17 April 1534 – Sir Thomas More is sent to the Tower

On this day in history, 17th April 1534, Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor and good friend, was sent to the Tower of London. He wasn’t sent there to see a prisoner, he was sent there as a prisoner.

Sir Thomas More had been called to Lambeth four days earlier, on 13th April, to swear the oath of allegiance to the Act of Succession. More asked to see the Act of Succession:

“After which read secretly by myself, and the oath considered with the act, I showed unto them that my purpose was not to put any fault either in the act or any man that made it, or in the oath or any man that sware it, nor to condemn the conscience of any other man. But as for myself in good faith my conscience so moved me in the matter that though I would not deny to swear to the succession, yet unto the oath that there was offered me I could not swear, without the iubarding [jeoparding] of my soul to perpetual damnation.”

More’s refusal to swear the oath led to him being apprehended and he was “delivered to the abbot of Westminster to be kept as a prisoner” before being taken to the Tower of London.

You can read more about what happened at Lambeth, when he refused to swear the oath, and how he ended up being sent to the Tower in the letter he wrote to his eldest daughter, Margaret (Roper), from the Tower. Click here to read that now.

Picture: Sketch of Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger.

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5 thoughts on “17 April 1534 – Sir Thomas More is sent to the Tower”
  1. Thomas More had no problem with the succession as that was the King’s business, but Henry had no right to ask him to swear that he was Head of the Church as it went against what most of Christendom believed. Parliament had no competence to make such a law. As he argued hypothetically with Richard Rich, who later committed perjury, if Parliament cannot say God is not God, then it cannot make such a law Henry was making himself Supreme Head of the Church in England (not of England) which for More was heresy. To Thomas More Christ was the Head and the Pope His representative, as a descendant (not literally) of Saint Peter. Henry was casting England adrift from the Universal Church and breaking the Unity of that church, with possible disastrous consequences. It deeply touched More’s conscience and it was also a betrayal by Henry, who had promised to leave him alone if he didn’t speak about the oath. More would argue that he remained silent about his reasons, but this may have only been in public as he did encourage others to remain firm in their objections to Henry’s new Church. His arguments should have discharged him in Court, as he wasn’t acting maliciously. However, Rich reported his hypothetical discussion and committed perjury over part of it. This alone condemned Thomas More.

  2. Henry reminds me at times of a spoiled child promising one thing then going back on his word, Thomas More was a man of honesty and integrity and his family meant more to him than all the glitter and pomp and yes hypocrisy of the court, he said he means no harm, he says no harm, why could not Henry have left him alone, I think here there could be a chance of Anne harassing him, she was jealous of her position and had to have complete subjugation from Henrys council, More paid for his beliefs with his life and has been called a marytr ever since, he was a rare man indeed, he possessed wit and kindliness, generosity of spirit and he was also a humanist and scholar, he wrote the earliest biography of Richard 111 and had a keen interest in astronomy, when news of his execution became known the whole world was shocked at the death of this most learned and wise man, RIP Saint.Thomas More you were a huge loss to 16th century England unlike that cowardly turncoat Richard Rich.

  3. Sir Thomas More…later a “saint”…burnt what he considered heretics…not very Christian really, hypocritical in my opinion and not deserving to be called saint…he was pious and a good man otherwise who had principles and stood by them.

      1. Yes,Chris and Barb, but not hypocritical, as he sincerely believed as did most people that heresy was very dangerous and a real threat to social stability. It’s more a contradiction in a man who also believed in expressions of conscience. He also believed in the fair process of the law and was careful to act within due process during all his time as a magistrate and Lord Chancellor. Although More wrote and disputed and arrested heretics, he actually let most of them off lightly with a fine or a warning. Five persistent leading heretics were burnt under his authority, far less than many others, yet more is wrongly blamed for terrorising heretics. Close examination of the cases before him by Peter Ackroyd and Richard Mauris and John Guy, accept he prosecuted heresy as was his duty and his personal belief, but state that many of the later accusations against him are inventions. For example Fox has him torture someone who was actually free and selling pamphlets at the time in another district and not even under his authority. You could not arrest or try someone in another jurisdiction, they had to go back there for trial or be arrested there. Two people burnt on the orders of the King were done so by Audley while More was powerless in the Tower and yet Fox later blamed More. In his second edition of his Martyrs Fox admitted he had no evidence for his accusations of torture and cleared More. As you say Christine, even if More didn’t agree, he would have no choice, it was the law to execute persistent heretics, from the time of Henry iv who made it a crime in England to punish the Lollards. Reform and strange ideas were on the rise in England, which is why more people were being arrested, as more people were being interested in these new ideas. I completely understand the horror and shock that burning brings and it should shock us. It’s a terrible way to die as were many of the horrendous penalties at that time, but people thought differently and the sixteenth century may well equal an alien world to us. I am sure some people also felt horror at burning which is why it was a last resort and after much attempt to persuade them to convert back and repent. There is a lot of misunderstanding about heresy trials. Their main aim was to get people to understand that they had listened to false doctrines and to explain to them why they were wrong and to persuade them to change their mind. It was the aim of the court to save their lives. It was only after several attempts and three reversions back to heresy that someone was excommunicated and handed over to the secular authorities for punishment. Heresy laws became stricter under Edward and despite her reputation, fairer under Mary I. However, by then reformation ideas had become ingrained in the hierarchy and all levels of society, although the majority remained Catholic. One irony was that Thomas Cranmer, later arrested and cruelly burnt, even after several recantations proposed to Edward’s council that heretics should be burnt within two weeks of arrest, yet he himself was given several months and even years of opportunities to recant. In the end although he recanted, he was still a condemned traitor and in a rare royal intervention, Mary gave the order for his execution. Heresy was normally handled locally and took time over the process. Occasionally, things went wrong and as with witchcraft trials, the nature of proof could be more circumstantial and relied on eye witnessed testimony. The witnesses were your neighbours who may also have denounced you, which led to personal resentment and it was often someone with a grudge who gave evidence. In a number of cases someone was arrested for say theft, the charge was not proved, so the alleged victim brought heresy charges instead. This had a lesser burden of proof and the accused was guilty until proven innocent. Unlike many of his later counterparts, More was very thorough in his investigations, careful in finding the truth and followed due process. He would rather let someone walk than condemn them without being certain. That is why the five men he was responsible for persistent heresy had all been arrested and recanted and released previously. As Barb says More had a standard, he had principles and he stood by him. He used every legal ploy that he knew himself to argue from the law in his own defence, but when the law is rigged by the King this is useless. More realised this and after he was condenmed let them all know exactly how he felt and why these new laws disrupted the unity of the Church. It’s a rather brilliant speech in which he defends the traditional truths he believed in and even said he bore no ill will and hoped he and his prosecutors would all be merry together in heaven. Thomas More may or may not be a saint in some eyes but he was canonized because of his death as a Catholic martyr. Actually, all Christians are saints according to official church teaching out chaplain explained many years ago as the term simply means friend of Christ or member of the church. Certain individuals, however, are considered from time tto time to have extra holiness, lived a particular holy life or to have gone the extra mile in the service of God and His Church through martydom or missionary work or sacrifice, for example. These people are considered as candidates for special honours and recognition as Saints and a cult allowed to form to ask their intervention with the Lord. Yes, sime people are controversial in being selected, but its their holiness outweighing other matters which tips the balance. The process is long and complex and can take years. It is regarded as the guidance of the Holy Spirit of God which makes a saint, not the Church or the candidate. In other words, Thomas More didn’t make himself a saint the Church after much debate and prayer because of his martyrdom and defence did. More woukd probably have found it amusing. I too hope we can all be merry together in heaven. Maybe we could arrange regular reunions and be merry together here as well.

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