Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Thomas More by John Guy

On 26 March 1534 Henry got Parliament to approve an Act of Succession, settling the inheritance of the crown on his heirs by Anne Boleyn with a clause requiring any subject to swear an oath affirming the 'whole effect and contents' of the Act, including a paragraph saying that Anne's marriage was legally valid. Deeds or writings threatening the king or slandering his marriage were to be adjudged high treason, with the same offenses by words alone punishable with life imprisonment and loss of property. One day encountering Thomas in London, the Duke of Norfolk said to him, "By the mass, Master More, it is perilous striving with princes. And therefore I would wish you somewhat to incline to the king's pleasure. For by God's body, Master Moore, the wrath of the prince is death."

"Is that all, my Lord?", Thomas replied. "Then, in good faith, is there no more difference between your grace and me, but that I shall die today, and you tomorrow."

The day before the Act of Succession came into law, More put all his property into trust, naming his trustees. Should he die, they were to distribute his assets in accordance with a set of sealed instructions deposited for safe-keeping with his secretary. This was technically legal but might be regarded as the equivalent of a debtor setting up a trust on the eve of an insolvency claim. His chief concern was for his daughter Margaret, his favorite child, remembering that he'd never got around to giving her dowry to William Roper. Plainly troubled as to whether his settlement would hold (it didn't), two days later he signed a second conveyance removing the two and a half acre plot known as Butts Close from the trustees, throwing in a house, barn, garden, and making them over to the Ropers unconditionally. They moved to Butts Close, barely five minutes walk away from the mansion house, a few days later, enabling Margaret to stay beside her father, but with her future in Chelsea secure.

The rest of the family must have been oblivious to the danger since, according to the eyewitness recollections of Harris and Margaret's new maid, Dorothy Colley, Thomas decided to give them a visceral, macabre warning, inviting them all to dinner, then arranging for one of the king's messengers to call in the middle of the meal. The man knocked at the door, entered the hall, and pretended to summon More to appear before the King's commissioners administering the oath. Pandemonium ensued, before Thomas confessed that this was a dress rehearsal. He'd wanted, he explained, to prepare those dearest to him for what fate [ providence by More's own reckoning] was about to bring; it would be the more devastating for them to be taken unawares.

Once everyone was calm again, Thomas spoke of his own fears and doubts, of the joys of heaven and the pains of hell. Only with the blessing of his wife and children, he said, did he think he could find the strength to refuse the oath, for after over twenty years of doing everything he could to keep his public and private business seperate, he'd finally been forced to concede that he was too gregarious, too emotionally dependent on his family, to face Henry's terrible wrath alone, and that far from screening them from what was too come, he could only achieve his aims with their constant love and support.


  1. Shortly before the new Acts of Attainder against More were printed and perhaps as the result of a final, desperate attempt by Cromwell to exert pressure on More, Lady Alice came in a wherry from Chelsea to see her husband. It was the one and only time she would make the effort, because she simply couldn't fathom how the man she' married, and who'd risen to such heights of power and influence as a royal councillor and Lord Chancellor, had ended up as a prisoner like this.

    "What the good-year, Master More", she began as she strode into the cell, barely pausing for breath.

    "I marvel that you that have been always hitherto taken for such a wise man will now so play the fool to lie here in this close, filthy prison and be content thus to be shut up among mice and rats, when you might be abroad at your liberty and with the favour and good will of the King and his Council, if you would but do as all the bishops and best learned of this realm have done. And seeing you have at Chelsea a right fair house, your library, your books, your gallery, your garden, your orchard and all other necessaries so handsome about you, where you might in the company of me your wife, your children and household be merry, I muse what in God's name you mean here thus to tarry."

    Lady Alice was flummoxed, and even bitter, as to why Thomas just couldn't say a few simple words and sign his name on a piece of paper. The most she was willing to concede was that her husband had 'a long continued and deep-rooted scruple as passeth his power to avoid or put away, but was unable to grasp what it could be or why it could be so, for their own son-in-law, and especially William Roper and Giles Alington, had taken the oath the moment it was laid before them.

    "Is not this house as nigh hevean as my own" asked More, unfazed by his wife's rebuke.

    "Tilly Vally, tilly vally', retorted Alice, meaning nonsense, fiddlesticks! It isn't moral principles that pay the bills and feed the family.

  2. As royal councillor and and Lord Chancellor (the highest judicial office in the Kingdom) More raked in the dough. He spent it lavishly, maintaining a huge household, purchasing and expanding his estates so that when he finally resigned he had little enough to sustain the lifestyle his family had been grown accustomed to. After his execution most of what he possessed was confiscated. The family itself fell into lengthy legal disputes over what titles and rents remained. Subsequently his wife was even forced to apply for a modest 'mercy' pension from the King to sustain herself.

    As Chancellor More himself prosecuted and burned heretics of the 'Lollard"(reading the bible in unauthorized English translations) and Lutheran variety, on occasion imprisoning on his own estates and having them beaten, without the proper legal writs. Many of his decisions as Lord Chancellor were undertaken in an arbitrary fashion without consideration of all the particulars and in contradiction to established procedures, in keeping with the Platonic vision described in his treatise "Utopia", in which 'wise princes' obviated the need for "inflexible' legal codes or much lawyering. Sometimes he agreed to hear cases outside normal legal channels, sometimes not- depending it can be assumed on what result he or "providence' divined.

    Paradoxically, from the early days of his marriage up until the day of his execution he worn a discomforting hair shirt. In short, he was a man for his season rather than for all seasons, except with respect to the cause of the Roman Catholic Church with which he has long been closely associated.

    He and the great humanist of the age Erasmus were great friends, colleagues and correspondants. Erasmus was particulasrly impressed by the education he provided his daughter Margaret whose classical learning was more advanced than all but the most learned of the age and for this More deserves our respect.

    Erasmus, however, had a different idea of his own strengths and weaknesses. "Mine", he told Richard Pace, 'was never the spirit to risk my life for the truth. Not everyone has the strength needed for martydom. I fear that, if strife were to break out, I shall behave like Peter. When popes and emperors make the right decisions I follow, which is godly; if they decide wrongly, I tolerate them, which is safe."

    A Daughter's Love; Thomas More & His Dearest Meg by John Guy; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, 2009