Remembering Saint Thomas More
Editor’s Note: Today, upon the anniversary of the martyrdom of Saint Thomas More, enjoy reading the thought-provoking and divergent opinions of history writers, historical fiction authors, bloggers, playwrights, and religious scholars expressed below concerning the remarkable life of Roman Catholicism’s Patron Saint of Politicians and Public Servants.
Judith Arnopp — Historical Fiction Author
Executed by Henry VIII in 1535 for his refusal to compromise his beliefs even Thomas More’s detractors do not deny his intelligence. But his reputation as a ‘humanist’ can be seen to conflict with his violent punishment of heretics. In many ways More was a self-aware martyr; there is more than a touch of pride beneath his modesty, a touch of stubbornness beneath his humility but there is courage too.
More stood steadfastly for what he believed in and defied the king he had sworn to serve. He was not a man of war, he was a man of intellect and his preferred weapon was a pen. He embraced execution in the certainty that martyrdom would highlight the injustices of Henry’s England. Four hundred and eighty-four years later, his ideals continue to impact upon the 21st century.
The History of King Richard III, penned by More, was later used by Shakespeare to produce the archetypal pantomime villain king we all know and love. Today, the arguments for and against Richard III are more virulent than they’ve ever been – and More remains part of it, his opinion of King Richard continues to be voiced … and challenged.
There is some outside academia who have never even heard of Thomas More yet when they switch on the television or open a book (or a role-playing app) they glimpse his ideals. As ‘the father of the Utopian novel’ More’s world remains a dream for which we strive, and fail to achieve. Our society is perhaps closer to the worlds of Huxley and Orwell who took More’s Utopia and inverted it to create Dystopia, in much the same manner that Henry VIII’s break with Rome brought chaos to the world of Thomas More
Editor’s Note: Judith Arnopp is a prolific author of Tudor era historical fiction, her books available for sale on Amazon. To learn more about Judith, visit her website at Judith Arnopp — Author of Historical Fiction.
Bishop Robert Barron — Roman Catholic Priest
Bishop Robert Barron is the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and is Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He is also the host of CATHOLICISM, a documentary about the Catholic Faith, which aired on PBS.
Bishop Robert Barron is a bestselling author and has published numerous books and articles on theology and the spiritual life. He is a religion correspondent for NBC and has also appeared on FOX News, CNN, and EWTN.
Bishop Barron’s website, WordOnFire.org, reaches millions of people each year, and he is one of the world’s most followed Catholics on social media. His regular YouTube videos have been viewed over 30 million times and he has over 1.5 million followers on Facebook.
Bishop Barron is a huge admirer of Saint Thomas More. Enjoy his thoughts on Roman Catholicism’s Patron Saint of Public Servants and Politicians.
Video Credit: Bishop Robert Barron
Robert Bolt, Playwright
Thomas More: “Will, I’d trust you with my life. But not your principles. You see, we speak of being anchored to our principles. But if the weather turns nasty you up with an anchor and let it down where there’s less wind, and the fishing’s better. And “Look,” we say, “look, I’m anchored! To my principles!” — A Man for All Seasons
Thomas More: “Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But, if it is flat, will the King’s command make it round? And, if it is round, will the King’s command flatten it?” — A Man for All Seasons
Thomas More (to Thomas Cromwell): “To what purpose? I am a dead man. You have your desire of me. What you have hunted me for is not my actions, but the thoughts of my heart. It is a long road you have opened. For first men will disclaim their hearts and presently they will have no hearts. God help the people whose Statesmen walk your road.” — A Man for All Seasons
Video Credit: Hunter Richards
Catherine Brooks, The Tudor Society
I feel an affection for Thomas More. Not one I can entirely explain in honesty. Why do we warm to some controversial figures from history and not others?
The old question of whether or not More was a sinner or a saint is not one I can answer. I believe that many people view More as a man of undesirable character in large part due to his overseeing of the burning of heretics during his Chancellorship.
Certainly, for a man of peace who had, in his mind, the duty of the salvation of the whole of Christendom, this could be seen as an act of contradiction. So was More really the man he purported to be?
Whilst these burnings were hideous, and we would wonder how anyone could rest with them on their conscience, I would argue two things in More’s defence. The first is that heresy laws were not his, and men were burned prior to his becoming Chancellor and after his execution. Could he have argued for their lives to be spared? Perhaps. But where then does the line become drawn between those allowed to live, and those who aren’t? And as we are all aware, Henry was not a man to be argued with. The second is that More was a man of his time. Does that excuse what he did? Only to our modern sensibilities. Heresy was worse even than treason, as it was against not just the King, but God. Religious wars evidenced to More that heresy would only lead to anarchy. Religion was paramount in the Tudor period. If More believed he had a responsibility to save the souls of the kingdom, then he could not allow the heretics to practice, even in any small part. To him, I believe this needed to be done. His motivations were pure, even though his actions would now be considered deplorable. And in the end, he chose for himself the same fate.
Controversy famously haunts More yet again with regards to his works on King Richard III. More may be divisive, but he has nothing on Richard. I am unsure what it is exactly that drives history lovers to such extremes when it comes to this man. Essentially, it is of no consequence – we cannot change history and Henry Tudor still won at Bosworth, but such passion as displayed in the defence of this man helps to keep history alive.
More’s work on Richard was something he began in his earlier life, and he never finished it. We will never know why. It is true that many have taken the words More wrote on Richard, and have laid them out as an accurate depiction of the man and his life. It certainly seems his writings influenced William Shakespeare when he penned his ‘Richard III’, a source of immense disquiet among Ricardians. But I feel More is unfairly blamed for Richard’s bad reputation, and this is something I come across without fail. Just like More, Richard was a man of his time. The Wars of the Roses was a turbulent time: You spent your whole life trying to kill someone so you could be king, and then as soon as you were, everyone tried to kill you. So he was no saint, no innocent whose bad reputation – which began in his own lifetime and amongst his peers – is entirely unjustified. The unpleasant descriptions of Richard and actions were already in circulation, as they are in part what More drew his conclusions from. Perhaps More’s reputation of a man of intelligence, learning and integrity led people to take his writings at face value, but his work on Richard was littered with errors and inconsistencies. More even highlighted much of this himself as Josephine Wilkinson, a Ricardian author, notes in her (excellent) book ‘The Princes in the Tower’:
‘Perhaps such discrepancies are More’s attempt at ‘whistle-blowing’, urging his readers not to take too seriously the events and character portrayals in the work. In fact, More himself appears to have been in some doubt as to the veracity of the tale he was relating. He includes the disclaimer that the story is not his own, but merely one of many rumours and reports he had heard…He Implies also that the tale of the Princes ‘whose death and final misfortune hath nevertheless so far come into question, that some remain yet in doubt, whither they were in his days destroyed or no’, was, in all probability, apocryphal. More did not even refer to his work as a history’ (p. 122)
My thoughts are that if the author of a work tells you himself that his writings should not be taken as fact, then those doing so should examine their own motives. I cannot and would not say that More’s work on Richard never affected anyone’s view on him, but to cite him as the creator of Richard as the ultimate rogue in order to defame his character is unfair.
These are my thoughts on the character of Thomas More. Dedication to the well-being of others, intelligence, great learning, and achievement of high office do not necessarily make a man a good person. But as a man of his age, More can be classed, I feel, as a great scholar and an individual dedicated to the salvation of others.
Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus, Dutch Christian Humanist Religious Scholar
The great 16th century Humanist eloquently shared for all eternity his thoughts of his friend Thomas More in a 1519 letter…
“You ask me to paint you a full-length portrait of More as in a picture. Would that I could do it as perfectly as you eagerly desire it. At least I will try to give a sketch of the man, as well as from my long familiarity with him I have either observed or can now recall. To begin, then, with what is least known to you, in stature he is not tall, though not remarkably short. His limbs are formed with such perfect symmetry as to leave nothing to be desired. His complexion is white, his face fair rather than pale, and though by no means ruddy, a faint flush of pink appears beneath the whiteness of his skin. His hair is dark brown, or brownish black. The eyes are grayish The eyes are grayish blue, with some spots, a kind which betokens singular talent, and among the English is considered attractive, whereas Germans generally prefer black. It is said that none are so free from vice.
“His countenance is in harmony with his character, being always expressive of an amiable joyousness, and even an incipient laughter, and, to speak candidly, it is better framed for gladness than for gravity and dignity, though without any approach to folly or buffoonery. The right shoulder is a little higher than the left, especially when he walks. This is not a defect of birth, but the result of habit, such as we often contract. In the rest of his person there is nothing to offend. His hands are the least refined part of his body.
“He was from his boyhood always most careless about whatever concerned his body. His youthful beauty may be guessed from what still remains, though I knew him when be was not more than three-and-twenty. Even now he is not much over forty. He has good health, though not robust; able to endure all honourable toil, and subject to very few diseases. He seems to promise a long life, as his father still survives in a wonderfully green old age.
“I never saw anyone so indifferent about food. Until he was a young man he delighted in drinking water, but that was natural to him (id illi patrium fuit). Yet not to seem singular or morose, he would hide his temperance from his guests by drinking out of a pewter vessel beer almost as light as water, or often pure water. It is the custom in England to pledge each other in drinking wine. In doing so he will merely touch it with his lips, not to seem to dislike it, or to fall in with the custom. He likes to eat corned beef and coarse bread much leavened, rather than what most people count delicacies. Otherwise he has no aversion to what gives harmless pleasure to the body. He prefers milk diet and fruits, and is especially fond of eggs.
“His voice is neither loud nor very weak, but penetrating; not resounding or soft, but that of a clear speaker. Though he delights in every kind of music he has no vocal talents. He speaks with great clearness and perfect articulation, without rapidity or hesitation. He likes a simple dress, using neither silk nor purple nor gold chain, except when it may not be omitted. It is wonderful how negligent he is as regards all the ceremonious forms in which most men make politeness to consist. He does not require them from others, nor is he anxious to use them himself, at interviews or banquets, though he is not unacquainted with them when necessary. But he thinks it unmanly to spend much time in such trifles. Formerly he was most averse to the frequentation of the court, for he has a great hatred of constraint (tyrannis) and loves equality. Not without much trouble he was drawn into the court of Henry VIII., though nothing more gentle and modest than that prince can be desired. By nature More is chary of his liberty and of ease, yet, though he enjoys ease, no one is more alert or patient when duty requires it.
“He seems born and framed for friendship, and is a most faithful and enduring friend. He is easy of access to all; but if he chances to get familiar with one whose vices admit no correction, he manages to loosen and let go the intimacy rather than to break it off suddenly. When he finds any sincere and according to his heart, he so delights in their society and conversation as to place in it the principal charm of life. He abhors games of tennis, dice, cards, and the like, by which most gentlemen kill time. Though he is rather too negligent of his own interests, no one is more diligent in those of his friends. In a word, if you want a perfect model of friendship, you will find it in no one better than in More. In society he is so polite, so sweet-mannered, that no one is of so melancholy a disposition as not to be cheered by him, and there is no misfortune that he does not alleviate. Since his boyhood he has so delighted in merriment, that it seems to be part of his nature; yet he does not carry it to buffoonery, nor did he ever like biting pleasantries. When a youth he both wrote and acted some small comedies. If a retort is made against himself, even without ground, he likes it from the pleasure he finds in witty repartees. Hence he amused himself with composing epigrams when a young man, and enjoyed Lucian above all writers. Indeed, it was he who pushed me to write the “Praise of Folly,” that is to say, he made a camel frisk.
“In human affairs there is nothing from which he does not extract enjoyment, even from things that are most serious. If he converses with the learned and judicious, he delights in their talent; if with the ignorant and foolish, he enjoys their stupidity. He is not even offended by professional jesters. With a wonderful dexterity he accommodates himself to every disposition. As a rule, in talking with women, even with his own wife, he is full of jokes and banter.
“No one is less led by the opinions of the crowd, yet no one departs less from common sense. One of his great delights is to consider the forms, the habits, and the instincts of different kinds of animals. There is hardly a species of bird that he does not keep in his house, and rare animals such as monkeys, foxes, ferrets, weasels and the like. If he meets with anything foreign, or in any way remarkable, he eagerly buys it, so that his house is full of such things, and at every turn they attract the eye of visitors, and his own pleasure is renewed whenever he sees others pleased.”
Stephanie A. Mann — Teacher, Blogger, and Religious History Author
In an 1863 letter to his sister Jemima, the future John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote: “the true life of a man is in his letters”. Newman went on to say that a man’s letters provided insights not available anywhere else: “for arriving at the inside of things, the publication of letters is the true method. Biographers varnish, they assign motives, they conjecture feelings, they interpret Lord Burleigh’s nods; but contemporary letters are facts.” Newman’s rule may be well applied to Sir Thomas More’s letters. The difficulty we face is that they have not readily available to the reading public; the Yale Complete Edition of Thomas More’s works did not include them; Elizabeth Roger’s selection is out of print; the only other volume available focuses on the last letters More wrote while in the Tower of London and thus doesn’t provide us a full view of More’s life in his letters.
For the first time in forty years, the selected letters of St. Thomas More—son, husband, father, friend, statesman and martyr—are now available in this newly edited volume for the contemporary reader. Moving from the days of his youth to the startling drama of his final years, this collection serves as a “life in letters” and offers the reader fresh insight into More’s education, formation, and character, visible both in season and out of season, in little matters as well as great controversies.
Reading these letters reminds me of many of More’s best attributes: his diligence in developing and maintaining friendship; his love and affection for his children; his devotion to public service balanced with his desire to study and enjoy domestic peace; his defense of humanist studies and his encouragement of Colet, Erasmus and others in their studies, etc.
The letters demonstrate his careful efforts to face the crisis of Henry VIII’s Great Matter with honesty, integrity, and prudence. They also indicate his great skill in persuasion, rhetoric, and argument, and they document More’s sense of humor and fun, able to give and take jokes, including self-deprecation. In these letters, More describes his struggle to live a virtuous life, to serve his country, worship God, love his family, and fulfill his own ambitions. These letters provide evidence that as Jonathan Swift wrote in the eighteenth century, Thomas More “was the person of the greatest virtue these islands ever produced”.
Editor’s Note: For a look at English History from a Roman Catholic perspective, Queenanneboleyn.com highly recommends Stephanie’s phenomenal book, Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation.
In this video, Stephanie Mann compares and contrasts the portrayals of St. Thomas More from Robert Bolt’s classic script “Man for All Season” and the contemporary “Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel.
Video Credit: Spiritual Life Center of Wichita
Hilary Mantel — Historical Fiction Novelist, Short Story Writer
“You can be merry with the king, you can share a joke with him. But as Thomas More used to say, it’s like sporting with a tamed lion. You tousle its mane and pull its ears, but all the time you’re thinking, those claws, those claws, those claws.” — Wolf Hall
“He never sees More – a star in another firmament, who acknowledges him with a grim nod – without wanting to ask him, what’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory’. Show me where it says relics, monks, nuns. Show me where it says ‘Pope’.” — Wolf Hall
“He thinks, I remembered you, Thomas More, but you didn’t remember me. You never even saw me coming.” — Wolf Hall
Video Credit: Veronique Laurent
Claire Ridgway — Historian, History Writer, Blogger, Vlogger, Tour Guide, and Teacher
Thank you to Beth for asking me to contribute my thoughts on this rather divisive Tudor man.
For some people, he’s Saint Thomas More, a hero, and martyr, a man who was willing to die rather than sell his soul to the devil by accepting his master, Henry VIII, as supreme head of the church. Whereas, for others, he’s an evil man who enjoyed burning those whose faith did not match his own. Of course, people are rarely saint or sinner, however much we want to divide them into goodies and baddies.
More encouraged the burning of heretics, yes. But in a time when people were far more worried about the fate of their eternal soul than their earthly body, More would have seen these heretics as dangerous to the English population. He would have believed that he was saving people’s souls. It’s hard for us to understand that. I don’t condone his feelings or actions, but I can try to understand them in the context of his time.
I find More a fascinating figure. I love the insight we get into his relationship with his daughter, Meg, from letters he wrote to her when he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, including the final one written in charcoal. And his scaffold words “I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first” have to be admired. He was incredibly courageous and pious, but for me, the most interesting thing about him is his book Utopia. I studied it at university so it holds fond memories for me, but like More, it’s a bit of a conundrum as it can be read as a political satire or as a serious work, a representation of what More believed to be a perfect society. It’s one of those books that should be on everyone’s “must read one-day” list, plus it sounds good if you bring it up at dinner parties!
Video Credit: The Anne Boleyn Files and Tudor Society
Editor’s Note: Beth von Staats strongly recommends that you visit Claire at YouTube to enjoy her series of videos focusing on “This Day in Tudor History”. Love Tudor History in vlog formate? Visit The Tudor Society and The Anne Boleyn Files on YouTube!
Beth von Staats — Founder/Owner/ Administrator of Queenanneboleyn.com
People often ask me which “Tudor Thomas” was the hero, which was the villain — Saint Thomas More or Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex. (I choose to respectfully title both men their highest bestowed status.) It seems a natural question to ask. After all, the masters of Tudor storytelling, Rober Bolt and Hilary Mantel, share highly divergent life stories of these remarkable Tudor figures — their characterizations both demonizing or whitewashing Cromwell and More, triggering heated debate among English Tudor history lovers, experts, and novices alike.
It is sad really. Both men were geniuses caught up in the religious turmoil of their times, their opposing views setting the stage for a “forced and unnatural rivalry” of the ages. Both men were villains. Both men were heroes. Neither man was a living saint. What they shared was a 16th-century mindset, their life decisions driven by the culture, customs, morals, values, and societal expectations of their times. Consequently, both men were capable of burning other men at the stake for whatever was considered heresy at the moment by the everchanging definition set Henry VIII. As Leanda de Lisle recently observed in her fascinating podcast, Cromwell also not only manipulated the fall and execution of an anointed Queen but further targeted other women.
In stark contrast, Thomas Cranmer is “given a pass” by novelists and history writers for those lives he was instrumental in ending through burning, martyrs also laying at his feet. He could be a brutal man, too. Cranmer simply has not yet been highlighted by novelists and playwrights for doing so; thus, his misdeeds are “hidden in academia”. Thomas Cardinal Wolsey actually deserves his pass. He burned books, not people.
A patron of the arts, poet, playwright, novelist, lawyer, statesman, and religious scholar, Saint Thomas More — within the context of his 16th-century mindset — was a brilliant man of strong moral character by the standard of the times. Was he instrumental in the burning of “heretics” while Lord Chancellor of England? Yes. Did he torture these men in his Chelsea home? There is no evidence of this beyond the hostile source of John Foxe and Hilary Mantel’s fiction.
Even Pope John Paul II admitted Thomas More was not perfect, His Holy Father observing “It can be said that he demonstrated in a singular way the value of a moral conscience which is ‘the witness of God himself, whose voice and judgment penetrate the depths of man’s soul’,… even if, in his actions against heretics, he reflected the limits of the culture of his time.”
In my mind, as King Henry VIII thought of Thomas Cranmer, “That man has the sow by the right ear.”
Janet Wertman, Historical Fiction Author
From a young age, I have admired Sir Thomas More. I was impressed that he insisted upon giving his daughters the same classical education as his son (a highly unusual attitude at the time), I respected his decision to wear a cilice under his clothes as a self-imposed penance for the grace he had received from God, I appreciated his insight (warning Cromwell that “if a lion knew his strength, hard were it for any man to rule him”) and wit (when he needed help to mount the steps to the scaffold, he said to one of the officials “I pray you, master Lieutenant, see me safe up and [for] my coming down, let me shift for myself”), and I truly respected his writing and legal skills (Utopia is an amazing accomplishment, its complexities and contradictions still riveting today).
I also agree that he was, with Bishop John Fisher, Henry’s first martyr. In May, when I eulogized Queen Anne Boleyn, I called her the canary in the Tudor coal mine, showing us all just how evil Henry was truly prepared to be. Well, Thomas More was right there with her in the cage. His careful silence during The King’s Great Matter should have kept him safe – after all, silence was deemed consent under the law – but Henry’s insistence on a conviction pushed Richard Rich to testify that he had heard More privately express his disapproval. I’m going to give you More’s own response to that one, because his eloquence is far greater than mine:
“Can it therefore seem likely to your Lordships, that I should in so weighty an affair as this, act so unadvisedly, as to trust Mr. Rich, a man I had always so mean an opinion of, in reference to his truth and honesty, … that I should only impart to Mr. Rich the secrets of my conscience in respect to the King’s Supremacy, the particular secrets, and only point about which I have been so long pressed to explain myself? Which I never did, nor never would reveal; when the Act was once made, either to the King himself, or any of his Privy Councilors, as is well known to your Honors, who have been sent upon no other account at several times by His Majesty to me in the Tower. I refer it to your judgments, my Lords, whether this can seem credible to any of your Lordships.”
Yes, I understand there is controversy over his treatment of reformists during the time he spent as Lord Chancellor. Yes, that would ruin the way I view him – but I don’t fully believe it. Perhaps this is because I learned about Thomas More long before I heard John Foxe’s claims, kind of like baby birds imprinting on the first thing they see – but I also feel that I can justify my belief with two points. First, only six victims were sent to the stake during More’s tenure (which is six too many, but on the low side comparatively – Mary killed almost three hundred poor souls). More significantly, More utterly rejected these claims of torture and whipping ‘as help me God’ and I believe him, because this was a man who went to the block rather than risk his soul with false witness. Admittedly, during the year I place an asterisk next to his name, the same way we flag those sports heroes later found to have used steroids to achieve their feats – just in case the allegations are true. But on the anniversary of his death, he gets my full respect.
RIP to the man who died the King’s good servant, but God’s first.
Editor’s Note: For daily looks at Tudor History, QAB recommends you visit Janet’s popular blog Indulge Your Tudor Obsession, the Seymour Saga.