“Behold I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves. Be ye therefore wise as serpents and simple as doves” (Matt. 10, 16). Saint Thomas More was an English gentleman who lived from 1478 to 1510 during the reign of King Henry VIII. Throughout his entire life he was a shining example of faithful service to God, the Church, his king, and his country. He rose from an ordinary lawyer to Chancellor of England and friend of the king. Gifted with great political genius, More showed great wisdom and honesty in his high station, working for the good of the king and the Church, two parties which seemed to be irreconcilable. Though extraordinarily faithful and honest, he was executed by the king and the English government for refusing to sign an oath which formally denied the authority of the Pope. This Saint showed us how to be true Catholics who are in, but not of the world.
Thomas More was not born into an especially high station, but was a diligent student and made rapid progress through the ranks of government, eventually becoming a member of Parliament. He fulfilled the duties of his high station faithfully, spending his free time engaged in reading and studying. His family, although raised in the comfort of a high station, was the model of an ordinary, holy lifestyle that any Catholic family should strive to imitate. More gave his children a thorough education and a great appreciation for classical learning. He enjoyed being with his family, and was fond of the innocent pleasures and comforts of life, but always willing to work hard and make sacrifices when needed. Though he associated professionally with many influential men, he rarely invited those of the rich and noble classes to his house. Instead, he frequently sheltered the poor and needy of his village in his own house and gave generously to the poor. More went to Mass daily, sang in the choir, and even served Mass. He participated in many other liturgical functions outside Mass, including processions and pilgrimages on foot. He ruled his house in such a way as to encourage sanctity in everyone. He kept his personal devotions private, and even wore a hair shirt.
More eventually became Chancellor of England and close friend of the King of England, Henry VIII. Unquestionably a political genius, he quietly spent his great talents on trying to avert the great evils that were soon to envelop the country. He was only ambitious for the cause of good, and thus he did not rise to such historical fame and power as some of his more unscrupulous contemporaries, many of whom became his enemies. As More attained the political height of his career, he saw that he could not last long in such a high position as a Catholic faithful to both the Pope and the king. He had only attained the office of Chancellor after Cardinal Wolsey, a man working almost entirely for Henry’s wishes, had displeased the king. More knew that he could not in good conscience follow the king to the end of the path he was taking against Rome. Though he saw this coming, he kept loyal and silent as long as he possibly could. However, More was an outspoken opponent of the spreading Protestant heresies in England, using all his legal power and influence to aid the Church in England.
The main conflict began when Henry VIII directly asked More if his marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon was valid, since she was a close relative of Henry’s, although he had been given a dispensation by the Pope for the marriage. Henry was certain that a divorce was required, and insisted that the Bible clearly supported him. More calmly and subtlety answered in a manner that did not offend or support the king’s position. More was ordered to attend councils and trials concerning the issue, but resolved to serve the king as much as possible, to keep far away from this affair, and say absolutely nothing that commended the king’s behavior, which became disobedient and vengeful after the Pope refused his request for divorce. As the state of affairs between the king and Rome drastically declined, Thomas More resigned with the king’s permission from the office of Chancellor. More then had to send away all his servants and live a much simpler lifestyle. Soon after, the king divorced his wife and married Anne Boleyn, coronating her about six months later. Henry tried to persuade More to attend the celebration afterward, but was disappointed when More refused on the grounds that he wanted to stay away from the whole affair. Henry and some of his close ministers then began to look for evidence of treason against the ex-Chancellor, but More repeatedly testified and proved that his innocence and loyalty were undeniable. More was brought before four members of the king’s personal council, who tried to persuade him to definitively turn to the king’s side instead of remaining silent about the issues at hand. They failed in this attempt, making the king all the angrier with More. After no sound charges were found with which to accuse More, the king and Parliament passed an Act which was to cost More his life.
The Act declared that Anne Boleyn was the true queen and that her children were the heirs to the throne. It also declared that any who refused to swear an oath before the king to acknowledge the entire Act was guilty of high treason. More was willing to comply with the Act so far, however, the Act also included preamble that definitively denied the Pope’s authority. For this reason, More could not comply. More was ordered to appear before the king and his court. He said farewell to his family, and freely obeyed the summons. After undergoing more persuasive attempts to dissuade him from his course of conscience, More officially refused to take the oath solely because of the schismatic preamble. If that was removed, he would take the oath. Many of the king’s closest councilors advised the king to revise the oath that modified the preamble so that More might sign it, but Henry angrily refused. More was then imprisoned and taken to the Tower of London, where he stayed for many long months.
Thomas More’s family was allowed to visit him as long as there was a hope that they could persuade him to take the oath. Despite their earnest pleadings, More gently and lovingly refused their requests. Once his captors realized that their efforts were hopeless, they refused to let More have any more visits from his family. He spent his long imprisonment praying, reading and writing affectionate letters to his friends and family, never once blaming them or anyone else for taking the oath he was committed to avoid. During the months nearing his execution, More was kept in total isolation. Meanwhile, Parliament officially declared that the king was the head of the Church in England. The king grew more and more angry with his former friend, ordering More to state his opinion on the anti-Rome Acts of Parliament. Sir Thomas More refused to say whether the oath was good or bad, and kept silent. The king had already executed a large group of London Carthusian monks and Bishop Fisher for refusing to swear the oath, and More knew that his life would also be forfeit for his decision.
He was then ordered to appear in court for the final verdict. More defended himself splendidly with great subtlety and wisdom, refusing to give his opinion on the Act. He proved that he had said or done nothing illegal or even offensive to the king, and was only guilty of keeping silence, which was not a crime. The only strength that the prosecution possessed was a false witness, Richard Rich, who told a heinous falsehood to the entire court. More definitively swore an oath before God that Rich’s testimony was perjury. The charges, though overtly false, were deemed legitimate by the jury and More was pronounced guilty. Before the Chancellor could pronounce the sentence, however, More had one final statement to make. He had done all that he could to keep silence and keep himself legally in the right. Now that there was nothing more he could do to protect himself, he finally and definitively declared his true opinion, which he had refused to reveal for so long throughout so many trials. He proclaimed that no king could place himself in any position of authority over the Catholic Church, and proved that this was the teaching of Christ passed down through the fathers for a thousand years. He then addressed the court and his false judges, and told them that he heartily prayed to meet them all in heaven. He was pronounced guilty of high treason, deserving of death, and was executed a few days later.
Thomas More bore these final trials with calm, patience, and charity. He was able to bid farewell to some of his family and friends, and he gave them his love and blessings. More prayed for both his captors and executioners, and even jested with them as he ascended the scaffold. Most notably, however, the saint persistently maintained a respectful attitude towards the king, even though the monarch was putting him to death unjustly. More died proclaiming that he was a faithful servant of both God and the king.
St. Thomas More was the perfect mix of politician, lawyer, philosopher, patriot, father, and saint – a man much needed for his time. His life should be an inspiration to all men today, in this world where the virtues More exemplified are so viciously attacked. We should all strive to imitate the example of this courageous Saint.
Bremond, Henry. Sir Thomas More. 2019. Kindle.
Churchill, Winston. A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Abridged by Christopher Lee. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2011.
Roper, William. The Life of Sir Thomas More. 2019. Kindle.
Roper, William. The Life of Sir Thomas More. Springfield, Illinois. Templegate Publishers.
The Holy Bible. Douay-Rheims. Post Falls, ID: Lepanto Press.
Very good summary on the life of St. Thomas More, a Saint especially for these times!
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