Thomas More: Life Story

Chapter 13 : War on Heretics

In 1523, Bishop Tunstall had forbidden the importation, printing or circulation of any book containing Lutheran ideas and in 1525, the King’s Council, having heard that such works were being hidden amongst the Hanseatic Merchants in the Steelyard, undertook a raid, with More at the head. Three of the merchants were arrested, and the following day he led a search for Lutheran works throughout all of their possessions.

Eventually, eight of the merchants were brought to Wolsey at Westminster. The Cardinal gave them a severe dressing-down. In early 1526, a group of them, together with Robert Barnes, a well-known preacher, were tried for heresy. They were not burnt, but were shown the fire, and had to throw in a faggot (a bundle of kindling) as a symbol of repentance. A pile of Lutheran books were actually burnt.

No matter how hard the authorities tried, it was impossible to stem the tide. Tunstall continued to ban books, including Tyndale’s translation of the Bible into English. Contrary to popular belief, there was no specific law against translations, but any translation had to be commissioned or approved by the ecclesiastical authorities, and Tyndale’s most emphatically was not. More was given an exemption from the ban on reading Luther’s works so that he could take up the collective government pen and refute them.

His works, some published, and some not, abound with scatological and sexual references to Luther – More was particularly disturbed (as were many others) by Luther’s marriage to a former nun. He also refers to the necessity of cleansing the world of Luther’s followers, whom he equates to messengers of the devil, by burning.

In 1526, copies of Tyndale’s translation of the Bible were rounded up and burnt. This created a backlash – it was one thing to burn heretical works, and many citizens agreed with the policy. To burn Bibles was quite another matter.

Before long, however, the burning of books that had come to light was not deemed sufficient. A campaign began, with More, it appears, at the forefront, of rooting out ‘conventicles’ – small, private meetings of friends or congregations to read the banned works together. Scholars were arrested at Oxford, and six were imprisoned, three of whom died before trial. More personally searched some houses himself, notably that of one of Tyndale’s patrons.

Whilst some of the accused were sentenced to carry faggots and have them thrown into the fire, there were, at this time, no burnings of people.

More continued to write against the new doctrines. His first work to be published in English was ‘A Dialogue Concerning Heresies.’  In it, he describes persuading a young man flirting with the doctrines of Luther back to the faith. The book was published by his brother-in-law, Rastell, and a second edition by Rastell junior. In 1528, he published an opposition to the famous ‘Supplication for the Beggars’, written by Simon Fish, which excoriated the clergy and condemned the doctrine of purgatory and the efficacy of masses for the dead, seeing them as no more than a money-making scheme. This charge would have hit home in the years 1528-1529 as famine and poor harvests swept through England and Europe.

The book had been banned and Fish had escaped to the Continent. In More’s ‘Supplication for Souls’, he reiterated Church teaching on the importance of praying for the dead, to bring them out of the torments of purgatory.  He also wrote sternly against Fish’s implication that the King’s authority should be used to protect the people from the Church.

More’s later position as Lord Chancellor (see Chapter 15), and his undoubted zeal in searching out heretics led to accusations both in his own life-time, and in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, that he had heretics imprisoned at his own house, tied to trees and beaten.

Corporal punishment was commonplace, particularly of children. More was unusual in that he chastised his children ‘only with peacock feathers’ and he also denied utterly the accusations that he tortured or whipped heretics. He confirmed that they were sometimes held at his home, pending trial, and that one had been held in the stocks, before escaping, but he had never undertaken any punishment, not even a smack across the cheek. He admitted to two occasions of whipping - once when a child in his house had repeated blasphemy, he was caned in front of the whole household. Whilst we would think this cruel, fairly severe beating of children, wives and servants was common place.

The other occasion was someone who had left the Hospital of Bethlehem (where the mentally disturbed were held) was arrested for running into churches and turning the skirts of kneeling women up over their backs. The perpetrator was arrested, tied to a tree and ‘stryped’ with rods, presumably by the local constable.

Whilst these two incidents are not consistent with twenty-first century Western morality, in the context of the time, they are mild. We can decide that the question is whether we believe More, who swore ‘as helpe me God’  that the tales of torturing heretics were untrue or not and I would probably conclude that he told the truth, given the pattern of his life. But we can also consider whether More’s undoubted satisfaction when heretics were condemned and burnt should be held against him.