The Life of Thomas More (Peter Ackroyd)

The Life of Thomas More

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  It is one of the most celebrated trials in English history. At first he had stood before his accusers, like Jesus, but weariness and debility mastered him before the end of the proceedings; he told one of his household that the preliminary reading of the indictment was so long that he could not properly follow its third count. He had not been given any advance warning of the case against him, although he must have anticipated its main thrust; in treason trials the accused man had no 'rights' in the contemporary sense. There was no presumption of innocence, and the prisoner was given no opportunity to call witnesses in his defence; as the testimony of Rich suggests, the rules of evidence were by no means strict. There is no reason to believe that the jury of twelve men, listening to his testimony in Westminster Hall, were overtly persuaded to find the case against More proven; but if they had declared him innocent, they might themselves have been imprisoned or even attainted. It was not a trial which More could have won.

He made his case skilfully, however, and his penultimate speech 'in arrest of judgment' was a masterpiece of legal tact and nicety. His argument was that if a parliamentary statute offends against the law of God it is 'insufficient', and cannot be imposed upon any Christian subject. The court disagreed with him, implicitly asserting English law over canon law. As for the charge of treason itself More had argued, again skilfully, that there had been no 'malicious' intent in his conversation with Richard Rich. The court and jury disagreed, on the presumption that malice was implied in any denial of the king's supremacy--or, more particularly, in More's refusal to swear the oath to that effect. There has been some controversy over the fact that Sir Richard Southwell and Mr Palmer declined to corroborate Rich's testimony concerning the conversation in More's cell, but their silence did not seem to affect the jury's decision.

More's own silence is more interesting. He maintained that it was not of a 'corrupt' or 'perverse' nature; he also applied the commanding argument that human law could not judge what Thomas Aquinas called 'interioribus motibus' and Christopher St German described as 'inward things'. This concerned the law of God and was, in human terms, essentially a matter of conscience. More put the case that 'in thinges touching conscience, euery true and good subject is more bounde to haue respect to his saide conscience and to his soule than to any other thing in all the world beside'. More was engaged in a particularly difficult and subtle testing of human, as opposed to divine, law, with all the resources of his legal experience being deployed to justify his beleaguered position. His contemporaries believed that he was acting obsessively or irrationally, but he believed himself to be acting legally--in the fullest possible meaning of that term. It has often been surmised that the trial of More represents the defeat of the individual conscience by the forces of the emerging nation-state, but that is profoundly to misunderstand his position. Conscience was not for More simply or necessarily an individual matter; as Lord Chancellor he had been charged with the application of conscience to law, but upon general and traditional principles. At his trial he was affirming the primacy of law itself, as it had always been understood. He asserted the laws of God and of reason, as they had been inherited, and he simply did not believe that the English parliament could repeal the ordinances of a thousand years. It is significant that he was found to be guilty because of that conversation with Rich in which he 'put the case'. He was in that sense condemned for acting like a lawyer and, at the trial itself, he was also convicted for maintaining traditional law. He embodied law all his life, and he died for it.

He is reported to have remained impassive and composed during these proceedings, his visage showing signs of weariness but not of fear; like the early Christian martyrs who 'gazed steadfastly' at their accusers, 1 More was imperturbable. He had prepared himself for the ordeal, after all, when in his prison writing he had meditated upon the strength and humility of Christ before his Passion. By his unwavering firmness More embodied the principle of law which he wished to uphold. He spoke out after the verdict had been given against him, because at that moment his fate was determined; he could not be accused of inviting death by his own words. There was nothing tragic about his situation, as many have supposed, and indeed for More all worked towards what was for him the happiest outcome. It might even be described as a form of Socratic comedy in which the outcast is the one who remains most faithful to himself and to his principles. He rose above those who were about to kill him--it is worth noting that he spoke of 'your law' and 'your statute'--by remaining true to his divinely ordained conscience.

After the sentence had been pronounced against him he was led away from the bar of the King's Bench and escorted from Westminster Hall. The constable of the Tower, Sir William Kingston, was in charge of the guard which accompanied the prisoner from Westminster Stairs towards the Tower; the swift tides made it impossible to cross beneath London Bridge and instead the armed party disembarked from the barge at Old Swan Stairs. Here William Kingston began to cry as he took his leave of him, but More comforted him by saying, 'Good Master Kingston, trouble not yourself but be of good cheer; for I will pray for you, and my good Lady your wife, that we may meet in heaven together, where we shall be merry for ever and ever.' Kingston reported this to More's son-in-law a little while after, and added, 'In good faith, Master Roper, I was ashamed at myself that, at my departing from your father, I found my heart so feeble, and his so strong, that he was fain to comfort me which should rather have comforted him.' 2 More was taken up Old Swan Lane and then turned right into Thames Street, which would lead him back to the Tower; he was walking, according to report, in a coarse woollen gown.

His children were waiting for him close by the Tower itself. John More knelt down in the street, and, weeping, asked for his father's blessing. Margaret Roper also knelt upon the ground and received his blessing but then a few moments later, in the words of her husband, 'hasting towards him and, without consideration or care of herself, pressing in among the midst of the throng and company of the guard, that with halberds and bills [swords] went round about him, hastily ran to him and there openly, in the sight of them all, embraced him, took him about the neck, and kissed him'. 3 It was later reported, by Cresacre More, that those around him 'smelt a most odoriferus smell to come from him'. 4 He blessed Margaret again and comforted her; she started to walk away but then 'having respect neither to herself nor to the press of the people and multitude that were there about him, suddenly turned back again, ran to him as before, took him about the neck, and divers times together most lovingly kissed him'. 5 William Roper adds that, among the large crowd assembled to see the famous prisoner, many then began 'for very sorrow thereof to mourn and weep'. Eventually More was escorted back to his cell. It has been suggested that, as a condemned man, he would have been consigned to the dungeons, which dated back to the earliest building of the Tower. It is much more likely, however, that he returned to the prison chamber which had now become so familiar to him.

For the last six days of his life he prayed and fasted. The stories of that short period are generally of an apocryphal or hagiographical nature, but some of them have the advantage of emphasising More's wit even in extremity. A barber was sent to cut More's beard and hair, but the prisoner is supposed to have declined his service by saying 'The king has taken out a suit on my head and until the matter is resolved I shall spend no further cost upon it.' One anecdote, in particular, is characteristic of More. He showed a visitor the urine in his chamber pot and, examining it, declared, 'For anything that I can perceive, this patient is not so sick that he may do well, if it be not the king's pleasure he should die.' 6 There is certainly no reason to doubt that he retained his humour until the end; he had conquered all the temptations of the world and may have surprised even himself by his own lack of fear.

In his cell he had no proper writing materials, but he had been given an 'algorism stone' or slate upon which he could write; this had probably been brought to him by Dorothy Colley, Margaret Roper's servant, who had been granted permission to visit him each day. At some point he composed a final prayer which is likely to have been copied down by Margaret at a later date; in this last devotion he laments his sinful life 'euen from my very childhed' 7 and aspires to being with God 'not for thauoiding of the calamyties of this wretched world' as 'for a very loue to the'. 8 He had been condemned on Thursday, and on Monday he was visited by his wife; the nature of their last conversation upon earth is not known, although its tenor may perhaps be guessed from More's usual attempts at comfort and consolation. He gave into Alice More's keeping his hair shirt and scourge, as well as the algorism stone, for which he had no further need. He also composed a letter with a piece of charcoal; it was addressed to Margaret, but within it he blessed his family and exhorted them to pray for his soul. This final epistle is unfinished; the likeliest explanation must be that Dame Alice, having been granted the customary right of visiting the condemned man, was asked to leave before the letter could be completed.

It is not at all clear when More learned that his sentence had been commuted from disembowelment to beheading; the king was graciously pleased to grant this last favour because of More's long service at court, and the decision may have afforded some natural human relief to More. This can only be surmised, however, as it is at least possible that he had set his mind and soul even beyond the worst pains of this world. He still did not know what day had been appointed for his death but in his letter he had told his daughter he wished to die on that following day, Tuesday, because of its coincidence with the vigil of the translation of the relics of St Thomas Becket. In this, at least, he was granted his wish. On the dawn of the following morning he was visited in his prison chamber by Sir Thomas Pope, a representative of the king's council, who informed him that he must die at nine o'clock of that day.

Thomas More: Master Pope, for your good tidings I heartily thank you. I have always been much bounder to the king's highness for the benefits and honours that he hath still from time to time most bountifully heaped upon me. And yet more bound am I to his grace for putting me into this place, where I have had convenient time and space to have remembrance of my end. And so help me God, most of all, Master Pope, am I bound to his highness that it pleases him so shortly to rid me out of the miseries of this wretched world. And therefore will I not fail earnestly to pray for his grace, both here and also in another world.

Sir Thomas Pope: The king's pleasure is further, that at your execution you shall not use many words.

Thomas More: Master Pope, you do well to give me warning of his grace's pleasure, for otherwise I had purposed at that time somewhat to have spoken, but of no matter wherewith his grace, or any other, should have had cause to be offended. Nevertheless, whatsoever I intended, I am readily obediently to conform myself to his grace's commandments. 9

Sir Thomas Pope, More's 'singular friend', then broke down and wept before leaving the cell. Yet perhaps most poignant, in retrospect, is the readiness and willingness of More to 'conform' himself to the demands of the king. He remained a model of obedience; both in his life and at his death, he carried out the duties allotted to him with every possible care.

He dressed in the finest clothes left to him, but then Sir Edmund Walsingham warned him that after his death they would be given to a 'javel' or rogue of an executioner. 'What Master Lieutenant,' More is reported to have answered, 'shall I accompt him a javel that shall do me this day so singular a benefit?' He was persuaded to change into a plainer gown, but insisted upon sending his executioner a golden coin. A little before nine o'clock, he left his cell and passed under the Middle Tower in his journey of two hundred yards to Tower Hill. His face was now gaunt from debility or sickness, and his beard unkempt; the haggard and unshaven prisoner held before him a roughly made cross which had been painted red as an emblem of Christ's passion. Yet there was another form of symbolism that would not have escaped More, or any spectator aware of well ordered imagery: the prisoner wore a coarse gown of servitude, but he carried the red cross of knighthood. He was going to that place where the hierarchies of the world would be transcended. He was about to die only a mile from his birthplace in Milk Street, but now he was leaving London for eternity.

A large crowd had assembled to watch this death, and More's earliest biographers record some of the remarks of those who taunted or questioned him. Certain of these shouted words were also reported by one contemporary witness, but at this late date they cannot be verified. They serve, however, to emphasise the noise and tumult which would have accompanied More's short pilgrimage to the scaffold. One called out that, when Lord Chancellor, he had been unjust to her. 'Woman,' he replied, 'I remember well the whole matter. If now I were to give sentence again, I assure thee, I would not alter it.' Someone offered him a cup of wine as he made his way, but he declined to drink from it saying 'My master had vinegar and gall, not wine, given him to drink.' 10 A woman shouted out that he still had 'evidences' of her which she required. 'Good woman,' he is supposed to have answered, 'have patience a little while, for the king is good unto me that even within this half hour he will discharge me of all my business and help thee himself.' 11 Yet no doubt most of the crowd said nothing and stared upon the scene with no particular emotion except that, perhaps, which More described in his history of Richard III. 'And so they said that these matters bee Kynges games, as it were stage playes, and for the more part plated vpon scafoldes. In which pore men be but ye lokers on. And thei that wise be, will medle no farther.' 12

When More had left the jurisdiction of the Tower he was given to one of the sheriffs of London, Humphrey Monmouth, who escorted his prisoner to the steps of the scaffold. Monmouth was one of those 'newe men' who had been interrogated and confined in the Tower by More himself. So the world had turned. More's family had not been given permission to witness the execution and he was, in everything other than the literal sense, alone. He had sought solitude, whether in the Charterhouse or in his private chapel, and his death was a mirror of his life. Yet he had always subdued his sense of self to the demands and rituals of the public world, and this final journey to his execution was as much part of his duty as his acceptance of high office. He went to a death determined by the law he had served, thus signifying his final obeisance to those forces which had shaped and determined his life. Yet, in this very last act, he had also transcended them. Those twin poles of his life, public service and private spirituality, were finally put aside when his soul left his body.

The steps of the scaffold were not firm and one of the officers present steadied him as he climbed to the block. 'When I come down again,' More is supposed to have said, 'let me shift for myself as well as I can.' His words to those assembled have been variously reported but it is known that, according to the king's will, he spoke only briefly. He asked the crowd 'to bear witness with him that he should now there suffer death in and for the faith of the Holy Catholic Church', according to William Roper; but a contemporary account suggests that 'Only he asked the bystanders to pray for him in this world, and he would pray for them elsewhere. He then begged them earnestly to pray for the King, that it might please God to give him good counsel, protesting that he died the King's good servant but God's first.' 13 He knelt down before the block and recited the words of the psalm which begins 'Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving kindness'.

Then he rose and, according to custom, the executioner now knelt to beg his pardon and his blessing; characteristically the 'headsman, wore a close-fitting robe of scarlet wool, with a mask and 'horn shaped hat,' 14 of the same vivid colour. More kissed him, and is reported to have said, 'Thou wilt give me this day a greater benefit than ever any mortal man can be able to give me. Pluck up thy spirits, man, and be not afraid to do thine office. My neck is very short: take heed, therefore, thou strike not awry for saving of thine honesty.' 15 These last words are not necessarily apocryphal, since More spoke loudly enough that those around him might hear what he said; his sense of drama did not desert him, indeed his journey to Tower Hill resembles that of a performer in a mystery play who walks across the plateau to another scaffold. Edward Hall was one of the under-sheriffs of the City in this year and, in his Chronicles, he adds the incident in which Thomas More asked the executioner not to sever his beard; if Hall was present on this occasion, as seems likely, then we may consider this to be an authentic detail. Hall's concluding remark, 'thus with a mock he ended his life', may not, however, fully comprehend More's irony in the face of death.

More knelt down and the executioner offered to bind his eyes; but he refused and covered his face with a linen cloth he had carried with him. Then he lay down with his neck upon the block, his arms stretched out before him. He was killed with one stroke of the axe and, when the head had fallen into the straw, the executioner picked it up and displayed it to the crowds with the shout 'Behold the head of a traitor!' The corpse was taken to the church of St Peter ad Vincula within the Tower, where, in the presence of some of the family, it was interred. His head was boiled, impaled upon a pole and raised above London Bridge. So ended the life of Thomas More, one of the few Londoners upon whom sainthood has been conferred and the first English layman to be beatified as a martyr.


1. Quoted in Lane Fox, 422
2. Roper, ed. Sylvester and Harding, 251
3. Ibid.
4. Cresacre More, 343
5. Ibid., 251-2
6. Ro: Ba., 120
7. Yale, vol. 13, Instructions and Prayers, 228
8. Ibid., 230
9. Roper, ed. Sylvester and Harding, 252-3
10. Chambers, Thomas More, 348
11. Reynolds, The Trial of Saint Thomas More, 155
12. Yale, vol. 2, 81
13. Chambers, Thomas More, 349
14. H.V. Morton, In Search of London (1951), 68
15. Stapleton, 189

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Excerpted from The Life of Thomas More by Peter Ackroyd. Copyright © 1998 by Peter Ackroyd. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.