Thomas More: Life Story

Chapter 12 : War on Heresy

As early as 1521, Erasmus wrote to Richard Pace that he was worried about being accused of responsibility for Luther’s errors. He deeply admired, said Erasmus, the spirit in which Luther had written but he had spoilt his teaching with ‘intolerable evils’. Eleven years later, More wrote to Erasmus that he knew that had the scholar foreseen the use to which his writings would be put by ‘enemies of religion’, he would have written more ‘mildly’.

But ‘heresy’ was rearing its ugly head everywhere, and soon was to be found in More’s own home. In 1521, his beloved eldest daughter, Margaret, had married William Roper. Roper was the son of John Roper, Chief Clerk of the Court of King’s Bench, and the families were well-acquainted. Margaret was still only sixteen, so although her father would permit her to co-habit with her husband, if she wanted to, he insisted that the young couple should live with him and the rest of the More family at Bucklersbury.

At the time of his marriage, Roper was already interested in Lutheran ideas, and soon after began to espouse them so publicly that he was called before the Cardinal to explain himself. Wolsey, no friend to religious persecution beyond the burning of books, dismissed Roper with a warning.

More tried hard to persuade Roper of the error of his views, but to no avail. Despairing, he told his daughter:

‘Meg, I have…given to him (Roper) my poor fatherly counsel, but I perceive none of all this able to call him home, and therefore…I will no longer argue or dispute with him.’

Roper remained part of the household, and eventually recanted his Lutheran leanings and became an even more dedicated Catholic.

More himself had advocated Church reform, criticised superstition and strongly supported Erasmus’ new translation of the Bible but he was absolutely convinced that to question the teachings of the Church, as opposed to some of the religious practices of both clergy and laity was to fall into heresy. To preach heresy was to endanger society and those who did so needed to be prevented from spreading their contagion, by reason if possible, but by force if not.

It is hard for modern readers to understand why governments were so concerned by the spread of new religious ideas. But for sixteenth century people, whether Catholic, or later, Protestant, the idea that someone might preach a ‘wrong’ belief was far worse than that of them spreading a physical contagion that might result in death. To spread heretical beliefs was worse than imperilling bodies, because it might damn the souls of those who were ‘infected’ for all eternity. This was a belief that, if not absolutely universal, was accepted by the vast majority of people.

In earlier times, ‘heresy’ had cropped up from time to time, and had been dealt with either by the Church court forcing the individuals to ‘recant’, imprisoning them, or, occasionally, if they were ‘unrepentant’ handing them over to the civic authority for execution, usually by burning. In the late thirteenth century the mass extinction of the Cathars in the South of France was little less than genocide, but there had been no repetitions of such wide-scale conflict of religious ideas in Europe.

In England, the Lollards (a reforming religious movement) had been suppressed in the early fifteenth century. Many Lollard ideas were similar to those of Luther, and there is a strong current of academic thought that Lollardism was preserved underground in London, making it a fertile ground for Lutheranism, although this theory is no longer so popular as it once was.

Before the printing press, heretical ideas seldom spread far, but the new technology meant that Luther’s ideas began to spread like wildfire, and it took stronger and stronger measures from governments to contain them.

Added to this was the horror felt in Europe by German Peasants’ War. This revolt, viciously suppressed, was perceived by many to have been unleashed by Luther’s preaching, even though he condemned it, supporting the authorities in their brutal clampdown. The conflict was one of the bloodiest in European history, with somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 killed in the years 1524 – 1525. Whilst with the benefit of hindsight, many contributing factors can be seen, at the time, it was closely associated with the burgeoning Reformation.

More, the rest of the English government and authorities across Europe, feared that such lawlessness might spread. The fears were only compounded after the Sack of Rome in 1527, when the Imperial troops, many of them believed to be German Lutherans, wreaked more damage on the Holy City than any event since it had fallen to the Visigoths in 410 AD

So by the mid-1520s, More was being far less critical of abuses in the Church, and was becoming more and more concerned about the creeping tide of ‘heresy’ as the growing support for Lutheran doctrines was considered by the authorities.