Henry VIII vs. Thomas More

By Katie Hugo, Franciscan University

Sir Saint Thomas More was an English lawyer, author and statesman, a Renaissance humanist, and a Catholic saint. However, he is most known for being the Lord Chancellor of England from October 1529 to May 1532. More resigned his position in 1532, because King Henry VIII claimed spiritual authority over the Catholic Church in England. Henry VIII wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn. The Pope did not allow this, and it led to Henry’s claim of spiritual authority. Eventually, More was publicly executed for his steadfastness to the Truth, refusing to approve of Henry’s marriage and claim to spiritual authority.

Thomas More was born on February 7, 1478 in London, England. He was the first son born to a devout Catholic family, and was the second of six children. More considered becoming a priest at a Carthusian monastery at one point, even going so far as to join them for prayers as much as physically possible for four years. However, the man realized that he was called to be a lay person in the Church. Thus, Thomas More did not join the clergy and remained a lay man for the rest of his life.

Instead of becoming a priest, Thomas More followed in his father’s footsteps and became a lawyer. He enjoyed studying the liberal arts, but he chose to follow his father’s career because his father thought it was best for him. He married his first wife, Jane Colt, sometime in late 1504 or early 1505. The couple had four children together before her untimely death in 1511 at the age of twenty-three. The next month, Sir Thomas More got remarried to Alice Middleton, a widow who was several years his senior. While his second marriage produced no children, he did raise her daughter from her first marriage as his own child. More had to get a dispensation of his own to get married so fast. However, biographers often attribute it to him wanting a mother figure for his children.

Even though More remained a lay man the rest of his life, he was known to rise early, pray, fast and wear a hair shirt. He was a frequent reader of the Bible and the Church Fathers, all of which deepened his Catholic Faith. As a devout Catholic, Thomas More believed that marriage was an indissoluble bond between a man and a woman. God and the Catholic Church remained the focal point of More’s life, until his 1535 execution.

Thomas More was also an influential humanist in his day. He had many connections on the continent, including the Dutch humanist, Desiderius Erasmus, better known as just Erasmus. The two met in late 1499, through a mutual friend. More was still a student in London while Erasmus visited the city. Even though Erasmus was ten years older than More, the two remained friends until More’s execution three and a half decades later. Erasmus stayed at More’s house when he came to England from the mainland of Europe. An interesting note is that Erasmus wrote his Praise of Folly while staying at his friend’s house. The work was written in Latin, which was the custom of Erasmus. The Latin name of this work is Moriae Encomium. This title can translate to In Praise of More, which is a pun on the name of his friend. Erasmus claimed that More was the one who came up with this title, and pushed him to publish it. This work quickly became one of the most popular works of the Renaissance humanist movement, and it is still read today.

Since Thomas More was connected to Erasmus, he was well-known in the circles of humanists. In addition to his friendship with Erasmus, Thomas More also wrote several works, including Utopia. This work was published in 1516 and it describes a world that is self-contained, an intricate island society. It is noteworthy that this is the first time that the word “utopia” is used. According to the British Library, it is not clear if More thought the island life was better or if he was using it as a satire to comment on the world around him. It can be interpreted either way, and this work was an instant hit among political leaders and humanists. The fact that he was well-known in the humanist circles posed a threat for the King because this could influence how others thought.

Most notably, Thomas More was a well-known politician in his nation. He started as an under-sheriff in London in 1517. Over the next few years, the politician rose through the ranks of the political hierarchy. He was knighted in 1521 and two years later he became the Speaker of the House of Commons. In addition, Thomas More became the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1525. In 1529, he was the Lord Chancellor to the King, and they were known to be close friends. During his time in this position, the King declared himself to be the head of the Church in England. Henry had declared himself the head of the Church in England because the Pope at the time had refused to grant him an annulment to his first wife, Catherine (or Katherine) of Aragon. Henry wanted to end his marriage to Catherine because she had been briefly married to his older brother Arthur, and Henry did not believe it was biblical. The pope did not allow this, however, because of a previous dispensation that Henry had received to marry her. Because Henry VIII had declared himself the head of the Church, he now had the authority to dissolve his marriage and get remarried.

More kept his silence on the subject. The chancellor wanted to stay true to his conscience, but he also did not want to cause political upheaval, especially with the War of the Roses a generation earlier. In 1532, More resigned his position in the government, citing failing health. In a letter to his friend Erasmus, More says that the King “respectfully ordered the Duke to proclaim publicly that he had unwillingly yielded to my request for resignation.” However, the timing of the resignation strongly suggests that it was because the King was pushing him to publicly agree to the divorce and remarriage.

The next year in 1533, Sir Thomas More was invited to the King’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, but he did not attend the wedding. The King was not happy with this decision because he wanted his friend to publicly agree. King Henry VIII realized that More’s refusal to approve of his decisions could inspire others to do the same. Thomas More’s name was listed in a document against Elizabeth Barton, who prophesied against the annulment. Their only contact was for him to tell her to stop. He was questioned, but released soon after because of his popularity. Around this time, Henry VIII got Parliament to pass the Act of Supremacy. This document made it treason to not agree that the English monarch was the head of the Church in England. In addition, it specified that the line of succession was the eldest surviving son, and, if no such heir existed, that Elizabeth would succeed King Henry VIII. This new law also required all citizens to take this oath.

However, Sir Thomas More did not sign this document because it was in direct violation of his religious beliefs. He was not opposed to Anne being the queen, but he was opposed to Henry being the head of the Catholic Church in England. While these were his thoughts, the former English chancellor remained silent on the issue and he did not speak out directly against the monarch’s demands. King Henry VIII wanted the man to be clear on his position regarding the new law, and he did not find his friend’s silence acceptable, deeming him a threat. As a result, the English government arrested Sir Thomas More in 1534 on charges of treason.

Sir Thomas More was held in the Tower of London for over a year after his 1534 arrest. During this time, Henry tried to pressure his friend into signing the Act of Supremacy. While in the tower of London, More wrote to his daughter that the King demanded: “I should either acknowledge and confess it lawful that his Highness should be Supreme Head of the Church of England or else to utter my plain malignity.” Clearly, Henry wanted a clear answer, and silence was not an acceptable answer. During his trial, Sir Thomas More was interrogated multiple times. The point of these interrogations was to force him to agree to the demands of the English monarch. As his biographer Anne Murphy notes, “More was not given a copy of the grounds for indictment before his trial, and only had it read out to him in court. He had had to conduct his own defence, could call on no witnesses, and could expect the jury to comply with the wishes of the bench.”

Thus, the court was a mere formality, and not an actual trial. The verdict was clear before the trial even commenced. The jury found him guilty of treason on June 26, 1535. In their book about More, biographers Louis W. Karlin and David R. Oakley note that he was, “sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered…The Crown mitigated the punishment.” Only the King could make such decisions. This indicates that, while he was considered a traitor to the Crown, King Henry VIII did recognize the contributions that More had made to the English realm.

As a result of the verdict, Sir Thomas More was beheaded on July 6, 1535 on Tower Hill. Before he was beheaded as a traitor to the English Crown, More asked the crowd to pray for him in this life, that he would pray for them in the next. Then he commented that he was, “the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” This statement shows that he did care about England and her king, wanting to see her succeed. However, to Sir Thomas More, his religious beliefs were more important.

After the sentence was carried out, “the executioner picked it up and displayed it to the crowds with the shout ‘Behold the head of a traitor.’” The English monarch viewed More as a traitor to the Crown, and thus he needed to be disposed of. This execution successfully ended the life of Sir Saint Thomas More on July 6, 1535. While the bodies of most traitors were thrown into the river, his body was given a more proper burial at a local church. Even though he was viewed as a traitor to the English Crown, his executioners recognized his legacy and respected it by letting him receive a proper burial.

King Henry VIII wanted to make an example of Sir Thomas More through his execution in the summer of 1535. During the reign of Henry VIII, most of his subjects did do as the king wished, but there were a few who resisted the Crown. However, his fame grew across the world. Devout Catholics became attracted to his life and, more importantly, the circumstances that led to his execution. To this day, Catholics across the globe still admire Sir Thomas More for his actions against the Crown. He was beatified on December 29, 1886. This proclamation made Thomas More a “Blessed,” as well as being the first English lay person to be beatified as a martyr. Christians refer to him as “Sir Saint Thomas More.” The title of “Saint” indicates that the Englishman was canonized, and now is venerated as a holy person in his church. Pope Pius XI canonized him 400 years after his death on May 19, 1935. Catholics celebrate him on his feast day of July 6, the date of his execution.

King Henry VIII achieved what he wanted in the short run. He received the submission of his subjects. However, the King’s tactic of forced submission to the Crown did not work in the long run because the legacy of Thomas More is respected. He is a well-known figure in Catholic circles, and even today Catholics look up to him as a heroic model.

Edited by Christopher Centrella

6 comments

  1. Excellent article, however the feast day of St. Thomas More is not the date of his execution, July 6th. Rather it is June 22d, a feast day shared with St. John Fisher, martyred on that date, also for opposing Henry VIII, and the only high ranking English cleric of note to do so.

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  2. More exactly, it was not “because of the previous dispensation to marry” that the Church refused the request for a declaration of nullity of marriage. That dispensation (allowing him to marry his brother’s widow, which was against Canon Law at the time) had been granted precisely because Katherine’s previous marriage to Arthur had never been consummated, and so was no real marriage. (They were both aged 16 when Arthur died. At the time it was common to arrange marriages of child royals for political reasons, with often years elapsing before the couple were permitted to actually come together.)

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  3. In fact More’s dead body was not treated with respect as you suggest. His head was impaled on a pike and fastened high above London Bridge for the edification of passers by. It stayed there for years until it was blown down in a storm and rescued by his daughter.

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