Skip to comments.St Thomas More
Posted on 06/24/2003 8:42:25 PM PDT by Lady In Blue
St. Thomas More
IN THIS TROUBLED AND ANGRY WORLD one of the great difficulties in approaching the saints is to be able to believe in their relevance. The title "saint" suggests the nun withdrawn in her cloister, the priest wholly dedicated to the service of God, the mystic, the asceticthe works of Mary, not of Martha. The citizen of the twentieth century, struggling with income tax or the bill for his childrens education, earning a living in the competitive world of law or commerce, or engulfed in the frustrations of government service, pays, no doubt, his tribute of respect to the idea of holinesshe is less likely than his grandfather to dismiss lives wholly consecrated to God and to prayer as "escapism"but there is no change in his conviction that the daily business of living in office and home is what "real life" is about.
The most remarkable fact about St. Thomas More may therefore be the bare outline of his biography, which reads very like a modern entry in Whos Who. He was born in the City of London of a family prominent in the law and city affairshis father, Sir John More, was a judge on the Kings Bench. Thus his young son grew up with the law and the city in his bones. After reading classics at Oxfordin fact only Latin, Greek came laterhe began his law studies at New Inn and Lincolns Inn, was called to the bar young but already with a great reputation for scholarship, and quickly built up a very large and profitable practice as a result of immense knowledge and industry, equal speed, and complete integrity.
As a rising young lawyer, he soon came to the notice of the City Fathers and was chosen as one of the burgessesor members of parliamentfor the city. In parliament, still a very young manin fact, twenty-sixhe made his mark at once, particularly in debates to reduce the Governments demands for fresh taxation. The city rewarded its able young burgess. At the age of thirty-two he was appointed Under-Sheriff an office which made him the permanent legal officer to the Mayor and Corporation.
Meanwhile, More had married a Miss Colt of Netherhall in Essex. Three daughters and a son were born to them, but Mrs. More died only five years after her marriage. More then married a widowed lady, Mrs. Alice Middleton, who survived him.
The reputation which More had earned not only as a lawyer and a man of learning but also as an active politician in city affairs marked him out for further promotion. While still Under-Sheriff he was invited to take part in some difficult commercial negotiations with Britains most important trading partner, the Netherlands, and it was during the months of discussion in Flanders that he found time to write his book Utopia, which at once became a best-seller throughout Europe. His contemporaries counted him, with Erasmus and Budé and Vives, the foremost scholar of his day.
The trade mission also enhanced his reputation for public business. A year or so later, promotion came again in the shape of an invitation to join the government. He was appointed to the Council, on which he served for eleven years. During this period he acted as Under-Treasurer, as Speaker in Parliament, as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and as High Steward of both Oxford and Cambridge Universities. At the same time his missions abroad continued, and he had the delicate and ungrateful task of retrieving what could be retrieved for England at the Cambrai Peace Conference. This high career of service was crowned by his appointment as Lord Chancelloror as we might say now, Prime Minister.
So far, the biography reads like a typical success story in twentieth-century political lifethe usual beginnings in the law, the gaining of reputation in local politics, promotion to the national scene, ending with the highest political position in the land. Admittedly one has to turn to Mr. Winston Churchill himself to find some analogy with Mores combination of statesmanship and great literary gifts. Nevertheless, this scholarship apart, his career is not untypical of the leading men of our own day. For the last years, however, we have to turn our eyes from modern Londonor modern Washingtonto post-war Budapest or Warsaw or Prague.
Faced with the governments increasing claim to total power, More resigned his Chancellorship. For a year, he is allowed to live at peace in his own home. But the insistence on submission and on uniformity of opinion seeks him out in retirement. He is told to seal with a public oath his complete acceptance of the "new order". His refusal is followed first by fifteen months imprisonment without a trial, then by a mock trial of complete illegality. The death sentence is passed and More is executed as a traitor to the state.
The impression of modernity is surely remarkable. Yet once the dates are filled in, More slips back again into the mists of the past. Born in 1478, we read, member of parliament in 1504, married in 1505, Under-Sheriff in 1510, called to Henry VIII's Council in 1518 and served there until 1529. Henrys Lord Chancellor until 1532, executed by the same Henry in 1535. Back flows the unreality of historical picture-booksthe gold chains and fur tippets, the rush-strewn floors and household jestersMore had one, Henry Patenson, to whom he was greatly attachedthe odd language: "deus bone, deus bone, man, will this gear never be left?"the overwhelming authority of the Kings good grace, the pageant of chivalry and medieval magnificence of that Field of the Cloth of Gold which More himself attended. It is all very splendid and even moving, but it is infinitely remote. Looking at those men in their velvet caps and the women in their stiff Tudor snoods and wimples, we feel that the troubles which beset them, the issues they faced and the decisions on which they acted are as outworn as their headgear. Let us admit that Thomas More was a great man and a saint, but how can this be relevant now in times so different from his own?
In fact, however, the startling thing about Thomas Mores career is the extent to which his life, both public and private, belongs as much to our times as to his. This is in part to say that the deepest experiences of mankind are timeless. Mores enchanting household at Chelsea belongs to every age in which men and women love each other and bring up their children in peace, affection, and loving discipline. The fact that More gave his daughters the same educationin Greek, Latin, logic, philosophy, theology, mathematics, and astronomyas to his son surprised his contemporaries more than it would us. Nor need we suppose that More knew only the joys of loving companionship, gaiety, and goodness in his family circle. He felt all the anxieties of any modern head of the house, making both ends meet on an inadequate salary. Like many a man today who has gone from private to public affairs in London or Washington, More suffered a severe loss of income in giving up his private practice and City connexions and entering the Kings service. He writes from Flanders that he is hard put to it to keep two households in being at once. Later, on his resignation from the Chancellorship, he refused all financial aid save his pension, and hard times and fuel shortages came to Chelsea, where his wife and grown-up family had to gather in the evenings round a single fire of peat before retiring to their cold, unheated bedrooms.
There was worse to come. We may wonder how many men in Eastern Europe today as they lie in Communist prisons are tormented most of all by the knowledge that they leave their families in desperate want and danger. More knew this quite "modern" agony and wrote to his daughter from the Tower that the "danger and great harm" in which his family were placed was "a deadly grief unto me and much more deadly than to hear of mine own death".
All this, both the joys and the sorrows, belongs to the ages, and we are not likely to be surprised at the continuity of deep and loyal family affections. The surprising fact is that it is in the sphere of public affairs, the very sphere in which we expect, our minds coloured by the romantic legends of the much-married Henry VIII, to find the greatest differences, that Mores experience and our own seem most strikingly to converge. In general terms, the sixteenth and the twentieth centuries can both bear the name "ages of transition". The discovery of the New World then was as momentous as the mastery of the air today. The new learning of the Renaissance was as intoxicating as modern scientific advance. Men were as troubled in 1530 by the division of Christendom between Catholic and Protestant Christianity as they are now by its division between Christians of all communions and the militant force of Marxist atheism. Change, violence, division were in the air More breathedas they are in the storms of our own day.
The resemblance is more than a general one. In politics and in economics More wrestled with dangers that are still with us, either recrudescent or never really dead. Tudor government represented a violent break with the constitutional mind of the Middle Ages. To the burgesses of the City of London, to the lawyers who had grown up after Bracton, it was a common place that "the king is under God and the law". In other words, the monarchy, though immensely powerful, was a monarchy limited by law, by custom and by the established rights of nobles, clergy, and commons. Moreover, there was in the local state and in all Europe a plurality of powerthe state representing Caesar and receiving the things that are Caesars while the Church represented God upon earth and maintained its own independent spiritual authority.
The essence of Henry VIII's political revolution after 1529 was to destroy this double web of constitutionalism and divided power. He concentrated all power, secular and spiritual, in his own hands; he overrode all traditional rights and safeguards and judicially murdered those who sought to keep his will within limits. In fact, he and his creature Thomas Cromwell were students of Machiavelli, who taught that a prince must not ask what he should do but what he can do. Henry accepted the counsel, and not until the English Civil War was fought a century later could the threat of arbitrary despotism be razed from English society.
The Machiavellian dispensation prevailed, too, in foreign affairs. Far from pursuing the unity of Europe, threatened mortally in the early sixteenth century by the advance of the Turks, Henry and his first Chancellor, Wolsey, deliberately plunged England into a series of wasteful and useless European wars. The attacks on France were in part launched in support of the papacy, which under the worst of popesthe dissolute Alexander and the warlike Juliuswas risking the loss of spiritual power by appearing more and more in the guise of a mere secular Italian principality. But personal ambitionsHenrys desire to rule in France and Wolseys desire to be popeplayed their part in a policy which tore up the garment of European unity and ruined England in the process. Such was the political background to Mores public lifethe struggle against totalitarian power within the state and against the pursuit of nationalist ambitions of aggrandisement abroad.
He had to face as lawless a revolution in economics. In the Middle Ages, mens love of wealth and acquisitiveness had been to some extent checked by the ideal of voluntary poverty, by the traditional rights of the peasants to common lands and open field, by the extent of monastic wealth used in part on hospitals and charity, and by an infinite number of bequests and charities to schools and hospitals administered by the Churchsuch, for instance, were the four great hospitals of London. If, however, the princeHenry VIIImight now do what he could and not what he should, the existence of so much wealth was tempting indeed, and there were men behind Henry very ready to share in the temptation and the plunder. Abuses in the Church provided the excuse, but the real aim was private acquisition. The peasants lands and the Churchs charities vanished together into the greedy hands of Henry and his followers in the violent, unrestrained beginnings of modern capitalism.
All these revolutionsin despotic government, in international lawlessness and in economic upheavalcame to a head in the years of Mores Chancellorship, and it is the measure of his greatness that he alone, with one saintly bishop, of all the leading men of the time, saw the drift of these revolutions and was prepared to die rather than to conform to them.
We need not suppose that their meaning was easy to discern. Like most great upheavals, they came masked in a mass of irrelevances and cross purposes. On the face of it, More died for refusing to accept Henrys divorce from Katherine of Aragon and remarriage with Anne Boleyn and also for rejecting Henrys claim to supremacy of the Church in England.
The argument turned on the papacy, since the Pope would not declare Henrys first marriage null and void and since the Pope, not the King, was in Mores eyes the spiritual head of the English church.
Yet the papacy was making itself a dubious enough force in Mores day. He had resisted for twenty years Henrys addiction to European war in the wake of warlike popes, seeking to preserve their papal states. Why should he now defend the papacy when he had actually warned Henry against its secular policies only a few years before?
The same ambiguity hung over Henrys economic "reforms". They were done in the name of abuses in the administration of the Church charitiesabuses which More admitted and himself denounced. Here was a maze of good and evil intermingled. Certainly it bemused most other English minds.
The supreme value of Mores resistance was his perception of principle under the tangle of politics and conflicting interests. He saw that the King in claiming his divorce was putting the will of the prince above the moral law. If there, why not elsewhere? The shadow of future totalitarianism lay over this return to despotism. More saw, too, that Henry in breaking the spiritual link with Rome was undermining Western unitywith the Turks at the gatejust as the popes, by their wars, had earlier risked the same calamity. He foresaw the result. The intransigence of the King and the bellicosity of the popes would destroy all trace of European unity and hasten the coming of the lawless, selfish sovereignty of the new nation-state.
Equally, More could see through the cynicism of an economic revolution which, in the name of reforming abuses, was grabbing the poor mans patrimony. He saw "a conspiracy of rich men procuring their own commodities under the name and title of the Commonwealth", while destitution spread and labourers were turned from home and land "whom no man will set to work, though they never so willingly offer them selves thereto".
We must be honest and admit that these evilsof despotism, of international lawlessness, of economic injusticeare with us to this day. They appear now in the aggravated threat of totalitarianismin the Communist claim to total conformity, in the cynical opportunism and ruthless self-interest of Soviet foreign policy, even in the deceit of "Soviet full employment" which masks the millions labouring in Arctic slave camps.
Nor can we forget our own part in the totalitarian development. In the West, we have kept faith with constitutionalism and with the division of power. More, today, would applaud our rule of law and the parliamentary institutions for which, as Speaker in 1523, he was the first to demand complete freedom of speech. But arrogant national interest wrecked Europe again and again before Bolshevism was heard of, and even today, the Western powers have yet to find ways of creating lasting unity before the threat from the East.
In economic life, too, Western industrial capitalism for a time was fully as ruthless as its Tudor origins, and too many of the poor and the worklesswhom More in his day longed to help and employturned to Communism in default of Western aid. Even now, in spite of many generous reforms, we still fall far short of the corporate and neighbourly responsibility which More looked for, with the common work and property of the monastery as his ideal.
In the development of ideas, four centuries is only a little space. Today, facing Soviet totalitarianism, seeking for a unity that still eludes us, compassed about with problems of economic justicewe in the West stand at the end of a revolution at whose terrifying beginnings More assisted. The issues have not changed, but we with all our hindsight still lack his prophetic clarity.
Will anyone now maintain that St. Thomas More has no relevance to our day? He lived in the middle of secular affairs a lawyer like numbers of our own contemporaries, like them going first into Parliamentor Congressand like them rising higher and higher in public life until the greatest issues of foreign and domestic policy are in his hands. And these issues are our issues, the issues of liberty and the rule of the law, the issue of totalitarianism, of unity and honesty in foreign policy, of justice and brotherhood in economic life. It is hard to picture a man more fully contemporary with ourselves or a man whose life and death are more relevant to our own struggles.
But, the critic will say, what has all this to do with sanctity? You have spoken of the layman, the father of a family, lawyer, statesman, martyr for liberty, prophetic interpreter of the modern age. But has all this any bearing on the fact that he is called a saint? You have shown him immersed in secular affairs and deciding great secular issues. You have not shown that his sanctity was relevant to either.
In fact, More made the stand he did because he was the man he was. We have always to remember that in his protest against arbitrary power and the abrogation of the moral law he was almost alone. There were many men of equal learning and brilliance to face the issues raised by Henrys despotism. We cannot understand the difference between Mores clearsightedness and their lack of abilityor of desireto understand the principles at stake unless we know what manner of man he was and what were the sources of his insight and his strength.
He was, first of all, a character of complete integrity. Even at his trial when no effort was spared in the attempt to defame him, nothing could be found in his record, as lawyer and statesman, save absolute honesty, endless generosity, and complete discretion. In such matters the popular legend left behind by a man usually does not err. In his beloved city of London, a century of anti-Catholic propaganda could not wipe out the peoples memory of More as a just, great, and merciful judge. In the fragment of the Elizabethan play Sir Thomas More of which Shakespeare is part author, we see him as London saw him"the best friend that the poor eer had".
Londoners were shrewd in their tradition. If one thing more than another distinguishes More, it is his capacity for friendship and affection. We have seen him already, the devoted father of a brilliant family, with sons- and daughters-in-law who love him with filial warmth and indeed follow himone to death, many to prison, all in exile. But this inner family circle had around it a group of friends which included the finest minds in Europe. For Erasmus, after a friendship of thirty-six years, it seemed that "in Mores death, I . . . have died myself; we had but one soul between us." Vives, another great humanist, was his guest at Chelsea. The great Holbein found his first patron in More. Nor was Mores love only for the talented and the notable. He was indeed "the best friend the poor eer had". As a young lawyer, he handled all poor mens suits for nothing, and it was in the Court of Requeststhe poor mans court that he gladly served when he first joined the Kings Council. Love for the poor stirred him to bitter anxiety over the fate of the labourers turned from their homes and lands, a change which others were welcoming in the name of progress. We know that in his own house, the poor of the neighbourhood were regularly feasted, and Margaret, his daughter, had special charge of the almshouse he had built. And we have a letter from More to his wife, Dame Alice, after a fire had destroyed one of their barns, telling her to pay full compensation to anyone who might have suffered as a result, "for as I should not leave myself a spoon, there shall no poor neighbour of mine bear no loss by any chance happened in my house".
Integrity, affection, friendship, intense personal love for the poorthese are great qualities, yet other men had them in Mores day and still they did not see the issues clear. These admirable natural virtues take us no further than the outworks of Mores character. Whatever it was that gave him his keener vision and his deeper understanding must lie beyond.
One of the great difficulties in finding ones way to the inner citadel of a mans being is that, if we already know his life, we assume that it was quite inevitable that it would always have developed in just such a way. It is as well with More to realize that quite the opposite is the truth. If there is inevitability in human affairs, then inevitably More should have ended not on the scaffold but as Duke of Chelsea, and no doubt Grand Old Man of the Elizabethan settlement.
He was born to be spoilt. He had all the gifts most likely to commend him to a vivid, intellectual, pleasure-loving Court. He had a legendary wit, he was extremely attractive in appearanceindeed, in his youth young women had thrown themselves at his head. His learning was unequalled, and he had in addition the warm, loving personality which drew all to him. Moreover, he was not rich. He had his way to make in the world. Can one picture any combination of circumstances more likely to catch a young man by the throat with ambition and lead him into the scramble for wealth and honour which a vast majority of his fellow courtiers were pursuing successfully all round him?
We know that the Kings good yet terrible Grace, Henry, conceived the warmest love for More. For weeks on end he would detain his friend at Greenwich to keep him company after the royal supper. Henry would delight in arriving unexpectedly at Chelsea, and one evening he walked for an hour beside More with his royal arm round his friends neck.
Yet after this touching proof of royal favour More remarked to his son-in-law: "Howbeit, 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." And we have Erasmus evidence that More struggled as strongly to keep away from court as most men to go there.
He was not spoiltin the most spoiling of ages. He was not ambitiousin a most striving and ambitious time. He could still distinguish between the Kings will and the moral law when most courtiers had forgotten the distinction. Why?
There is no secret about it. More was from his first youth a man of prayer. While he studied at Lincolns Inn he lived a life of complete austerity with the Carthusians, working and praying nineteen hours a day and sleeping on a board with a log for a pillow. Even when he found his vocation in marriage, the prayer and the austerity continued. He rose at two in the morning and worked and prayed until seven. He wore a hair shirt all his life and took the discipline. Should we think this a commonplace of those rougher days? On the contrary, his wife was so horrified that she tried to have the hair shirt banned by his confessor, and his merry little daughter-in-law, seeing a corner of the shirt sticking out as he sat at dinner without his ruff had an uncontrollable fit of laughter. To live in such austerity was as unusual at Henrys luxurious court as it would be today.
Here, then, is the source of Mores discernment. Ambition, the grab for wealth and power, meant nothing to a man whose life was steeped in prayer and austerity and whose ideal remainedas we see in Utopiathe simplicity and common life of the Franciscans or the Carthusians. As he said to his children: "We may not look at our pleasure to go to heaven in feather beds." Not all the power and glory Henry could offerand he offered muchcorrupted a man who looked to follow his Master in the way of suffering. "To aim at honour in this world", said More grimly, "is to set a coat of arms on a prison gate."
So it was with his death. Once again we have to think away our idea of his martyrdom as inevitable. More knew what he believed to be his weaknessthere was never a more humble soul. He saw good and learned clerics like Dr. Wilson and Bishop Tunstall hesitate before the final threat of death. He feared to the end that, confronted with torture or the traitors death of disembowelling, he might falter. So, in his prison, he turned to the contemplation of One who, faced with agony and death, sweated blood, and prayed that the cup might pass. In his Treatise on the Passion, More wrote:
He that is stronghearted may find a thousand glorious valiant martyrs whose example he may right joyously follow. But thou now, 0 timorous and weak, silly sheep, think it sufficient for thee only to walk after Me which am thy Shepherd and Governor and so mistrust thyself and put thy trust in Me.
Here is the inner citadel of St. Thomas More. Throughout a life set in the hubbub of law and public service, among the temptations of courts and princes, surrounded by men straining after new honours and new wealth, he walked with God, and to all his earthly occupations brought the vision and insight of eternal things. He is timeless because he lived timelessly in his prayer. He served the moral law, and the interests of peace and unity and love and compassion because he lived these things all the day in his soul. And because his whole life was centred on God, he could distinguish the things of God from the things of Caesar and could die at last on the scaffold
"the Kings good servant, but Gods first."
Saints for Now, ed. Clare Boothe Luce (Sheed & Ward, 1952)
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By another Cromwell, martyring the British king who maintained the notion of kingship as an ordained vocation and not merely the figurehead of popular will.
It was Campion's fate to be dragged, through freezing mud, to such a death before the mob at Tyburn; More's murder on the Tower's scaffold was comparitively easy, dignified, and private.
BTTT on 06-22-05!
Feast day of
St. Thomas More
St. John Fisher
St. Paulinus of Nola
June 22, 2005
St. Thomas More
His belief that no lay ruler has jurisdiction over the Church of Christ cost Thomas More his life.
Beheaded on Tower Hill, London, July 6, 1535, he steadfastly refused to approve Henry VIIIs divorce and remarriage and establishment of the Church of England.
Described as a man for all seasons, More was a literary scholar, eminent lawyer, gentleman, father of four children and chancellor of England. An intensely spiritual man, he would not support the kings divorce from Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn. Nor would he acknowledge Henry as supreme head of the Church in England, breaking with Rome and denying the pope as head.
More was committed to the Tower of London to await trial for treason: not swearing to the Act of Succession and the Oath of Supremacy. Upon conviction, More declared he had all the councils of Christendom and not just the council of one realm to support him in the decision of his conscience.
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