Thomas More skull Gentlemans Magazine 1837On this day in history, 6th July 1535, Henry VIII’s former friend and Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More, was beheaded on Tower Hill as a traitor. He had been found guilty of high treason under the Treason Act of 1534 for denying the King’s supremacy and refusing to take the Oath of Succession.

Chronicler Charles Wriothesley recorded his death as follows:

“This yeare allso, the first day of Julie, beinge Thursdaye, Sir Thomas More, knight, sometyme Chauncellor of England, was arreigned at Westminster for highe treason and there condemned, and the Tuesday after, beinge the 6th of Julie, he was beheaded at the Tower Hill, and his bodie was buried within the chappell in the Tower of London, and his head was sett on London Bridge. The effect of his death was for the same causse that the Bishopp of Rochester died for.”

Chronicler Edward Hall wrote:

“Also the vi. day of Julye was sir Thomas More beheaded for the like treason before rehersed, which as you haue heard was for the deniyng of the kynges Maiesties supremitie. This manne was also coumpted learned, & as you haue heard before he was lorde Chauncelor of England, and in that tyme a great persecutor of suche as detested the supremacy of the bishop of Rome, whiche he himselfe so highly fauored that he stoode to it till he was brought to the Skaffolde on the Tower hill where on a blocke his head was striken from his shoulders and had no more harme.

I cannot tell whether I should call him a foolishe wyseman, or a wysefoolishman, for vndoubtedly he beside his learnyng, had a great witte, but it was so mingled with tauntyng and mockyng, that it semed to them that best knew him, that he thought nothing to be wel spoken except he had ministered some mocke in the communcacion insomuche as at is commyng to the Tower, one of the officers demanded his vpper garment for his fee, meanyng his goune, and he answered, he should haue it, and tooke him his cappe, saiyng ii was the vppermoste garment that he had. Lyke-wise, euen goyng to his death at the Tower gate, a poore woman called vnto him and besought him to declare that he had certain euidences of hers in the tyme that he was in office (which after he was appreheded she could not come by) and that he would intreate she might haue themagayn, or els she was vndone. He answered, good woman haue pacience a litle while, for the kyng is so good vnto me that euen within this halfe houre he will discharge me of all busynesses, and helpe thee himselfe. Also when he went vp the stayer on the Skaffolde, he desired one of the Shiriffes officers to geue him his hand to helpe him vp, and sayd, when I come doune againe, let me shift for my selfe aswell as I can. Also the hangman kneled doune to him askyng him forgiuenes of his death (as the maner is) to whom he sayd I forgeue thee, but I promise thee that thou shalt neuer haue honestie of the strykyng of my head, my necke is so short. Also euen when he shuld lay doune his head on the blocke, he hauyng a great gray beard, striked out his beard and sayd to the hangman, I pray you let me lay my beard ouer the blocke least ye should cut it, thus with a mocke he ended his life.”

A document in Letters and Papers gives the following information about More after his trial and about his execution:

“On his way to the Tower one of his daughters, named Margaret, pushed through the archers and guards, and held him in her embrace some time without being able to speak. Afterwards More, asking leave of the archers, bade her have patience, for it was God’s will, and she had long known the secret of his heart. After going 10 or 12 steps she returned and embraced him again, to which he said nothing, except to bid her pray to God for his soul; and this without tears or change of colour. On the Tuesday following he was beheaded in the open space in front of the Tower. A little before his death he asked those present to pray to God for him and he would do the same for them [in the other world.] He then besought them earnestly to pray to God to give the King good counsel, protesting that he died his faithful servant, but God’s first.

Such was the miserable end of More, who was formerly in great reputation, and much loved by the King, his master, and regarded by all as a good man, even to his death.”

Tower Hill plaque
Memorial plaque on Tower Hill

As Wriothesley says, his body was buried at the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, at the Tower of London, and his head put on a spike on London Bridge. Heads would eventually be thrown into the River Thames but More’s wasn’t. E E Reynolds, in the book Margaret Roper: Eldest Daughter of St Thomas More, quotes Thomas Stapleton, an early biographer of Thomas More:

“[The head] by order of the king, was placed upon a stake on London Bridge, where it remained for nearly a month, until it had to be taken down to make room for other heads … The head would have been thrown into the river had not Margaret Roper, who had been watching carefully and waiting for the opportunity, bribed the executioner, whose office it was to remove the heads, and obtained possession of the sacred relic. There was no possibility of mistake, for she, with the help of others, had kept careful watch, and, moreover, there were signs so certain that anyone who had known him in life would have been able now to identify the head.”

Reynolds then explains:

“After the death of Margaret Roper, the head was in the keeping of her eldest daughter, Elizabeth, Lady Bray, and it was probably at her death in 1558 that it was placed in the Roper vault under the Chapel of St. Nicholas in St. Dunstan’s, Canterbury.

It was seen there in 1835 when, by accident, the roof of the vault was broken; the head was enclosed in a leaden case with one side open; this stood in a niche protected by an iron grille. The vault was later sealed, but a tablet in the floor above bears the inscription:

Beneath this floor is the vault of the Roper family in which is interred the head of Sir Thomas More of illustrious memory, sometime Lord Chancellor of England, beheaded on Tower hill 6th July 1535. Ecclesia Anglicana libera sit.

In an article “The scull [sic] of Sir Thomas More”, in The Gentleman’s Magazine of May 1837, there is the following quote about More’s head being seen in the vault in the 18th century, along with the drawing of the skull which you see at the top of this article: “Dr. [then Mr.] Rawlinson informed Hearne, that when the vault was opened in 1715, to enter into one of the Roper’s family, the box was seen enclosed in an iron grate.”

It must still be there.

Notes and Sources

  • Wriothesley, Charles (1875) A chronicle of England during the reigns of the Tudors, from A.D. 1485 to 1559 Volume 1, Camden Society, p. 29.
  • Hall, Edward (1809) Hall’s chronicle : containing the history of England, during the reign of Henry the Fourth, and the succeeding monarchs, to the end of the reign of Henry the Eighth, in which are particularly described the manners and customs of those periods. Carefully collated with the editions of 1548 and 1550, J Johnson, p. 817-818.
  • Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 8, January-July 1535, 987, Sir Thos. More to Antony Bonvyse.
  • Reynolds, E. E. (1960) Margaret Roper: Eldest Daughter of St Thomas More, P J Kennedy and Sons, p. 110-111.
  • The Gentleman’s Magazine, ser. 2, v. 7, 1837, p 497 – see;view=1up;seq=521

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17 thoughts on “6 July 1535 – Sir Thomas More is executed on Tower Hill”
  1. God bless Saint Thomas More and Saint John Fisber murdered by the Tudors for standing up for the truth. A recent documentary showed that the head was still in the holy place in Saint Dunstans and he has a memorial and tomb in St Peter ad Vincular in the Tower of London. Good on Meg for bravery in saving her father’s head. RIP to the holy martyrs and may perpetual light shine upon them. Amen YNWA.

    1. Execution by the axe is small potatoes compared to More’s torture techniques on the brave men expressing their own religious beliefs. That he was elevated to sainthood is beyond belief.

      1. Thomas More did not torture anyone. There is no evidence that he did and even Fox states that he did not.

  2. Why am I finding some sort of poetic justice that Henry lost his precious son on an anniversary of the death of Thomas More? What is weird is that I don’t particularly like More (as a Jew, I am strongly prejudiced against those who — like More — were absolutely eager to hunt down and burn heretics; More as defender of the individual’s right to hold to his or her conscience in “Man for all Seasons” is as inaccurate as More the cruel monster in “Wolf Hall”_

    1. I agree with you Esther. More always seems to be held in a positive light but he did indeed condemn people to be burned for nothing more than their beliefs, and that actually is what he himself was executed for. However while his death by beheading was horrible (what death in those times was not) it was still a better death than a burning at the stake.

      1. More was responsible for the trial and condemnation of five people. Compared to the 30 Anabaptists executed by Cromwell and the dozens of heretics executed by Henry Viii after 1534, plus the monks hung drawn and quartered this shows a great deal of restraint. More was a magistrate, he was a devoted Catholic, he was also a lawyer and councillor, plus Lord Chancellor, all of which made it his duty to question, try, hand over for trial and deliver for punishment, people found guilty of serious heresy. He may have had strong views on this and seized and destroyed heretical material, but the majority of people who came before him in his official capacity he released or fined. The five people were lapsed heretics, previously condemned and recanted, then lapsed again. Two were serious and leading offenders. It is all very well for us to be self righteous about the persecution of one group of people who the state declared heretics, but we forget that this was the way most people believed in those days. I agree with you that it is not right, but I don’t believe it is fair to condemn More for thinking the same way as most other people. It seems to me that there were so many different so called reformed or heretical groups all over Europe that people had a right to be afraid and go on the defensive. It is inconceivable to me as a Christian that people who shared the same religious roots should have devised such terrible penalties for other people, but I was raised in the West in the 20th and 21st centuries when we are taught tolerance and relatively free to practice our different faiths. 500 years ago this was not possible. Many of these new groups were challenging the fabric of society, they were new and misunderstood. The state often drove the reaction against them, some were very odd indeed and most told people that what their Church had told them for 1500 years was wrong. Religious practice and belief affected every day stuff, every aspect of life had a prayer or ritual, there were hundreds of holy days, the hours of the day were marked out by the holy hours of the church, the seasons and harvest had prayer and ritual, the passages of life and death, the Church offered a certainty in a world where death was close, so being told all this is wrong was literally earth shattering. In addition, the reformed groups themselves could not agree and drove out or burnt heretics. So, we may find such a death horrible and magistrates, including More did all they could to avoid having a person handed over to the secular arm for punishment, but it was the fate that most people accepted as the just deserts for unrepentant heretics, even if they were Protestants in charge they believed this. This terrible death even had a reasoning behind it, they believed that feeling the fires in this life and being cleansed by them saved you from Eternal Fire in the next life. We may rightly think this warped, but this was the way the authorities thought in those days. By the way, beheading is still a terrible way to die, it was not always so quick and it was not painless. Execution is considered wrong today as no way of killing somebody is painless, not even hanging and you could kill the wrong person, it is not acceptable. However, in the sixteenth century, people witnessed death all the time, execution was the punishment for several crimes. Adultery was considered petty treason and later on we had the death penalty for this, witches were hung or burnt, depending on if you livex in England, Europe or Scotland, thieves and even beggars could be hung for a third offense, treason was the most brutal of all, with hanging, drawing and quartering the norm, or burning for female traitors. I am not condoning any of these things, just saying that in a world were such executions were common, should we really be surprised that the death penalty also existed for those who chose a belief system different to the state?

        1. As I understand it from Ackroyd’s biography of More and Schoenfeld’s biography of Cromwell, it was More’s choice to go after the heretics for burning, whereas Cromwell had pressure from Henry, who wanted to show the world his orthodoxy. So, while you are correct as to the numbers, the fact that More initiated is (IMO) significant — it shows (at least) that the “Man for all Seasons” view (More as defender of an individual’s rights) is a myth.

        2. The point being explored in A Man For All Seasons is actually exploring giving the people the protection of law and defending this no matter who they are, hence Bolt uses the extreme example of would you give the devil the benefit of the protection of law. Move says that he would. The book is about benefit of law to everyone as an ideal, not individual rights as this was an alien concept anyhow. The King is used in the opposite direction as flouting and manipulating the law. This is part of the attack that More cannot accept. The play is not a myth as much of Mores speeches and writing was used to construct the arguments used, but Wolfe Hall takes the opposite direction. This certainly was a total nonsense. More was neither the perfect champion of rights nor the ruthless torturer of Wolfe Hall. He was a great and complex man who could right in aragorical and idealistic terms, was both a champion of free speech in Parliament, which proof you can find in his attempts to pass this as Speaker of the House in 1526 and 1528, but Henry refused, he was passionate about heresy, but he acted in the law and using his lawful authority as magistrate, judge and chancellor, so he did act on royal authority, at the same time he could write in answer to Tyndale and in favour of conscience, on the passion, on the nature of man, on the suffering of Christ, his arguments over heresy is in dialogue form, he was a family man, a champion of education, his daughters were better educated than most men, he wrote a critique of tyranny, he was a historian, theologian, had a great whit, was the finest scholar of his age, he was a best selling author, a friend to Kings and poets, painters and fellow seekers, he could and did criticize the wealth of the church from within, he sought clerical reforms, he was even quoted by socialists and revolutionary martyrs like Larkin and Connolly, he was universally respected, he was an astronomer, a royal and trusted counsellor, his history of Richard lll leaves much to be desired, but even then he admits that there are unanswered questions, he was passionate about trying to protect the Church he loved against a dangerous threat as he and the rest of the Catholic world saw the new ideas from the continent, but he was also a much loved and fair magistrate, he was honest and he defended what he saw as the truth, giving his own life for that truth. Thomas More, stood by what he believed in, unlike Cromwell who changed his mind and went with the wind and the King, even persecuting or disowning those like Lambert who believed as he did. No matter what your beliefs about Thomas More, you cannot deny his honesty, that he died in defence of the Church and truth as he saw it and he did not fail. Thomas More may actually have been amused at being canonized, that is how human he was, but now I think that he is merry in heaven, as he said he wished, even meeting those forced to condemn him there.

          RIP Saint Thomas More, killed for the truth, may we all be merry in heaven together one day. YNWA

  3. How is this same man a venerated saint and a bit of a persecuting monster> He was both, as we see. But wasn’t it his sacred duty, if not his pleasure, to persecute heretics? He was a witty, wise man.
    In evolutionary terms, we are the last of twenty-two (known) human species and we called ourselves, “the wise person”. Somehow we got from Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) to Thomas More (Homo sapiens). It is an amazing story, the greatest story of all. But, oh dear, just when we feel elated about this great walk of humankind, we have to admit we appear pretty faulty. When we strive to be so good, and clearly Thomas More strove with his conscience all his life long (or short), how come we are also so bad?

  4. More, like Thomas Jefferson, was a brilliant yet complex man. Both saw that ideally, the world should be significantly different, but both lived in the manner of their time. We live in a time far closer to their ideal worlds, but far short of our ideals. And we live in the manner of our time. It is all one.

  5. Maryann, I like what you have to say. I think that More and others like him in those times and our own always look for the ideal but it is usually not achievable. We live with the best and worst of what we have accomplished and sometimes the best is just a caricature of our ideal.. There really isn’t anything new under the sun. I learned that when I did retrospective newspaper indexing. We just have more and faster means of doing the same things, and over here across the pond people execute each other with guns. Religions are still a source of controversy and political upheavals never end. People live by the rules of the society they live in but that doesn’t mean they necessarily agree with it and that they won’t go against it. Western society doesn’t send anyone to the Tower and set a date for a beheading. IMO, we’re all just a product of our times, now or in the 15th century.

    1. I agree with much of the commentary here – both for and against More as a saint. As humanity is flawed, More is also flawed. The sin hubris. Nevertheless, it is his sin. Who are we to judge? His life and times are so different than those of today. He knew what he was taught. We are all products of out times. We are supposed to be so much more enlightened. Christ said something like to those who much is given, much is expected. We are supposed to know better and use that knowledge to build the Kingdom not burn it

  6. Hi Everyone …can’t for the life of me remember where I read this, but someone maybe able to give names perhaps, but not all bishops believed in burning and said so. Wish I could acquire the useful habit of making notes and references when I come across ‘interesting facts’. My point being, I guess, is that movements away from the sacred dogmatic towards more enlightened reasoning have to start somewhere and one or two men’s humane stand against cruel punishments are candles in the dark. They don’t, of course, get to be made saints or have statues erected to their memory. Why, they slipped through my memory without even being noted. But we must thank them and honour their intent.

  7. My most fascinating interest is the bravery of Meg Roper and her letters to and from her father. Like Thomas, Margaret was a brilliant scholar, particularly extraordinary at this time and her level of scholarship has been examined recently and really does stand out. Meg was also a published writer and she was also brave in taking down her father’s head and preserving it. She was a bit of a dare devil with this dangerous act. The family continued to suffer the backlash of having a leading member executed for treason for several generations.

  8. Rest in peace Saint Thomas More, who stood by his principles against an increasingly aggressive King whose attacks on those who opposed his Supremacy and his new marriage was about to go viral. Regardless of what modern people think about More he was not the torturing monster of the Wolf Hall/Wikipedia imagination and no contemporary evidence supported such later claims. He defended himself against lies which were proved to be unfounded and even Fox, the Protestant apologist and historian removed the accusations from his second edition. He was a staunch enforcement official when it came to dealing with ideas which were illegal as reforms and heresy was long before he was in charge. It is all very well to condemn More or Wolsey or even later another even harder prosecutor Cromwell, but the law was the law and these are all men responsible for the law.

    Henry Viii was King and he appointed men who were talented as Cromwell and More were but he knew that they were also men who would agree with his political agenda. Heresy was rife in England in the capital in the 1520s and Wolsey wanted it stopped. Men like Thomas More who was also a magistrate would have stamped it out regardless of any personal beliefs and neither Thomas Cranmer, ironically a victim of such charges himself or Thomas Cromwell treated those brought before them any differently. Heresy was the worst crime anyone could commit, it threatens the fabric of society and everyone hated it. Just what counted as heresy in England at this time is very unclear as it covered a whole range of beliefs, mainly from abroad.

    Thomas More was a scholar, a humanist and his discourse was popular reading. He was also a man of extreme contradictions if we are faced with Utopia which appears to say we have religious freedom and the man who lived in the real Tudor world of 500 years ago, who was born in the reign of Edward iv, grew up under Richard iii, of whom he wrote a load of nonsense, which is not history as we know it now, as well as under Henry vii into whose service he entered as a young lawyer. More believed in the education of his wife and children, on the same basis as men, he may even have favoured it generally, but he was not an advocate for female education in the modern sense or a feminist as I frustratingly read on an information board recently. He was still a father, husband and grandad of the sixteenth century and held many traditional family values of his day. He believed in strict moral discipline and chastised two servants for improper conduct in church, one who was upskirting two young women. This legal chastising led to the later propaganda that claimed he birched heretics in his garden. Yes, he questioned people, most of whom he let go without charge. He didn’t torture or whip them. He may have sentenced people legally to whipping for many crimes, including offences against the religious practices of his day as a magistrate and Lord Chancellor, which were legitimate punishments for minor offences, but so what, that was his job and nothing different than anyone else. Henry wanted heresy dealt with severely and that included a clamp down on books containing forbidden stuff as well as the new importing of Tyndale New Testament. Thomas More was an enthusiastic servant in this enterprise but he was also cautious. Yes, he was a staunch Catholic, welcome to his world, he was popular because of his strong stance but he preferred to engage in dialogue than to hunt people down. Many of his works are from this period. Henry ordered these works confiscated and destroyed. They were found and burnt, books not people.

    The new testament was not condemned because it was in English, but because it contained phrases and uses that deliberately promoted reforms and anti Catholic theology and what More, Wolsey and others all saw as heresy. It was promoting ideas that threatened the world they knew and they had orders to act. Tyndale and More make for interesting debate in their reading but they are not
    pretty or for the faint hearted and show two passionate and dedicated souls. We may not agree with any of this but it was new, radical and frightening. More was probably as passionate as any one we may say was strong and single minded but I don’t believe he was a bigot. In fact he protected his future son in law while he held such beliefs and his views are typical of scholars of his day.

    More is often accused of burning heretics and it is true, he condemned after a trial and due process as a magistrate and as Lord Chancellor three people directly and two more on his watch but not his authority. A sixth was arrested, released, arrested again and died in prison while More was in the Tower. His determination to end heresy has gained him a fearsome reputation, one that is greatly exaggerated but which scholars acknowledge and put into context and John Guy and Maurice and Ackroyd have written on at length but they have also said there is no contemporary evidence for more or the use of torture. He would also watch as his successor hung monks in chains and drew them to their deaths at Tyburn for their faith and he knew he would follow.

    Thomas More was one of the greatest scholars of history and Henry Viii greatly sought his counsel. They were great friends but More was a man of his conscience and he was a great friend of both Katherine and Henry. Henry’s choice to disown the Holy Father and do his own annulment broke their relationship and More could not abandon the faith of their childhood and the rest of Christendom. He would not sign the oath but refused to say why. It was only after his unlawful condemnation and his being set up that he realised his words to Rich in the Tower that no law can be passed that makes anyone Head of the Church as Parliament can’t make such a law. More would not give in and he was in the Tower for eighteen months before his martyrdom. A couple of weeks before this Saint John Fisher had been killed the same way and now More gave witness to his own faith. His death was condemned across England and Europe and there are signs that Henry regretted this as well. He blamed Anne of all people but he was reconciled to her and they went on a progress of triumph.

    Rest in peace, Thomas More, a true man for all seasons and all people. Amen

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