The tomb of St. Thomas More is seen in the crypt of the St. Peter ad Vincula chapel in the Tower of London. Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher were imprisoned in the tower in 1535 and executed on nearby Tower Hill. The crypt contains their headless bodies, along with those of two other Catholic martyrs.
As Thomas More mounted a scaffold outside the Tower of London where his masked executioner stood, axe in hand, a crowd waited to hear More’s final speech. Contrary to custom, King Henry VIII had ordered that he “not use many words.” More was a formidable advocate, and the king’s new assertion of supremacy over the Church was unpopular and politically tenuous, pushed through Parliament with unprecedented pressure, bribes and threats. The king would take no chances now.
More was “a man with an adamantine sense of his own self.”
More’s case was already famous. Three years earlier, Sir Thomas held the highest office in the realm after Henry himself. His integrity was impeccable, and he had an international reputation as a humanist and scholar. For most of Henry’s reign, More had been among his most loyal advisors. Now he stood alone before the executioner’s block.
In the popular understanding of St. Thomas More, and in the superb play and film A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt, More is often seen as a martyr of conscience. As Bolt put it, More was “a man with an adamantine sense of his own self.” Having made a judgment about the king’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, he remained true to himself in the face of bribes, threats and even death. While this is partly valid, it conceals the central truth for which More died in 1535, the true source of his strength and the lessons that St. Thomas More can teach us now. Ours is a season during which Christians face the challenge of remaining true to the faith despite political pressure, the threat of sanctions (the recent HHS mandate is but one example), and the stigma of social ostracism.
CRACKS BEGIN TO FORM
The reign of King Henry VIII had opened with much hope, as even More called Henry “the everlasting glory of our time.” After 17 years on the throne and 17 years of marriage to Catherine of Aragon without a male heir Henry began an affair (not his first) with Anne Boleyn. Within a year, he resolved to leave Catherine and marry Anne. He petitioned the pope to declare his marriage invalid.
The 16th century was a dangerous time for the Catholic Church. Although there had been occasional conflicts in England between the Church and the crown before, the Reformation was now in full swing, and Martin Luther had led much of Germany to break with Rome. A faction in England with its own agenda both political and religious recognized that the king’s divorce would be a ripe opportunity to undermine the Church’s authority. They encouraged Henry who, it seems, did not need much encouragement to bypass Rome and assert royal control over the Church, and so open a path to marry Anne. They knew, however, that this would meet intense opposition if done too quickly, so they devised a careful, incremental strategy to undermine the Church’s authority and replace it with civil law. The first stage was a campaign of books and pamphlets advocating parliamentary “reform” of clerical “abuses.”
The king wanted More to bring his sharp legal mind and impeccable reputation to his divorce effort, but More declined and carefully presented his reasons. Dissatisfied, Henry commanded More to confer with other royal advisors and to read a book advocating the king’s position. More studied the arguments and much else besides, and he saw that the key to the question was not in the obscure details of marriage law, but whether the king could dictate Church teaching and discipline. Could the king define what it meant to be Catholic in England, or did that authority belong to the bishops in union with the pope?
Believing that he could persuade More to lend his credibility to the scheme, Henry appointed More as lord chancellor of England. More was surprised, and he did not want the position. He saw its difficulties and its great danger. Yet, serving as lord chancellor would give him an unparalleled opportunity to defend the Church’s liberty. He might be able to steer Henry away from an outright break with Rome. Besides, refusal was hardly an option.
THE LORD CHANCELLOR
Without ever speaking ill of the king, More worked tirelessly in public and in private to combat threats to the Church’s liberty. After a long day of official duties, he would spend the night writing against proposals to legislate the Church’s internal rules. On the side, he lobbied members of Parliament against the bills.
The king’s next move was to co-opt the (then-Catholic) universities. After much cajoling, he induced a number of theology professors to opine that his divorce was justified. He would use this “expert opinion” again and again to press his case to undermine the pope’s authority.
As things progressed, Henry pressured the English bishops and imposed enormous fines, which they paid. Then, in the name of correcting clerical “abuses,” Henry asked the bishops to give him the authority to make rules to govern the Church. They refused, issuing a stark public response. But Henry responded with open threats of life imprisonment and veiled threats of death unless they granted him plenary power over Church governance. When the bishops met again in convocation to debate their response, Henry sent envoys with an ultimatum: They must submit to him that very day. By a divided vote, the bishops surrendered.
The next day, More resigned. Though he never criticized the king, the whole world understood why he was no longer chancellor. And no one doubted the king’s fury at More.
The central truth that More defended for which he later died was thus not a right to autonomous self-determination. It was, rather, that the spiritual authority and rightful liberty of the Church were given by God to be exercised by the bishops in union with the pope. No secular power no king, no parliament, no civil law had jurisdiction over man’s soul or the Church’s faith. The king had no right to dictate Church teaching or command the bishops how to govern the Church’s life.
More’s resignation was, in fact, a great act of obedience and self-denial. It would have been easier to give in to the king, as so many other Catholics did including most priests and all but one bishop. But More knew better: He had informed his conscience by a careful study of the Church’s teaching. He would obey every lawful command of the king, but he was God’s servant first. A human law contrary to God’s law could not bind.
When Parliament later passed the Act of Supremacy that declared Henry as supreme head of the Church in England, it became a capital crime to deny that title. Every subject had to swear an oath affirming it, or face imprisonment.
SPOKEN WITH SILENCE
More’s fame and reputation were such that Henry wanted his complicity. As a superb lawyer, More saw that he could not be executed for a simple refusal to swear the oath. As a good Catholic, he knew that he must not volunteer for martyrdom. He took refuge in silence and prayer. While he doubted his courage in the face of prison and death, he trusted that, if he remained faithful, God would supply him strength.
More was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. All of his property was confiscated, impoverishing his family. He was repeatedly asked if he denied the king’s new title. To reply honestly meant death, so More remained silent. After more than a year in the tower, the crown charged him with treason for allegedly denying the king’s new title in a conversation with one of the king’s agents. More said he had not done so.
At More’s trial one of the most celebrated in English history his masterful defense nearly upset the carefully laid plans for his condemnation. According to one account, More argued that, just as the city of London lacked authority to annul an act of Parliament for the whole of England, so Parliament lacked authority to transfer governance of the Church to the king, since the Church had been entrusted by God to the bishops and the pope. This, he noted, was codified in the Magna Carta two centuries earlier, was affirmed in the king’s coronation oath, and was recognized by all Christendom and by all previous Christian epochs. The chief judge fumbled and hesitated, “loath to have the burden of that Judgment wholly to depend on him.” He consulted his colleagues, and ultimately condemned More without ruling on his objection.
More’s defense of the faith and his extraordinary fidelity and courage are not his only lessons for us. His final days radiate the transforming power of God’s gifts of faith and charity. More was never bitter. He prayed daily for the king, giving thanks for the spiritual profit he obtained from his imprisonment, which he called “the very greatest” of “all the great benefits” the king “has heaped so thickly upon me.” He wrote to his daughter that God would turn his death to great good: “no matter how bad it seems, it will indeed be the best.” When the king’s messenger, weeping, brought the news that he would die that day, More encouraged him: “Be not discomforted, for I trust that we shall, once in heaven, see each other full merrily, where we shall be sure to live and love together, in joyful bliss, eternally.”
In the end, the king had nothing to fear from More’s speech on the scaffold it is a model of Christian charity. One contemporary account reported: “He spoke little before his execution. He asked only that those looking on would pray to God for him on this side [of heaven], and he would pray for them on the other side. Then he begged them earnestly that they would pray to God for the king, that God would give him good counsel, protesting that he died the king’s good servant, and God’s first.”
DOMINICAN FATHER DOMINIC LEGGE, formerly a constitutional lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice, is writing a doctoral dissertation in theology at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. He is a member of The Catholic University of America Council 9542 in Washington, D.C.