17 April 1534 – Thomas More Sent to the Tower of London

Thomas MoreOn this day in 1534, Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, was sent to the Tower of London after refusing to swear the Oath of Succession. On arriving at the Tower, he wrote a letter to his eldest daughter, Margaret Roper, to inform her of events.

Here is the letter:

“When I was before the Lords at Lambeth, I was the first that was called in, albeit Master Doctor the Vicar of Croydon was come before me, and divers others. After the cause of my sending for, declared unto me (whereof I somewhat marveled in my mind, considering that they sent for no more temporal men but me), I desired the sight of the oath, which they showed me under the great seal. Then desired I the sight of the Act of the Succession, which was delivered me in a printed roll. 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. And that if they doubted whether I did refuse the oath only for the grudge of my conscience, or for any other fantasy, I was ready therein to satisfy them by mine oath. Which if they trusted not, what should they be the better to give me any oath? And if they trusted that I would therein swear true, then trusted I that of their goodness they would not move me to swear the oath that they offered me, perceiving that for to swear it was against my conscience.

Unto this my Lord Chancellor said, that they all were very sorry to hear me say thus, and see me thus refuse the oath. And they said all, that on their faith I was the very first that ever refused it; which would cause the king’s highness to conceive great suspicion of me, and great indignation toward me. And therewith they showed me the roll, and let me see the names of the Lords and the Commons which had sworn and subscribed their names already. Which notwithstanding when they saw that I refused to swear the same myself, not blaming any other man that had sworn, I was in conclusion commanded to go down into the garden. And thereupon I tarried in the old burned chamber that looketh into the garden, and would not go down because of the heat.

In that time saw I Master Doctor Latimer come into the garden, and there walked he with divers other doctors and chaplains of my Lord of Canterbury. And very merry I saw him, for he laughed, and took one or twain about the neck so handsomely, that if they had been women, I would have weened he had been waxen wanton. After that came Master Doctor Wilson forth from the Lords, and was with two gentlemen brought by me, and gentlemanly sent straight unto the Tower. What time my Lord of Rochester was called in before them, that can I not tell. But at night I heard that he had been before them, but where he remained that night, and so forth, till he was sent hither, I never heard. I heard also that Master Vicar of Croydon, and all the remnant of the priests of London that were sent for, were sworn; and that they had such favour at the Council’s hand, that they were not lingered, nor made to dance any long attendance to their travail and cost, as suitors were sometime wont to be, but were sped apace to their great comfort; so far forth that Master Vicar of Croydon, either for gladness or for dryness, or else that it might be seen, Quod ille notus erat pontifici, went to my Lord’s buttery bar, and called for drink, and drank valde famillanter.

When they had played their pageant, and were gone out of the place, then was I called in again. And then was it declared unto me what a number had sworn, ever since I went aside, gladly without any sticking. Wherein I laid no blame in no man, but for my own self answered as before. Now as well before as then, they somewhat laid unto me for obstinacy, that whereas before, since I refused to swear, I would not declare any special part of that oath that grudged my conscience, and open the cause wherefore. For thereunto I had said unto them, that I feared lest the king’s highness would, as they said, take displeasure enough toward me, for the only refusal of the oath. And that if I should open and disclose the causes why, I should therewith but further exasperate his highness, which I would in no wise do, but rather would I abide all the danger and harm that might come toward me, than give his highness any occasion of further displeasure, than the offering of the oath unto me of pure necessity constrained me. Howbeit when they divers times imputed this to me for stubbornness and obstinacy, that I would neither swear the oath, nor yet declare the causes why I declined thus far toward them, that rather than I would be accounted for obstinate, I would upon the king’s gracious licence, or rather his such commandment had, as might be my sufficient warrant, that my declaration should not offend his highness, nor put me in the danger of any of his statutes, I would be content to declare the causes in writing, and over that to give an oath in the beginning that if I might find those causes by any man in such wise answered, as I might think mine own conscience satisfied, I would after that with all mine heart swear the principal oath to. To this I was answered, that though the king would give me licence under his letters patent, yet would it not serve against the statute. Whereto I said, that yet if I had them, I would stand unto the trust of his honour at my peril for the remnant. But yet, thinketh me, Lo, that if I may not declare the causes without peril, then to leave them undeclared is no obstinacy.

My Lord of Canterbury taking hold upon that that I said, that I condemned not the consciences of them that sware, said unto me that it appeared well, that I did not take it for a very sure thing and a certain, that I might not lawfully swear it, but rather as a thing uncertain and doubtful. But then (said my Lord) you know for a certainty, and a thing without doubt, that you be bounden to obey your sovereign lord your king. And therefore are ye bounden to leave of the doubt of your unsure conscience in refusing the oath, and take the sure way in obeying of your prince, and swear it. Now all was it so, that in mine own mind methought myself not concluded, yet this argument seemed me suddenly so subtle, and namely with such authority coming out of so noble a prelate’s mouth, that I could again answer nothing thereto but only that I thought myself I might not well do so, because that in my conscience this was one of the cases in which I was bounden that I should not obey my prince, sith that whatsoever other folk thought in the matter (whose conscience or learning I would not condemn nor take upon me to judge), yet in my conscience the truth seemed on the tother side. Wherein I had not informed my conscience neither suddenly nor slightly, but by long leisure and diligent search for the matter. And of truth if that reason may conclude, then have we a ready way to avoid all perplexities. For in whatsoever matter the doctors stand in great doubt, the king’s commandment given upon whitherside he list, soyleth all the doubts. Then said my Lord of Westminster to me, that howsoever the matter seemed unto mine own mind, I had cause to fear that mine own mind was erroneous, when I see the Great Council of the realm determine of my mind the contrary, and that therefore I ought to change my conscience. To that I answered, that if there were no more but myself upon my side, and the whole parliament upon the tother, I would be sore afraid to lean to mine own mind only against so many. But on the other side, if it so be that in some things, for which I refuse the oath, I have (as I think I have) upon my part as great a Council and a greater too, I am not then bounden to change my conscience and conform it to the Council of one realm, against the general Council of Christendom. Upon this Master Secretary, as he that tenderly favoureth me, said and sware a great oath, that he had sooner that his own only son (which is of truth a goodly young gentleman, and shall I trust come to much worship) had lost his head than that I should thus have refused the oath. For surely the king’s highness would now conceive a great suspicion against me, and think that the matter of the nun of Canterbury was all contrived by my drift. To which I said that the contrary was true and well known. And whatsoever should mishap me, it lay not in my power to help it without the peril of my soul.

Then did my Lord Chancellor repeat before me my refusal unto Master Secretary, as to him that was going unto the king’s grace. And in the rehearsing, his Lordship repeated again, that I denied not but was content to swear unto the succession. Whereunto I said, that as for that point I would be content, so that I might see my oath in that point so framed in such a manner as might stand with my conscience. Then said my Lord: Marry, Master Secretary, mark that too, that he will not swear that neither, but under some certain manner. Verily, no, my Lord, quoth I, but that I will see it made in such wise first, as I shall myself see, that I shall neither be foresworn, nor swear against my conscience. Surely as to swear to the succession I see no peril. But I thought and think it reason that to mine own oath I look well myself, and be of counsel also in the fashion, and never intended to swear for a piece, and set my hand to the whole oath. Howbeit, as help me God, as touching the whole oath I never withdrew any man from it, nor never advised any to refuse it, nor never put, nor will put, any scruple in any man’s head, but leave every man to his own conscience. And me thinketh in good faith that so were it good reason that every man should leave me to mine.”

Unfortunately, More’s refusal to swear the oath led to him being accused of treason and being executed on 6th July 1535.

Notes and Sources

  • Roper, William (1905) Life of Sir Thomas More, Knt. By His Son-in-Law William Roper, London, Burns and Oates, p105-112

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25 thoughts on “17 April 1534 – Thomas More Sent to the Tower of London”
    1. Sally-ann,

      This is probably your internet security settings, depending on which browser you use.

      You should be able to add this site to your “trusted sites” list, and you won’t receive that pop-up any further.

    1. Thanks for checking it out, very kind of you. Its not happened again so I can have a good read!! Thanku

  1. Minor nitpick. More wasn’t Lord Chancellor when he went to the Tower. He had resigned his post on 16th May, 1532.

    1. kelpemare,Yes I thought the same thing he left office,but Queen Anne wanted all men high or low to sign the Act ,weather he was in office or not. I don’t think he sign the Act ,as he was beheaded along with the rest? Regards BaronessX

      1. Happy Birthday, Baroness! I hope you’ve had a beautiful day.

        Thomas More…what a guy! He refused to accept the Supremacy and Acts of Succession, and to recognise Henry as Head of the church. This, he would, or could, not do. Henry and the Boleyns thought Mores’ acceptance of those acts to be essential to their success. When he wouldn’t, Henry feared Mores’ influence, and the rest, as they say, is history….dangerous times, tudor times.

      2. kelpiemare,Thank you for the B-Day wishes that was very kind!! I asked Claire last year, if she would find me something on, April 17th and to my surprise this was that ,Sir Thomas More went to the Tower. I shall always remember him each and every year,what a wonderful man he must have been. A Man For All Seasons. THX Baroness X

  2. I read the article to mean that Claire was stating Thomas More had been Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor. More had already resigned this post, but Henry particularly wanted him to swear to the Act because of More’s very high reputation, not only in England but Europe as well. That Henry had More executed was a cause of great shock and scandal throughout Europe.

      1. Claire,Was Sir Thomas More arrested and taken to the tower because he would not sign the Act , making Queen Anne’s child heir to the throne ,4th on the list?? It is also my birthday today.Poor Sir Thomas,he to was a life long friend of Henry ,as Wolsey was to,it’s hard to beleive that Henry ,would murder his own friends?Sir Thomas More what a great man. Kind Regards Baroness X

        1. Happy birthday! I hope you’re having a lovely day. Yes. that’s right, he refused to take the Oath of Succession, promising to uphold the Act of Succession (which declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon null and void and established a new line of succession through the King and Anne Boleyn). More believed that he could not be convicted of high treason because he had never spoken out against the King or denied his headship of the Church, but Richard Rich (the Solicitor General) testified that More had, in his presence, denied that the King was head of the Church. It was also decided that More’s silence was evidence of “a corrupt and perverse nature”.

        2. Happy belated Birthday Baroness, I do hope you had a lovely day, and that your husband is on the way to a full recovery. Take care.

        3. Claire,Thank You for the B-Day wishes aswell and Dawn 1st.Thank youalso for you well wishes for my husband. Your All Very Kind Baroness X

  3. I find it interesting that in much of the reading I’ve done lately, Thomas More is painted as a mean spirited, egotistical man who murdered heretics, bullied Cromwell, and married for convenience; omittimg any mention of his strengths or moral fortitude. Given the atmosphere of the times, I would think it took a lot more guts to stand up to Henry VIII, refuse to give into his tyranical rages and go to the block for what he believed was right. He was a humanist and believed the Church needed reforming.It seems to me he just didn’t agree with the direction the Reformation was going. Didn’t Richard Rich set up More with a hypothetical question which regardless of the anwer put More at high risk for treason?

    1. Hi Mary,
      There is the fiction one called A Man of all Seasons, a film and play also, I read this some years ago and enjoyed but I can’t vouch for it’s accuracy.
      There is also one by Peter Ackroyd, I was given it for a xmas gift but not read it yet, and one by Richard Marius both factual.

      1. Thanks for the information, Dawn. I saw A Man for All Seasons some years ago. I loved Paul Schofield’s performance. I will take a look at the books, as I would like to have more information, especially about his dealing with ‘heretics’. Cruelty does not seem to fit with what we know of him, but I suppose times were different and punishment for differences in religious was the order of the day.

        1. He always seems to be portrayed as a wise, gentle, family man doesn’t he, and I believe this to a point, but I think he had his ‘cruel’ moments too when dealing with heretics. You are right, times were very different, and hard for us to grasp sometimes. I honestly don’t think anyone was innocent from doing what we consider unacceptable or horrific in those days, no matter how respected, admired and interlectual, the times touch everyone, and they behaved accordingly.

  4. If Sir Thomas More hadn’t written this very detailed letter to his daughter, recounting everything which happened at his interrogation and his response to the question of the oath, we would only have had the official version, which would probably be quite different and quite brief. He wrote this so as there could be no misunderstanding about what happened and how he felt. He doesn’t actually say why he will not swear but he dropped some big hints in that he was not being obstinate but wished all good will and could proceed according to their own conscience. Now this is important because obstinacy is a legal term enshrined in the forthcoming Act of Supremacy and the Treason Act. I say forthcoming because the Act wasn’t yet law, so More could legally refuse it anyway. The Council also tried to trick him by saying he was the only person to refuse so far. I very much doubt that. He was certainly amongst the first people of note to refuse, but he would soon be joined by Bishop John Fisher, by Father Richard Reynolds and by several other monks and friars.

    It was very disappointing for Henry to see More refuse, although he knew that he most probably would because the subject of his conscience and the marriage had come up several times. Henry knew exactly where More stood and had allowed him to do so. More was like a mentor to Henry, he was a father figure to him, a renowned scholar of international reputation and a great statesman. Whatever some may think of him, More was deeply respected in his time and Henry spent hours with him on every subject under the sun. Yet, Henry needed Thomas to accept the marriage and the oath because it would encourage others to do so. More was an important member of the Royal Court, he had been Lord Chancellor 1529 to 1532, he had served on the Council and in Parliament, he had served under Cardinal Wolsey and helped Henry with his Defence of the Seven Sacraments. He was knighted for his efforts and the King given the title Defender of the Faith. That made Henry’s actions now a complete joke. He had broken from the See of Rome and was now making himself the Head of the Church in England. He denounced the Papacy which he had defended in that attack but he remained basically Catholic. Henry now cut England off from the rest of the Catholic Apostolic World. Thomas couldn’t accept that and Henry now saw others refuse because his friend had done so. More was the best legal mind around. If he saw something wrong in this new Act and in the oath, then other people would be encouraged to see that as well. If he believed it was o. k or signed it, others would surely follow suit.

    We are privileged here to get a rare insight into the mind of Thomas More and his own account of this meeting and interrogation. Its very detailed information and a very rare insight into Tudor legal process.

    1. The usage of the term obstinacy here does not merely mean stubborn, but in legal terms malicious or in contempt may be more appropriate. These are the closest we can get to the original meaning. More was accused here of being malicious towards the King and his title and not just stubborn.

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