13th April 2012, 09:06 PM
The Execution of Sir Thomas More
A Man For All Seasons, the 1966 film based on Robert Bolt's play and starring Paul Scofield, imprinted on a generation a glowing picture of Sir Thomas More as a warmhearted humanist: a loving family man, a brilliant lawyer and writer, and a steadfast friend of Henry VIII until the rift over Henry's break with the Roman church brought More to the execution block.
A child of the 60s, I was drawn to More the humanist when I began to write my novel The Queen's Lady, the first in what became the "Thornleigh" series. What I discovered in my research was a complex and conflicted man. As Henry's chancellor, More banned books and burned men at the stake. He was a child of his time, of course, and his time - the Reformation - terrified him.
Deeply conservative, More loathed and feared the radicalism of the German Lutherans. He was shaken by the news of the sack of Rome, a barbarous rampage by a mixed brew of Spanish, Italian, and German mercenary troops who, unpaid after fighting for the Emperor Charles, mutinied and stormed the city. They massacred a third of the population, prodded cardinals through the streets to be butchered, auctioned off nuns who were then raped at their altars, and shredded precious manuscripts of the Vatican library to use for horses' bedding. The carnage stunned Europe.
As Chancellor of England, More was vigilant at upholding the church's authority as the supreme pillar of the state. At that time Bibles printed in English were illegal (the church allowed only Bibles in Latin) and More authorized raids on secret gatherings of people who had smuggled in English Bibles. He destroyed the books and sent the criminals, if they did not recant their heresy, to the stake to be burned.
Like complex ideologues of our own time, More, while condemning others to death, was also a caring and loving father. He wrote affectionate letters to his children whenever he was away on his business for the king, and, quite unusually for the period, he educated his daughters on an equal footing with his son. He was so proud of his daughter Margaret's erudition he encouraged her to correspond regularly with his friend, the great Dutch intellectual humanist, Desiderius Erasmus.
More also had a ward, Anne Cresacre, who grew up with his children and married his son, John. The Court of Wards was one of the Tudor crown's most lucrative ministries. All orphans with significant property became wards of the king, who then sold the wardships. Gentlemen bid for these sought-after prizes since the guardian pocketed the rents and revenues of the ward's property until the young person came of age.
Anne Cresacre's story inspired me to create another ward for More in The Queen's Lady, Honor Larke, who grows up revering him and becomes a lady-in-waiting to Henry VIII's first wife, Catherine of Aragon. The story turns on Honor being forced to choose sides in the religious extremism of the day, bringing her into conflict with her once-beloved guardian.
More himself was famously forced to choose, too, and a horrifying choice it was, when his friend Henry, the king, demanded that all men swear an oath acknowledging him as supreme head of the church in England. Henry's break with the Roman church was the result of his implacable drive to get the Pope to annul his marriage to Catherine so he could marry Anne Boleyn. The penalty for refusing to take the oath was death. The vast majority of Henry's subjects complied. But Sir Thomas More believed that no king was, or could ever be, the supreme head of the church, and that if he swore the oath he would perjure his immortal soul. Along with several Carthusian monks and Bishop John Fisher, More chose death.
On the scaffold, as the executioner stood ready with his axe, More's last words were true to his complex nature: "I die the king's good servant, but God's first."
Barbara Kyle is the author of the acclaimed "Thornleigh" series of historical novels which follow a family's adventures through three tumultuous Tudor reigns. The series includes The Queen's Gamble, The Queen's Captive, The King's Daughter, and The Queen's Lady, all published internationally.
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