To tell the story of Saint Thomas More (1477-1535) we must start with something that was known in England at the time as “the king’s great controversy.” There were actually four sides to Henry VIII’s desire to annul his first marriage with Catherine of Aragon and marry the younger Anne Boleyn. There is no doubt that one of the stronger factors in this story is the king’s wandering eye and libido. But to stop there would be to ignore some of the greater issues that make up the story. First, Henry VIII was the king of a nation that was growing in stature and power in the world. Central to the nation’s stability is an heir-apparent to the throne. Henry VIII and Catherine had a daughter (who later became queen Mary) but England was more prone to accept a clear male heir than a female one to the throne. This was historically true during Henry’s lifetime, yet it is ironic that his second daughter Elizabeth I later proved to be one of this nation’s greatest monarchs. With Catherine nearing middle-age with no more children, it would seem the biological time-clock had run out. Anne Boleyn, one of Catherine’s ladies in waiting, was much younger and to Henry’s thinking very likely to produce the much needed son.
The third side to Henry’s “great controversy” was, believe it or not, religious scruple. While Henry’s six marriages and reputation as a bon vivant don’t generally lead people to believe he was a man of great piety, by the standards of his day, he was certainly a good Christian king. In fact, Henry VIII earned the title “Defender of the Faith” from Pope Leo X when he wrote a book defending Catholicism against the writings of Martin Luther, a title that is still used by the English monarchy even today. The religious scruple Henry VIII had was the troubling verse in Leviticus 20:21 which states if a man marries his brother’s wife it is an unclean thing. Henry had inherited the throne from his older brother who had died soon after his elevation of an illness. And with the throne he took his brother’s new wife Catherine for himself. The marriage at the time had been considered lawful because apparently Henry VII was never able to consummate things due to his illness. But this verse did bother Henry VIII and he had begun to wonder if the reason there was no male heir or even other children might be on a count of God’s displeasure with him.
The fourth side of this “controversy” was that Henry VIII had had the question of his annulment studied by leading theologians all over Europe. They all came to the same conclusion that this was a special circumstance and perhaps the marriage wasn’t lawful in the first place, therefore the marriage could be terminated in the eyes of the church. What was problematic in this was the Pope kept delaying and stalling his decision on the matter. Why? Because another more powerful king was threatening the pope named Charles V. He also just happened to be queen Catherine’s nephew and didn’t like the idea of his dear aunt getting divorced against her will. Henry had seen the pope grant other European rulers divorces for lesser reasons and was quite dismayed. This precipitated Henry VIII’s break with Rome and essentially nationalizing the church making himself its supreme head on earth. So, even though it is impossible to ignore that Henry VIII was hot for Anne Boleyn’s youth and good looks, hopefully you have surmised that the story is quite a bit more nuanced.
From a Protestant perspective (or even a secular one) Henry VIII's solution (known as The Act of Supremacy) was daring and audacious, but within the parameters of what a sovereign ruler could do. He severed both political and religious relations with the papacy and proclaimed the independence of the English Church from Rome. The newly minted Church of England retained much of its Catholic doctrine and character, but the Archbishop who had charge over the Christian flock in England was now a royal appointment. Henry also found himself awash in new revenues and landholdings as well. Since the Church of England was at least sort of Protestant, Henry VIII closed many Catholic monasteries, taking their land and holdings to enhance his power.
This brings us to Thomas More who was Henry VIII's chancellor and court advisor. More was a deeply Christian man who actually lived out his faith in every expression of his life. This meant that even in his work as a royal advisor, More felt duty-bound by his relationship with God to give King Henry VIII his best advice and to speak the truth to him. However, while Thomas More was against corruption in the Church and certainly would welcome reform, he by no means supported the Protestants and regarded many of their ideas as divisive at best, heretical at worst.
Sir Thomas More was certainly one of the more intellectually gifted men that surrounded the king. Growing up he had shown great intellectual promise at an early age and was educated at Oxford. Later he trained in law and for a period of time lectured on morals and law at another university. He was also a poet and writer. One of his personal friends was Erasmus, the great humanist of the Renaissance. Both men had a great love for the Scriptures and literature and remained lifetime friends. Erasmus went on to publish the Greek text of the New Testament and More, among his many works, is best known for his political and social satire Utopia, the title forever entering the English lexicon for any effort to create a perfect society.
More actually considered monastic life and even for several years lived in the Charterhouse of the Carthusian Order, one of the strictest and austere orders of monks. Although he never took monastic vows, but instead chose the path of marriage and family, Thomas More continued many of the spiritual practices he learned from the monks including self-flagellation and wearing a hair shirt. So course was the hair shirt that he wore, Erasmus reports, that it was not uncommon to see blood seeping into the white shirt he wore over it.
Sir Thomas More was known for having a joyous and vibrant family life. His first wife died quite early on after producing several children. More’s second wife brought children of her own into the marriage. Between the two the More family had six children but also there were other children they raised as foster parents. More took great interest in the education of his children both in letters and religion. One can find in him a great example of Christian fatherhood. No matter how busy he was, and he was an important man in England, he made time for each of his children daily to encourage them in their growth as individuals and as Christians.
Erasmus gives us another side of Sir Thomas More that seems almost unexpected in a man of his stature. He tells us that More was quite informal in dress and manners, ate and drank little (probably a continuation of his monastic discipline), was cheerful and quick witted, and loved all manner of pranks and practical jokes. He was also quite generous and known for helping those around him who were poor or disadvantaged. More was a knight by social ranking and seemed to have within his heart the best attributes of knighthood. What is quite ironic about this was that personally, More detested the Medieval Era having no romantic notions about it. He loved the flowering of learning that the Renaissance was producing in his own lifetime.
Religiously More was no papist, but rather believed that the role of the pope was a traditional and practical development of history. He, like his friend Erasmus, also strongly believed that the Catholic Church needed reformation. But More was quite opposed to the divisive nature of the ideas being put forth by Martin Luther and William Tyndale. More actually wrote many tracts and books against these reformers and good natured though he was, in print he had a reputation of being a vicious foe.
Reformation desires aside, More did accept the Roman Catholic church as the true expression of Christianity which included the acceptance of the pope as its supreme head on earth. This would mean that More’s allegiance to the pope was above that of his boss Henry VIII who had just declared himself titular head of the English church. More’s legal training led him to believe Henry had a legal right to separate from Rome and even from his wife, but that didn’t mean he agreed with either action or thought these were representative of God’s will.
Finding himself in opposition to the king, More resigned from his position as Lord Chancellor. He was a loyal subject of the crown and therefore gave no thought to speaking out against the kings actions publicly. He would keep his thoughts private, not bring embarrassment to his prince, and absorb the impact of raising a large family from the ranks of the unemployed (like Winston Churchill, More was a great man of English affairs, yet was not independently wealthy like many others of the nobility).
This proved an effective strategy for a short while, but eventually Henry VIII required his subjects to swear an oath supporting the Act of Supremacy. This More could not do for the sake of conscience. He would support his king, but would not swear allegiance to something he believed violated his spiritual allegiance to Christ. Eventually More
was imprisoned for 15 months in the Tower of London and then beheaded for high treason against Henry VIII.
Witnesses of More’s execution said he laid his head on the chopping block with good cheer. He believed that his faith in Christ made him immortal and saw no reason why having his head severed from his body would change his disposition.
Sir Thomas More is considered a martyr of the church because while Henry VIII had him killed for political reasons, he himself made the ultimate sacrifice for spiritual reasons.
Nearly one year later, Henry VIII had his second wife Anne Boleyn, the woman for which he turned the world upside-down, beheaded on trumped up charges of high treason at the Tower of London. In 1935 Thomas More was canonized and is now known as Saint Thomas More because of his devotion to the Lord in the face of personal martyrdom.
Sources for this article:
Dictionary of Christian Biography. Michael Walsh ed. ( Collegville: Liturgical Press), 2001
St. Thomas More. E.E. Reynolds. (Garden City : Image Books), 1958
Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature Vol. VI. McClintock and Strong eds. (Grand Rapids : Baker Book House), 1981
Church History: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context Vol. 2. John D. Woodbridge and Frank A. James III. (Grand Rapids : Zondervan), 2013
Butler's Lives of the Saints Concise Edition. Fr. Alban Butler, Bernard Bangley ed. (Brewster: Paraclete Press), 2005
The New Encyclopedia of Christian Martyrs. Mark Water comp. (Grand Rapids : Baker Books), 2001