Thomas More, the eldest of three sons and second of seven children of Sir John More and his first wife, Agnes Graunger More, was born in London, in February 1478. His grandfather, William More, was a wealthy baker and his father was a barrister who was later knighted and served as a judge of the king's bench. (1)
More was sent to study Latin at St Anthony's School in Threadneedle Street. It was considered to be London's finest grammar school. (2) In 1489 he became a page in the household of John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England. Jasper Ridley, the author of The Statesman and the Fanatic (1982) has pointed out: "The practice of placing young boys as pages in great households had survived from the age of feudal chivalry; and to be a page in Moreton's household was a splendid opportunity which Thomas did not waste. He waited on Morton at the dinner table, and acted in plays in the household during the Twelve Days of Christmas. The Archbishop supervised his education, and introduced him to a circle of acquaintances whose level of culture was very different from that of John More's legal and commercial friends in the City of London." (3)
Morton was impressed with More's intelligence and arranged for him to attend Canterbury College. After two years at Oxford University he returned to London. More was admitted on 12th February 1496 to Lincoln's Inn, where he remained for the next five years. More came under the influence of the ideas being promoted by Desiderius Erasmus, John Colet, Thomas Linacre, and William Grocyn. "With them the humanist movement in England - the study of man and his relationship to God - came of age." (4) More met Erasmus for the first time in the summer of 1499.
In January 1505 More married Jane Colt. The couple established a home at the Old Barge, Bucklersbury. Their first daughter, Margaret was born later that year, followed by two more daughters, Elizabeth (1506) and Cicely (1507), and a son, John (1509). As Alison Plowden, the author of Tudor Women (2002) has pointed out that More and his humanist friends were all deeply interested in education and anxious to propagate their plans for a wider and more liberal curriculum in the schools and universities. "More was the first Englishman seriously to experiment with the novel idea that girls should be educated too. This may have been partly due to the fact that he had three daughters and an adopted daughter but only one son, and was undoubtedly helped by the fact that the eldest girl, Margaret, turned out to be unusually intelligent and receptive. She and her sisters Elizabeth and Cecily, together and their foster-sister Margaret Gigs, studied Latin and Greek, logic, philosophy and theology, mathematics and astronomy, and Margaret More, who presently became Margaret Roper, developed into a considerable and widely respected scholar in her own right." More argued that girls were "equally suited for those studies by which reason is cultivated and becomes fruitful like a ploughed land on which the seed of good lessons has been sown". (5)
More was appointed Justice of the Peace for Middlesex in 1509, and later that represented Westminster in the House of Commons. The following year he was appointed one of two under-sheriffs for the City of London in 1510. In the summer of 1511 More's wife, Jane, died, and within a month he married Alice Middleton, the widow of John Middleton, a wealthy London merchant. She brought a daughter, Alice, into the More household. "More later wrote that he could not tell which was dearer to him, the wife who bore their children or the wife who raised them, although privately he intimated that his second wife was less intellectually capable than his first." (6)
In 1516 Thomas More wrote a very important novel called Utopia ("Utopia" is Greek for "nowhere"). The book tells of a seaman who has discovered an island called Utopia. The people on this island live in a completely different way from the people of Tudor England. In his book people elect their government annually by secret ballot; wear the same kind of clothes and only work for six hours a day. There is no money or private property on the island. Free education and health care is available for all. All goods are stored in large storehouses. People take what they want from the storehouses without payment. Both men and women can be priests. People are able to hold whatever religious beliefs they want. Some people claimed that in the book More was describing his vision of what England should be like. Others claimed that More had written a book that was supposed to make people laugh because he thought it was a ridiculous idea.
More's biographer, Raymond Wilson Chambers, pointed out the irony of the fact that the word "Utopia" has come to mean an ideal society which is incapable of realisation, whereas More's Utopia is "a sternly righteous and puritanical State where few of us would feel quite happy" but has many features which have been applied in practice in the twentieth century. (7) Jasper Ridley has argued: "More's Utopia was exactly what the word has come to mean today. He knew that it was not practicable to introduce such a system into the Europe of 1516, but he believed that it was the perfect society - or rather, that it was the kind of society which pure reason would lead him to believe was the perfect society if pure reason was the only factor involved, which he knew was not the case." (8)
More wrote Utopia in Latin, as he intended it to be read by the intellectuals of Europe, not by the common people. (It was not translated into English for another 35 years.) When it was published it was "acclaimed by scholars throughout Christendom". According to More, some readers took it so seriously that they believed that the island of Utopia really existed, and one of them suggested to More that missionaries should be sent to convert the Utopians to Christianity. (9)
Lacey Baldwin Smith, the author of Treason in Tudor England (2006) has argued that More lacked empathy. In his book Smith discusses More's reaction to the May Day riots of 1517. Smith argues that modern historians explain the disturbances on domestic economic distress caused by fast rising prices. However, More blames it on agents provocateurs and conspirators. "Once the Reformation broke out, conspiracy took on more sinister and far more cosmic proportions, but nevertheless the conviction prevailed that heresy and its uglier stepsister sedition were the product of tiny groups of conspiring individuals determined upon private profit. Despite the extraordinary speed with which Protestant ideas spread and their obvious association with the basic economic, political and psychological needs of the century, More... continued to view the religious upheaval as the work of a handful of evil men and women set upon corrupting innocent but, alas, gullible subjects." (10)
Henry VIII was impressed by Thomas More and by 1518 "More acted in effect as the King's secretary". (11) It is claimed by his biographer, Nicholas Harpsfield, that More was reluctant to join the government. (12) In July 1519, Desiderius Erasmus described his friend, Thomas More, to Ulrich von Hutten. "He is not tall, without being noticeably short … his complexion tends to be warm rather than pale … with eyes rather greyish-blue, with a kind of fleck in them, the sort that usually indicates a gifted intelligence… His expression shows the sort of man he is, always friendly and cheerful, with something of the air of one who smiles easily, and… disposed to be merry rather than serious or solemn, but without a hint of the fool or the buffoon." (13)
In 1520 the doctrines of Martin Luther were deemed to be heretical and his books were banned. The following year, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, in a great ceremony burned Luther's texts on a pyre set up in St Paul's Churchyard. It was already too late to staunch the flow of the new doctrines. Thomas More complained that the heretics were "busily" at work in every alehouse and tavern, where they expounded their doctrines. More had pointed out that he had seen young lawyers were "wont to resort to their readings in a chamber at midnight". (14)
Wolsey was pleased by the support he received from More and this led to a series of important posts such as Treasurer of the Exchequer (1521) and Chancellor of Lancaster (1525). He also served as Speaker of the House of Commons and sent on foreign missions to France, Spain and Italy. "More assumed the position of sole royal secretary until 1526 and several times afterwards - largely because during these years of political upheaval Wolsey felt he could trust no one else. Despite acting as an intermediary between the lord chancellor and the king, More was among the most active participants in council meetings and dealt with the full range of conciliar activity." (15)
In 1527 More was painted by Hans Holbein. It has been argued by the art historian, Helen Langdon: "Holbein presents the public figure, robed in authority (for all his saintly reputation More was ferocious enough to condemn heretics to be burnt.) The determined severity of countenance betrays little of the retiring scholar, although this is suggested in the figure's slight sloop. More was certainly concerned with the impression he made, insisting on having the flamboyant cuffs on his official costume replaced by ascetic plain ones." (16)
After reading More's book people might have thought that he would be in favour of religious toleration. However, since More had written Utopia there had been a rapid growth in Protestantism. More was a strong supporter of the Catholic Church and he was determined to destroy the Protestant movement in England. In March 1528, Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall decided to commission More to mount an attack on those heretics producing religious books in English. Tunstall explained to More that heretics were "translating into our mother tongue some of the vilest of their booklets and printing them in great numbers" and by these means they were "striving with all their might to stain and infect this country." (17)
In 1528 Simon Fish published A Supplication for the Beggars. It was only 5,000 words long and took up only fourteen small pages and was written by a "layman for layman". (18) It could be read in an hour and was easy to conceal as it was not published legally. It was also cheap enough to distribute free of charge. "The language was straightforward too, addressing laymen's issues in laymen's words." (19) Fish argued that the clergy should spend their money in the relief of the poor and not amass it for monks to pray for souls. (20) Fish claimed that monks were "ravenous wolves" who had "debauched 100,000 women". He added that the monks were "the great scab" that would not allow the Bible to be published in "your mother tongue". (21)
J. S. W. Helt has pointed out: "This short and violently anti-clerical tract challenged the existence of purgatory and presented cruel and wildly exaggerated accounts of clerical abuses done in the name of the souls, and in doing so introduced new strategies for controversial debate into the early stages of the English Reformation." It has been claimed by John Foxe that Anne Boleyn presented a copy of the book to Henry VIII who "kept the book in his bosom for three or four days" and who then embraced Fish "with a loving countenance" when he "appeared at court, took him hunting for several hours, and gave him a signet ring to protect him from his enemies". (22)
George M. Trevelyan has suggested that this work had an impact on the thinking of the King: "The conclusion reached by the pamphleteer (Simon Fish) is that the clergy, especially the monks and friars, should be deprived of their wealth for the benefit of the King and Kingdom, and made to work like other men; let them also be allowed to marry and so be induced to leave other people's wives alone. Such crude appeals to lay cupidity, and such veritable coarse anger at real abuses uncorrected down the centuries, had been generally prevalent in London under Wolsey's regime, and at his fall such talk became equally fashionable at Court." (23)
In March 1528, Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall decided to commission Thomas More to mount a counter-attack. Tunstall explained to More that religious reformers were "translating into our mother tongue some of the vilest of their booklets and printing them in great numbers" and were "striving with all their might to stain and infect this country". Tunstall licensed More to possess and read heretical books, blessed him and sent him forth into battle "to aid the Church of God by your championship." (24)
More published his reply to Simon Fish in October 1529. His Supplication of Souls was more than ten times the length of A Supplication for the Beggars. Most people agree that " its point-by-point rebuttal, of a kind appropriate to learned debate, although movingly written, failed to attain the rhetorical power of Fish's more populist tract". Fish now came under attack from Archbishop William Warham who charged him with heresy. (25)
More wrote to a friend that he especially hated the Anabaptists: "The past centuries have not seen anything more monstrous than the Anabaptists". His biographer, Jasper Ridley, has argued: "As Thomas More approached the age of fifty, all the conflicting trends in his strange character blended into one, and produced the savage persecutor of heretics who devoted his life to the destruction of Lutheranism. To say that he suffered from paranoia on this subject would be to resort to a glib phrase, not a serious psychiatric analysis; but it is unquestionable that More, like other persecutors throughout history, believed that the foundations of civilisation, and all that he valued as sacred, were threatened by the forces of evil, and that it was his mission to exterminate the enemy by all means, including torture and lies. The worst of all the heretics were the Anabaptists, the most extreme of all the Protestant sects, who were already causing great concern to the authorities in Germany and the Netherlands. They not only rejected infant baptism, but believed, like the inhabitants of Utopia, that goods should be held in common." (26)
Thomas More wrote that of all the heretical books published in England, Tyndale's translation of the New Testament, was the most dangerous. He began his book, Confutation of Tyndale's Answer, with a striking opening sentence: "Our Lord send us now some years as plenteous of good corn we have had some years of late plenteous of evil books. For they have grown so fast and sprung up so thick, full of pestilent errors and pernicious heresies, that they have infected and killed I fear me more simple souls than the famine of the dear years have destroyed bodies." (27)
For several years Henry VIII had been thinking of divorcing Catherine of Aragon. Catherine was in a difficult position. Now aged 44, she found it difficult to compete with Henry's mistress, Anne Boleyn. "Now her once slender figure was thickened with repeated child-bearing, and her lovely hair had darkened to a muddy brown, but visiting ambassadors still remarked on the excellence of her complexion. A dumpy little woman with a soft, sweet voice which had never lost its trace of foreign accent, and the imperturbable dignity which comes from generations of pride of caste, she faced the enemy armoured by an utter inward conviction of right and truth, and her own unbreakable will." (28)
It was suggested that Catherine should agree to annul the marriage. Alison Weir, the author of The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) believes that if she agreed to this measure Henry would have treated her well. "Yet time and again she had opposed him, seemingly blind to the very real dilemma he was in with regard to the succession, and when thwarted Henry could, and frequently did, became cruel." (29)
Alison Plowden argues that for Catherine it was impossible to accept the deal being put forward: "Henry's partisans have accused his first wife of spiritual arrogance, of bigotry and bloody-mindedness, and undoubtedly she was one of those uncomfortable people who would literally rather die than compromise over a moral issue. There's also no doubt that she was an uncommonly proud and stubborn woman. But to have yielded would have meant admitting to the world that she had lived all her married life in incestuous adultery, that she had been no more than 'the King's harlot', the Princess her daughter worth no more than any man's casually begotten bastard; and it would have meant seeing another woman occupying her place. The meekest of wives might well have jibbed at such self-sacrifice; for one of Catherine's background and temperament it was unthinkable." (30)
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was given the task of arranging the divorce. Henry sent a message to the Pope Clement VII arguing that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon had been invalid as she had previously been married to his brother Arthur. Henry relied on Wolsey to sort the situation out. During negotiations the Pope forbade Henry to contract a new marriage until a decision was reached in Rome.
After two years of careful diplomatic negotiation a trial opened at Blackfriars on 18th June 1529 to prove the illegality of the marriage, presided over by Wolsey and Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio. Catherine made a spirited defence of her position. George Cavendish was an eyewitness in the court. He quotes her saying: "Sir, I beseech you, for all the loves that hath been betrayed us, and for the love of God, let me have justice and right. Take of me some pity and compassion, for I am a poor woman and a stranger born out of your dominion. I have here no assured friend, and much less indifferent counsel. I flee to you as the head of justice within this realm. Alas, Sir, where have I offended you? Or what occasion have you of displeasure, that you intend to put me from you? I take God and all the world to witness that I have been to you a true, humble and obedient wife, ever conformable to your will and pleasure. I have been pleased and contented with all things wherein you had delight and dalliance. I never grudged a word or countenance, or showed a spark of discontent. I loved all those whom you loved only for your sake, whether I had cause or no, and whether they were my friends or enemies. This twenty years and more I have been your true wife, and by me you have had many children, though it hath pleased God to call them out of this world, which hath been no fault in me." (31)
The trial was adjourned by Campeggi on 30th July to allow Catherine's petition to reach Rome. This caused serious problems for Wolsey: "This instantly and considerably weakened Wolsey's position, giving the hostile coterie of courtiers who flocked around Anne the leverage they needed to topple him. Nevertheless he fought hard to retain office, and the king's evident reluctance to lose his services enabled him to cling to power until the autumn. It was not until 18th October that Wolsey resigned the great seal, and even then Henry protected him against complete ruin." (32) With the encouragement of Anne Boleyn, Henry became convinced that Wolsey's loyalties lay with the Pope, not England, and in October 1529 he was dismissed from office. (33)
Henry VIII now replaced Wolsey with Thomas More as Lord Chancellor. According to Peter Ackroyd, this was a shrewd political move. "Since More was known to be an avid hunter of heretics, it was evident proof that Henry did not wish to disavow the orthodox Church. In fact, More started his pursuit within a month of taking his position he arrested a citizen of London, Thomas Phillips, on suspicion of heresy... It was the beginning of the new chancellor's campaign of terror against the heretics." (34)
More was opposed to the divorce of Catherine of Aragon but came under increasing pressure from other members of the Privy Council to agree with this policy. (35) When this was unsuccessful, he was excluded from the inner circle of councillors concerned with the divorce proceedings. More now concentrated his energies on persecuting Heretics. In 1530 he issued two proclamations proscribing a number of publications and banned the importation of any foreign imprints of English works. More imprisoned a number of men for owning banned books. More also ordered the execution of three heretics and publicly approved of the execution of others. "The vigour with which More pursued heretics through the courts was mirrored by the relentlessness with which he fought them... The times demanded strictness, he repeatedly argued, because the stakes were so high. No other aspect of More's life has engendered greater controversy than his persecution of heretics. Critics argue that as one of Europe's leading intellectuals, and one with particularly strong humanist leanings, More should have rejected capital punishment of heretics. His supporters point out that he was a product of his times, and that those men he most admired... lamented but accepted as necessary the practice of executing heretics." (36)
Jasper Ridley, the author of The Statesman and the Fanatic (1982) points out that no heretics were burned between 1521 and 1529 when Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was Lord Chancellor. However, things changed when Sir Thomas More replaced Wolsey: "Apart from other factors, these heretics were burned when More was Chancellor because they refused to recant, or, having recanted, relapsed into heresy, whereas in Wolsey's time all the heretics whom he examined recanted at their trial. But there is no doubt that at least part of the reason is that More was a far more zealous persecutor than Wolsey." (37)
More was critical of the tolerant way that the radical preacher, Thomas Bilney, had been treated by Wolsey. In 1527 Bilney's attacks "on the insolence, pomp, and pride of the clergy" drew the attention of the authorities. On 29th November, Bilney was brought before Wolsey and a group of bishops, priests, and lawyers at Westminster. Bilney declared that he had not "taught the opinions" of Martin Luther. Bilney was now handed over to Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall who declared he "was a wicked and detestable heretic". According to John Foxe: "He was sentenced to prison for some time and forced to do penance by going before the procession at St. Paul's bareheaded and carrying a fagot on his shoulder, then standing before the preacher during the sermon." (38)
In 1531 Bilney began to preach in the open air and distributed copies of the English Bible that had been translated by William Tyndale. He was arrested in March and this time More decided he would be burnt at the stake. (39) John Foxe later described his execution at Norwich in August 1531: "Bilney approached the stake in a layman's gown, his arms hanging out, his hair mangled by the church's ritual divestiture of office. He was given permission to speak to the crowd and told them not to blame the friars present for his death and then said his private prayers. The officers put reeds and wood around him and lit the fire, which flared up rapidly, deforming Bilney's face as he held up his hands." Foxe claimed he called out "Jesus" and "I believe". (40)
Richard Bayfield was arrested at a London bookbinder's in October 1531. He was imprisoned, and interrogated by Thomas More. Bayfield was a close associate of William Tyndale and arranged for his English translation of the Bible to be imported to England. It is estimated that during this period 18,000 copies of this book were printed and smuggled into England.
Jasper Ridley has argued that the Tyndale Bible created a revolution in religious belief: "The people who read Tyndale's Bible could discover that although Christ had appointed St Peter to be head of his Church, there was nothing in the Bible which said that the Bishops of Rome were St Peter's successors and that Peter's authority over the Church had passed to the Popes... The Bible stated that God had ordered the people not to worship graven images, the images and pictures of the saints, and the station of the cross, should not be placed in churches and along the highways... Since the days of Pope Gregory VII in the eleventh century the Catholic Church had enforced the rule that priests should not marry but should remain apart from the people as a special celibate caste... The Protestants, finding a text in the Bible that a bishop should be the husband of one wife, believed that all priests should be allowed to marry." (41)
As Andrew Hope points out Bayfield was an important figure in the illegal importation of English books: "Bayfield... took on the role of the main supplier of prohibited reformation books to the English market, a role vacant since the arrest of Thomas Garrett in 1528.... He is known to have sent three major consignments to England, the first via Colchester in mid-1530, the second via St Katharine by the Tower, London, in late 1530, and the third via Norfolk about Easter 1531. The second consignment was wholly intercepted by Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas More, and the third probably partially so." (42)
Richard Bayfield was imprisoned, and interrogated and tortured by Thomas More. "Richard Bayfield was cast into prison, and endured some whipping, for his adherence to the doctrines of Luther... The sufferings this man underwent for the truth were so great that it would require a volume to contain them. Sometimes he was shut up in a dungeon, where he was almost suffocated by the offensive and horrid smell of filth and stagnant water. At other times he was tied up by the arms, until almost all his joints were dislocated. He was whipped at the post several times, until scarcely any flesh was left on his back; and all this was done to make him recant. He was then taken to the Lollard's Tower in Lambeth palace, where he was chained by the neck to the wall, and once every day beaten in the most cruel manner by the archbishop's servants." (43)
According to Jasper Ridley More later attempted to discredit Bayfield by claiming he had two wives. His friends claimed this was untrue. More suggested that Bayfield had relapsed into heresy, "like a dog returning to his vomit" but was "willing to recant again as long as he thought that there was any chance of saving his life". (44)
Richard Bayfield was convicted as a relapsed heretic, degraded, and "burnt with excruciating slowness" at Smithfield, on 27th November, 1531. (45) According to one source More stamped on Bayfield's ashes and cursed him." (46) The following month, on 3rd December, Thomas More issued a proclamation denouncing William Tyndale as a "spreader of seditious heresy". (47)
As a writer, More was aware of the power of books to change people's opinions. He therefore drew up a list of Protestant books that should to be banned. This included the English translation of the Bible by William Tyndale. More attempted to make life difficult for those publishing such books. He introduced a new law that required the name and address of the printer to be printed in every book published in England. People caught owning Protestant books were sat facing back-to-front on a horse. Wearing placards explaining their crimes, these people were walked through the streets of London. More also organized public burnings of Protestant books. People found guilty of writing and selling Protestant books were treated more harshly. Like those caught making Protestant sermons, they were sometimes burnt at the stake.
One of Tyndale's associates, John Frith arrived in England in July 1531 to help distribute Tyndale's Bible. Frith was arrested when he was suspected that he might have stolen goods hidden in his bag. When the bag was opened they discovered that it contained English Bibles. After the authorities discovered his real name he was sent to the Tower of London. While in the Tower he wrote an extended essay where he explained his arguments against Catholic ideas such as transubstantiation. It was smuggled out and read by his supporters. (48) "He argued first that the matter of the sacrament was no necessary article of faith under pain of damnation. Next, that Christ had a natural body (apart from sin), and could not be in two places at once. Third, that 'This is my body' was not literal. Last, that what the church practised was not what Christ instituted." (49)
Thomas More obtained a copy of the essay. Catholics like More upheld the doctrine of transubstantiation, whereby the bread and wine became in actual fact the body and blood of Christ. It is believed because it is impossible, it is proof of the overwhelming power of God. Frith, a follower of Martin Luther, who believed in the real presence of Christ in the sacrament, but denied that he was there "in substance". Luther believed in what became known as consubstantiation or sacramental union, whereby the integrity of the bread and wine remain even while being transformed by the body and blood of Christ. (50)
According to John Foxe, Frith and More were engaged in a long debate on two main issues: "While there (in the Tower of London), he and More wrote back and forth to each other, arguing about the sacrament of communion and purgatory. Frith's letters were always moderate, calm, and learned. Where he was not forced to argue, he tended to give in for the sake of peace." (51)
Bishop Stephen Gardiner suggested to Henry VIII that an example should be made of John Frith. Henry ordered Frith to recant or be condemned. Frith refused and he was examined at St Paul's Cathedral on 20th June 1533. (52) His examinations revolved around two points: purgatory and the substance of the sacrament. Frith wrote to his friends, "I cannot agree with the divines and other head prelates that it is an article of faith that we must believe - under pain of damnation - that the bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of our Savior Jesus Christ while their form and shape stay the same. Even if this were true, it should not be an article of faith." (53)
Henry discovered that Anne Boleyn was pregnant. As it was important that the child should not be classed as illegitimate, arrangements were made for Henry and Anne to get married. King Charles V of Spain threatened to invade England if the marriage took place, but Henry ignored his threats and the marriage went ahead on 25th January, 1533. It was very important to Henry that his wife should give birth to a male child. Without a son to take over from him when he died, Henry feared that the Tudor family would lose control of England. Thomas More was careful to make it clear that despite his growing opposition to the King's church policies, he accepted Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn as being part of God's providence, and would neither "murmur at it nor dispute upon it", since "this noble woman" was "royally anointed queen". (54)
Elizabeth was born on 7th September, 1533. Henry expected a son and selected the names of Edward and Henry. While Henry was furious about having another daughter, the supporters of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon were delighted and claimed that it proved God was punishing Henry for his illegal marriage to Anne. (55) Retha M. Warnicke, the author of The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) has pointed out: "As the king's only legitimate child, Elizabeth was, until the birth of a prince, his heir and was to be treated with all the respect that a female of her rank deserved. Regardless of her child's sex, the queen's safe delivery could still be used to argue that God had blessed the marriage. Everything that was proper was done to herald the infant's arrival." (56)
In December 1533 Henry VIII gave Thomas Cromwell permission to unleash all the resources of the state in discrediting the papacy. "In one of the fiercest and ugliest smear campaigns in English history the minister showed his mastery of propaganda techniques as the pope was attacked throughout the nation in sermons and pamphlets. In the new year another session of parliament was summoned to enact the necessary legislation to break formally the remaining ties which bound England to Rome, again under Cromwell's meticulous supervision." (57)
In March 1534 Pope Clement VII eventually made his decision. He announced that Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn was invalid. Henry reacted by declaring that the Pope no longer had authority in England. In November 1534, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy. This gave Henry the title of the "Supreme head of the Church of England". A Treason Act was also passed that made it an offence to attempt by any means, including writing and speaking, to accuse the King and his heirs of heresy or tyranny. All subjects were ordered to take an oath accepting this. (58)
Sir Thomas More and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, refused to take the oath and were imprisoned in the Tower of London. More was summoned before Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell at Lambeth Palace. More was happy to swear that the children of Anne Boleyn could succeed to the throne, but he could not declare on oath that all the previous Acts of Parliament had been valid. He could not deny the authority of the pope "without the jeoparding of my soul to perpetual damnation." (59)
Elizabeth Barton was arrested and executed for prophesying the King's death within a month if he married Anne Boleyn. (60) Henry's daughter, Mary I, also refused to take the oath as it would mean renouncing her mother, Catherine of Aragon. On hearing this news, Anne Boleyn apparently said that the "cursed bastard" should be given "a good banging". Mary was only confined to her room and it was her servants who were sent to prison.
On 15th June, 1534, it was reported to Thomas Cromwell that the Observant Friars of Richmond refused to take the oath. Two days later two carts full of friars were hanged, drawn and quartered for denying the royal supremacy. A few days later a group of Carthusian monks were executed for the same offence. "They were chained upright to stakes and left to die, without food or water, wallowing in their own filth - a slow, ghastly death that left Londoners appalled". (61) Cromwell told More that the example he was setting was resulting in other men being executed. More responded: "I do nobody harm. I say none harm, I think none harm, but wish everybody good. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith I long not to live." (62)
In April 1535 the priors of the Carthusian houses, in Charterhouse Priory in London, Axholme Priory in North Lincolnshire and Beauvale Priory in Nottinghamshire, refused to acknowledge the King to be the Head of the Church of England. They were hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 4th May. (63)
In May 1535, Pope Paul III created Bishop John Fisher a Cardinal. This infuriated Henry VIII and he ordered him to be executed on 22nd June at the age of seventy-six. A shocked public blamed Queen Anne for his death, and it was partly for this reason that news of the stillbirth of her child was suppressed as people might have seen this as a sign of God's will. Anne herself suffered pangs of conscience on the day of Fisher's execution and attended a mass for the "repose of his soul". (64)
Henry VIII decided it was time that Thomas More was tried for treason. The trial was held in Westminster Hall and began on 1st July. Lord Chancellor Thomas Audley presided over the case. Unlike Bishop Fisher, More denied that he had ever said that the king was not Head of the Church, but claimed that he had always refused to answer the question, and that silence could never constitute an act of high treason. The prosecution argued that silence implied consent. As Jasper Ridley, the author of The Statesman and the Fanatic (1982) has pointed out, "while Fisher and the Carthusians, when facing their judges, took their stand for the Papal Supremacy, More rested his defence on a legal quibble". (65)
It was difficult for the prosecution to maintain that anything that More had said or done constituted a malicious denial of the king's title as Supreme Head. Sir Richard Rich, the Solicitor-General, gave evidence that caused Thomas More considerable problems. Rich recalled a conversation that he had with More on 12th June, 1532, when he visited him in the Tower of London. According to P. R. N. Carter: "The two lawyers engaged in a hypothetical discussion of the power of parliament to make the king supreme head of the church.... and Rich testified (falsely) that during their conversation the former lord chancellor had explicitly denied the supremacy. The alternative view is that More relaxed somewhat during the interrogation by Rich in what was a bit of professional jousting, but that Rich did not see or report this as something new. However, someone, possibly Cromwell, saw that More's statements could be used to convict him of denying the royal supremacy. Hence Rich's evidence was not dishonest, merely used in a way he never foresaw." (66)
The verdict was never in doubt and Thomas More was convicted of treason. Lord Chancellor Thomas Audley "passed sentence of death - the full sentence required by law, that More was to be hanged, cut down while still living, castrated, his entrails cut out and burned before his eyes, and then beheaded. As he was being taken back to the Tower, Margaret Roper and his son John broke through the cordon of guards to embrace him. After he had bidden them farewell, as he moved away, Margaret ran back, again broke through the cordon, and embraced him again." (67)
Henry VIII commuted the sentence to death by the headsman's axe. On the night before his execution, Thomas More sent Margaret Roper his hairshirt, so that no one should see it on the scaffold and so that she could treasure that link that was a secret between the two of them. He wrote to her saying: "I long to go to God... I never liked your manner toward me better than when you kissed me last; for I love when daughterly love, and dear charity, hath no leisure to look to worldly courtesy. Farewell, my dear child, and pray for me, and I shall for you and all your friends, that we may merrily meet in Heaven." (68)
On 6th July, 1535, Thomas More was taken to Tower Hill. More told his executioner: "You will give me this day a greater benefit than ever any mortal man can be able to give me. Pluck 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 saving of thine honesty." (69)
More's family were given the headless corpse to the family and it was buried at the church of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London. Thomas More's head was boiled, as usual, to preserve it and to add terror to its appearance before exhibiting it. It was put on the pole on London Bridge which Fisher's head had occupied for the past fortnight. After a few days, Margaret Roper, his daughter, bribed a constable of the watch to take it down and give it to her. She hid the head in some place where no one found it. (70)
A man and woman... who hope to live more quietly and merrily... can be divorced and married again to others.... No pleasure is forbidden that causes no harm.... It is lawful for every man to favour and follow what religion he wants. He can bring others to his opinion... so long as he does it peaceably, gently, quietly and soberly.... The only way to the wealth of the community, is equality of all things.
More was the first Englishman seriously to experiment with the novel idea that girls should be educated too. This may have been partly due to the fact that he had three daughters and an adopted daughter but only one son, and was undoubtedly helped by the fact that the eldest girl, Margaret, turned out to be unusually intelligent and receptive.
Sir Thomas More, whose daughters were renowned examples of womanly erudition, as well as the shining examples of both Catherine of Aragon and Catherine Parr who proved that women could be both learned and virtuous, the Renaissance concept of female education became accepted and even applauded... in Henry VIII's time, the education of girls was the privilege of the royal and the rich, and its chief aim was to produce future wives schooled in godly and moral precepts. It was not intended to promote independent thinking; indeed, it tended to the opposite.
As Thomas More approached the age of fifty, all the conflicting trends in his strange character blended into one, and produced the savage persecutor of heretics who devoted his life to the destruction of Lutheranism. To say that he suffered from paranoia on this subject would be to resort to a glib phrase, not a serious psychiatric analysis; but it is unquestionable that More, like other persecutors throughout history, believed that the foundations of civilisation, and all that he valued as sacred, were threatened by the forces of evil, and that it was his mission to exterminate the enemy by all means, including torture and lies. The worst of all the heretics were the Anabaptists, the most extreme of all the Protestant sects, who were already causing great concern to the authorities in Germany and the Netherlands. They not only rejected infant baptism, but believed, like the inhabitants of Utopia, that goods should be held in common. In 1528 More wrote to the German theologian, Cochlaeus: "The past centuries have not seen anything more monstrous than the Anabaptists"...
He was bitterly hated by the Protestants. His contemporary, Tyndale, and John Foxe thirty years after his death, picked him out, with one or two others, as the most cruel of all the persecutors. Neither More himself, nor his Catholic supporters in the sixteenth century, wished to rebut this accusation which in their eyes was creditable to him, though More denied a few specific allegations made by the Protestants. In the twentieth century, his admirers have tried to defend him from the charge of being a notorious persecutor. They have adopted two main lines of argument. The first is to deny the truth of the worst accusations, especially the story that he whipped heretics in his garden; and here they are probably right in many cases. The second is to claim that More, as a layman, cannot be held responsible for the persecution of heretics, because heretics were condemned in the court of the bishop of their diocese. This argument is exactly the reverse of that which has sometimes been used by apologists for the Catholic Church, including More himself in his Dialogue concerning Heresies - that it was the temporal power, not the Church, which burned heretics; and it is unsound.
The fury of the then Establishment is difficult to credit. The Bishop of London bought up an entire edition of 6,000 copies and burned them on the steps of the old St Paul’s Cathedral. More went after Tyndale’s old friends and tortured them. Richard Bayfield, a monk accused of reading Tyndale, was one who died a graphically horrible death as described in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. More stamped on his ashes and cursed him. And among others there was John Firth, a friend of Tyndale, who was burned so slowly that he was more roasted.
No one was more active in persecuting the Protestants who distributed the English Bible than Sir Thomas More, a brilliant lawyer, writer and intellectual who was a particularly nasty sadomasochistic pervert. He enjoyed being flogged by his favourite daughter as much as flogging heretics, beggars and lunatics in his garden. He humiliated his wife by pointing out to his guests, in her presence, how ugly she was in order to show that he had not married her because he was lusting for a beautiful woman. When he was writing as a propagandist for the Catholic Church, he was a shameless liar. On one occasion he wrote a very favourable review of his own book, pretending that it had been written by a non-existent, eminent, foreign theologian, when in fact he had written it himself.
Bayfield now took on the role of the main supplier of prohibited reformation books to the English market, a role vacant since the arrest of Thomas Garrett in 1528.... Bayfield showed signs of not always appreciating the extreme danger he was in. He had indiscreet conversations with people who did not share his views. He was arrested at a London bookbinder's, possibly in October 1531, imprisoned, and interrogated by More.... He was convicted as a relapsed heretic, degraded, and burnt with excruciating slowness at Smithfield.
The vigour with which More pursued heretics through the courts was mirrored by the relentlessness with which he fought them... The times demanded strictness, he repeatedly argued, because the stakes were so high. No other aspect of More's life has engendered greater controversy than his persecution of heretics. Critics argue that as one of Europe's leading intellectuals, and one with particularly strong humanist leanings, More should have rejected capital punishment of heretics. His supporters point out that he was a product of his times, and that those men he most admired... lamented but accepted as necessary the practice of executing heretics.
Thomas More is here a dogmatic persecutor of heretics (which he was), a man perhaps unhealthily obsessed by his daughter Meg (which he may have been), and someone who makes cruelly unfunny jokes about his second wife, Dame Alice (which he did). He is not much else (although he was). Here Mantel’s revisionary eye seems cruel, or to have missed something. Her Wolsey has an instinctive ability to see into events and into people, and has wit and warmth. Her More is a stubborn old Catholic sexist.
Once the Reformation broke out, conspiracy took on more sinister and far more cosmic proportions, but nevertheless the conviction prevailed that heresy and its uglier stepsister sedition were the product of tiny groups of conspiring individuals determined upon private profit. Despite the extraordinary speed with which Protestant ideas spread and their obvious association with the basic economic, political and psychological needs of the century, More... continued to view the religious upheaval as the work of a handful of evil men and women set upon corrupting innocent but, alas, gullible subjects.
Holbein presents the public figure, robed in authority (for all his saintly reputation More was ferocious enough to condemn heretics to be burnt.) The determined severity of countenance betrays little of the retiring scholar, although this is suggested in the figure's slight sloop. More was certainly concerned with the impression he made, insisting on having the flamboyant cuffs on his official costume replaced by ascetic plain ones.
Since More was known to be an avid hunter of heretics, it was evident proof that Henry did not wish to disavow the orthodox Church. In fact, More started his pursuit within a month of taking his position he arrested a citizen of London, Thomas Phillips, on suspicion of heresy... It was the beginning of the new chancellor's campaign of terror against the heretics.
Hilary Mantel's Tudor novel, Wolf Hall is a kind of one-volume compensation for all the times the Man Booker prizewinner has been bought and not read.
And that's the trouble. Because it's so readable, so convincing, it risks being taken as a true version of events. And that's scary. Because one of the things it does is to reverse the standing of two Thomases: Cromwell and More. The novel does a grave disservice to More who was, whatever else you say about him, one of the great men of the Renaissance.
In Wolf Hall, you don't get the author of Utopia, Erasmus's favourite companion (these things are mentioned but with a sneer). You don't get the humanist and the humorist. What you get is a heretic-hunter, whose wit is turned to dry sarcasm and whose world view is simple religious fanaticism. This is Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons turned on its head. Granted, Bolt's play wasn't historical verity either but it was, in depicting Thomas More as the martyr of conscience, truthful.
All right, historical fiction is just that: fiction. But nowadays, we know so little history, the Wolf Hall version may well pass for reality, especially when it's true to some extent (the sympathetic portrait of Cardinal Wolsey is perfectly credible). Certainly its prejudices are congenial to the liberal-individualistic mindset that dominates our intellectual life. We may read the novel, or at least the reviews; and that's what's going to stick.
For the simple-minded dinner-party liberal, the Thomas Cromwell that Hilary Mantel depicts is infinitely attractive: secular-minded, tolerant, contemptuous of superstition, sneery about religious credulity, a meritocrat of humble origins, fond of children and animals, multilingual, handy in a fight. Indeed, if the prevailing mindset in Britain right now is a kind of secular Protestantism then Thomas Cromwell as drawn by Hilary Mantel is its man.
Trouble is, there is a reason why Cromwell has had a longstanding reputation as a complete bastard. The tally of the executions over which he presided - including those for heresy - far surpassed More's. And unlike More, he was unlikely to have been swayed by the notion that what he was doing was for the good of souls.
Those modern parallels need to be cautiously drawn. Hilary Mantel does have this view that being a Catholic is destructive to your humanity. It is not historically accurate and it is not accurate in what the Catholic faith has to contribute to society and to the common good as a whole. There is an anti-Catholic thread there, there is no doubt about it. Wolf Hall is not neutral...
The picture of More is dark. More was a man of his time and heresy was the big sin, really, it was the big wrong on both sides. It is hard for us in our modern mentality to see it as wrong. They looked on heretics as we look upon drug traffickers. But it is inaccurate to say that he (St Thomas) condemned people to death.
We should remember Wolf Hall is a work of fiction. It is an extraordinary and perverse achievement of Hilary Mantel and BBC Drama to make of Thomas Cromwell a flawed hero and of St Thomas More, one of the greatest Englishmen, a scheming villain.
It is not necessary to share Thomas More’s faith to recognise his heroism – a man of his own time who remains an example of integrity for all times. It would be sad if Thomas Cromwell, who is surely one of the most unscrupulous figures in England’s history, was to be held-up as a role model for future generations.
The most compelling proof of Thomas More’s wit, warmth and original way of seeing things is his masterpiece, Utopia. Anyone who dreams of a better world should revere More, because in this 1516 book he created the very idea of utopianism – and named it. Yet his imaginary island somewhere in the Americas is not all it seems. Utopia is simultaneously a serious discussion of the ideal society (which, according to More, would be communist) and a text that mocks itself. More introduces jokes that undercut the book’s apparent message. The result is a complex intellectual balancing of ideas: we need ideals. We need to dream of a better society. We also need to beware of those dreams....
Why does Wolf Hall demonise one of the most brilliant and forward-looking of all Renaissance people? Its caricature of Thomas More as a charmless prig, a humourless alienating nasty piece of work, is incredibly unfair... Why did Hilary Mantel choose to portray him in a way that flies in the face of all the evidence?