Thomas More: Life Story

Chapter 19 : Tower of London

During the months of his confinement, More corresponded regularly with his family, usually via letters to Margaret. They had all accepted the oath, and urged him to do likewise, if he could. He spent his time praying and writing. No more works on heresy now, he was thinking more of the consolation of his own faith, which he hoped would allow him to meet any further punishment calmly – he was worried that he would be tortured. He produced a work entitled ‘A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation.’  He also passed messages to and fro with Fisher, but although he confirmed to the Bishop that he would not swear the oath, he would not explain his reasons even to a fellow-traveller.

Visitors had initially been forbidden, but when Margaret wrote to her father pleading with him to accept the oath, she was permitted to visit, perhaps in the hope that she would persuade him. He asked after all of the family, and she reassured him that they were well, but wished he would sign the oath. He reiterated his refusal, but would still not specify his reasoning. Perhaps he did not want to make his daughter uneasy about her own choice by showing why he thought it wrong for him to swear.

Eventually, his wife, Alice, was permitted to visit. According to Roper’s account she asked him how he, who had been considered so wise, could let himself be confined in such a damp, cold, unhealthy place, infested with vermin. He just asked whether the Tower were not as close to heaven as his own house. Alice was exasperated. However fond they might have been of each other, there was no meeting of minds on this.

In October, although More’s health deteriorated, he was more strictly confined. An Act of Attainder was passed in Parliament against him, in which he was accused of sowing sedition. There was now no possibility of release. More turned his thoughts again to his faith and began a new work ‘De Tristitia Christi’ (On Christ’s Sorrow.)  Perhaps unsurprisingly, it focused on Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane and His betrayal.

In 1535, three brothers from the Charterhouse where More had once lived were arrested and tried for treason for refusing to swear to Henry as Supreme Head of the Church in England. They were tried and condemned to a traitor’s death.

Before the sentence on the monks was carried out, More received another delegation of Councillors, headed by Cromwell. Cromwell implied that because the Carthusians had refused to swear the oath, More would be responsible for the horrific deaths that awaited them.

Angry at this, More responded:

‘I do nobody harm, I say none harm, I think none harm, but wish everybody good. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith, I long not to live.’

The aggravated councillors asked why, if he was so determined to defy the King and the law by not swearing the oath, he did not just come out with his reasons against it? More’s response was that although his conscience prevented him swearing, it was also his bounden duty to accept his life as a gift from God, and not do anything to shorten it that he could help.

Nothing accomplished, More was returned to his cell, and a few days later, Margaret visited again. Her visit was carefully orchestrated for her to see the Carthusians being taken to Tyburn.

Whilst many have suggested that More was a hypocrite in that he considered silence from a heretic to be unacceptable, we can perhaps infer that the difference for him was that heretics preached their beliefs aloud, endangering the souls of others, whereas he was content to be silent, and not make any public declarations.

In mid-June, More was visited by Sir Richard Rich, the Solicitor General, who came to remove all of the prisoner’s books and writing materials. They entered into a conversation about which Rich wrote a minute account shortly after, but which More denied that Rich had recorded accurately.

In it, they went through the lawyerly practice of ‘putting a case’, that is suggesting possibilities, not related to the individual’s own circumstances or views. Rich put the case that if Parliament had made him King – would More accept that? Yes, that was within the competence of Parliament. But what, asked More, if Parliament said God were not God?  Rich replied that Parliament had no power to make God ‘ungod.’

His note then suggests that More claimed that Parliament could not make Henry Head of the Church in England, whereas Roper’s account, presumably furnished by More, was that More had argued that Parliament could not make Henry Head of the whole Church, which was self-evidently true and was not treasonable. Besides, More added, at his trial when the conversation was put to him, that as they were only ‘putting cases’ even if had said something of the sort, nothing he said could be interpreted as ‘maliciously denying' Henry’s supremacy.

Two days after Rich’s visit, another Commission arrived and again he was asked to accept Henry as Head of the Church in England. He replied that he could not answer the question. As to the marriage with Anne, he confirmed that he had never spoken against it, but could say no more. Finally, ought he to answer the question about Henry’s supremacy? Again, he said he could not reply further.

The Commissioners departed. The next news that More probably heard was of the execution of Bishop Fisher, so weak and emaciated that the King had been told he could not stand the journey to Tyburn, so he was instead executed on Tower Hill.

More was sent for trial under the Treason Act, accused of ‘falsely, traitorously and maliciously’ denying Henry’s Supremacy of the Church in England.