The honor posterity pays to Sir Thomas More‘s valor for his own eventual martyrdom has always been attenuated by More’s own keenness to visit that martyrdom on others. Six men were put to death as Protestant heretics during the Catholic More’s 30 months as Lord Chancellor and several of them — including John Tewkesbury, who burned at Smithfield five days before the sad Christmas of 1531 — were even held and tortured by More himself, at his personal estate.
More, famous for subjecting his own flesh to the hairshirt, was not ashamed to have his porter’s house outfitted as a personal torture chamber complete with his own set of stocks. When another wrongthinker, George Constantine, managed to break out of More’s cage and flee to the continent, the future saint joked in the Apology how humanely that showed Constantine was treated, that he proved “strong enough to break the stocks, nor waxen so lame of his legs with lying but that he was light enough to leap the walls.” LOL!
Others like Tewkesbury were not so robust after More got through with them.
This leather merchant had found his way to reform ideas after coming into possession of a contraband Tyndale English Bible, and was also found in possession of Tyndale’s subversive Parable of the Wicked Mammon.
“If Paul were now alive, and would defend his own learning, he should be tried through fire; not through fire of the judgment of scripture, (for that light men now utterly refuse,) but by the pope’s law, and with fire of fagots,” Tyndale thunders in Wicked Mammon.
Tewkesbury failed his first trial by fagot: after repelling the personal interrogation of Bishop Cuthberg Tunstall,* Tewkesbury
was sent from the Lollards’ tower to my lord chancellor’s, called sir Thomas More, to Chelsea, with all his articles; to see whether he might accuse others. There he lay in the porter’s lodge, hand, foot, and head in the stocks, six days without release: then was he carried to Jesu’s tree, in his [More’s] privy garden, where he was whipped, and also twisted in the brows with small ropes, so that the blood started out of his eyes … after this, he was sent to be racked in the Tower, till he was almost lame, and there he promised to recant. (Foxe’s Book of Martyrs
Recanting entailed public penitence meant to underscore the consequences of backsliding: carrying to St. Paul’s Cross a fagot of the sort that would be lit under the feet of a repeat heretic.
It seems, however, that Tewkesbury’s courage, once sapped by More’s persecution, was soon reinvigorated by the same. Foxe claims that he took heart from the example of Richard Bayfield, arrested at Easter for smuggling Tyndale Bibles into England from the Low Countries and returned to his heresies, fagot or no.
And here More’s vigorous escapee George Constantine enters the narrative in earnest, for before Constantine slipped More’s shackles the Lord Chancellor wrung from him the names of several Protestants, including Tewkesbury’s. Our repeat heretic was again imprisoned at More’s servants’ quarters where he received his sentence —
Imprimis, That he confessed that he was baptized, and intended to keep the catholic faith.
Secondly, That he affirmeth, that the abjuration oath and subscription that he made before Cuthbert, late bishop of London, was done by compulsion.
Thirdly, That he had the books of the Obedience of a Christian Man, and of The Wicked Mammon, in his custody, and hath read them since his abjuration.
Fourthly, That he affirmeth that he suffered the two faggots that were embroidered on his sleeve, to be taken from him, for that he deserved not to wear them.
Fifthly, He saith, that faith only justifieth, which lacketh not charity.
Sixthly, He saith, that Christ is a sufficient Mediator for us, and therefore no prayer is to be made unto saints. Whereupon they laid unto him this verse of the anthem: ‘Hail Queen our advocate,’ &c.; to which he answered, that he knew none other advocate but Christ alone.
Seventhly, He affirmeth that there is no purgatory after this life, but that Christ our Saviour is a sufficient purgation for us.
Eighthly, He affirmeth, that the souls of the faithful, departing this life, rest with Christ.
Ninthly, He affirmeth, that a priest, by receiving of orders, receiveth more grace, if his faith be increased; or else not.
Tenthly, and last of all, he believeth that the sacrament of the flesh and blood of Christ is not the very body of Christ, in flesh and blood, as it was born of the Virgin Mary.
Whereupon the bishop’s chancellor asked the said Tewkesbury, if he could show any cause why he should not be taken for a heretic, falling into his heresy again, and receive the punishment of a heretic. Whereunto he answered that he had wrong before, and if he be condemned now, he reckoneth that he hath wrong again.
“For which thynges and dyvers other horryble heresyes, he was delyvered at laste unto the secular handes and burned, as there was never wretche I wene better worthy,” More concluded with a satisfied dusting of hands. (Source)
* Tunstall submitted to Henry VIII’s authority over the Church of England and navigated the frightening Tudor years keeping his head down in preference to having it lopped off — although when he died in 1559 at age 85, it was while in prison for refusing to swear the Oath of Supremacy to Queen Elizabeth.