How did it come about that a man with such ideas seething in his head should have been appointed to Henry VIII’s council in the year after the publication of Utopia? Probably the King, despite his reputation for learning, could not bear to read the book in Latin, and died before it was Englished. More kept his radical fancies for his friends. Henry knew him as a rare synthesis of ability and integrity, valued him as a tie with the House of Commons, knighted him, made him Under-Treasurer (1521), and entrusted him with delicate tasks of diplomacy. More opposed the foreign policy by which Wolsey led England into war with Charles V; the Emperor, in More’s view, was not only dangerously resourceful, he was also the heroic defender of Christendom against the Turks. When Wolsey fell More so far forgot his manners as to review, in Parliament, the faults and errors that had caused the fall. As leader of the opposition he was the logical successor of the Cardinal, and for thirty-one months he served as Chancellor of England.
But the real successor to Wolsey was the King. Henry had discovered his own power and capacity, and was resolved, he said, to free himself from an unfriendly and obstructive papacy, and to legitimate his union with the woman whom he loved, and who could give him an heir to the throne. More found himself no guide of policy, but a servant of aims that ran counter to his deepest loyalties. He consoled himself by writing books against Protestant theology, and prosecuting Protestant leaders. In A Dialogue Concerning Herestes (1528), and in later works, he agreed with Ferdinand II, Calvin, and the Lutheran princes on the necessity of religious unity for national strength and peace. He feared the division of Englishmen into a dozen or a hundred religious sects. He who had defended Erasmus’ Latin translation of the New Testament protested against Tyndale’s English version as distorting the text to prove Lutheran points; translations of the Bible, he felt, should not be turned into weapons for tavern philosophers. In any case, he held, the Church was too precious a vehicle of discipline, consolation, and inspiration to be torn to pieces by the hasty reasoning of vain disputants.
From this mood he passed to the burning of Protestants at the stake. The charge that in his own house he had a man flogged for heresy 47 is disputed; More’s account of the offender seems far removed from theology: “If he spied any woman kneeling” in prayer, and “if her head hung anything low in her meditations, then would he steal behind her, and .... would labor to lift up all her clothes and cast them quite over her head.” 48 It may be that in the three death sentences pronounced in his diocese during his chancellorship he was obeying the law that required the state to serve as the secular arm of ecclesiastical courts;49 but there is no doubt that he approved of the burnings.50 He admitted no inconsistency between his conduct and the large toleration of religious differences in hisUtopia; for even there he had refused toleration to atheists, deniers of immortality, and those heretics who resorted to violence or vituperation. Yet he himself was guilty of vituperation in arguing against the English Protestants.*
The time came when More thought Henry the most dangerous heretic of all. He refused to approve the marriage with Anne Boleyn, and he saw in the anticlerical legislation of 1529–32 a ruinous assault upon a Church that to his mind stood as an indispensable base of social order. When he retired from office to the privacy of his Chelsea home (1532), he was still in his prime at fifty-four, but he suspected that he had not much longer to live. He tried to prepare his family for tragedy by talking (so reports his son-in-law William Roper)
of the lives of holy martyrs, and of... their marvelous patience, and of their passions [sufferings] and deaths, that they suffered rather than they would offend God, and what an happy and a blessed thing it was, for the love of God, to suffer loss of goods, imprisonment, loss of lands, and life also. He would further say unto them that upon his faith, if he might perceive his children would encourage him to die in a good cause, it should so comfort him that for the very joy thereof it would make him merrily to run to death.52
His expectations were fulfilled. Early in 1534 he was indicted on a charge of having been privy to the conspiracy connected with the Nun of Kent, He admitted having met her, and having believed her to be inspired, but he denied any knowledge of conspiracy. Cromwell recommended, Henry granted, forgiveness. But on April 17 More was committed to the Tower for refusing to take oath to the Act of Succession, which, as presented to him, involved a repudiation of papal supremacy over the Church in England. His favorite daughter Margaret wrote to him begging him to take the oath; he replied that her plea gave him more pain than his imprisonment. His (second) wife visited him in the Tower, and (according to Roper) berated him for obstinacy:
What the good year, Mr. More, I marvel that you, that have always been hitherunto taken for a wise man, will now so play the fool to lie here in this close, filthy prison, and be content to be shut up among mice and rats, when you might be abroad at your liberty, and with the favor and goód 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 orchards, and all other necessaries so handsomely about you, where you might, in the company of me, your wife, your children, and your household, be merry, I muse what a God’s name you mean here still thus fondly to tarry.53
Other efforts were made to move him, but he smilingly resisted them all.
On July 1, 1535, he was given a final trial. He defended himself well, but he was pronounced guilty of treason. While he was returning from Westminster to the Tower his daughter Margaret twice broke through the guard, embraced him, and received his last blessing. On the day before his execution he sent his hairshirt to Margaret, with a message that “tomorrow were a day very meet” to “go to God.... Farewell, my dear child; pray for me, and 1 shall pray for you and all your friends, that we may merrily meet in heaven.” 54 When he mounted the scaffold (July 7), and found it so weak that it threatened to collapse, he said to an attendant, “I pray you, Mr. Lieutenant, see me safe up, and for my coming down let me shift for myself.” 55 The executioner asked his forgiveness; More embraced him. Henry had given directions that only a few words should be allowed the prisoner. More begged the spectators to pray for him, and to “bear witness that he... suffered death in and for the faith of the Holy Catholic Church.” He then asked them to pray for the King, that God might give him good counsel; and he protested that he died being the King’s good servant, but God’s first.56 He repeated the Fifty-first Psalm. Then he laid his head upon the block, carefully arranging his long gray beard that it should take no harm; “pity that should be cut,” he said, “that hath not committed treason.” 57 His head was affixed to London Bridge.
A wave of terror passed through an England that now realized the resolute mercilessness of the King, and a shudder of horror ran through Europe. Erasmus felt that he himself had died, for “we had but one soul between us”;58 he said that he had now no further wish to live, and a year later he too was dead. Charles V, apprised of the event, told the English ambassador: “If I had been master of such a servant, of whose doing I myself have had these many years no small experience, I would rather have lost the best city in my dominions than lose such a worthy councilor.” 59 Pope Paul III formulated a bull of excommunication outlawing Henry from the fellowship of Christendom, interdicting all religious services in England, forbidding all trade with it, absolving all British subjects from their oaths of allegiance to the King, and commanding them, and all Christian princes, to depose him forthwith. As neither Charles nor Francis would consent to such measures, the Pope withheld issuance of the bull till 1538. When he did promulgate it Charles and Francis forbade its publication in their realms, unwilling to sanction papal claims to power over kings. The failure of the bull signalized again the decline of papal authority and the rise of the sovereign national state.
Dean Swift thought More the man “of the greatest virtue”—perhaps using this word in its old sense of courage—“this kingdom ever produced.” 60 On the four hundredth anniversary of their execution the Church of Rome enrolled Thomas More and John Fisher among her saints.