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Greatness knows itself.
He surrendered everything for the truth as he saw it,and shamed a king with the courage of his conscience.
Such a scene it must have been, that it broke the hardest heart that witnessed it. Margaret More Roper, beloved oldest daughter of Sir Thomas More, pushed through the crowd and past the armed guards to embrace and cover her father with kisses as he was escorted to his place of imprisonment, from where, in six days, he would be executed for the crime of being honest.
Thomas More blessed his daughter and tenderly consoled her before she reluctantly let go of him, and the somber party resumed its progress to the Tower of London. But her distress was too great to be restrained, and she again rushed to his side, to hold and kiss him. Her husband, William Roper, remembered that most of the large crowd that had gathered in curiosity to see the famous prisoner, who had been one of the most powerful men in England, wept at the sight of this sad parting of a loving father and daughter.
Thomas More was born in 1478 into a prosperous London family, but not part of the nobility that ruled England in the fifteenth century. The Mores had no inherited titles to ease their way in the world. They succeeded by their own industry, intelligence, and character. Thomas's father, John, was a successful and influential lawyer, who could afford to send his oldest son to a good school, St. Anthony's, where young Thomas impressed his tutors as a gifted, hardworking, and good-humored boy.
At the recommendation of St. Anthony's headmaster, Thomas was sent to serve as a page to the second-most-powerful man in England, Cardinal John Morton, the archbishop of Canterbury, at the archbishop's court, Lambeth Palace. It must have been a dazzling experience for a young boy, for only in the royal court was there greater splendor or more important activity; the old archbishop managed, on the king's behalf, and his own, to restrain the power of the feudal lords, who had made England in the past nearly impossible to govern. Morton was a wise and great statesman as well as a faithful prince of the Church. Thomas closely observed, admired, and learned from his master's genius for politics, which in those times was a dangerous profession, and his sincere priestly devotion. For his part, the archbishop felt great affection for his cheerful and precocious page, who he proclaimed would someday "prove to be a marvelous man."
He was so impressed by young Thomas's talents and character that he sponsored his education at Oxford University, where Thomas was a brilliant student. He loved learning, and would for the rest of his life prefer the less prestigious but more satisfying rewards of a scholar to the riches and power of the king's court. He began his studies at Oxford in the same year Columbus discovered the New World, and the Renaissance was flowering in Southern Europe. In England, the era of feudalism, when nobles ruled their lands with the power of life and death over the serfs who slaved for them, was approaching its end, and the influence of merchants, lawyers, and other prosperous commoners was on the rise.
More's father gave him only a small allowance while he was at Oxford so that he wouldn't have money to tempt him toward "dangerous and idle pastimes." Despite his poverty, Thomas couldn't have been happier. He thrived among his fellow scholars, who were making their presence felt in this period of historic change, as the dark and brutal Middle Ages began to give way to a more hopeful age of learning and reason.
He was part of a movement called humanism, whose followers were faithful to the Church but hoped to encourage a better understanding of the Gospels and their more honest application to the workings of society. They studied the great Greek and Roman philosophers, whose views on morality and just societies they believed complemented their Christian principles. They were passionate in pursuit of the truth as revealed by God, and by discovery through study and scholarly debate and discussion. They thought the world could be made gentler with Christian love and greater learning-love and learning that served not only the nobility of court and Church, but all mankind.
Thomas's father didn't approve of this new thinking, and after two years ordered him to leave Oxford and study law in his offices. Thomas obeyed his father's command, for he was an obedient man all his life, not without regret, but without complaint. He became a successful lawyer, even more so than his father. But he remained a dedicated scholar and a humanist also, and that calling would bring him more lasting and widespread fame than the high offices he would gain as an honest and admired man of law.
Thomas was a devout Christian, and for a time lived in a monastery with the intention of entering the priesthood. The monastic life was one of isolation and self-denial. And though he took his religious devotion seriously, he loved the comforts of family life, and the rewards of learning and earthly pleasures as well: music and art, reading and writing, friendship and conversation and jests. He loved his city, London, then the greatest capital of Northern Europe. He loved life. So he left the cloister for a wife and family, and returned to the worldly affairs of men.
His first wife, Jane, bore him three daughters and a son. It was a happy marriage, but brief. Jane died at the age of twenty-two. He knew his children needed a mother, and he a mistress to manage his household, so he quickly married again to a widow seven years his senior, Alice Middleton. It, too, was a happy marriage, marked by mutual affection and deep friendship. In an age when a man could legally beat his wife, with a "stick no wider than his thumb," he was a tender and respectful husband. Their large and comfortable home on the banks of the River Thames, in a part of London called Chelsea, then still countryside, was a warm, loving environment where his children thrived and he sought refuge from the increasing demands of his growing public life. It had a beautiful garden that opened to the river, and was filled with many different kinds of birds and animals, which fascinated him. There he supervised his children's education, although it was unusual for women of that time even to learn to read, and when they had grown, his home served as a school for his grandchildren. His love of learning and truth was second only to his love of God, and he encouraged his children, for the sake of their happiness, to seek truth through learning as well as scripture. Margaret, his oldest and favorite child, would become a woman of great learning, perhaps the most celebrated female scholar in all of Europe.
He was devoted to his children, and prized their company above all others. He engaged their minds with his great wit and skill in conversation, and by the example of his own serious scholarship. He wrote a book, Utopia, about an imaginary and idealized civilization that won him wide praise and international fame. He cultivated friendships, and exchanged letters with some of the greatest minds in Europe, including with the Dutch priest and famous humanist philosopher Erasmus, who became More's greatest admirer outside his family, and whose description of More became the title by which he is still remembered to this day: "a man for all seasons."
The Mores' house was often filled with guests, who were as often his poorer neighbors as the rich and powerful, and were attracted by the family's well-known hospitality, high spirits, and witty conversation. The young king himself, Henry VIII, who, although temperamental and selfish, admired learning and wit, visited often. Henry took great pleasure in the company of his honest, loyal, and amusing host, and valued not only his opinion and his service to the crown but his friendship.
Thomas More would have preferred never to leave his home if he could have secured the means to support his family without venturing outside it, and if he could have been spared the attentions and the needs of his king. But that was not to be.
His scholarly reputation and his reputation as a skillful and, more remarkable for those times, scrupulously honest lawyer first gained the attention of the king's most powerful counselor, the lord chancellor of England, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. An ambitious and shrewd politician, Wolsey recognized the younger man's talents, and pressed him into the king's service.
Serving first as a diplomat, then in a series of increasingly powerful offices at court, knighted, and given lands and wealth, More became a favorite of Wolsey's and Henry's. And while he might have preferred the life of a philosopher, husband, and father to the rigors of public life, he no doubt took pride in the king's confidence and favor. All the more so because the king and he, for much of that time, shared the same philosophical and religious views.
When Wolsey's downfall came, from the same source that would lead in time to Thomas's death, Henry made his friend lord chancellor. It was the highest office at court, and Thomas More was the first layman to hold it. His appointment was greeted favorably by the court and public alike, for Thomas was known by one and all as an honest man, who would conscientiously discharge the duties of his office.
As it turned out, he was too honest for his king.
The protests of a devoted and tempestuous priest in Germany by the name of Martin Luther against the corrupt practices of the Catholic Church had set in motion a conflict that would rip apart Europe for centuries. The Protestant Reformation that Luther began was the lasting tear in the unity of the Catholic Church, and the beginning of the end for the old order in Europe. In time, it would set kings against kings, families against families, and cause wars that would last for generations.
Thomas More waged an intellectual and judicial war against the followers of Luther that was at times surprisingly aggressive and even cruel for such a reasonable and just man. In the beginning, he had the king's full support in his persecution and prosecution of "heretics." More defended the Church out of religious principle, and because he and the king feared the uncontrollable social disorder that a permanent split among the faithful would surely cause. But his hatred, if it could be called that in such a mild man, was for the heresy and not the heretics. Death was the judgment for heretics in the courts that Thomas More governed, but he went to great lengths to encourage the accused to recant their views and escape their sentence. In fact, in the many cases he prosecuted, all the accused except for four poor souls, who went to their deaths rather than recant, escaped the headman's ax. More was diligent in his duty, but a much more powerful threat than Luther's protests had encouraged was growing to the Catholic Church in England.
Henry's queen, Catherine of Aragon, had failed to produce a surviving male heir. Only their daughter, Mary, lived to adulthood. Henry was determined to have a new wife who could give him a healthy son. Other kings and nobles had received from the pope annulments of their marriage. But the most powerful king in Europe, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, was Catherine's nephew, and he had great influence with Pope Clement VII. He persuaded Clement not to grant an annulment that would remove the crown from his aunt's head.
Once Henry fell in love with Anne Boleyn, the fifteen-year-old daughter of a scheming courtier, he would no longer accept papal opposition to his desire to remarry. In this dangerous and growing conflict, Thomas More became a central figure, and he would struggle with all his intellect, lawyer's skills, and courage to obey his king without forsaking his church. It would prove impossible.
Initially More dutifully served the king's wishes, arguing in Parliament that there were grounds to consider the marriage to Catherine unlawful. But when the king declared himself, and not the pope, to be the supreme head of the Church in England, More offered the king his resignation. Henry refused it, and promised his friend that he would never be forced to take any action that his conscience would not permit. But the king's assurance was hollow, and soon both he and More realized that the king's desires and More's conscience could not be reconciled. More again asked the king to accept his resignation, and this time, Henry agreed. Thomas More, no longer a public man, was content to return to his home and loving family, his friendship with his king at an end.
For many months, he was careful not to speak against the king's wishes, in public or in private. But he declined to attend the king's wedding to Anne Boleyn. When Parliament passed a law requiring the king's subjects to sign an oath recognizing Anne as queen, and any children she might bear Henry as legitimate heirs to the throne, he refused to sign it because it denied the pope's authority over the Church in England. When shown the long list of those who had already signed it, he responded, "I myself cannot swear, but I do not blame any man who has sworn." He gave his conscience as the reason for refusing, but he would not say what he thought of the king's actions. On that he kept silent. And for this modest act of conscience, a mere "scruple of faith," as it was remembered, Thomas More was prepared to face the king's anger in an age when, he was reminded, "the King's wrath is death."
He was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. He remained there until his trial fifteen months later. He was allowed to attend Mass daily, to keep and read books, and to write. For a time he was allowed regular visits by his family and to exchange letters with them. They begged him to sign the oath, and by so doing, return to their home. Margaret expressed her fear that his health was being ruined by imprisonment. He responded by reminding her that but for his love of his family, he would have chosen to live in even worse circumstances as a monk. When Alice criticized him for preferring to live among filth and rats than among his loving family, he gently countered that this home was as near to heaven as his own.
Eventually, his books and writing material were confiscated, and most of his visitors refused. His health declined in the damp and cold of the Tower. His hair and beard grew long and unkempt, and he became thin and aged.