Spartacus Blog

Is Sir Thomas More one of the 10 worst Britons in History?

Friday, 6th March, 2015

John Simkin

Hilary Mantel has recently come under attack for her portrayal of Sir Thomas More in her novels, Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012). It has even been suggested that Mantel's "anti-Catholicism" is a product of her convent education. (1)

However, it was the recently broadcast TV drama based on her novels that has increased the amount of people accusing her of being a "fierce critic of Catholicism". The Catholic Herald has reported that Bishop Mark O’Toole of Plymouth said there was a “strong anti-Catholic thread” in the series. He went onto argue that the drama appeared to connect More and his Catholic faith to religious fundamentalism in the 21st century. "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.” (2)

The newspaper goes on to quote Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury who said: “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." I also have problems with Mantel's portrayal of Thomas Cromwell, but More is far from being one of the "greatest Englishmen" and I would argue he was one of the nation's greatest villains.

Sir Thomas More & Hans Holbein

Art critics have also got involved in this debate. Jonathan Jones, writing in The Guardian, questions Mantel's view of More: "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?" (3)

Jones is of course wrong about this. Mantel has always insisted that her novels are based on a considerable amount of research. The historian Jasper Ridley, looked at all the available evidence for his book, The Statesman and the Fanatic (1982), a study of Sir Thomas More and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and came to the following conclusion: "More's love for his family is largely a myth; and that the saint was the worst kind of intolerant fanatic, an idealist gone astray, who began as a brilliant intellectual but developed first into a sycophantic courtier and then into a persecuting bigot, before he redeemed himself, at the eleventh hour, by a brave if muted stand for his principles which cost him his life." (4)

The main evidence that Jones provides for his view of More is the painting by Hans Holbein. "Thomas More and his family were still settling into their new house near the river Thames when they all posed for Holbein. It was a new kind of portrait – an emotional revolution, even. For this Tudor statesman did not just want Holbein to paint him, but to include all his nearest and dearest in what was clearly intended as a companionate image of family life, like nothing hitherto seen in Britain. Women and men all gather together sociably in a little community. On the compositional drawing that survives, More has annotated Holbein’s design. Next to Holbein’s depiction of his wife kneeling, More asks for a change – she should be sitting in a chair, not kneeling like a servant!" (5)

It seems to me that a painting is not very good evidence of a person's character. In a fascinating TV documentary, Holbein: Eye of the Tudors, the art critic, Waldermar Januszczak argued that Holbein's paintings and drawings of More are the most important factor in our interpretation of the man. (6) In an article that accompanied the programme Januszczak states: "Holbein's glorious portrayals of all the main players in Henry's drama - the king; Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour; Sir Thomas More - are so vivid, so life-like, that the entire cast feels as if it is still with us." (7) Januszczak points out that Holbein was a Catholic propagandist. He says if anyone doubts this they should compare Holbein's portraits of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell.

Thomas Wolsey
Thomas More by Hans Holbein (1527)

The documentary evidence does not support the idea that Thomas More was a loving husband and father. Jasper Ridley claims that "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." (8)

Thomas More's Utopia

Jonathan Jones rejects Hilary Mantel's portrait of More "as a charmless prig, a humourless alienating nasty piece of work" partly because of his book, Utopia (1516). "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." (9)

This is a complete misreading of More's book. More was not interested in a debate on the future of society. More's refused permission for the book to be published in English and it was only available in Latin as he only wanted it to be read by an intellectual elite. The book tells of a seaman who has discovered an island called Utopia ("Utopia" is Greek for "nowhere"). 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.

More's defenders have suggested that More was describing his vision of what England should be like. This is not true. The book was a work of satire. His entire career was based on fighting these ideas. Some people did believe this kind of society was possible. This included the Cathars who lived in the south of France. They protested against what they perceived to be the moral, spiritual and political corruption of the Catholic Church. Fighting in wars, capital punishment and the killing of animals was abhorrent to the Cathars and their belief that men and women were equal also upset Pope Innocent III. In 1208 he gave orders for the Cathars to be either converted or exterminated.

The crusader army came under the command of the papal legate Arnaud-Amaury, Abbot of Cîteaux. In the first significant engagement of the war, the town of Béziers was besieged on 22nd July 1209. The Catholic inhabitants of the city were granted the freedom to leave unharmed, but many refused and opted to stay with the Cathars. When the Abbot gave orders for all the inhabitants to be killed, one of the soldiers asked how they would distinguish the Cathars from the Catholics. He replied: "Kill them all. For the Lord knoweth them that are His." It is estimated that over 15,000 people were executed that day. (10)

John Wycliffe

These ideas spread to England and were articulated by the English priest and theologian John Wycliffe. In 1374 "he began to attack Rome's control of the English Church and his stance became increasingly anti-Papal resulting in condemnation of his teachings and threats of excommunication." (11) Wycliffe developed a strong following and those who shared his beliefs became known as Lollards.

As one of the historians of this period of history, John Foxe, has pointed out: "Wycliffe, seeing Christ's gospel defiled by the errors and inventions of these bishops and monks, decided to do whatever he could to remedy the situation and teach people the truth. He took great pains to publicly declare that his only intention was to relieve the church of its idolatry, especially that concerning the sacrament of communion. This, of course, aroused the anger of the country's monks and friars, whose orders had grown wealthy through the sale of their ceremonies and from being paid for doing their duties. Soon their priests and bishops took up the outcry." (12) In 1382 John Wycliffe was condemned as a heretic and was forced into retirement.

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It has been claimed that the teachings of Wycliffe influenced the thinking of young priests such as John Ball. In 1381 Ball led a march to London complaining about the Poll Tax. As Thomas Walsingham pointed out. "John Ball taught the people that tithes ought not be paid... He also taught the wicked doctrines of the disloyal John Wycliffe." Jean Froissart commented at the time: "A crazy priest in the county of Kent, called John Ball... told the peasants that the nobility should not have great power over the the common people... John Ball had several times been confined in the Archbishop of Canterbury's prison for his absurd speeches... It would have been better had he locked him up for the rest of his life, or even had him executed... for as soon as he was released, he went back to his former errors."

Ball is reported to have said in one sermon: "Why are those whom we call lords, masters over us? How have they deserved it? By what right do they keep us enslaved? We are all descended from our first parents, Adam and Eve; how then can they say that they are better than us... At the beginning we were all created equal. If God willed that there should be serfs, he would have said so at the beginning of the world. We are formed in Christ's likeness, and they treat us like animals... They are dressed in velvet and furs, while we wear only cloth. They have wine, and spices and good bread, while we have rye bread and water. They have fine houses and manors, and we have to brave the wind and rain as we toil in the fields. It is by the sweat of our brows that they maintain their high state. We are called serfs, and we are beaten if we do not perform our task." Ball was arrested and was hung, drawn and quartered on 15th July, 1381. (13)

The Lollards were eventually destroyed and by the time More wrote Utopia it was the Anabaptists who were promoting the philosophy of equality. More wrote to a friend that of all the religious groups he especially hated the Anabaptists: "The past centuries have not seen anything more monstrous than the Anabaptists". As More's biographer, Jasper Ridley, has pointed out: "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." (14)

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 saw it as a warning of what might become possible. (15) 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. (16)

Man of All Seasons

The Catholic writer, Peter Stanford, has argued in The Daily Telegraph that Hilary Mantel has attempted "to turn the conventional reading of English Reformation history on its head" by attacking Thomas More "the historical equivalent of a national treasure". Stanford goes on to suggest that "among the craven politicians of his day, he was a man of unbending principle who refused to fall in with Henry VIII’s self-serving plan to set up his own church, and who chose execution rather than go against his conscience". (17)

Stanford is probably right and that this is probably the majority view of Thomas More. This has nothing to do with what historians have said about More in the past but more about another popular work of art, A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt. It was originally a play first performed on the radio in 1954. This was followed by a version on television (1957) and a play at the Globe Theatre (1960). However, it was the multi-Academy Award winning 1966 feature film that most people remember. Bolt's interpretation of More's character had the same impact on the public at the time as Mantel's has had since the publication of Wolf Hall in 2009.

Melanie McDonagh has argued: "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." (18) It is this view of More that resulted in him being made patron saint of politicians by St John Paul II in 2000.

The historian, David Starkey, disagrees with Bolt's view of More. “The real problem with all of this, goes back to Robert Bolt and A Man For All Seasons, with Paul Scofield playing Thomas More – and didn’t he agonise well? But it was historical rubbish that presented More as a kind of Gladstonian liberal, when he was nothing of the sort.” (19) Starkey argues that More, like the rest of the Catholic hierarchy, was an opponent of modern democratic values. “Freedom of speech wasn’t won by being nice, it has been won by struggle with religion.” (20)

Bolt's play deals with the dispute that took place between Thomas More and Henry VIII after Pope Clement VII announced that the king'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. (21)

Sir Thomas More refused to take the oath and was 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." (22)

Thomas More was eventually tried for treason. 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 cited the statement that he had made to Thomas Cromwell, where he argued that the Act of Supremacy was like a two-edged sword in requiring a man either to swear against his conscience or to suffer death for high treason.

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." (23) Henry VIII commuted the sentence to death by the headsman's axe and he was executed on 6th July, 1535. Thomas 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." (24)

Thomas More was obviously a very brave man. He had chosen to die for his religious beliefs. That is he chose the authority of Pope Clement VII over that of the English king. I understand this position was welcomed by the Catholic Church in Rome and one can see why he was canonised in 1935 (at a time when the Roman Catholic Church were signing deals with Benito Mussolini and was unwilling to criticise the fascist government in Nazi Germany), but is Bishop Mark Davies right to call him one of the "greatest Englishmen"?

William Tyndale & the English Bible

It is worth looking in detail why people such as Hilary Mantel have been so critical of Thomas More. He was appointed Lord Chancellor in October, 1529. More was a strong supporter of the Catholic Church and he was determined to destroy the Protestant movement in England. 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 were 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 punished by being sat facing back-to-front on a horse and forced to wear placards explaining their crimes. They were then walked through the streets of the town where they came from. 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. The first person to be treated in this way during More's reign of terror was Thomas Hitton who was executed in Maidstone on 23rd February 1530. His crime was distributing religious books and pamphlets that had been been published in the English language.

Hitton's death marked a new development in the fight against heresy. The last recorded heretic executed in England before More became Lord Chancellor was in 1519. As Jasper Ridley, the author of The Statesman and the Fanatic (1982) pointed out, no heretics were burned between 1521 and 1529 when Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was Lord Chancellor. However, things changed when 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." (25)

In 1530 More 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. Seymour Baker House has argued: "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." (26)

Thomas More wrote that of all the heretical books published in England, Tyndale's translation of the New Testament, was the most dangerous. The book had been published in Worms in 1526. (27) Tyndale arranged for these Bibles to be smuggled into England. Tyndale declared that he hoped to make every ploughboy as knowledgeable in Scripture as the most learned priest. The Bibles were often hidden in bales of straw. Most English people could not read or write, but some of them could, and they read it out aloud to their friends at secret Protestant meetings. They discovered that Catholic priests had taught them doctrines which were not in the Bible. During the next few years 18,000 copies of this bible were printed and smuggled into England.

More did what he could to stop the distribution of Tyndale's Bible. (28) He also wrote a book, Confutation of Tyndale's Answer, explaining why Tyndale was such a threat to the Catholic Church. More began the book 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." (29)

One of Tyndale's associates, John Frith arrived in England in July 1531 to help distribute Tyndale's New Testament. 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. Frith was burnt at the stake on 4th July 1533. It was reported that "Frith was led to the stake, where he willingly embraced the wood and fire, giving a perfect testimony with his own life. The wind blew the fire away from him, toward Andrew Hewet, who was burning with him, so Frith's death took longer than usual, but he seemed to be happy for his companion and not to care about his own prolonged suffering." (30)

Thomas More was determined to destroy his main enemy, William Tyndale. More sent a close friend, Sir Thomas Elyot, to try to arrange the arrest of Tyndale who was living in Brussels. This ended in failure and the next person to try was Henry Phillips. He had gambled away money entrusted to him by his father to give to someone in London, and had fled abroad. Phillips offered his services to help capture Tyndale. After befriending Tyndale he led him into a trap on 21st May, 1535. (31) Tyndale was taken at once to Pierre Dufief, the Procurer-General, who immediately raided the house where he was staying and took away all Tyndale's property, including his books and papers. Luckily, his work on the Old Testament was being kept by John Rogers. Tyndale was taken to Vilvorde Castle, outside Brussels, where he was kept for the next sixteen months. (32)

The death of William Tyndale (1563)
The death of William Tyndale, from Foxe's Book of Martyrs (1563)

Pierre Dufief had a reputation for hunting down heretics. He was motivated by the fact he was given a proportion of the confiscated property of his victims, and a large fee. Tyndale was tried by seventeen commissioners, led by three chief accusers. At their head was the greatest heresy-hunter in Europe, Jacobus Latomus, from the new Catholic University of Louvain. Tyndale conducted his own defence. He was found guilty but he was not burnt alive, as a mark of his distinction as a scholar. On 6th October, 1536, he was strangled first, and then his body was burnt. John Foxe reports that his last words were "Lord, open the king of England's eyes!" (33)

The Burning of Heretics

Bishop Mark O’Toole of Plymouth has argued that Hilary Mantel has produced a distorted picture of More: “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." (34)

Bishop O'Toole is clearly wrong about More's responsibility for people being burnt at the stake. One of his biographers, Seymour Baker House, has found evidence of ordering the execution of three heretics and publicly approving the burning of eight others. (35) He is also wrong to suggest that all people in Tudor England shared his belief that heretics needed to be burnt at the stake. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey did not order the burning of one heretic during his eight years in power. There were others who were totally opposed to the idea of capital punishment. More, on the other hand, believed strongly in burning heretics and was one of England's main supporters of the Spanish Inquisition. (36)

Colin Burrow of All Souls College has also criticized Hilary Mantel's interpretation of Thomas More: "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." (37)

Burrow goes on to point out that More held enlighted views on women's education. Alison Plowden, the author of Tudor Women (2002) has argued. "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." (38) However, surely More should be judged on his attitude towards his education of all girls, not just his own daughters. His record shows that he persecuted groups such as the Anabaptists who held progressive views on sexually equality.

The main reason that More was such an unpleasant human being was that he lacked empathy. He was incapable of feeling the pain suffered by those who he sent to be burnt at the stake. Lacey Baldwin Smith, the author of Treason in Tudor England (2006) provides an insight into More when he discusses his 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." (39)

More's defenders would argue that he was a product of his times. Of course, he was, but others were able to imagine what it was like to live a less privileged life and were willing to introduce reforms to alleviate this pain. Let us compare the way that Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who was Lord Chancellor at the time of the May Day riots, reacted to this event. More than 400 prisoners were taken during the riots and they were tried and found guilty of treason. They were brought to Westminster Hall in the presence of Henry VIII. He sat on his throne, from where he condemned them all to death. Wolsey then fell on his knees and begged the king to show compassion while the prisoners themselves called out "Mercy, Mercy!" Eventually the king relented and granted them pardon. At which point they cast off their halters and "jumped for joy". (40)

10 Worst Britons

In 2005 the BBC History Magazine asked a group of historians to make "a list of the 10 worst Britons of the last 1,000 years". Given his record, one what have expected More to have been on the list. For example, Archbishop Thomas Arundel is on the list: "Archbishop of Canterbury in 1397 and from 1399 until his death, he persecuted the Lollards, a group calling for reform of the Catholic Church by promoting a lay priesthood and translations of the Bible." Yes, Arundel, did something similar to More, and is on the list. (41)

Also on the list is Sir Richard Rich. The historians explained why this rather obscure figure was on the list of worst Britons: "Throughout his life he shifted his political and religious allegiances to further his career. During Henry VIII's reign he gave evidence against Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher which helped to convict them of treason, for which they were executed." So the man responsible for burning at the stake for rebelling against the teaching of the Catholic Church is excluded, but the man who gave evidence against him is.

I do not object to Rich being on this list because he did one terrible act of inhumanity. He was the man who tortured Anne Askew in order for her to name other heretics. When she was fifteen her family forced her to marry Thomas Kyme. Anne rebelled against her husband by refusing to adopt his surname. The couple also argued about religion. Anne was a supporter of Martin Luther, while her husband was a Roman Catholic. (42)

From her reading of the Bible she believed that she had the right to divorce her husband. For example, she quoted St Paul: "If a faithful woman have an unbelieving husband, which will not tarry with her she may leave him"? Askew was well connected. Alison Plowden has argued that "Anne Askew is an interesting example often educated, highly intelligent, passionate woman destined to become the victim of the society in which she lived - a woman who could not accept her circumstances but fought an angry, hopeless battle against them." (43)

In 1544 Askew decided to travel to London and request a divorce from Henry VIII. This was denied and documents show that a spy was assigned to keep a close watch on her behaviour. She made contact with Joan Bocher, a leading figure in the Anabaptists. One spy who had lodgings opposite her own reported that "at midnight she beginneth to pray, and ceaseth not in many hours after." (44)

In March 1546 she was arrested on suspicion of heresy. (45) She was questioned about a book she was carrying that had been written by John Frith, a Protestant priest who had been burnt for heresy in 1533, for claiming that neither purgatory nor transubstantiation could be proven by Holy Scriptures. She was interviewed by Edmund Bonner, the Bishop of London who had obtained the nickname of "Bloody Bonner" because of his ruthless persecution of heretics. (46) After a great deal of debate Anne Askew was persuaded to sign a confession which amounted to an only slightly qualified statement of orthodox belief. (47) Askew was released and sent back to her husband. However, when she arrived back to Lincolnshire she went to live with her brother, Sir Francis Askew.

In February 1546 conservatives in the Church of England, led by Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, began plotting to destroy the radical Protestants. (48) He gained the support of Henry VIII. As Alison Weir has pointed out: "Henry himself had never approved of Lutheranism. In spite of all he had done to reform the church of England, he was still Catholic in his ways and determined for the present to keep England that way. Protestant heresies would not be tolerated, and he would make that very clear to his subjects." (49) In May 1546 Henry gave permission for twenty-three people suspected of heresy to be arrested. This included Anne Askew.

Gardiner selected Anne Askew because he believed she was associated with Henry's sixth wife, Catherine Parr. (50) Catherine also criticised legislation that had been passed in May 1543 that had declared that the "lower sort" did not benefit from studying the Bible in English. The Act for the Advancement of the True Religion stated that "no women nor artificers, journeymen, serving men of the degree of yeomen or under husbandmen nor labourers" could in future read the Bible "privately or openly". Later, a clause was added that did allow any noble or gentlewoman to read the Bible, this activity must take place "to themselves alone and not to others". Catherine ignored this "by holding study among her ladies for the scriptures and listening to sermons of an evangelical nature". (51)

Gardiner believed the Queen was deliberately undermining the stability of the state. Gardiner tried his charm on Askew, begging her to believe he was her friend, concerned only with her soul's health, she retorted that that was just the attitude adopted by Judas "when he unfriendly betrayed Christ". On 28th June she flatly rejected the existence of any priestly miracle in the eucharist. "As for that ye call your God, it is a piece of bread. For a more proof thereof... let it but lie in the box three months and it will be mouldy." (52)

Gardiner instructed Sir Anthony Kingston, the Constable of the Tower of London, to torture Askew in an attempt to force her to name Catherine Parr and other leading Protestants as heretics. Kingston complained about having to torture a woman (it was in fact illegal to torture a woman at the time) and the Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley and his assistant, Richard Rich took over operating the rack. Despite suffering a long period on the rack, Askew refused to name those who shared her religious views. According to Askew: "Then they did put me on the rack, because I confessed no ladies or gentlemen, to be of my opinion... the Lord Chancellor and Master Rich took pains to rack me with their own hands, till I was nearly dead. I fainted... and then they recovered me again. After that I sat two long hours arguing with the Lord Chancellor, upon the bare floor... With many flattering words, he tried to persuade me to leave my opinion... I said that I would rather die than break my faith." (53) Afterwards, Anne's broken body was laid on the bare floor, and Wriothesley sat there for two hours longer, questioning her about her heresy and her suspected involvement with the royal household. (54)

Askew was removed to a private house to recover and once more offered the opportunity to recant. When she refused she was taken to Newgate Prison to await her execution. On 16th July 1546, Agnew "still horribly crippled by her tortures" was carried to execution in Smithfield in a chair as she could not walk and every movement caused her severe pain. (55) It was reported that she was taken to the stake which had a small seat attached to it, on which she sat astride. Chains were used to bind her body firmly to the stake at the ankles, knees, waist, chest and neck. (56)

So Richard Rich is described as one of the a list of the 10 worst Britons for giving evidence against Thomas More but not for torturing Anne Askew. Does this mean that historians value the lives of the persecutors of heretics over those like Askew, a member of a minority religion, who was fighting for freedom of expression. Who do we have to thank for having the democratic rights that we enjoy today, More or Askew?

In a 2002 BBC Poll of the general public on the 100 Greatest Britons, Thomas More came in 37th place. At least William Tyndale finished higher at 26th. So did Thomas Paine at 34th. Mind you, to put it into perspective, the entertainer, Michael Crawford, was in 17th place. (57)

Previous Posts

The History of Freedom of Speech (13th January, 2015)

The Christmas Truce Football Game in 1914 (24th December, 2014)

The Anglocentric and Sexist misrepresentation of historical facts in The Imitation Game (2nd December, 2014)

The Secret Files of James Jesus Angleton (12th November, 2014)

Ben Bradlee and the Death of Mary Pinchot Meyer (29th October, 2014)

Yuri Nosenko and the Warren Report (15th October, 2014)

The KGB and Martin Luther King (2nd October, 2014)

The Death of Tomás Harris (24th September, 2014)

Simulations in the Classroom (1st September, 2014)

The KGB and the JFK Assassination (21st August, 2014)

West Ham United and the First World War (4th August, 2014)

The First World War and the War Propaganda Bureau (28th July, 2014)

Interpretations in History (8th July, 2014)

Alger Hiss was not framed by the FBI (17th June, 2014)

Google, Bing and Operation Mockingbird: Part 2 (14th June, 2014)

Google, Bing and Operation Mockingbird: The CIA and Search-Engine Results (10th June, 2014)

The Student as Teacher (7th June, 2014)

Is Wikipedia under the control of political extremists? (23rd May, 2014)

Why MI5 did not want you to know about Ernest Holloway Oldham (6th May, 2014)

The Strange Death of Lev Sedov (16th April, 2014)

Why we will never discover who killed John F. Kennedy (27th March, 2014)

The KGB planned to groom Michael Straight to become President of the United States (20th March, 2014)

The Allied Plot to Kill Lenin (7th March, 2014)

Was Rasputin murdered by MI6? (24th February 2014)

Winston Churchill and Chemical Weapons (11th February, 2014)

Pete Seeger and the Media (1st February 2014)

Should history teachers use Blackadder in the classroom? (15th January 2014)

Why did the intelligence services murder Dr. Stephen Ward? (8th January 2014)

Solomon Northup and 12 Years a Slave (4th January 2014)

The Angel of Auschwitz (6th December 2013)

The Death of John F. Kennedy (23rd November 2013)

Adolf Hitler and Women (22nd November 2013)

New Evidence in the Geli Raubal Case (10th November 2013)

Murder Cases in the Classroom (6th November 2013)

Major Truman Smith and the Funding of Adolf Hitler (4th November 2013)

Unity Mitford and Adolf Hitler (30th October 2013)

Claud Cockburn and his fight against Appeasement (26th October 2013)

The Strange Case of William Wiseman (21st October 2013)

Robert Vansittart's Spy Network (17th October 2013)

British Newspaper Reporting of Appeasement and Nazi Germany (14th October 2013)

Paul Dacre, The Daily Mail and Fascism (12th October 2013)

Wallis Simpson and Nazi Germany (11th October 2013)

The Activities of MI5 (9th October 2013)

The Right Club and the Second World War (6th October 2013)

What did Paul Dacre's father do in the war? (4th October 2013)

Ralph Miliband and Lord Rothermere (2nd October 2013)



(1) Peter Stanford, The Daily Telegraph (20th January, 2015)

(2) Simon Caldwell, The Catholic Herald (2nd February, 2015)

(3) Jonathan Jones, The Guardian (29th January, 2015)

(4) Jasper Ridley, The Statesman and the Fanatic (1982) preface (unnumbered)

(5) Jonathan Jones, The Guardian (29th January, 2015)

(6) Waldermar Januszczak, Holbein: Eye of the Tudors (24th January, 2015)

(7) Waldermar Januszczak, The Radio Times (20th January, 2015)

(8) Jasper Ridley, Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002) page 7

(9) Jonathan Jones, The Guardian (29th January, 2015)

(10) Michael Costen, The Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade (1997) page 121

(11) Ian Ousby, The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English (1988) page 1100

(12) John Foxe, Book of Martyrs (1563) page 48 of 2014 edition.

(13) John F. Harrison, The Common People (1984) page 105

(14) Jasper Ridley, The Statesman and the Fanatic (1982) page 238

(15) Raymond Wilson Chambers, Thomas More (1935) page 125

(16) Thomas More, letter to Peter Gilles (October, 1516)

(17) Peter Stanford, The Daily Telegraph (20th January, 2015)

(18) Melanie McDonagh, The Evening Standard (17th September 2009)

(19) Peter Stanford, The Daily Telegraph (20th January, 2015)

(20) David Starkey, quoted in Catholic Herald (30th January, 2015)

(21) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) pages 43-44

(22) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 82

(23) Jasper Ridley, The Statesman and the Fanatic (1982) page 282

(24) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 87

(25) Jasper Ridley, The Statesman and the Fanatic (1982) page 253

(26) Seymour Baker House, Thomas More : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(27) Jasper Ridley, Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002) page 4

(28) David Loades, Thomas Cromwell (2013) page 63

(29) Thomas More, Confutation of Tyndale's Answer (June, 1533)

(30) John Foxe, Book of Martyrs (1563) pages 87

(31) David Loades, Thomas Cromwell (2013) page 64

(32) David Daniell, William Tyndale : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(33) John Foxe, Book of Martyrs (1563) page 94 of 2014 edition.

(34) Simon Caldwell, The Catholic Herald (2nd February, 2015)

(35) Seymour Baker House, Thomas More : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(36) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003) page 37

(37) Colin Burrow, London Review of Books (30th April, 2009)

(38) Alison Plowden, Tudor Women (2002) page 34

(39) Lacey Baldwin Smith, Treason in Tudor England (2006) page 60

(40) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 12

(41) BBC News (27th December, 2005)

(42) John Bale, The Examinations of Anne Askew (1996) page 92

(43) Alison Plowden, Tudor Women (2002) page 112

(44) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 172

(45) J. G. Nichols, Narratives of the Days of the Reformation (1859) page 40

(46) Alison Plowden, Tudor Women (2002) page 111

(47) Diane Watt, Anne Askew : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(48) C. D. C. Armstrong, Stephan Gardiner : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(49) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 512

(50) J. G. Nichols, Narratives of the Days of the Reformation (1859) page 308

(51) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) page 378

(52) Alison Plowden, Tudor Women (2002) page 112

(53) Anne Askew, letter smuggled out to her friends (29th June, 1546)

(54) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 517

(55) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) page 387

(56) Elaine V. Beilin, The Examinations of Anne Askew (1996) page 191

(57) BBC Poll of the 100 Greatest Britons (21st August 2002)