The Martyrdom of St. Thomas More – Part II


By Frank Magill

More Resigns His Post

Any illusions More may have harbored of changing the king’s mind as to his marriage to Catherine did not last very long. By all accounts he served admirably in the judicial aspects of the Chancellorship, taking on and clearing the backlogged docket left by Wolsey and consistently applying justice based in equity to lower court cases decided in more positivist fashion. He tried, diligently but largely without success, to impress upon common-law court judges a willingness to apply their reason and discretion to overturn juries where warranted, noting to his son-in-law William Roper the judges’ preference to hide behind jury verdicts so as to “…cast off all quarrels from themselves upon them.”19 This was indeed ironic given the outcome of his own trial several years later, as discussed below.

As Lord Chancellor, More also continued the campaign against heresies and heretics which he had pursued all his years of public service, issuing proclamations and a list of prohibited books, possession of which would result in summary arrest and imprisonment. Although Ackroyd debunks Protestant claims that More personally sanctioned or even participated in physical mistreatment of heretics, there is no doubt of More’s disdain for them and his support of their being dispatched at the stake, in the long-established practice of the land.20

All along, however, throughout the thirty-one months of his tenure, Lord Chancellor More grew farther apart from Henry on the king’s “great matter.” As Chancellor, he never publicly and directly challenged the king, but he made it clear privately, to the king and to the many officials, secular and ecclesiastical, whom Henry recruited to persuade him, that he remained convinced of the validity of the marriage of Henry and Catherine. More also made his position clear by things he did not do, such as his refusal in June of 1530 to sign a letter to the pope, drafted at Henry’s instance, and signed by numerous noblemen and clerics, entreating His Holiness to grant Henry’s annulment. More was not, however, alone in his opinion; it was shared by many “nobles, lawyers and prelates,” which may help to explain why More did not lose his office sooner.21 But Henry kept up the pressure, demanding in early 1531 that the assembled clergy of England grant him the title of “Sole Protector and Supreme Head of the English Church and clergy.” The assembly eventually acceded to this demand after long negotiations, with a qualifying clause, “quantum per legem Dei licet”, or “so far as the law of God permits.” More continued throughout 1531 to balance his duties as Chancellor against his personal support of Catherine, going so far as to give speeches before both Houses of Parliament in which he stated that Henry’s efforts to annul the royal marriage stemmed not “out of love for some lady” but based on conscience and piety. After this point, More first sought to be released from his duties as a matter of personal health.22 He remained through the summer, however, even as Henry banished Catherine to Kimbolton Castle in July, and into the next year as Cromwell and his allies worked to alienate Henry further from his loyalty to Rome, as there were still many prominent people who shared More’s view.23

May of 1532 brought the controversy publicly to a head, when Cromwell prepared a bill in parliament to strip the bishops of their powers to arrest persons accused of heresy, and to transfer to the king all legislative and judicial power then vested in the ecclesiastical courts. More and his allies openly and loudly objected, arousing Henry’s anger, and after Henry prorogued parliament, the assembled clergy, on May 15, submitted to his demands. Henry had utterly destroyed the independence of the Church in England. The next day, Sir Thomas More resigned as Lord Chancellor.24

The Final Straw

Despite resigning the Chancellorship, More remained a member of the royal council, and generally remained in the king’s good graces, if for no other reason than that Henry, having now proclaimed himself supreme head of the English Church, could not condone heresy without risking open revolution. Thus Henry did not yet openly endorse Cromwell’s continuing association with Tyndale and the other advocates of Lutheranism, whom More had so zealously opposed for years. More continued to write polemics against the heretics, thereby continuing his opposition to Cromwell although living away from Westminster, and not discussing openly his disagreements with Henry, instead telling friends and acquaintances he had resigned for reasons of health.25

The end of this uneasy peace between More and the king was, unsurprisingly, engineered by Cromwell. In March of 1533, a month after Henry had secretly married his mistress Anne Boleyn, who was already pregnant, Cromwell sent to parliament An Act in Restraint of Appeals. The Act (24 Hen. VIII c. 12), “…was a crucial step in Henry VIII’s assertion of royal supremacy. He had already moved against the clergy with accusations of praemunire and in 1532 forbade the payment of annates or first fruits to Rome. The Act, passed in the first week of April, forbade appeals to Rome and had two objectives—to allow Cranmer to give a ruling on Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon which could not be appealed, and to intimidate the pope generally.” (Source.) Within two weeks of passage, Henry installed Thomas Cranmer, whom he and Cromwell had sponsored and mentored for several years to be a clerical advocate, as the first non-Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer quickly decreed the marriage of Henry and Catherine to have been invalid, and pronounced valid the king’s secret marriage to Boleyn. This was followed almost immediately, on April 12, by a royal proclamation that Anne Boleyn was now Queen of England. More refused to attend the sumptuous ceremonies of her coronation, which was taken as a public snub. “This was the point when Henry hardened his heart against him.” 26

From then on, presumably acting on Henry’s orders, Cromwell conducted several investigations aimed at bringing criminal charges against More as well as anyone who had sympathized with his support of Catherine. At some point during this period, More turned away from public polemics and toward meditation and prayer. In the face of the apparent destruction in his homeland of the faith he held so dear, More wrote A Treatise upon the Passion of Christ, both a private work of Biblical exegesis and meditation and a public exhortation to Catholics in England to hold to their faith. As Ackroyd notes:

“More believed, with much justification, that the destruction of the old religion was being undertaken at the behest of an arrogant and impetuous king, together with councillors who hoped to benefit from the disorder; the ‘reformation’ was being imposed, therefore, upon a nation which remained generally pious and devoted. The substitution of king for pope as head of the Church may not have seemed a particularly damaging or damning development, but More saw further and more clearly than most of his contemporaries; once the community of the faithful, the living and dead, was broken by schism then the faith itself would be placed in severe peril.” 27

Henry Increases His Pressure

The final steps against More were enabled by three further Acts of parliament drafted by the ubiquitous Cromwell.

  1. By the Act of Succession of March 1534, subjects were ordered to accept the king’s marriage to Anne as “undoubted, true, sincere and perfect.”
  2. In November the constitutional revolution was solemnized in the Act of Supremacy, which announced that Henry Tudor was and always had been “Supreme Head of the Church of England”; not even the qualifying phrase “as far as the law of Christ allows” was retained.
  3. In December the Treasons Act was passed, which labeled as high treason punishable by death “that if any person or persons, after the first day of February next coming, do maliciously wish, will or desire, by words or writing, or by craft imagine, invent, practise, or attempt any bodily harm to be done or committed to the king’s most royal person, the queen’s, or their heirs apparent, or to deprive them or any of them of their dignity, title, or name of their royal estates, or slanderously and maliciously publish and pronounce, by express writing or words, that the king our sovereign lord should be heretic, schismatic, tyrant, infidel or usurper of the crown,…” 28

Cromwell moved quickly after the passage of the Act of Succession. On April 12, 1534, More was summoned to appear, along with some number of others, at Lambeth Palace to take the Oath of Succession. After carefully examining both the statute and the oath, he refused to swear it, without explaining why, despite several attempts by Cromwell and the other commissioners, who included Archbishop Cranmer and various other lords and prelates, to elicit his reasoning. Later, More explained to his daughter that his refusal was because the oath went further than the statute itself, requiring the oath-taker to promise obedience to all other laws passed by that Parliament, including several pieces of overtly anti-Church and antipapal legislation. Again as analyzed by Ackroyd, “If More had sworn the oath, as presented to him with this wording, he would have concurred in the forcible removal of the Pope’s jurisdiction and the effective schism of the Church of England. This he could not do, even at the cost of his life.” 29

More Is Imprisoned

For refusing the oath, More was confined to the Tower of London on April 17, where Fisher already had been sent for preaching publicly against the Succession. While in prison, More wrote A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, (online version), which has been described as “a masterpiece of Christian wisdom and of literature.” He and Fisher also exchanged a series of letters, which were burned by their respective personal servants, whom they were allowed to retain while in custody as was then customary. 30 This would later prove problematic for both.

After the passage of the Act of Supremacy and the Treason Act, a bill of attainder was enacted against More accusing him of seditious motives for his refusal of the oath of succession, effectively convicting him of a crime without trial. (Such laws are unconstitutional in the United States and were abolished in Britain in 1870.) Thus, before the year 1535 dawned, More’s imprisonment was for all practical purposes rendered permanent. 31

Even so, Henry continued to seek affirmation of his position concerning his marriage to Catherine and of his assumption of authority over the Church in England. This included escalating, through agents such as Cromwell and others, his efforts to convince More to support him, sending his agents to meet with More in the Tower on several occasions. The two most notable of these were his summoning before a commission including Cromwell and Sir Thomas Audley, More’s successor as Lord Chancellor, on June 3, who engaged More in conversation trying to draw out his reasons for refusing the oath of supremacy, and a visit to his cell a week or so later from the king’s Solicitor-General (the chief attorney for the government), Sir Richard Rich.

The conversation with Cromwell and Audley yielded a memorable comment from More concerning the oath he had refused to take. As related by More in a letter to his daughter, when asked to explain his refusal, More stated: “For if it so were that my conscience gave me against the statutes…it were a very hard thing to compel me to say either precisely with it against my conscience to the loss of my soul, or precisely against it to the destruction of my body.” 32 As for the visit from Rich, the ensuing conversation became the most significant part of the evidence against More at his trial less than a month later. Rich was to accuse More of having told him that parliament had no authority to declare Henry the supreme head of the English Church; More, however, maintained that he told Rich parliament had the authority to make him (Rich) king, but could not make him pope, any more than it could make God not-God.

Why did Henry persist so, even at this late date, in trying to obtain a reversal of More’s position? As previously noted, the ordinary citizens of the realm were generally pious and loved their Church, so having the support of such a well-respected figure as More would have been extremely valuable to the king. But the king’s patience was not endless. As time passed and with each successive refusal by More to give in, the harshness of his confinement grew, first by being moved to a smaller, more unpleasant cell, then by reduction of the already poor quality of his diet, and finally by having his books and other personal property taken away (at the end of his conversation with Rich). At each step More maintained his steadfast position, refusing directly to deny the validity of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn or of his assumption of ecclesial authority, while informing his captors and interlocutors on several occasions that temporal matters were no longer of any concern to him. Clearly, at this point More had ceased any hope of survival in this world and had commenced his passion. 33



19 Ackroyd, Peter. 1998. The Life of Thomas More. New York: Doubleday., p. 296, quoting Roper, William, The Life of Thomas More, in Two Early Tudor Lives, ed. R.S. Sylvester and D.P. Harding (New Haven and London, 1962)

20 Ackroyd, 1998, 296-303.

21 Ibid., 316.

22 Ibid., 321-2.

23 Ibid., 323-4.

24 Ibid., 328.

25 Ibid., 330-4

26 Ibid., 340, 342;

27 Ibid., 358.

28 Gee, Henry and Hardy, William John, eds., 1914., pp. 247-9. Documents Illustrative of English Church History. London: Macmillan.

29 Ackroyd, 1998, 364.

30 Ibid., 365, 373

31 Ibid., 379.

32 The Correspondence of Sir Thomas More, 557, cited in Ackroyd 1998, 387.

33 Ibid., 384-92.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Frank Magill is a retired attorney and a 2005 convert to the Catholic faith.  He and his wife of 40 years reside near Dallas, Texas, USA.


CREDITS:  The Featured Image is a detail of Rowland Lockley’s copy of Hans Holbein’s, Saint Thomas More and Family.

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2 thoughts on “The Martyrdom of St. Thomas More – Part II”

  1. Excellent Thank you. Saint Thomas More id one of my favorite Thomas saints. Randy Engel

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