The Execution of Sir Thomas More

Posted By on July 6, 2010

On the 6th July 1535, Henry VIII’s former friend and Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More, was beheaded on Tower Hill. His crime? High treason.

But did Sir Thomas More really commit high treason?

Crossing a King

No, I don’t think he did. I think his only crime was not giving his full support to the annulment of the King’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. More was an influential man and although he never spoke out against the King, choosing to resign from his post and keep silent instead, Henry VIII felt betrayed and made an example of More and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, who also refused to sign the oath.

In my post, “Henry VIII – A Tyrant or Just Misunderstood?”, I made the point that Sir Thomas More was arrested in April 1534 for refusing to swear the Oath of Succession, yet he was actually put to death for rejecting the King’s new title of Supreme Head of the Church of the Church of England. This “offence” was not made treasonable until the Treason Act of 1535 so how did More manage to commit treason in 1534?! The only evidence was the word of Richard Rich, a friend of Thomas Cromwell. He claimed that he had heard More denying that the King was Head of the Church. How convenient. It reminds me of Anne Boleyn being executed for committing adultery, yet her marriage to the King was annulled shortly before her death.

I believe that Sir Thomas More was an intelligent and diplomatic man, and he kept his thoughts and feelings to himself. He had a strong faith, which prevented him from fully supporting the King,  but he also loved and respected Henry VIII, the man he had once written poetry in praise of, and he did not want to openly defy him.

I know that Sir Thomas More was responsible for the burnings of many Protestants, people he believed to be evil heretics, but I find it sad that Henry VIII could turn against a man who had showed him nothing but love and support. More had helped shape the King. He had been instrumental in ensuring that Henry, as prince, received the best Renaissance education, and then he had been an important adviser to the new, and very young, King. In his poetry in celebration of Henry VIII’s coronation, he likened the King’s succession to a second coming and obviously had high hopes for his reign, these hopes were dashed when the King became intent of divorcing his first wife and using religion to help him to do it.

Sir Thomas More’s Execution

Although Sir Thomas More had been sentenced to the full traitor’s death, the King commuted his sentence to death by beheading and he was executed two weeks after his good friend, John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester.

Here is a contemporary account of Sir Thomas More’s execution:-

“About Nine he was brought out of the Tower; his Beard was long, his face pale and thin, and carrying a Red Cross in his Hand, he often lift up his Eyes to Heaven; a Woman meeting him with a cup of Wine, he refused it saying, Christ at his Passion drank no wine, but Gall and Vinegar. Another Woman came crying and demanded some Papers she said she had left in his Hands, when he was Lord Chancellor, to whom he said, Good woman, have Patience but for an Hour and the King will rid me of the Care I have for those Papers, and every thing else. Another Woman followed him, crying, He had done her much Wrong when he was Lord Chancellor, to whom he said, I very well remember the Cause, and is I were to decide it now, I should make the same Decree.

When he came to the Scaffold, it seemed ready to fall, whereupon he said merrily to the Lieutenant, Pray, Sir, see me safe up; and as to my coming down, let me shift for myself. Being about to speak to the People, he was interrupted by the Sheriff, and thereupon he only desired the People to pray for him, and bear Witness he died in the Faith of the Catholic Church, a faithful Servant both to God and the King. Then kneeling, he repeated the Miserere Psalm with much Devotion; and, rising up the Executioner asked him Forgiveness. He kissed him, and said, Pick up thy Spirits, Man, and be not afraid to do thine Office; my Neck is very short, take heed therefore thou strike not awry for having thine Honesty. Laying his Head upon the Block, he bid the Executioner stay till he had put his Beard aside, for that had commit­ted no Treason. Thus he suffered with much Cheerfulness; his Head was taken off at one Blow, and was placed upon London-Bridge, where, having continued for some Months, and being a­bout to be thrown into the Thames to make room for others, his Daughter Margaret bought it, in­ closed it in a Leaden Box, and kept it for a Relique. Hall’s Chron. Vol. 2. S. 2.”

One of the Tower Hill Scaffold site memorial plaques

RIP St Thomas More, you are remembered.

You can read more about Sir Thomas More at:-

Notes and Sources

29 thoughts on “The Execution of Sir Thomas More”

  1. miladyblue says:

    Yikes! His daughter had to BUY his head in order to bring it home and see that it got a decent burial with the rest of his remains?

    The accusation of High Treason is mighty suspicious. Such a serious crime should have been investigated thoroughly, rather than depending upon the testimony of one person, who might have been disgruntled, and trying to cause trouble.

    On the other hand, Henry wasn’t getting patted on the back for his bad behavior by More, so the charge of High Treason sounds a lot more convenient than, “He told me no!”

    This is ingratitude of Biblical proportions, especially since More, as noted above, was responsible for molding Henry into a true Renaissance Prince and later King.

    The execution of Bishop Fisher, too, is horrifying, especially since Fisher was close to Henry’s grandmother, Lady Margaret, who conspired successfully to make Henry VII King, and from whom Henry VIII inherited his throne. I wonder how much of Lady Margaret’s success came from having a powerful and well placed Bishop like John Fisher in the right place and sympathetic to her cause to make Henry the King of England.

      1. Semih says:

        IMHO Henry XIII was not fully sane. If he was, he was a jerk, like many of today’s politicians.

  2. Carolyn says:

    “Yikes! His daughter had to BUY his head in order to bring it home and see that it got a decent burial with the rest of his remains?”

    I think it was actually more of a bribe, milady. The guard was supposed to throw it in the Thames. He could have gotten in trouble for ‘letting’ Margaret have the head, instead. And the rest of Sir Thomas’ remains were buried unceremoniously and anonymously by the government inside the Tower in the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula. They weren’t among the remains able to be identified during the Victorian Reconstruction, so they are somewhere among the jumbled thousands.

    1. Renee says:

      i thought it was a typo. It made more sense to me to read it as “she brought it home….”
      Why would she have to pay for his skull ?— they clearly didn’t think it was important; it was going in the river. I don’t know, buying it makes very ittle sense to me.

      1. Claire says:

        She did pay for it. Yes, it would have ended up in the river but it was a traitor’s head and so was supposed to be on display as a warning until it naturally fell off. They could be there a long time – horrible!

      2. Claire says:

        And buying it would have made perfect sense to Margaret, it was her father’s head and important to her.

  3. I wish I had the faith and the courage of my fourteenth great grandfather Sir Thomas More.

    1. Brenda Ann says:

      That is so cool that he is YOUR ancestor! I work for a Hospital in the US named after him. 🙂 He seems to have been such a remarkable man. And yes full of courage and true to his faith which is hard to come by anywhere these days.

    2. Cole says:

      While I agree it must have taken great courage for him to face his execution the way he did, it was his obstinate faith that compelled him to mercilessly burn Protestants at the stake when he was chancellor. I think he is for this reason overly glorified as a hero and martyr in modern times; if you ask me it was a bit of good old fashioned karma. That said, I think he deserved to die as little as those whom he himself persecuted. This whole period in our short human history is marred by violence and intolerance on an unimaginable scale. I think we are too quick to portray characters such as More in only a positive light, when he was just as guilty of many of the same transgressions as those who persecuted him.

      1. Ron Coey says:

        Could not agree more.

        1. Gunnar says:

          During this period, Church and state were intertwined. An attack on the Church was an attack on the state, and More was obligated via his role as chancellor to react as he did to heresy, as then defined. Death for certain social infractions was the NORM then, something that we can’t judge in hindsight, based on what we now believe. You seem oblivious to the fact that many heretics were put to death, not for what they “believed”, but for what they DID: they fomented riots, destroyed and stole Church property, attacked laymen and clergy un provoked, etc. More is respected, not for doing what everyone else in power at this time did, but for being willing to die for his “obstinate faith”, which was at the core of his very being. Catholics and Anglicans honor him as a “saint”. not because saints are “perfect”, but because they manage to shine in spite of imperfections or mindsets of their times. We should be so lucky with our often self-absorbed, imperfect lives, during which we nevertheless find time to delight in pointing out the faults of people like More – or even Mother Theresa.

        2. Madison Murnane says:

          I couldn’t agree more, he was known to have participated in torture, so how he could be named as a saint is beyond me, he got what he deserved he certainly may have been a faithful servant of the King but that is all he has to his credit.

    3. Catherine says:

      The direct deasendants of Saint Thomas More ended in 1807. The last two descendants were woman who died childless.

  4. Cait C. says:

    I’ve always been confused… what did Thomas More mean when he said “as for when I come down, let me shift for myself?”

    1. Thomas More also had a great sense of humor. He KNEW he would not be coming back down those stairs. At least not on his own feet. He was trying to lighten the mood.

  5. Joseph says:

    Being the brilliant, free thinker that he was, is there any evidence that Sir Thomas More was a Freemason?

  6. Colin says:

    Has Thomas More received a pardon for this charge?

    1. Claire says:

      You can’t really issue a pardon for something so long ago and for which a person was found guilty. Richard Rich gave evidence against him and that was that. There would be so many to pardon, where to start?

  7. Lonny Dunn says:

    Seeing Henry VIII’s deeds in retrospect is often viewed in light of the myriad heros spawned by those misdeeds. Today we see the Protestant Reformation propelled along by the adulterous relationship of Anne B and we see More as a mythical hero as well.

    Henry had a country to run, and the old adage: ‘image is everything’ was paramount to getting his message out. Sad for the citizenry that the Catholic, then Protestant, then back to Catholic, and then Protestant, on again off again Monarchs had to often use force as both imagery, and practical means to their ends.

    Henry could have had some sociopath tendencies especially toward the end of his life ~ but they could also have been the status quo for monarchs of his age: if he was willing to subdue his closest friends, to behead them even ~ all the more easier to keep the average citizen in check.

    Thus, More appears to have been made an example of.

    All in a day’s work for any head of state at the time.

  8. Pat says:

    Could it have been self-preservation that motivated Henry to commute More’s sentence? If the people had watched More being butchered and tortured before being killed, they might have risen up and toppled him from his throne. Evil tyrants always try to stamp out the conscience of a dissenter with threats of torture and death. No wonder the U.S. Founding Fathers declared that the government is not to make any religious laws. That leads to tyranny and brutality. Absolute power made Henry act like King Nebuchadnezzar who threatened to throw three religious dissenters into a blast furnace if they refused to bow down to his idols. I’m also reminded of the Mark of the Beast in Revelation. Those who don’t accept it will be beheaded, the same way Henry murdered Catholics and Protestants alike.

  9. Tudor fan says:

    I have read n read about king Henry viii n all his wives n all the people around him! And if you notice everyone that died or was ordered to die , in one way or another Reap what they Sowed!!! Moore burned a lot of people father’s, brothers sisters mother’s daughters sons!!!! All in the name of God!!!! So he might not have been a traitor , but he reap what he sow , death in the name of God!!!

  10. Ron Coey says:

    More was a killer burning them alive as he did. He met a just end..

  11. Chris diisnni the 1st says:

    To be a heretic or not to be a slacker,, that is your choice,, and how come Moore did, my have a wife.. One night with Henry said muffin Vivi and old Tom would have been exonerated,, no,, yes..!!

  12. Margaret R, Miles says:

    Did Thomas More say, :God will not refuse one who comes to Him with so much delight?” I read this somewhere but cannot document it.

  13. A man of his time and greatlt admired.

  14. M. Ball says:

    What’s to admire about a man guilty of torturing and burning people alive at the stake?

  15. Tim Parker says:

    I agree with the last post. Although More had many good qualities and was ultimately canonized a saint, his decision to torture and burn other human beings simply because he had the power to do so and because it suited his own religious beliefs cannot be forgiven. His fate reminds me of a quote made by Caligula in the BBC series I Claudius. If you can’t find a man principle then find a dog that will eat a dog, find a man of ambition. More never stopped to think that Henry VII was the dog who might ultimately eat him.

  16. Russ P. says:

    Mr. Wallace above claims descent from More. Then Catherine states that More’s direct descendants died out in 1807. I’m puzzled. How did such a good Catholic have any direct descendants? Even then, religion was the cause of much misery.

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