Saints and Heroes Since the Middle Ages - George Hodges


St. Thomas More


A book which Luther wrote on the "Babylonian Captivity of the Church" was answered in England by King Henry the Eighth. So stout was the orthodoxy of the king against the heresy of the reformer, that the pope conferred upon him the title, still borne by sovereigns of England, of Defender of the Faith. In this answer the king maintained that the pope was the greatest man in the world, and was to be obeyed, not only by all priests, but by all princes. He showed what he had written to Sir Thomas More, and More advised him not to publish it.

"You and the pope," he said, "may some time fall out, and disagree. Then you may find that you have put a sword in the pope's hand against yourself." To this excellent advice the king paid no attention.

Sir Thomas More was the most eminent man of his time in England. He was known all over Europe for his scholarship and his statesmanship. But the most interesting thing about him for us is the fact that he represented, better than anybody else, the mind of many wise and good men who were in sympathy with the new ideas which were at that time beginning to change the world, and yet in sympathy also with the old ways. He was the intimate friends of Erasmus, who was the leader of such men in Europe.

More and Erasmus saw clearly that the Church of their day ought to be reformed. They felt, for example, very much as Luther felt about indulgences. They knew that religion, among many people, had come to be a matter of magic, a belief that saints and relics could save them from the punishment of their sins, and from the diseases of their bodies, and could bring them good luck both in this world and in the next. And they knew that religion among many priests, had come to be a matter of money; all that they cared for was to be rich. They desired to have these evils stopped. Thus they were in sympathy with the reforms which had been started by Luther. But, at the same time, they cared greatly for the Church. They saw that along with all that was wrong, there was much more that was right. And this they wished to keep. They feared that the Reformation would go too far. When they found that Luther, having attacked the indulgences, had proceeded to attach the pope who permitted them, and having defied the pope, had denied the necessity of the sacraments from which the pope had excommunicated him, they felt that he was like a man, who, finding a wasps' nest under the eaves of his house, burns out the nest with so great a fire that he burns the whole house with it.

Thus in a time when all the world was taking sides, some Protestant and others Catholic, some for the new and others for the old, More and Erasmus and such moderate men found themselves in a difficult position. They were on both sides, and on neither.

One time, while Henry the Seventh was the king, More, though he was but twenty-four years of age, was a member of Parliament; and the king demanded of the House of Commons a great sum of money, much more than he had any right to ask; and when the House was silent, being unwilling to vote the money, and yet unwilling to offend the king. More made a speech the effect of which was to give the king very much less than he had required. Some of the king's people told him that he had been defeated by a beardless boy. Coming thus under the ill-will of the king, he retired into private life. And there the debate between what was called the old learning and the new occupied his thoughts. At first, he studied Greek and science, like a man of the new time. Then he gave himself to devotion and prayer in a monastery, and planned to be a priest, like a man of the old time. The matter was happily decided for the moment by a visit which he made to Mr. Colt's house, in Essex, where he met his daughter Jane and married her. But it illustrates the contention in his mind between the new and the old.

Then the seventh Henry died, and the eighth Henry came to the throne, and More came out of his retirement into great favor. He was mad ea member of the Privy Council, and Treasurer of the Exchequer, and was chosen Speaker of Parliament. The new king so delighted in his conversation that More could hardly get leave to go home from the court to his own family as much as once a month. The king would send for him to come to his private room, and there would talk with him sometimes about this world, sometimes about the next, and then would take him to the palace roof on clear nights, "there to consider with him the diversities, courses, motions, and operations of the stars and planets." And when More, tiring of this and desiring to go home, would stay away from court, the king would visit him in his own house, coming to dinner without being invited, and afterwards walking with More in the garden by the hour together with his arm about his neck.

William Roper, More's son-in-law, who wrote his life, congratulated him on this royal friendship. But More said, "Son Roper, I may tell thee I have no cause to be proud thereof; for if my head would win him a castle in France, it should not fail to go."

By-and-by, he was made Lord Chancellor; his father, in the meantime, being only a judge of the Court of the King's Bench. It is remembered that as Sir Thomas passed through Westminster Hall, he would often go into his father's court, and reverently kneel down and ask his father's blessing; and that when he and his father met in any place, "notwithstanding his high office, he would offer the pre-eminence to his father."

More became Lord Chancellor by reason of the fall of Cardinal Wolsey; and the fall of Cardinal Wolsey was occasioned by the difficulties connected with the king's divorce.

Henry the Eighth had married Catherine, his brother's widow, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. They had lived happily together, but their marriage had been saddened by the death of their children. Child after child died in infancy; only a daughter, Mary, lived. There was no son to follow Henry on the throne. Moreover, as one child after another died, Henry began to fear that he was being punished for a marriage which many good men believed to be against the will of God. These people thought it was wrong for a man to marry his deceased brother's wife. Then Henry fell in love with a young lady of the court, named Anne Boleyn.

Thus the rights and wrongs of the matter were very complicated. It was clearly right for Henry to regret leaving the succession to the throne in such doubt that there would probably be a war between different claimants. It was clearly wrong for Henry to fall in love with Anne Boleyn. As for the divorce which he desired from Catherine, some said one thing, and some another. Anyhow, it became Wolsey's business to secure the divorce by getting the permission of the pope. And in this he failed. In the changes of power in Europe, Italy and the pope came under the rule of Spain, and the pope would not venture to do a thing so offensive to Spain as to allow the divorce of the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. Thus Wolsey fell into disgrace, and his chancellorship was given to Sir Thomas More.

Then Henry decided to proceed with the divorce in spite of the pope. He followed Luther's example. The pope said to Luther, "You are excommunicated; you are from henceforth forbidden to partake of the sacraments of the Church." Luther answered, "That will make no difference to me. I shall suffer no loss by your refusal of the sacraments: they do not depend on Church approval." The pope said to Henry, "You may not be divorced. I refuse to give you my permission." Henry answered, "That will make no difference to me. You claim to be a ruler in my kingdom, and to enforce your laws, not only in the Church but in the state. I deny the claim. You are dismissed. From this day forward you are no ruler here. I do not care for your permission. I shall do precisely as I please."

Meanwhile, the Lord Chancellor had been attending, with all diligence, to the duties of his office. Every morning he sat from eight until eleven to hear cases, and every afternoon he was to be found in his house to hear petitions. Whoever had a grievance might bring it to his notice, and the poorer the suppliant the better. In a day when the taking of bribes was a common sin of judges, More declined all gifts. One time, his enemies, for a great man in that age always had enemies, declared that he had received a "fair great gilt cup" from a man in whose favor he had decided a case. And More confessed that the man's wife brought him the golden cup as a New Year's gift, and that he took it.

"There, gentlemen," cried the chief accuser, "did I not tell you that you should find this matter true?" Thereupon More answered that having received the cup at the lady's hands, he caused his butler to fill it with wine, and drank to her good health, and gave it back. "Thus was this great mountain turned scarce unto a mole-hill."

One time, the Duke of Norfolk, coming to dine with the Lord Chancellor, found him at the parish church in the midst of the service, with a surplice on his back, singing in the choir. After the service, as they went home arm in arm, the Duke said, "Well, well! my Lord, a parish clerk! a parish clerk! You dishonor the king and his office."

To which the Chancellor replied, smiling, "Your Grace may not think that the king, your master and mine, will be offended with me for serving God, his Master."

At a little distance from his mansion house, More built a place which contained a chapel and a library; and to this building he was accustomed to go that he might be alone to read and pray; and especially on Fridays, he spent the whole day there, in his devotions, saying the seven penitential psalms and the litany and other prayers. This he found time to do, even in the midst of the great business of his high office, feeling that the essential thing, above all else, is that a man be the master of himself. And to this end, he wore under his fine clothing a shirt of hair, and sometimes flogged himself with a knotted cord, that he might exercise himself in the endurance of discomfort and pain. The devil, he said, is like an ape, who will do mischief when no one is looking, but if he is observed will leap back.

Thus he kept on the watch against temptations.

In the midst, however, of all this strictness of living and this devotion to the old ways of the Church, he wrote a book called "Utopia," which was filled with the spirit of the new age. This book is in the form of an account of a strange and distant land, given to More by one who had traveled with Americus Vespucius, and in his travels had visited a people whose customs were very different from the customs of England. In this way, More was able to set forth his ideas of the right manner of living. Among other things, he said that, in Utopia, religion was free. No man there was punished for his belief, but every man might be of what religion he pleased, and might endeavor to draw others to it by the force of argument, and by amicable and honest ways, but without bitterness against those of other opinions. This seemed to be in accord with the new liberty which Luther was bringing into the Church.

Meanwhile, the matter of the king's divorce was coming forward. More was against it. He believed that the pope was right in refusing to allow it. When he perceived that the matter was decided, he resigned his office. Out he went from his high place, a poor man as he had entered it. He called his children and his grandchildren together, who were all living with him in his great house, and said that he must now reduce his expenses.

"I have been brought up," he said, "at Oxford, at an Inn of Chancery, at Lincoln's Inn, and in the King's Court. Thus I have gone from the lowest degree to the highest. Now we must go back. We will begin with Lincoln's Inn diet, and live like the prosperous lawyers; and the next year, if we are not able to maintain this, we will go one step down to the Town Inn fare, and live like the less prosperous lawyers. If that exceed our ability too, then will we the next year after descend to Oxford fare, and live like scholars. Which, if our ability stretch not to maintain neither, then may we yet, with bags and wallets, go a-begging together, and so still keep company merrily." Thus did his change of fortune with all cheerfulness.

While he was Lord Chancellor, one of his gentlemen, when the church service was over, was accustomed to go to his wife's pew, and say, "Madam, my Lord is gone," and thus escort her from the church. The day after he resigned his office, Sir Thomas himself came down after the service and standing by the pew made a low bow, saying, "Madam, my Lord is gone."

The king, however, was not contented with More's resignation. Chancellor or not, More was the greatest man in England, and his silence meant that he did not approve of the king's conduct. He refused to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn. It was plain that he was opposed to the king's marriage. Thus he made an enemy of Anne and of the king. One time, he asked his daughter how Queen Anne did, and how things went at court. She answered, "Never better; there is nothing else but dancing and sporting." "Alas, Meg," said More, "it pitieth me to remember to what misery, poor soul, she will shortly come." Some say that he added, "These dances of hers will prove such dances that she will spurn off our heads like footballs."

Then the Act of Supremacy was passed, declaring the king head of the Church in England, in the pope's place. And first the clergy, and then the great men of the realm, were called upon to accept it.

"Mr. More," said the Duke of Norfolk, his good friend, "it is perilous striving with princes, and therefore I would wish you to incline somewhat to the king's pleasure."

"Is that all, my Lord?" said More. "Is there, in good faith, no more difference between your Grace and me, but that I shall die to-day and you to-morrow?"

Thus he went to appear before the Lords at Lambeth. That morning, as his custom was when he entered into any matter of importance, he went first to church and said his prayers. It was also his custom, whenever he went away from home, to have his wife and children come with him to his boat, and there to kiss them all and bid them farewell; but that morning he would not let them come, but shut the gate behind him.

Presently, in the boat, he said to William Roper, "Son Roper, I thank the Lord, the field is won."

Roper answered, "Sir, I am thereof very glad."

But as he considered what more meant, it became plain that he had thanked the Lord that He had enabled him to go forward in obedience to what his conscience called him to do, in spite of his great love of his family. When he shut the gate, he knew that for conscience' sake he was shutting himself out from his pleasant home, from all the joys of his delightful life, and from the sight of the loved faces of his wife and children.

Thus More refused to take the oath of supremacy as against his conscience, and they put him in prison in the Tower. There he remained for more than a year, in the hardship of close confinement, deprived of even books and paper.

One time, when his wife came to see him, being a simple person, and not understanding these great matters, she remonstrated with him. "What the good year, Mr. More," said she, "I marvel that you, that have been always hereunto taken for so wise a man, will now so play the fool to lie here in this close, filthy prison, and be content to be shut up among mice and rats, when you might be abroad at your liberty, and with the favor and good-will both of the king and his Council, if you would but do as all the bishops and best learned of this Realm have done. And seeing you have at Chelsea a right, fair house, your library, your books, your gallery, your orchards, where you might, in the company of me your wife, your children, and household, be merry, I muse what in God's name you mean here still fondly to tarry."

To whom Sir Thomas, having listened quietly with a cheerful countenance said, "I pray thee, tell me, tell me one thing."

"What is that" said she.

"Is not this house as nigh heaven as mine own?"

To whom she, after her accustomed fashion, not liking much talk, answered, "Tilly vally, tilly vally!"

But his daughter Margaret understood him better. With her he said the psalms and the litany, as he had been wont to do at family prayers at home. "I find no cause, I thank God, Meg," he said, "to reckon myself in worse case here, than in mine own house." And Margaret's husband, William Roper, writing the story of his life, adds the comment, "Thus by his gracious demeanor in tribulations appeared it, that al the troubles that ever chanced unto him, by his patient sufferance thereof were to him no painful punishments, but of his patience profitable exercises."

At last, being brought to trial, the solicitor-general, Rich, recounted a conversation which he claimed to have had with More.

"Admit that there were, sir, an Act of Parliament, that all the Realm should take me for the king, would not you, Mr. More, take me for the king?"

"Yes, sir," said More, "that would I."

"I put the case further, that there were an Act of Parliament that all the Realm should take me for the pope, would then not you, Mr. More, take me for the pope?"

"For answer," said Sir Thomas, "to your first case, the Parliament may well, Mr. Rich, meddle with the state of temporal princes; but to make answer to your second case, I will put you this case: Suppose the Parliament would make a law, that God should not be God, would you then, Mr. Rich, say God were not God?"

"No, sir," said he, "that would I not, since no parliament may make any such law."

"No more," said Sir Thomas, according to Rich's report, "could the Parliament make the king the supreme head of the Church."

This was the sole evidence against him, and this More denied. But his death had been determined. The king was not willing that there should live, even in silence, a man whose disapproval was a constant criticism upon him.

Thus he was condemned to die. And as he came, after his condemnation, from Westminster to the Tower, his daughter Margaret was waiting by the way to see him. And she, "pressing in amongst the midst of the throng and the company of the guard, that with halberds and bills were round about him, hastily ran to him, and there, openly in the sight of them all, embraced and took him about the neck and kissed him, who, well liking her most daughterly love and affection towards him, gave her his fatherly blessing, and many godly words of comfort besides; from whom after she was departed, she not satisfied with the former sight of her dear father, giving respect neither to herself, nor to the press of the people and multitudes that were about him, suddenly turned back again, and ran to him as before, took him about the neck, and divers times together most lovingly kissed him, and at last with a full heavy heart was fain to depart from him; the beholding whereof was, to many of them that were present thereat, so lamentable, that it made them for very sorrow to mourn and weep."

Sir Thomas More was beheaded on the seventh day of July, 1535. the scaffold was poorly built, and as he and the lieutenant of the Tower climbed the steps together, he said, "I pray you, I pray you, Mr. Lieutenant, see me safe up, and for my coming down, let me shift for myself." Thus he died, composed and with a cheerful face, kneeling down and commending his soul to God in whom he put his trust, and whose obedience he valued above all the pleasures of his life.

When the Emperor Charles heard of this tragedy, he called the English ambassador, and said, "My Lord Ambassador, we understand that the king, your master, hath put his faithful servant and grave wise councilor, Sir Thomas More, to death." The ambassador answered that the circumstances were unknown to him. "Well," said the emperor, "it is very true, and this we will say, that if we had been master of such a servant, we would rather have lost the best city of our dominions, than such a worthy councilor."