five years when he had to deal summarily with the rogues and vagabonds of the city. The second was an immediate problem as following More’s success in an embassy to the low countries.
The discussion in the first book of Utopia probably reflected More’s conversations with Erasmus who was strongly opposed to More concerning himself with the busy trifles of princes as this would interfere with his contributing to human knowledge as philosopher. In the first book he narrates the talk of cardinals’ table; they discussed the problems of thieves and meaninglessness of giving death punishment for stealing. They went to the root of the problem and asked the question how people become thieves. Luxurious living of the rich produced a number of poor who become thieves. Instead of hanging these men for stealing, the state could benefit much by using them in war, because these men must by their very decision to become thieves, be brave men. Another reason for the increase in the number of thieves was the extension of pasture and promotion of wool trade much to the disadvantage of agriculture. Farm laborers out of work become thieves. In spite of the increase in the wool production the prices did not come down because much of the wool went into the hands of the rich who were not in a hurry to sell until the prices went up owing to scarcity.
Hanging of thieves was condemned by Hytholday and others even from a religious point of view. Loss of money should not cause loss of life. All the goods in the world would not equal to human life. Added to this was God’s command against killing. Thieves could be condemned to do forced labor. They need not be locked up at all unless their crimes were very heinous. More asked Hytholday to become an adviser to some king and Hytholday spoke of the disadvantage in such a position. He said how kings often forget that for the sake of the kings, they often fought wars out of vanity and brought misery on the people with their own wars. Hytholday in the course of his talk stressed the need for abolishing private property. If it continued, a large number of people would be poor and wretched and, charity would not be the way to end poverty.
During the conversation Hytholday praised the Utopians and their form of government. More asked him to describe in detail those people’s government, customs and manners. And he continued his narration: the Island of Utopia was named after its king Utopus. There were in the island fifty four cities all speaking the same language, having the same manners, institutions and laws. The Utopians chose their magistrate by secret election. The prince continued for life unless he was deposed for tyranny. Law suits were quickly disposed of. Almost every person knew farming and science. The Utopians were similarly dressed.
Animals were slaughtered at the outskirts of the city. There were community kitchens where the food was prepared and given to families. But first the old and sick were attended to. They enjoyed harmless pleasures. The Utopians avoided war by all means. They did not consider hunting a sport at all. They wanted everyone to enjoy the gifts of nature.
The Utopians believed in one God for all called Mithea. They also welcomed Christianity. They condemned religious intolerance. The king gave his subjects full liberty to practice religion. There was a separation of politics and religion. There were women priests. Hytholday ended his narrative and More wished that many of our countries today would follow many of the good things found in Utopia.
Martyrdom of Thomas More: Trial and Execution
A year after More’s resignation as the chancellor, the king obtained divorce and married Anne Boleyn and he forced his subjects to take an oath recognizing the children to be born from the new union as the legitimate heirs. But Thomas More refused it, he abstained from the coronation of Anne Boleyn. For this reason he was summoned on 13 April 1534. He refused to take the oath, explaining that his opposition was not to the legitimacy of the succession but to the recognition of the king as the supreme head of the church of England. (Book of Christian Martyrs, p. 116.) And he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.
His real trial began in earnest, although the formal legal proceedings against him were not conducted until July 1535. The indictment opened with a recital of the relevant parts of the Acts of Supremacy and Treasons. Parliament had enacted that the King, his heirs and successors should be accepted as the only supreme Head of the church in England and to deprive him of this or of any of his other titles in word or writing was high treason.
In conclusion it is stated that the aforesaid Jurors declared Thomas More falsely, traitorously and maliciously by craft imagined, invented, practiced and attempted wholly to deprive our sovereign Lord and king of his dignity, supreme head in earth of the Church of England, to manifest contempt of the king and in derogation of his royal crown..
The charges were supported by four statements of evidence. It is called as counts: (E. Reynolds, The Field is Won, London,: Burn & Oates, p. 360.)
i) The first count was that of 7th May 1535 Thomas More remained obstinately and maliciously silent when he was asked whether he accepted the king as supreme head.
ii) The second count was that on 12 May, More sent a number of letters to John Fisher to encourage him in his refusal and to say that he himself kept silence. At his interrogation on that day he had said "the Act of Parliament is like a sword with two edges, for if a man answers one way: it will confound his soul and if he answers the other way it will confound his body".
iii) The third count was really an extension of the second. Collaboration between the two prisoners was shown by the fact that both had declared that the statute is like two-edged sword.
iv) The fourth count was the crucial one. Thomas More, it was claimed, had declared that the king could not be the supreme head, thus he maliciously persisted in his treason.
After the reading of the indictment, which More now had heard for the first time, Audley Lord Chancellor offered him the King’s pardon. But it was not accepted. More was voicing his fundamental objection to being compelled to accept the king’s new title of being the supreme head: it was an invasion of prerogative of conscience of that in part of the divine law of God since it applied man-made law to the deeply held religious conviction of the individual.
When the verdict was delivered More at last uttered his mind in a great speech, declaring that he had all the councils of Christendom, and not just the council of one realm to support him in the decision of his conscience. (New Catholic Encyclopedia, p. 1140.) He was returned to the Tower until July 6. On that day he was beheaded in the great square in front of the Tower and he had said before execution that the people there should pray to God for him and he would pray for them. Afterwards he exhorted them, earnestly beseeching them to pray to God for the king, so that he would give him good counsel, protesting that he died his good servant but God’s first.
The religio-socio-political life of Thomas More was the milestone of the history of the State as well as the Church of England. He was a man of real commitment and conviction towards his offices and personal beliefs. We have seen that on this commitment and conviction he simply gave up many respectful and worthy positions of his career. He was bold enough to reject the King’s request and many a time More was very critical towards the king for his unethical and unjust ambitions. His work and words were always pointed towards the weakened and oppressed mass of the community, which is very much clear in his great work ‘Utopia’. In short this personal commitment and conviction led Thomas More to his martyrdom.
In an immediate impression especially when one analyzed the trial and execution, one could see More’s martyrdom in a narrow sense. In one sense he was a Catholic fanatic. His personal commitment and conviction were fully surrendered to the Catholic church. To a great extent, for the sake of upholding the customs, beliefs and traditions of the Catholic church he opposed the king’s second marriage, which was the immediate reason for More’s execution. More was not open to other Christian Churches. In his writing itself we can find out the inconsistency between what he wrote and the way he acted in real life. He wrote of the religious tolerance of the Utopians and their human treatment with Tyndale and Luther. But he vehemently criticized that new development in the Church of England. In other words, he was intolerant towards other Christian Churches.
But in fact the reason for his martyrdom cannot be confined only to the refusal of recognizing the king as the head of the Church of England. As a humanist his words and deed were the main reason for his martyrdom. More was always critical towards the King for his autocracy For that matter he did not care for his positions and material benefits. He stood for the upliftment of the downtrodden and weakened section of the society For this reason his word utopia has been very much appreciated by socialist propaganda. More protested against new economics of the enclosure of lands by great landlords. This led to the breakdown of the old law and customs and, earlier common field agriculture was destroyed. Many of the reform visualized as ideal by More have been either sincerely implemented or at least considered very much needed to be effected for human welfare. In this light we can see More’s case as a protest against the increasing powers assumed by the King and parliament to regulate people’s inmost beliefs. When the States go beyond the limits, the Christian has a duty to follow his conscience in obedience to God and the Church. In short, Thomas More was a great man who always stood for his religion as well as his society and was martyred.
Chenu, Bruno, The Book of Christian Martyrs, London: SCM Press Limited, 1970.
Hillerbrand J. Hans, The World of the Reformation, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973.
William Holden Hutton, Sir Thomas More, London: Mathuen & Co. 1895.
Reynolds, E.E., The Field is Won, London: Burn & Oates, 1968.
M.A. English I Year -- Modern Literature Annamalai University -- Directorate of Distance Education. Lesson 20- Sir Thomas More -Utopia - A Critical Study pp. 67-79.