Sir Thomas More: Lord Chancellor, Loving Father and Martyr
We recently celebrated Father’s Day. Fathers are vital to their children’s wellbeing and success in life. Research has shown that those whose fathers spent more quality time with them as children usually end up with higher IQs and better jobs in life.
Conversely, those who grow up without involved fathers have a lower chance of going to university or obtaining gainful employment, and often end up in prison. A father’s love and presence in his children’s lives builds a firm foundation for them to develop a secure identity and sense of purpose.
An Upright Man
On 22 June each year, we commemorate the execution of a just man: St Thomas More. A brilliant lawyer and honourable judge who had graduated from Oxford, More was appointed Lord Chancellor of England, second in political importance only to the king. He was a close friend of King Henry VIII.
Thomas More’s son-in-law and biographer William Roper recalled how the Lord Chancellor prioritised his family above his service to the king: “Because he was of a pleasant disposition, it often pleased the King and the Queen… at the time of their supper… to call for him to be merry with them.
“They delighted so much in his talk that he could not once in a month get leave to go home to his wife and children (whose company he most desired). When he was absent from the court for only two days, he was sent for again.
“Much disliking this restraint upon his liberty, More began to dissemble his nature somewhat. Little by little he changed from his usual mirth that he was not so frequently sent for.” A clever, diplomatic ruse which allowed him to fulfil his role as a husband and father, without offending the king outright.
More attained his high-ranking position because of his honesty and efficiency. After serving as a member of Parliament from 1504, in 1510 he became an undersheriff of the City of London. Unlike many other public servants, More refused bribes and became well-known for his integrity. Thus, King Henry VIII took note of his virtue and invited him to become his privy councillor in 1518. In 1523, More was elected the Speaker of the House of Commons.
Emphasis on Education
The second of six children to the lawyer and judge Sir John More and his wife Agnes, Thomas considered abandoning his legal career to join the Carthusian monks. However, he discerned that his vocation lay elsewhere, and married Jane Colt the year after his election to Parliament.
Thomas had three daughters and a son with Jane, who passed away in 1511. He swiftly married his good friend Alice Middleton so that his small children would have a mother to look after them, and received Alice’s daughter from her first marriage as his own child. On top of this, he was the foster father of two young girls, Anne Cresacre and Margaret Giggs. Margaret was later the only member of his family to witness his execution.
Sir Thomas More gave his daughters the same quality education as his son, an unconventional choice for a parent of his time. He also tutored his first wife, Jane, in music and literature, to improve upon the education she had received at home. More’s decision to educate his daughters inspired other noble families to do the same.
More wrote many affectionate letters to his children while away on business, and eagerly awaited their replies.
Piety and Orthodoxy
Though he lived in the world and had a large circle of friends, Sir Thomas More continued his devout prayer life, wearing a hair shirt as a form of self-mortification. Furthermore, although he subscribed to the new trend of humanism, More held firm to the teachings of Holy Mother Church, and recognised the Protestant Reformation as a threat to the unity of Christendom, dividing church and state. He was a prolific writer of religious and political works, including the famous Utopia. As Lord Chancellor of England, the foremost judge of the nation, it was his job to sentence heretics to burn at the stake, but he refused to have them whipped and tortured first.
Ironically, King Henry VIII also wrote against Protestant heresies, producing the pamphlet Declaration of the Seven Sacraments Against Martin Luther. For this, Pope Leo X granted him the title of Defender of the Faith. Only a few years later, unable to produce an heir and unable to divorce and remarry, Henry VIII decided to break from the Catholic Church, setting up the Church of England with himself as the head of the new sect.
Thomas More could not in good conscience condone this schism, and refused to sign the Oath of Supremacy, which declared the king to be the supreme head of the Anglican Church. He resigned as Chancellor, and in 1533, he did not attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn as the Queen of England, though he wrote a polite letter expressing his well-wishes.
His lack of attendance was still seen as a snub, and the king had false charges brought against More of accepting bribes. Lack of evidence saw the charges dismissed, but he was later arrested on grounds of treason for failure to accept the Oath of Succession confirming Anne as queen and rejecting the Pope’s authority.
As depicted in the excellent Oscar-winning film A Man for All Seasons (1966), false testimony by the Solicitor General Richard Rich was brought against Thomas More, sealing his fate. He was imprisoned for over a year in the Tower of London, where he wrote A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, a short story in conversational form, reflecting that all suffering can be beneficial if you respond to it with faith and trust in God. His eldest biological daughter Margaret Roper (nicknamed Meg) visited him as often as she could and smuggled his letters out under her dress.
On 6 July 1535, Thomas More was beheaded, stating that he died as “the king’s good servant, and God’s first.” He was so calm that he could joke in the face of death, telling the executioner to be careful of his beard, as it was innocent of any crime.
More’s son-in-law Will Roper had become a Lutheran for some time. More tried reasoning with him, but perceiving that his arguments bore no fruit, decided to pray instead. Roper credits his father-in-law’s fervent prayers for his return to the faith.
St Thomas More’s adopted daughter Margaret buried his decapitated corpse; his biological daughter Meg rescued his severed head. The former Margaret risked her life to help the Carthusian Martyrs, who starved to death in prison for refusing to renounce the faith.
Do not let your mind be troubled over anything that shall happen to me in this world. Nothing can come but what God wills. And I am very sure that whatever that be, however bad it may seem, it shall indeed be the best. – Thomas More’s last letter to Margaret (Meg)
Today, St Thomas More and his fellow martyr Bishop John Fisher (the former tutor of Henry VIII; killed on 22 June) are commemorated by the Anglican church as saints, being martyrs of conscience. The Anglican writer Jonathan Swift (author of Gulliver’s Travels) wrote that Thomas More was “a person of the greatest virtue this kingdom ever produced”. The Anglican priest and poet John Donne described him as “a man of the most tender and delicate conscience that the world saw since Augustine.”
Thomas More continues to be a model of prayer, inner strength and faith for us today. He is a patron saint of adopted children, widowers, large families, civil servants, politicians and lawyers. Although he had to abide by his conscience and sacrifice his earthly fatherhood, his courageous witness to God’s truth made him a steadfast spiritual father for time immemorial.
A Prayer by Saint Thomas More
Grant me, O Lord, good digestion,
and also something to digest.
Grant me a healthy body,
and the necessary good humour to maintain it.
Grant me a simple soul
that knows to treasure all that is good
and that doesn’t frighten easily at the sight of evil,
but rather finds the means to put things back in their place.
Give me a soul that knows not
boredom, grumblings, sighs and laments,
nor excess of stress,
because of that obstructing thing called “I”.
Grant me, O Lord, a sense of good humour.
Allow me the grace to be able to take a joke
to discover in life a bit of joy,
and to be able to share it with others.