Thomas More: Life Story

Chapter 7 : Causes Célèbres

As the 1510s passed, More became increasingly involved in public life. He was a member of various deputations to the King’s Council, regarding trade matters, and took part in negotiations with the merchants of the Steelyard (the trading centre of the north European Hanseatic League in London). He also had a position as Commissioner of Sewers, covering the south bank of the Thames between Lambeth and Greenwich.

In 1512, he was responsible for ensuring that all the biscuit required for the army that Henry was about to lead into France was available and of appropriate quality, answering to Henry’s new minister and general factotum, Thomas Wolsey. Henry won a couple of French towns, and More penned more ironically flattering verses, including the lines:

‘Henry, a mightier and better prince than Caesar, took you bloodlessly;
He felt he’d gained honour by conquering you;
You felt yourself it was just as useful to be captured by him.’

Within his Inn, by 1515, More was a Reader (that is, he gave lectures each week during term time). His subject was legal French – the hybrid of Latin and Norman French in which law was partially conducted.  At around the same time, he also became a member of Doctors’ Commons, a group which dealt largely with canon law and maritime affairs.

During this period, More had involvement with the cause célèbre of the early sixteenth century, that of Richard Hunne. This case exposed the increasing anti-clericalism that was building up in London, and the clumsy efforts of senior Church leaders to control it. The case has been argued from all points over the centuries, but the facts are as follows.

In 1511, Richard Hunne, a successful and wealthy tailor in London, lost a son, Stephen, at the age of five weeks. It was customary for the priest burying a young child to be given the christening robe as a ‘mortuary’ gift. Whilst, financially, this would probably have been unimportant to Hunne, for many parents it was a considerable cost.

Hunne refused to hand over the robe to the priest, Thomas Dryffield.  A year later, Bishop Richard Fitzjames of London decided that Hunne was in the wrong, but the tailor would not budge. He was excommunicated by the parish priest against whom he retaliated with a charge of ‘praemunire’. The Statute of Praemunire had been enacted in 1393. Under its provisions, appeal to the Papal courts was severely limited, to ecclesiastical matters that could not be heard in England.

The Church authorities counter-charged with an accusation of heresy against Hunne, who was imprisoned in the Lollard’s Tower in St Paul’s cathedral. On the morning of 4th December 1514, he was found hanging in his cell, and it was announced that he had killed himself.

The explanation of suicide was not accepted and a Coroner’s inquest found that he had been murdered. The Bishop of London’s Chancellor, Dr Horsey, and two others, were indicted but never came to court. They claimed ‘benefit of clergy’ and perforce the secular authorities released them to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Warham, who took them out of harm’s way.

Hunne was posthumously declared a heretic, at a court which More attended, although without any involvement in the prosecution, and his body was burnt at Smithfield. This was a violation of the spirit of the law – heretics could only be burnt if they were ‘obdurate’ in their heresy. As Hunne was dead, he had had no opportunity to recant after being condemned.

The public outcry was so great that the Parliament of 1512 sought the abolition of the ancient benefit of clergy. Their argument was made by Dr Standish, who, although a friar, argued that murderers should be subject to the King’s court.

Henry prorogued Parliament and ordered the matter to be debated in front of him at Baynard’s Castle. More was again in attendance, as Henry refused to allow the matter to be sent to Rome for judgement. In words which presaged the King’s later views, he declared that ‘Kings of England in time past have never had any superior but God alone. ‘

More remained firmly of the opinion that Hunne had indeed hanged himself, and that the Bishop of London and his servants were blameless. For a detailed look at the evidence, see Marius’ biography of More – it is difficult to conclude anything from the arguments therein but that Hunne was murdered, although, of course, we cannot take from that that More was lying when he gave his opinion on the matter. He may have just been putting the best possible interpretation on the facts that he could.

More took a more personal role in another famous legal case of the time – the dispute between the Duke of Suffolk and a company of London-based Florentine merchants, who were acting for the Pope. The Papal States owned one of the most valuable properties in Europe – the alunite mines in Tolfa. Alunite can be used to produce the dye-fixative, alum and the produce of the mines were an important source of papal income, as the product was sold to the weaving industries of northern Europe.

In 1514, a shipment of it landed in Southampton for sale and distribution in London. Before it could reach its intended recipient - the Pope’s factor, Signor Cavalcanti - it had been seized by the Duke of Suffolk. It is not apparent whether this was simple theft on Suffolk’s part, or an attempt to enforce the customs restrictions that Henry had waived in an agreement with various Florentine merchants in return for support for the war of 1512. A third party entered the fray, in shape of the City of London authorities, who resented the fact that foreign merchants were permitted to trade amongst themselves without paying customs. 

More was originally appointed by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, to act as translator for the Pope’s envoy (called an ‘Orator’) Cardinal Carafa, who was in London, to take part in peace negotiations following the 1512-1514 war with France.  It does not appear that More was involved in the actual pleadings when Cavalcanti sued Suffolk in the Court of Star Chamber, but he put forward a suggestion for a compromise that Archbishop Warham, who was presiding, encouraged the parties to accept.