Thomas More: Life Story

Chapter 18 : The Oath

In March 1534, Parliament passed the Act of Succession. In April 1534, More was aware that he would soon be called upon to swear the Oath and began to make his preparations. He went on a short pilgrimage to Our Lady of Willesden, north-west of London, where he stayed with his step-daughter and her husband, whilst continuing to work on his ‘Treatise on the Passion.’ He also drew up various land conveyances with his death in contemplation.

The 12th April was Low Sunday – the Sunday after Easter – and merited a trip to St Paul’s Cathedral for Mass, to be followed up with a visit to his former ward, Margaret Giggs, now married to John Clement, who had been one of the tutors in the household. En route, he was served with a summons to attend the Archbishop the following day at Lambeth Palace to take the oath.

The time had come. More returned to Chelsea and explained to his family that he intended to refuse the oath and would probably be sent to prison. After attending Mass the next morning in the parish church, he bade them goodbye at the garden gate, and took his barge along the Thames to Lambeth, accompanied only by his son-in-law, William Roper.

On his arrival, he was the first to be called, despite a long queue of clergy already waiting. The Commission consisted of Archbishop Cranmer, Cromwell, Lord Chancellor Audley and the Abbot of Westminster, William Benson.

More was handed the oath and asked to swear it. He read it carefully, then asked for a copy of the Act itself for comparison purposes. Eventually, he spoke:

‘My purpose is not to put any fault either in the Act or any man that made it, or in the oath or any man that swears it, nor to condemn the conscience of any other man. But as for myself in good faith my conscience so moves me in the matter, that though I will not deny to swear to the succession, yet unto the oath that here is offered to me I cannot swear, without the jeoparding of my soul to perpetual damnation.’

The Commissioners sent More out of the room to reflect upon the fact that he was the first man to have refused the oath, and that the King would be angry. Whilst he was waiting, he saw others pass through – most signed, even those who were known to dislike it, but a few, including Fisher of Rochester refused it.

He was called back in and the Commissioners again tried to persuade him. They asked for his objections, but he refused to explain. He was well aware that he would anger Henry with his refusal, there was no point in going into details that would only irritate the King further. Besides, he was entitled to remain silent so as not to incriminate himself.

Cranmer pointed out that More himself had said that it was ‘uncertain’ whether or not he should sign the oath. Since they could all be certain that he should obey his King, surely he ought to sign? Whilst acknowledging the Archbishop’s point, More still refused. Again they pressed him – when so many others had signed, surely he could not hold out against widespread acceptance? In a sense, this was appealing to More’s own beliefs about the importance of unity rather than individual conscience. His response was that his view was supported by the vast majority of the wider Church, both living and dead.

They had reached impasse. More confirmed that he would be willing to swear a different oath, involving only the succession, but as it stood, he could not swear. Cranmer seized on this compromise and put it to Henry, but it was refused. More, and Fisher, must sign as the oath stood, lest a precedent be created.

By 17th April argument was at an end. More was sent to the Tower. He was wearing his great golden ‘ss’ collar, token of his allegiance. On being advised to send it home, he responded, with his typical dry humour, that, if he were taken by his enemies, he hoped they would at least have some profit from him.

On reception at the Tower, More was taken either to the Beauchamp or the Bell Tower. The Lieutenant, Sir Edmund Walsingham, an old acquaintance, took him to a cell, advising him to make the best of it. More responded that anyone who did not like such a cell should be immediately ejected from the Tower.

As a gentleman, his prison, although plain, would not have been a slimy dungeon, but a single, cold chamber with a table and stool and a pallet bed. He was permitted to retain a servant. Prisoners had to pay for their own keep, and More paid 15s per month for board and lodging for himself and his man – a considerable amount. He was also permitted to walk in the garden and attend the chapel. He had a collection of books, including a New Testament – was it Erasmus’ or the Vulgate?