Posted By Claire on July 6, 2009
On this day in history – 6th July 1535 – Sir Thomas More was executed on Tower Hill at the Tower of London. This man, who was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886, canonized in 1935 and called “the heavenly Patron of Statesmen and Politicians” by Pope John Paul II in 2000, ended his life branded a traitor to the King and Crown.
So, what is is about this man that has led to him being a saint, having his own feast day (today) and having schools, churches and cathedrals named after him? Quite simply, he was a man who held fast to his beliefs, who would not take the easy way out and who died for what he believed.
I could write a book about Sir Thomas More, but here is an overview of this courageous man and a video of clips from “The Tudors” – I thought that Jeremy Northam was excellent as More.
Sir Thomas More – Friend and Advisor
Thomas More was born on the 7th February 1478 in London as the son of a successful lawyer and judge, Sir John More. More himself studied at Oxford and became a lawyer, although it is said that he thought of becoming a monk at one point. He married twice – he had four children by his first wife, Jane Colt, who died in 1511, and then he married Alice Middleton, a rich widow, and helped her bring up her daughter. All of his daughters were given a first rate classical education which was unusual for the time they lived in.
He was a talented man. He was a lawyer, author, scholar and politician all rolled into one and his famous book “Utopia”, published in 1516, is still studied and enjoyed today. He also wrote a biography of Richard III – “The History of Richard III”.
More had an amazing political career. He became a Member of Parliament in 1504, served as an undersheriff of London between 1510 and 1518, entered the King’s service in 1517 and was made Privy Councilor in 1518. In 1521, More was knighted and made undertreasurer, and then became Lord Chancellor in 1529, when Wolsey fell from grace. Moore was not only Henry VIII’s trusted secretary and personal advisor, he was also a great friend to the King as both of them loved theology and astronomy.
The Fall of More
When More took over from Wolsey as the King’s number one man, little did he know that it would lead to his downfall and death. Wolsey had failed to solve the King’s “Great Matter” and now Henry VIII was on the verge of breaking with Rome, denying the omnipotence of the Pope and forming his own church, but what was More to do? More was a passionate defender of all things Catholic and had, at one time, helped Henry defend the Church against heresy by aiding him in the writing of “The Assertio”, yet here he was being asked to go against everything he believed in!
In 1530, things began to get difficult for Thomas More. More refused to sign a letter written by English clergymen and politicians asking the Pope to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and also fell out with the King over heresy laws. A year later, More refused to sign the Oath of Supremacy, declaring that Henry VIII was Supreme Head of the English Church, because he believed that this position belonged to the Pope. He offered to resign on a couple of occasions and his resignation was finally accepted by Henry in 1532.
More refused to swear his allegiance to the Act of Succession, although he accepted Parliament’s right to declare Anne Boleyn as Queen, because he could not accept the part of the Act which asserted Parliament’s authority to legislate in religious matters – in More’s opinion, only the Pope had this right.
Resignation and silence was not enough for the King and his followers. More’s refusal sign the oath, and his refusal to attend Anne Boleyn’s coronation, led to him being arrested for treason on charges of “praemunire” which is described in Webster’s Dictionary of 1913 as “the offense of introducing foreign authority into England, the penalties for which were originally intended to depress the civil power of the Pope in the kingdom.” Bishop John Fisher also refused to sign the oath and was imprisoned in the Tower along with More.
On many occasions, Thomas Cromwell tried to persuade More to sign the oath but More’s conscience would not allow him to back down on matters of faith. On 1st July, 1535, Thomas More was tried for high treason for denying the validity of the new Act of Succession and found guilty under the Treason Act of 1534. More had held on to the belief that if he did not voice his denial of the King’s supremacy over the Church in England, then he could not be found guilty but unfortunately Cromwell produced Richard Rich to claim that he had heard More deny that the King was head of the Church. After hearing this, More spoke up and said that “no temporal man may be the head of the spirituality”. He was then found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Fortunately for More, the King stepped in and changed the sentence to beheading.
Sir Thomas More’s execution took place at the Tower of London on 6th July 1535. Before he was executed, More declared that he was “the King’s good servant and God’s first”. He was then beheaded by axe and his body buried in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, where Anne Boleyn later joined him. His head was displayed on a pike on London Bridge as an example of what happens if you betray the King.
Sir Thomas More’s head is thought to rest at St Dunstan’s Church, Canterbury, in the Roper family vault. His daughter, Margaret Roper managed to rescue his head before it was thrown in the Thames, the usual grave for traitors’ heads. According to legend, Margaret wanted to be buried with her father’s head in her arms.
Although some may say that Sir Thomas More deserved this kind of death, after all he did have many “heretics” executed, I believe that this was a sad end for a man who gave so much to the world. More was a true martyr, a man who stood firm and would not be swayed. I’m sure that I would have been tempted to sign the oath and keep my beliefs and opinions private, but here was a man who knew the punishment for challenging the King but who put God and his soul first.
David Starkey writes, in “Henry VIII: Personalities and Politics”:
“But it was not his rather limited political activity [after his resignation] but the King’s hatred, now as deep and unquenchable as his affection had once been, that led to More’s imprisonment, trial and execution for treason in 1535.”
I always wonder if Henry VIII felt guilty over More’s death. Henry executed a dear friend on that day in July 1535 and I wonder if this guilt affected his feelings for Anne Boleyn, the woman who had inadvertently made Henry kill his friend. Did Henry’s guilt lead to him falling out of love with Anne? We’ll never know.
David Starkey’s words also make me thing about whether More’s execution should have been a warning to Anne Boleyn. It showed how the King’s love could turn to hate.