“Sir Thomas More” by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1527 (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
The Forty Martyrs series by Paul Combs
Many of you will be at least somewhat familiar with Sir Thomas More, if only from his classic work Utopia. Readers in the U.K. will, I imagine, be considerably more familiar with him than those in the U.S., given his role in British history. What may come as a surprise to even many Catholics is that Sir Thomas More is also Saint Thomas More.
This is an understandable ignorance, though surely in need of correction. Part of the reason I’m doing this series is because, on the whole, Spanish and Italian saints seem to be far better known than those from Great Britain. In the case of Thomas More, it’s even more astonishing to some that he is a saint, given that he was also a politician. Few politicians today have much hope of earning a similar distinction.
I mentioned in the introduction to this series that I would be including two saints who are not typically included with those the Church designates the “Forty Martyrs of England and Wales;” Thomas More is the first of those two, and by far the most famous of all of them. He was born in London on February 7, 1478, the son of a successful lawyer, and from an early age it was expected that he would follow his father into that profession. He attended St. Anthony’s School and also served as a page to John Morton, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of England.
Archbishop Morton saw great potential in More beyond simply being a lawyer and convinced his father to send him to Oxford for two years, where he studied Latin, logic, and Greek and Latin literature. In 1494, he returned to London to study common law and in 1501 was admitted to the Bar. For a few years after this, More seriously considered becoming a monk, but ultimately decided he could serve God better as a layman. He married Jane Colt in 1505, and together they had four children. After Jane died in 1511, he married Alice Middleton.
In 1504, More was elected to Parliament, representing Great Yarmouth; in 1510 he was elected to represent London. This started what was a meteoric political career that would see him serve as a Privy Counsellor (1514), under-treasurer of the Exchequer (1521), Speaker of the House of Commons (1523), and finally Lord Chancellor of England (1529).
From 1521 onward, More was a personal adviser to King Henry VIII. After the Protestant Reformation in Europe began in 1517, More helped Henry VIII compose his response to Martin Luther, Defence of the Seven Sacraments, which was published in 1521 and for which Henry received the title of “Defender of the Faith” from Pope Leo X. Soon, however, More and Henry would find themselves on opposite sides of a major theological debate.
In 1527, after his wife Queen Catherine of Aragon had failed to give him a male heir, Henry attempted to use Leviticus 20:16 to prove that his marriage to Catherine was invalid so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. He made this case to More (as well as to the pope), but More could not accept it. Henry went forward with the divorce and rather than openly oppose the king, More claimed he was in poor health and resigned from office in 1532.
For two years, More remained silent; he would neither support Henry’s break with Rome and sign the Act of Succession and Oath of Supremacy nor speak against them publicly. More believed this silence would protect both him and his family, because under English Law at the time his silence would been seen as his agreeing with the both the Act of Succession and Oath of Supremacy.
In 1534, however, when formal ascent to both the Act of Succession and the Oath of Supremacy was demanded of him, More refused. This was a clear declaration that he refused to accept the king as head of the Church in England. On April 17, 1534, More was sent to the Tower of London and was ultimately found guilty of treason. After his conviction, More did finally speak his mind:
“I will now in discharge of my conscience speak my mind plainly; forasmuch as this indictment is grounded upon an Act of Parliament directly repugnant to the Laws of God and his Holy Church, the supreme government of which … may no temporal prince presume by any law to take upon him, as rightfully belonging to the See of Rome [the Papacy], a spiritual preeminence by the mouth of our Savior himself, while personally present upon the earth, only to St. Peter and his successors, the Bishops of Rome, by special prerogative granted; it is therefore in law amongst Christian men insufficient to charge any Christian man.”
Because of his years of service, Henry commuted the sentence from one of being hanged, drawn, and quartered to beheading; More was executed on July 6, 1535. The king had ordered that More’s last words from the scaffold be brief, and More was obedient to the end. His final words were: “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”
In recent years, More has been held up by some as the model champion of the indissolubility of marriage, but I believe this misses the point. The issue of Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon obviously sparked the crisis, but as More’s statement at his trial shows, his concern went far beyond this. For Thomas More, the position of the pope as head of the Catholic Church, and thus the survival of the Catholic Church, was at stake.
As many surely did, Thomas More could have signed the Act of Succession and Oath of Supremacy even while not really supporting them. His conscience would not allow this, however; he was willing to die for his firm belief that no lay ruler has authority over the Church, and it was for this belief and his ultimate martyrdom that the Church canonized him in 1935. In 2000, Pope St. John Paul II named More the patron of political leaders. And in a testament to More’s character, in 1980 he was added as a martyr of the Reformation in the Church of England’s calendar of “Saints and Heroes of the Christian Church.” St. Thomas More is the patron saint of lawyers, politicians, civil servants, court clerks, and adopted children.
I want to close by encouraging everyone to watch A Man for All Seasons, the 1966 film depicting the last years of Thomas More’s life. It is one of the best historical films ever made, and Paul Scofield deservedly won an Oscar for his portrayal of St. Thomas More. Here’s a clip: