1531: John Tewkesbury, Thomas More’s unwilling guest

Add comment December 20th, 2016 Headsman

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.


John Tewkesbury carrying his fagot in penance. Illustration from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

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.

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1535: Cardinal John Fisher

1 comment June 22nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1535, Catholic prelate John Fisher was beheaded on Tower Hill for refusing to endorse Henry VIII as the head of the Church of England.

The longtime Bishop of Rochester had only been elevated to the cardinalate weeks before by the new Pope Paul III, in the vain hope that the sublimity of the position would induce King Henry to ease the prelate’s imprisonment.

Henry eased it, all right. Permanently.*

Forbidding the official hat to be delivered to Albion, Henry declared he would dispatch its owner’s head to Rome instead.

A jury including the father of the usurping queen who had occasioned all this trouble — Anne Boleyn, of course, bound for the block herself in less than a year — condemned the aged ecclesiastic to death for treason.

He was hustled to the scaffold on this date to beat the June 24 feast day of his patron and namesake Saint John the Baptist, Christ‘s Biblical precursor who was … beheaded by a ruthless king whose marriage the Baptist had denounced. Struck a little too close to home, that.

Fisher’s friend and fellow-traveler both spiritual and temporal, Sir Thomas More, followed the cardinal’s footsteps to Calvary a fortnight later.

Both men are considered saints not only by Catholics (for obvious reasons) but also by Anglicans. June 22 is their feast day on the Catholic calendar of saints.

* It’s possible Henry had been out for Fisher’s blood for some time. As a foe of the king in his so-called Great Matter of many years’ standing, Fisher was the presumed target of a 1531 assassination-by-poison attempt that resulted in a horrific execution by boiling alive.

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1534: Elizabeth Barton, the Holy Maid of Kent

2 comments April 20th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1534, Elizabeth Barton was hanged at Tyburn with her “conspirators” for having prophesied the death of Henry VIII and (in the words of the parliamentary attainder against them) “traterously attempted many notable actes intendyng therbye the disturbaunce of the pease and tranquyllytie of this Realm.”

A country servant-girl, this Elizabeth Barton had begun having divine visions around Easter 1525, and developed a popular following for her gift of prophecy, generally delivered during spooky (perhaps epileptic) fits and trances.

This was all just fine with everyone, since King Henry was still a good Catholic at the time; Barton took orders in the St. Sepulchre Nunnery and continued her career in the seer business.

Elizabeth Barton wasn’t going to leave her place in Henrician England … but to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, Henrician England was about to leave her.

And like so many entries that age has given this site, it all went back to Henry’s leaving his first queen, Catherine of Aragon.

If one likes to see in the prophetic tradition a refracted expression of popular sentiment, speaking a religious rather than a political language, Elizabeth Barton’s divine gift set her up to be the mystical exponent of the English populace’s visceral reaction against Henry’s ascending paramour, Anne Boleyn.

Rather rashly, Barton began publicly warning her sovereign against his bedchamber gambit, threatening that if the proposed Boleyn union should come to pass, he “should no longer be King of this realm…and should die a villain’s death.”

That would be compassing the death of the king — which is treason.

Barton articulated a fear of Henry’s policies which was shared by many of his subjects. The anticipated breach with Rome made the citizens of England insecure about the future stability of the realm, and prognostications concerning the state of the country abounded. Barton was not alone in foretelling that wars and plagues would soon rack the country; or in prophesying that the King would be overthrown, that his death was imminent, that he would die as a villain. Many people were discussing such prophecies, by means of which they could “objectify their fears and hopes” in an age of change and disruption.

-Diane Watt, “Reconstructing the Word: the Political Prophecies of Elizabeth Barton (1506-1534)”, Renaissance Quarterly, Spring 1997

So it’s probably only fitting that this creature of her times would be devoured by the Tudor state which made its Reformation from the top.

Devoured, not only bodily.

As the Tudor king breaks with Rome, Barton becomes almost totally obscure to us, the real person who dared to stand openly against her king subsumed entirely by the edifice of state propaganda. As Watt observes, “as a result of her fate … almost all the first-hand evidence concerning Barton’s life and revelations has been destroyed” and “the surviving image of her has therefore been shaped by those who suppressed her visions and prophecies.”

We have her mystical utterances mostly indirectly, through the interlocutors charged with refuting her, and we have the expedient charges against her of fraud, contumacy, and (of course) sexual indiscretion leveled by her foes.


“The Imposture of the Holy Maid of Kent”

Arrested with a circle of supporters, Barton was forced into a public recantation in November 1533 by her persecutors. One supposes such a recantation was in any event obtained under some duress; undoubtedly it was, as the disgusted Spanish ambassador recorded, staged “to blot out from people’s minds the impression they have that the Nun is a saint and a prophet.” (Cited by Watt)

If said duress included an easing of the charges against herself or her associates, Barton was to be disappointed.

She was attainted for treason* in January (the evidence against her being insufficient for a judicial verdict of treason); the bill of attainder also required the public to hand over any writings about her alleged prophecies or revelations, like the popular pamphlets that had circulated with official approval in the 1520’s: there would be nothing to nurture a people’s cult for this exponent of resistance. Over the decades to come, the early writings sympathetic (and proximate) to Barton would be almost completely annihilated, supplanted by Protestant works that rendered Barton a trickster, a puppet, a sham — magnified her retraction into the definitive statement. It was a propaganda victory almost as chilling as Barton’s corporeal fate: even her potentially sympathetic Catholic audiences can latterly make no reliable judgment about her.

And so Barton moulders.

In April 1534, the usurping consort once more apparently pregnant with Henry’s long-sought heir, the once-popular, now-deflated prophetess of the old queen and the old faith was emblematically put to death with her former adherents on a most significant day in the city of London.

[T]his day the Nun of Kent, with two Friars Observant, two monks and one secular priest, were drawn from the Tower to Tyburn, and there hanged and headed. God, if it be his pleasure, have mercy on their souls. Also this day the most part of this City are sworn to the king and his legitimate issue by the Queen’s Grace now had and hereafter to come, and so shall all the realm over be sworn in like manner.

-Letter from John Husee to Lord Lisle, April 20, 1534 (Source)

We trust everybody got the message.

But in case anyone missed the point, there would be plentiful reminders still to come.

* Chancellor Thomas More had some traffic with Barton — very cautious, as befits a skeptical elite’s approach to a loose cannon commoner — and was briefly in some danger of being named in the indictment against her. When his loyal daughter Meg joyously reported to him that he’d been cleared, he’s supposed to have replied, “In faith, Meg, ‘quod differtur non aufertur’, what is put off is not put away.” But it probably didn’t require heavenly foresight for More to perceive the wheel of fortune about to turn on him, too. By the time of Barton’s actual execution, More had already been clapped in the Tower himself.

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1499: Perkin Warbeck, Princes in the Tower pretender

18 comments November 23rd, 2010 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1499, Perkin Warbeck, pretender to the English throne, was hung at Tyburn for treason. He didn’t fare as well as the previous royal pretender, Lambert Simnel, who was pardoned by King Henry VII and made a spit-turner in the royal kitchens.

Warbeck claimed he was Richard, Duke of York, the younger son of King Edward IV. Richard and his older brother, the would-be Edward V, mysteriously vanished around 1483, allegedly murdered by their allegedly evil uncle Richard III, who had already had them declared illegitimate. (Shakespeare made this version — which was congenial to the ruling Tudor dynasty of his time — the standard in Richard III; the play channeled Thomas More‘s history of Richard.)

The murder story has never been proven and the princes’ bodies were never identified, leaving a yeasty petri dish for pretenders to grow and multiply — and so they did.

Warbeck, who later admitted he was actually born in Tournai, in Flanders, in approximately 1474 (his father is described by one source as “a renegade Jew”) first claimed to be the Duke of York either while at the court of Burgundy in France in 1490, or while serving a silk merchant in Ireland in 1491.

He did bear a strong resemblance to Edward IV, but there is no evidence that he was really Richard of York or that he and the late king were related in any way.

Nonetheless, his claim was soon recognized by Charles VIII, King of France … and it naturally appealed to the fledgling Tudor dynasty’s potential internal rivals, too.

Margaret of Burgundy, who was Edward IV’s sister and the disappeared Duke of York’s aunt, was one of these educated the pretender about “his” history and the ways of the English court, and she helped finance Warbeck’s attempted conquest of England in 1495. It went badly from the beginning: Warbeck’s army was trounced and 150 of his troops were killed on the beach in Kent before he even made it ashore. Warbeck fled to Ireland and then Scotland.

Warbeck had more success in his second invasion attempt, in Cornwall in 1497 on the heels of the Cornish Rebellion.

Warbeck promised an end to the exorbitant taxes levied on the citizenry, which welcomed both pretender and promise with open arms. His army grew to 6,000 or 7,000 men, and Warbeck began calling himself Richard IV of England, but when he found out King Henry was after him he panicked and deserted his men.

He was captured and imprisoned at the infamous Tower of London, but not before being “paraded through the streets on horseback amid much hooting and derision of the citizens.”

The execution was not until 1499, and only after it was alleged that Warbeck tried to escape with a real royal claimant, Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick. On November 23, Warbeck was taken from the Tower to Tyburn, where he read out a confession and was hanged. His wife, Lady Catherine Gordon, a cousin of the King of Scotland, had a better fate; she was given a pension and a job of lady-in-waiting to the Queen.

At least she didn’t have to turn a kitchen spit.

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1533: John Frith and Andrew Hewet, Protestants

2 comments July 4th, 2010 Headsman

Life is all about timing.

Death too.

This date in 1533 saw John Frith and Andrew Hewet burned to ashes at Smithfield for Protestantism … just a week before Henry VIII himself was excommunicated from the Catholic Church.

A Cambridge man who’d picked up some heresy in Lutheran Germany, Frith was a friend of William Tyndale and did a couple of turns in English prisons for his various transgressions of orthodoxy.

He was finally nabbed by a warrant of then-Chancellor Thomas More before he could escape to the continent, and hailed before a doctrinal court for sacramentarianism.

During his examination by the bishops, Frith stated that he could not agree with them that it was an article of faith that he must believe, under pain of damnation, that when a priest prayed during the mass, the substance of the bread and wine were changed into the actual body and blood of our Savior Jesus Christ, even though their appearance remained the same. And even if this was so, which he did not believe it was, it should not be an article of faith.

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

(Said transubstantiation hypothesis remains Catholic doctrine to this day, but at least it’s no longer worth your life to dispute it.)

All the pieces were in place for this radical theology to become orthodoxy over the succeeding generation. The newly-designated Archbishop of Canterbury — still for the moment within the Catholic fold — was reformer Thomas Cranmer. Despite his sympathy for a shared evangelical cause, Cranmer passed a guilty verdict after trying to talk Frith out of his belief. In the event, however, it was the Inquisitor who was converted: Cranmer over the course of the 1530s adopted Frith’s own view. He would eventually enshrine it in the Book of Common Prayer.

All of which, of course, was made possible by Henry’s insistence on ditching his first wife in favor of Anne Boleyn, and Cranmer’s support for that action. On July 11, both the king and his pliant prelate were excommunicated by Pope Clement VII.

Still, it must be allowed that this fact scarcely gave carte blanche to Protestant reformers in England. Maybe Frith was made for the flames regardless: as timing goes, the 1530s were great for religious martyrdom.

Andrew Hewet, our poor footnote, had no part in these august affairs save the victim’s. Hewet was a tailor’s apprentice who was just caught up with an anti-heretical accusation at the wrong time. In prison, he too refused to acknowledge transubstantiation — saying, “I believe as John Frith believes.” For so believing, he burned as Frith burned.

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1549: Robert Kett, rebelling against enclosures

5 comments December 7th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1549, Robert Kett (sometimes “Ket” or “Kette”) was hanged over the side of Norwich Castle for an eponymous rebellion.

Reviews here and here.

Possibly England’s last medieval peasant rising, and possibly its first modern revolt, Kett’s Rebellion pitted the agrarian feudal commons against the proto-capitalist world taking shape.

A 15th century of relative prosperity for the English peasant had given way to a decades-long process (centuries-long, really) of enclosure.

Impelled by the profitable wool export business, landlords began “enclosing” formerly open arable land for pasture, thereby destroying the communal and quasi-communal agricultural models of the middle ages.

Karl Marx

For Marx, among many others, this revolution in agricultural production — and the attendant proletarianization of the former peasantry — marks the dawn of the capitalist epoch, when

great masses of men are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled as free and “unattached” proletarians on the labour-market. The expropriation of the agricultural producer, of the peasant, from the soil, is the basis of the whole process …

Although, therefore, the English land, after the Norman Conquest, was distributed in gigantic baronies, one of which often included some 900 of the old Anglo-Saxon lordships, it was bestrewn with small peasant properties, only here and there interspersed with great seignorial domains. Such conditions, together with the prosperity of the towns so characteristic of the 15th century, allowed of that wealth of the people which Chancellor Fortescue so eloquently paints in his “Laudes legum Angliae;” but it excluded the possibility of capitalistic wealth.

The prelude of the revolution that laid the foundation of the capitalist mode of production, was played in the last third of the 15th, and the first decade of the 16th century. A mass of free proletarians was hurled on the labour-market by the breaking-up of the bands of feudal retainers, who, as Sir James Steuart well says, “everywhere uselessly filled house and castle.” … In insolent conflict with king and parliament, the great feudal lords created an incomparably larger proletariat by the forcible driving of the peasantry from the land, to which the latter had the same feudal right as the lord himself, and by the usurpation of the common lands. The rapid rise of the Flemish wool manufactures, and the corresponding rise in the price of wool in England, gave the direct impulse to these evictions. The old nobility had been devoured by the great feudal wars. The new nobility was the child of its time, for which money was the power of all powers. Transformation of arable land into sheep-walks was, therefore, its cry … As Thornton rightly has it, the English working-class was precipitated without any transition from its golden into its iron age. (Capital, volume I, chapters 2627)

It did not suffer its precipitation quietly.

Thomas More

Enclosures were a predominant social problem in England throughout the century, and if contemporaries could hardly descry the shape of the economic revolution taking shape, they worriedly noticed the poverty, the vagabondage, and the depopulated villages.

In Utopia, Thomas More upbraids a country where

your sheep, which are naturally mild, and easily kept in order, may be said now to devour men and unpeople, not only villages, but towns; for wherever it is found that the sheep of any soil yield a softer and richer wool than ordinary, there the nobility and gentry, and even those holy men, the abbots! not contented with the old rents which their farms yielded, nor thinking it enough that they, living at their ease, do no good to the public, resolve to do it hurt instead of good. They stop the course of agriculture, destroying houses and towns, reserving only the churches, and enclose grounds that they may lodge their sheep in them. As if forests and parks had swallowed up too little of the land, those worthy countrymen turn the best inhabited places into solitudes; for when an insatiable wretch, who is a plague to his country, resolves to enclose many thousand acres of ground, the owners, as well as tenants, are turned out of their possessions by trick or by main force, or, being wearied out by ill usage, they are forced to sell them; by which means those miserable people, both men and women, married and unmarried, old and young, with their poor but numerous families (since country business requires many hands), are all forced to change their seats, not knowing whither to go; and they must sell, almost for nothing, their household stuff

Commissions studied enclosure; edicts forbade and reversed them; commentators denounced them — all to no effect.

Robert Kett

Robert Kett, from a larger painting (click to see it) by Samuel Wale.

Henrician England had plenty of violent social transformation on its plate, of course, and plenty of violent tools to manage it. When the philandering tyrant kicked the bucket in 1547, he left the unfolding social catastrophe to the weakened protectorate government of his sickly nine-year-old heir.

In East Anglia in the summer of 1549, a peasant riot against an enclosure caught a spark. Unexpectedly, when the mob moved to throw down the enclosures put up by Robert Kett (another small landowner), he committed himself to the peasant cause and ably steered the rebellion for six heady weeks.

Kett was the man for his time and place: proving a natural leader, he marshaled the inchoate rage of his countrymen into an orderly, disciplined force.

Kett’s peasant army marched on Norwich, and stunningly captured England’s second city, thereupon petitioning the crown upon a variety of economic grievances (the petition is available on Wikipedia).

And Kett meant business, as this fiery (perhaps slightly fatalistic) oration suggests; he well knew that he had committed his own person to glory or destruction.

Now are ye overtopped and trodden down by gentlemen, and put out of possibility ever to recover foot. Rivers of riches ran into the coffers of your landlords, while you are pair’d to the quick, and fed upon pease and oats like beasts. You are fleeced by these landlords for their private benefit, and as well kept under by the public burdens of State wherein while the richer sort favour themselves, ye are gnawn to the very bones. You tyrannous masters often implead, arrest, and cast you into prison, so that they may the more terrify and torture you in your minds, and wind our necks more surely under their arms. And then they palliate these pillories with the fair pretence of law and authority! Fine workmen, I warrant you, are this law and authority, who can do their dealings so closely that men can only discover them for your undoing. Harmless counsels are fit for tame fools; for you who have already stirred there is no hope but in adventuring boldly.

Alas, like the enclosures themselves, the matter was to be resolved against the peasantry by main force. [bits and bobs on the daily progress of skirmishes and battles in this pdf] Though the rebels actually defeated the first force sent against them, they were decisively beaten at Dussindale on Aug. 27.

“We were promised ynoughe and more then ynoughe. But the more was an hawlter.”*

Promises of clemency induced the survivors to surrender peacably; though wholesale punitive bloodletting seems not to have been imposed, the leaders, of course, had to be made an example of.

Robert Kett and his brother, William, were convicted of treason and hanged.

Smoothly leveraging his dispatch in handling the rebellion, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, overturned the national political leadership of the Lord Protector the Duke of Somerset, who was accused of having triggered the rising with an excess of sympathy for the dispossessed peasant class. (Both Somerset and Northumberland would end up on the chopping block themselves.)

* Quote from a survivor of the rebellion, cited by Diarmaid MacCulloch in “Kett’s Rebellion in Context,” Past & Present, No. 84 (Aug., 1979).

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1535: Thomas More, the king’s good servant but God’s first

14 comments July 6th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1535, Sir — later Saint — Thomas More kept his conscience at the expense of his head on Tower Hill.

For all More‘s greatness — as intellectual, polemicist, lawyer, statesman, father — none of his many gifts at the end could avail him beside his commitment to Catholicism at the dawn of the English Reformation.

Yet it is for those gifts that he cut such a commanding presence in his times, for those very reasons that his sovereign hounded his first citizen to assent to the divorce and remarriage he was fixed upon.

A devotee and friend of Erasmus from years before, More was in Henry’s more orthodox youth the king’s very scourge of Protestantism. His scatological invective against Martin Luther in Responsio ad Lutherum — much in the impolite tenor of Catholic-Protestant rhetoric continent-wide, it should be noted — is of the sort to crimson the cheeks of the milquetoast modern:

Since he has written that he already has a prior right to bespatter and besmirch the royal crown with shit, will we not have the posterior right to proclaim the beshitted tongue of this practitioner of posterioristics most fit to lick with his anterior the very posterior of a pissing she-mule until he shall have learned more correctly to infer posterior conclusions from prior premises?

Over that hairshirt, he wore the robes of state. But his engagement with the world had a selective bent that must have exasperated his colleague and predecessor as Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey. Orson Welles and Paul Scofield spar here in the definitive More hagiography A Man for All Seasons over the intellectual’s delicate refusal to dirty his gloves with the great matter of state before them — the annulment the king demanded of his marriage to the Queen (and More’s friend) Catherine of Aragon:

Peas in a pod, these two: Wolsey, the cleric grounded in realpolitik; More, the barrister who trusts to God. (More considered holy orders as a young man.)

Our man’s reputation for honesty in a den of hypocrites has certainly outrun Wolsey’s. Still, all More’s disdain for the deal-making that invests the sovereign majesty and all his foreboding for the relationship he had with his dangerous king were not quite enough to stop him accepting the Chancellorship and the opportunity to stamp out Lutheranism … knowing perfectly well the simultaneous thrust of Henry’s boudoir policy.

It all cuts quite a contrast to More’s (barely) pre-Reformation text, Utopia (available free from Project Gutenberg), which named a literary genre and described an imagined society of tolerant primitive communism that surely would have blanched at its inventor’s coming role in the state’s machinations:

I can have no other notion of all the other governments that I see or know, than that they are a conspiracy of the rich, who, on pretence of managing the public, only pursue their private ends, and devise all the ways and arts they can find out; first, that they may, without danger, preserve all that they have so ill-acquired, and then, that they may engage the poor to toil and labour for them at as low rates as possible, and oppress them as much as they please

[E]very man might be of what religion he pleased, and might endeavour to draw others to it by the force of argument and by amicable and modest ways, but without bitterness against those of other opinions; but that he ought to use no other force but that of persuasion, and was neither to mix with it reproaches nor violence* …

It’s not a given that More himself agrees with every (or even any) sentiment expressed in Utopia, but his most famous work’s criticism of the death penalty too liberally applied makes interesting reading.

[E]xtreme justice is an extreme injury: for we ought not to approve of those terrible laws that make the smallest offences capital … God has commanded us not to kill, and shall we kill so easily for a little money [i.e., execute petty thieves]? But if one shall say, that by that law we are only forbid to kill any except when the laws of the land allow of it, upon the same grounds, laws may be made, in some cases, to allow of adultery and perjury: for God having taken from us the right of disposing either of our own or of other people’s lives, if it is pretended that the mutual consent of men in making laws can authorise man-slaughter in cases in which God has given us no example, that it frees people from the obligation of the divine law, and so makes murder a lawful action, what is this, but to give a preference to human laws before the divine? and, if this is once admitted, by the same rule men may, in all other things, put what restrictions they please upon the laws of God.

This insistence on the supremacy of divine law over human institutions forms the basis of his objection to parliament’s overthrowing the papacy — which he expressed openly only after he was convicted by obviously perjured “jailhouse snitch” testimony

[Y]ou have no authority, without the common consent of all Christians, to make a law or Act of Parliament or Council against the union of Christendom.

Paul Scofield bears enjoying in the role in A Man for All Seasons:

More is sometimes suspected of desiring martyrdom since he marched so unerringly into it, but he also made every attempt to survive Henry’s demand the he affirm the royal remarriage and the king’s ecclesiastical supremacy by withdrawing silently from the public sphere rather than openly opposing it. More had by every account an enviable, downright happy life at his own hearth, and a tender and intellectual relationship with his favorite daughter Meg. (Meg corresponded with her father in prison, collected his works, and retrieved his head from London Bridge.)

But by his way of thinking — Meg tried to talk him out of it — he couldn’t swear to the Act of Succession acknowledging the king’s right to divorce Queen Catherine and disinherit her daughter Mary if Henry decided to force the choice. And in the king’s eyes, there was no middle ground for someone of the ex-Chancellor’s stature.

Henry could see to it, though, to cut his old friend a break and commute the sentence from drawing and quartering to “mere” beheading, here depicted in the past season of the Showtime series The Tudors.

More’s last moments as rendered here — the ironic remark at the foot of the scaffold, “See me safe up: for my coming down, I can shift for myself”;** his generous answer to the headsman’s plea for forgiveness — are well-documented. Undoubtedly, his sturdy martyr’s bearing, the extension of a life of joyful piety, helped cement for posterity the fame he held in life.

And that dying address — “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first” — gathers in one sentiment free of bombast or self-pity the irreconcilable demands of conscience that would lead many thousands besides More to Henry VIII’s scaffolds, and rings equally true to less lethal challenges to the conscience in every land and time since.

Anne Boleyn, who caused More’s fate, shared it less than a year afterwards.

Thomas More was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1935 — the patron saint of politicians. Rather bizarrely, July 6 is also his feast day on the Anglican calendar, a tribute to the nearly universal regard his memory enjoys.

Thomas More's statue at the Chelsea Old Church

Chelsea resident Thomas More’s statue at the (Anglican) Chelsea Old Church.

* Despite its religious tolerance, More’s Utopia — anticipating Dostoyevsky — maintains:

a solemn and severe law against such as should so far degenerate from the dignity of human nature, as to think that our souls died with our bodies, or that the world was governed by chance, without a wise overruling Providence … since a man of such principles must needs, as oft as he dares do it, despise all their laws and customs: for there is no doubt to be made, that a man who is afraid of nothing but the law, and apprehends nothing after death, will not scruple to break through all the laws of his country, either by fraud or force, when by this means he may satisfy his appetites.

** According to the biography published by More’s son-in-law — who married More’s favorite, Margaret — the jest was occasioned by the rickety look of the scaffold. The Mirrour of Vertue in Worldly Greatness; Or, The Life of Sir Thomas More is available free on Google Books.

On this day..

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