“Recantations” — In Memory of Saint Thomas More, Executed July 6, 1535

by Beth von Staats

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Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.

— Book of John 20:27, King James Bible —

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“I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”

Over twenty years ago, Sir Thomas More spoke those words for all to hear just before the executioner swung the ax, just before his head rolled from his shoulders onto the straw, just before his self-serving martyrdom. For months beyond a year holed up in The Tower, he stoically embraced his fate, faithfully hung to his God, stubbornly held firm in his convictions, and refused to see the truth, no matter how hard dearest Cromwell, Audley and I tried to convince him, no matter how much his wife and children begged he compromise his self-righteous scruples. In scripture, there is no Pope. There is no purgatory. There are no idols, relics, or indulgences. Mary is the mother of Jesus, not a saint interceding on behalf of all who pray to her. It’s really that simple. What is not written in God’s word is not truth. Why could More not see the obvious? Was he blind? Was he daft? Was he of Satan?

And why after 20 years does More’s sorry fate still weigh my conscience down like a stone?

“More was not satisfied to be Lord Chancellor, Your Grace. His heresy burnings were not enough to fill his soul. More yearned for a higher calling than service to the realm and His Majesty. He yearned to be a martyred saint. He yearned for pilgrims to travel long journeys to touch his hair shirt and gaze upon his pickled head, disgusting as that be.”

Dearest Cromwell, I hear him ringing through my mind as if he were sitting in this dank horrid cell right alongside me. The Earl always found a way to rationalize quandaries, bless his soul. All we asked, all His Majesty wanted, all that was required to save his very life was for Sir Thomas More to take the oath, say the words out loud publicly, and do what he wanted in private. More could worship his Latin Mass, give confession, fondle his rosary, collect his idols, venerate his relics, wear his hair shirt, and whip his back bloody to his heart’s content.

“Just take the damn oath, and then do what you will.”

“No, and I will speak nothing of it.”

Again, again, again, the Earl pleaded for this simple sign of obedience to the King. Again, again, again, the same reply. My God in heaven, the Pope is the antichrist. To this day, I am still dumbfounded. The man was brilliant, scholarly, eloquent. So why was he such a fool?

After hours of mulling over my fate, I look down at the parchment. My couched recantations, written to baffle His Eminence and the Queen without sully to my conscience, baffled them not. Cardinal Pole then took a quill to parchment and wrote out another, and then an another and yet another, one that clearly says to all in the far more eloquent words of the papal whore, “The last twenty years of my life were heresy. The liturgy of the Church of England is heresy. The lyrical Evensong at Friday service is heresy. The Collects said in worship all through the year are heresy. The Book of Common Prayer is heresy. Holy Communion as a commemoration to the Lord’s Last Supper is heresy. I recant. I recant it all. The Eucharist correctly turns wine to Christ’s blood, turns bread to Christ’s body. The holy church in England and its clergy are led by His Holy Father, the Bishop of Rome. Unless you purchase an indulgence, your mother will remain rotting to the bones in purgatory. There I said it. Now, you know my truth.”

Thomas Cranmer, Parish Church of St. George
Thomas Cranmer, Parish Church of St. George

If I want to live another day, die in my own bed, not burn pitifully as my beloved friends Ridley and Latimer, I must copy this in myne own hand, and sign my name to it. And, no, this is not the same challenge More faced. More was never forced to endure a trial for treason, found guilty, and yet a second trial for heresy, found guilty again. More did not have to debate at Oxford, over and over, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year with papist religious scholars wearing him down, chiding his every word. More did not have to watch his friends burn at the stake, poor Ridley lingering for hours due to a poor man’s misguided attempt to help. More did not have the entire Church of England and its future laying squarely on his shoulders. No, it is not the same challenge More faced. No, it is not.

If I say it enough, I might believe it.

I confess Sir Thomas More’s writings so authored while he himself imprisoned give me strength. A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation is just brilliant in all truth. Though they believed pushing More down my throat would wear me down, instead, his writings give me hope, nourish my soul. As More so correctly alluded through his story telling, persecution for one’s faith is a hazardous quandary indeed. It brings upon us at the same time both the lure and comfort rewarded for recantation — and the dread of torture and a painful death if we remain steadfast and true.

I look at the parchment yet again. No, I will not copy it in myne own hand. No, I will not sign it.

More conceded, and I agree, that it is not acceptable to escape persecution by compromising some of God’s truths, while keeping true to the rest. His err laid in not knowing what God’s truths truly are, by placing his faith and belief as defined by a papal authority instead of God’s word in scripture.

I look to the flickering candle, the only light in this stench laid cell and hold the parchment near. I will burn this parchment, and then I will burn. God, give me strength.

The cell door slams open, bashing the stone wall like a death knell.

“The recantation, is it ready Dr. Cranmer?!”

I startle upright. Damn, it be the Spaniard friar, Juan de Valligarcia, bellowing at me yet again. I look to the man wearily and hold out the parchment. He snatches it from me.

“No, I refuse to write it.”

This friar, I swear he is paid handsomely just to torment my soul. He saunters to the front of me and glares me down — evil incarnate, I do swear.

“I have word from Her Majesty. She desires I give you a message and one last chance to comply. Do you wish to hear it?”

I remain silent, mulling over how best to respond. The dirty dog drums his fingers impatiently on the table.

“Am I commanded to hear it? If not, I choose you leave with her words unsaid.”

“Yes, you are so commanded!”

“Carry on then.”

“As you so professed these many years, a monarch is supreme and heads the clergy is this realm. His Majesty King Henry chose to delegate to you and the heretic Emissary of Satan, Cromwell, while Her Majesty chooses to delegate to His Holy Father,” the friar scowls. He then holds out a parchment, its wax seal of the Queen made evident for myne benefit.

“Dr. Cranmer, as your monarch I command that you recant in writing as so drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury and sign your name in full. I further command that you attend Latin Mass and recant publicly through a sermon approved in advance by His Eminence. From this day forward, you will attend Mass, celebrate the Eucharist, and worship the Roman Catholic faith with all humility.”

That bastard friar begins pacing to and fro. I say nothing. What be there to add to that?

“Will you abide Her Majesty’s command? If not, I need not remind that you will burn, mayhaps hanging in a giblet liken you and the concubine’s butcher did unto poor Friar Forest. The poor man be roasted hours on end like a chicken on a spit.”

Forest? He dares speak of the devil Forest?

I be in a rage now. “Forest’s burning fulfilled God’s prophecy! Saint Derfel burned with the forest as foretold from one to the next for many a moon — a suitable punishment for the evil Franciscan. He was both a sin-filled heretic and heinous treasoner of the King’s Majesty!”

I grab hold tight onto the table. Myne humors be in a twist, near to spew. The damn Spaniard steps up right close to me and leans into myne beard, so close his putrid rank breath near makes me faint.

“Cranmer, you are a hopeless, spineless, wretched, evil little man. God forgive you.”

My gout raging in my legs, I steady myself by the table, push him back and stand strong. What there be to lose? I am already a dead man. “No, I will not abide the damn command. Leave me to rot and be gone. You can light the fags another day.”

“But Dr. Cranmer, Her Majesty is supremely your head as you define by scripture, eh? Are you not by your own interpretation of God’s Holy Word sinning through your treason?”

The man, he is of Satan and chides me mockingly, finding my greatest weakness yet again. This very issue, this very dilemma, has me confused and conflicted once more. This pitiful servant of the antichrist is right, but in my heart to recant is a larger sin, an unforgivable sin.

“I said, NO, I will not abide by the damn command.”

Unsteady of feet, I sit back down.

“Dr. Cranmer, Her Majesty in her great benevolence wishes to extend this offer. Queen Mary, Regina remains steadfast in her vision to route this realm of all heresy, and will burn it all wherever it lays. Her Majesty desires to reassure you that should you recant, your Lutheran whore and bastard children will sleep safe. If not, they will burn as the heretics they are  — before you, as Ridley and Latimer did.”

Did myne heart just stop? Frozen in fear, I look at the Spanish friar, my blood frozen cold, just like that. Satan speaks through him as sure as Christ died for his sins. Mary, Regina — no one could be this evil, no one, especially a woman. De Villagarcia is trying to trick me. He must be. Margarete, my children, they fled to Nuremburg. Edmund promised me.

Aye, but Satan reached Tyndale. Why not them? My mind, it be cloudy, worn thin. I can’t concentrate. Think, Thomas – think. Would she really command my Margarete burned? Thomas and Marge? Would she really kill them before myne very eyes? Or is this man baffling me? Are they safe on the Continent or did Pole’s spies find them?

I gaze just beyond the Spaniard, and dearest Bishops Latimer and Ridley stand before me, burning pitifully, screaming in agony. Yes, the friar speaks truth. The Queen of England, Satan’s mistress, seeks revenge. This is hopeless. Either way I go, I be damned.

Broken, yes, after two long years, I am finally broken. I am sorry, Sir Thomas More. For this tribulation, there is no comfort. To route out this tribulation, I am willing to burn in hell so they don’t burn. Am I selfish? Or is that God’s will? Your writing, your gentle and humble wisdom, they tell me not.

I hold out my trembling hand, and the Spaniard hands back the parchment. My voice quivering, I say in complete surrender, “Come back in the ‘morrow. It shall be done.”

The friar sits down on the table before him, and holds out a fresh quill.

“Now, Dr. Cranmer, or Her Majesty’s offer is not guaranteed.”

I swallow hard, tears welling. O Lord forgive me.  I take the quill in my hand, and though shaking,  dip the quill in ink and seal my fate.

—– fade to black —–

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Given the overwhelming breadth of the magnificent life of Saint Thomas More, many people do not realize that he was an outstanding poet. In memory of Saint Thomas More, his poem, “The Words of Fortune to the People”:
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Lady Fortune and her Wheel. Boccaccio De Casibus Virorum Illustrium
Lady Fortune and her Wheel.
Boccaccio De Casibus Virorum Illustrium

The words of Fortune to the people.
~~ Master Thomas More — 1504 ~~

.Mine high estate, power, and authority
If ye ne know, ensearch and ye shall spy1
That riches, worship, wealth, and dignity
Joy, rest, and peace, and all things finally
That any pleasure or profit may come by
To man his comfort, aid, and sustenance,
Is all at my devise and ordinance.

.Without my favour there is nothing won,
Many a matter have I brought at last
To good conclude that fondly was begun,2
And many a purpose, bounden sure and fast
With wise provision, I have overcast.
Without good hap there may no wit suffice,3
Better ’tis to be fortunate than wise!
.And therefore have there some men been ere this
My deadly foes, and written many a book
To my dispraise.   And other cause there n’is4
But for me list not friendly on them look.5
Thus like the fox they fare, that once forsook
The pleasant grapes, and ‘gan for to defy them
Because he lept and yet could not come by them.6
.But let them write, their labour is in vain;
For well ye wot, mirth, honour, and riches7
Much better is than penury and pain.
The needy wretch that ling’reth in distress
Without my help, is ever comfortless,
A very burden, odious and loath
To all the world, and eke to himself both.8
.But he that by my favour may ascend
To mighty pow’r and excellent degree,
A commonweal to govern and defend,
O! in how bless’d condition standeth he,
Himself in honour and felicity,
And over that, may farther and encrease
A region whole in joyful rest and peace.
.Now in this point there is no more to say,
Each man hath of himself the governance;
Let every wight then follow his own way.9
And he that out of poverty and mischance
List for to live, and will himself enhance
In wealth and riches, come-forth and wait on me;
And he that will be a beggar, let him be.

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Saint Thomas More “Prayer Card” of the Roman Catholic Faith

ThomasMorePrayerCard

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Beth von Staats

is the owner and administrator of QueenAnneBoleyn.com. The author of "Thomas Cranmer in a Nutshell", Beth specializes in writing magazine articles, online historical articles, short stories, and flash fiction.

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