Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Man For All Seasons

Study of Thomas More's family
by Hans Holbein

"More is a man of an angel's wit and singular learning.
I know not his fellow.
For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability?
And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes,
and sometime of as sad gravity.
A man for all seasons."

Robert Whittington, 1520

Sir Thomas More (February 7, 1478 – July 6, 1535), also known as St. Thomas More, was an English lawyer, author, and statesman who in his lifetime gained a reputation as a leading Renaissance humanist scholar, and occupied many public offices, including Lord Chancellor (1529–1532). More coined the word utopia, a name he gave to the ideal, imaginary island nation whose political system he described in Utopia, published in 1516. He was beheaded in 1535 when he refused to sign the Act of Supremacy that declared King Henry VIII Supreme Head of the Church of England.
More was declared Patron Saint of politicians and statesmen by Pope John Paul II in 2000. He is venerated with Saint John Fisher on June 22, the day of the latter's death, in the Roman Church; on June 23 in the Order of Julian; on July 6 in the Anglican Church; and he is not commemorated at all in the Episcopal Church. So it was hard to decide on which day to say something about him; I opted for the Order of Julian's observance today.

Thomas was the eldest son of Sir John More, a successful lawyer who served as a judge in the King's Bench court. He was educated at St Anthony's School and was later (1491) a page in the household service of John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, who prophetically declared that young Thomas would become a "marvellous man." Morton sent More to attend the University of Oxford for two years as a member of Canterbury Hall, where he was a friend of Erasmus and John Colet. More studied Latin and logic. He then returned to London, where he studied law with his father and was called to the bar. Admitted to Lincoln's Inn in 1496, in 1501 More became a barrister, where he was eminently successful.

To his father's great displeasure, More seriously contemplated abandoning his legal career in order to become a monk. From 1499 to 1503 he stayed at the London Charterhouse, observing the discipline of a Carthusian monk. He also considered joining the Franciscan order. He finally set aside his monastic leanings, however, perhaps because he judged himself incapable of celibacy. More decided to marry in 1505, but for the rest of his life he continued to observe many ascetical practices, including the wearing of a hair shirt under his official vesture and occasionally, the practice of flagellation. He had became a Member of Parliament in 1504.

Thomas More had four children by his first wife, Jane Colt, who died in 1511. He remarried almost immediately, to a rich widow named Alice Middleton, several years his senior. More and Alice Middleton had no children together, though More raised Alice's daughter, from her previous marriage, as his own. More provided his daughters with an excellent classical education, at a time when such learning was usually reserved for men. He himself wrote poetry in Latin and English.

More was a prolific scholar, literary man, critic, and patron of the arts. His writing and scholarship earned him great reputation as a Christian Renaissance humanist in continental Europe, and his friend Erasmus of Rotterdam dedicated to him his masterpiece,
In Praise of Folly or Moriae Encomium (the book's title puns More's name; "moria" is folly in Greek). Erasmus described More as a model Man of Letters. The humanistic project embraced by Erasmus and More sought to reexamine and revitalize Christian theology by studying the Bible and the writings of the Church Fathers in light of classical Greek literary and philosophic tradition.

Thomas More greatly valued harmony and a strict hierarchy. The greatest danger to the health of the society, as he saw it, was the challenging of the established faith by heretics. For More the unity of Christendom was not only the instrument for the eternal salvation of souls, but also the basis of a common understanding of human nature necessary for just law and earthly happiness. He saw the fragmentation and discord of the Lutheran Reformation as dreadful, and
was actively involved in the counter-attack. He assisted Henry VIII with writing the Defense of the Seven Sacraments (1521), a polemic response to Martin Luther's On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. When Luther replied with measures of reform in Contra Henricum Regem Anglie (Against Henry, King of the English), Thomas More stood as the champion of his king. He also demonstrated that he was very human. He wrote a counter-response, Responsio ad Lutherum (Reply to Luther), a violent exchange which occasioned many intemperate personal insults on both sides. Saintly and mild-mannered, perhaps, in other aspects of his life, More definitely possessed an earthy potty-mouth. Michael Farris, in his book From Tyndale to Madison (2007), describes C. S. Lewis as describing Thomas More as "almost obsessed with harping on about Luther's 'abominable bichery' to the point where he 'loses himself in a wilderness of opprobrious adjectives'". Nevertheless, "More did not rely solely on ridicule and satire .... He also appealed to the common sense of his hearty fellow Englishmen. As the title of his book indicates his attempt was not simply to ridicule Luther's absurd and presumptuous railings; it was more basically to confront and refute Luther's accusations."

Just a sample:

Martin Luther himself was no slouch when it came to "opprobrious adjectives". Neither he nor More were averse to using strong, even shocking scatological language in their polemics when it suited their purposes. More had even been commissioned by Henry VIII to respond in kind to insults in language in which it was improper for the king himself to engage. Near the beginning of Chapter 21 in the first book of the Responsio, More quotes from Luther's book Against Henry, then makes his own response:

Luther: “ [The king] would have to be forgiven if humanly he erred. Now, since he knowingly and conscientiously fabricates lies against the majesty of my king in heaven [Christ], this damnable rottenness and worm, I will have the right, on behalf of my king, to bespatter his English majesty with muck and s--t and to trample underfoot that crown of his which blasphemes against Christ."

More: "Come, do not rage so violently, good father; but if you have raved wildly enough, listen now, you pimp. You recall that you falsely complained above that the king has shown no passage in your whole book, even as an example, in which he said that you contradict yourself. You told this lie shortly before, although the king has demonstrated to you many examples of your inconsistency ....

But meanwhile, for as long as your reverend paternity will be determined to tell these shameless lies, others will be permitted, on behalf of his English majesty, to throw back into your paternity's sh--ty mouth, truly the s--t-pool of all s--t, all the muck and s--t which your damnable rottenness has vomited up, and to empty out all the sewers and privies onto your crown divested of the dignity of the priestly crown, against which no less than against the kingly crown you have determined to play the buffoon.

In your sense of fairness, honest reader, you will forgive me that the utterly filthy words of this scoundrel have forced me to answer such things, for which I should have begged your leave. Now I consider truer than truth that saying: 'He who touches pitch will be wholly defiled by it' (Sirach 13:1). For I am ashamed even of this necessity, that while I clean out the fellow's s--t-filled mouth I see my own fingers covered with s--t.

But who can endure such a scoundrel who shows himself possessed by a thousand vices and tormented by a legion of demons, and yet stupidly boasts thus: 'The holy fathers have all erred. The whole church has often erred. My teaching cannot err, because I am most certain that my teaching is not my own but Christ's,' alluding of course to those words of Christ, 'My words are not my own but His who sent me, the Father's' (John 12:49)?" Ouch!!

In 1530, things began to go downhill in the relationship between Henry VIII and Thomas. The latter refused to sign a letter by the leading English churchmen and aristocrats asking the Pope to annul Henry's marriage to Catherine. He also quarrelled with Henry over the heresy laws. In 1531 he attempted to resign after being forced to take an oath declaring the king the Supreme Head of the English Church "
as far as the law of Christ allows", but he refused to take the oath in the form in which it would renounce all claims of jurisdiction over the Church except the sovereign's. In 1532 he asked the king again to relieve him of his office, claiming that he was ill and suffering from sharp chest pains. This time Henry granted his request.

The last straw for Henry came in 1533, when More refused to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn as the Queen of England. Thomas More had hoped to technically side-step a charge of treason by writing to Henry and acknowledging Anne's queenship, and expressing his desire for the king's happiness and for the new queen's health. Nevertheless, his absence was taken as a snub against Anne.

It wasn't long until a charge of accepting bribes was levelled against Thomas, though the false charges had to be dismissed for lack of any evidence. In early 1534, More was accused of conspiring with the "
holy maid of Kent", Elizabeth Barton, a nun who had prophesied against the king's annullment. Again, More side-stepped the charge by producing a letter in which he had instructed Barton not to interfere in matters of state. In April of the same year, More was asked to appear before a commission and swear his allegiance to the parliamentary Act of Succession. He accepted Parliament's right to declare Anne Boleyn the legitimate queen of England, but he steadfastly refused to take the oath because of the anti-papal preface to the Act, asserting that Parliament had the authority to legislate in matters of religion by impugning the Pope's authority, which More simply wouldn't accept. Thomas also refused to swear to uphold Henry's divorce from Catherine. John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, also refused the oath along with More.

Four days later Thomas More was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he prepared a devotional,
Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation. While imprisoned in the Tower, he had a few visits from Thomas Cromwell who urged him to take the oath, but More persistently refused to do so.

On July 1, 1535, More appeared before a panel of judges that included the new Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas Audley, as well as Anne Boleyn's father, brother, and uncle, and was tried. Talk about nepotism and "stacking the deck"! The charge: high treason for denying the validity of the Act of Succession. More believed he couldn't be convicted as long as he didn't explicitly deny that the king was the head of the Church, and he therefore refused to answer all questions regarding his opinions on the subject. Thomas Cromwell, then the most powerful of the king's advisors, brought forth the Solicitor General, Richard Rich, who testified that More had, in his presence, denied that the king was the legitimate head of the Church. Obviously, this testimony was almost certainly perjured, but on the strength of it the jury voted for More's conviction.

After the verdict was delivered and before his sentencing, More spoke freely of his belief that "no temporal man may be the head of the spirituality". He was sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, the usual punishment for traitors, but the king graciously (!) commuted this to execution by beheading.

The execution took place on July 6, 1535. When Thomas More was about to ascend the steps of the scaffold, he is widely quoted as saying: "I pray you, I pray you, Mr Lieutenant, see me safe up and for my coming down, I can shift for myself". While on the scaffold More declared that he died "the king's good servant, and God's first." He is also believed to have commented to the executioner that his beard was completely innocent of any crime, and therefore did not deserve the axe! Thomas then positioned his beard so that it would not be harmed. He asked that his foster daughter, Margaret Giggs, should be given his headless corpse to bury.

Thomas More was buried at the Tower of London, in the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in an unmarked grave. His head was fixed upon a pike over London Bridge for a month, according to the normal custom for traitors. His daughter Meg Roper then rescued it, possibly by bribery, before it could be thrown in the River Thames. The skull is believed to rest in the Roper Vault at St. Dunstan's Church, Canterbury, though some researchers claim that it might be within the tomb he erected for himself in Chelsea Old Church. The evidence, however, seems to favor its placement at St. Dunstan's, with the remains of his daughter, Margaret Roper and her husband's family, whose vault it was. Margaret would have treasured this relic of her adored father, and legend is that she wished to be buried herself with his head in her arms.

The tenacity and courage with which Thomas More held to his religious convictions, regardless of the severe consequences, as well as the dignity with which he conducted himself during his imprisonment, trial, and execution, gained him great respect and admiration among both Catholics and Protestants, many of whom saw More's conviction as unfair. His friend Erasmus, who was broadly sympathetic to reform movements within the Catholic Church, declared after his execution that More had been "more pure than any snow" and that his genius was "such as England never had and never again will have." The noted Roman Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton stated that More was the "greatest historical character in English history."

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