Sir Thomas More (1527) by Hans Holbein the Younger. PUBLIC DOMAIN

By Fr. Dwight Longenecker

high drama of King Henry VIII’s love life has provided material for a seemingly end­less stream of books, novels, films, and television series.

Henry VIII’s six marriages were swept up in the hurricane of religion, politics, finance, and power struggles of the tumultuous 16th century. Each of his wives had supporters and detractors, and there was everything to play for. If your side won, you stepped into untold wealth, power, and prestige. Should you lose, you would be subject to the king’s terrible temper, and you stood to lose ev­erything — even your head.

Thomas More is one who lost ev­erything. Famous as a Catholic martyr, he stood up to Henry VIII. It is often thought that he simply opposed Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, but his coura­geous stance had a deeper motivation. He died for a greater ultimate principle.


Thomas More was born in London in 1478. The second of six children, his fa­ther, Sir John More, was a successful law­yer and judge. Thomas served as a page to the archbishop of Canterbury and then attended the best schools in London be­fore being nominated to study at Oxford.

Spotted as a rising star, he followed his father’s profession and did his legal training at London’s Inns of Court. At the age of 25 he was elected to parlia­ment and began to move in the highest circles of power. Eventually he became the right-hand man of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the lord chancellor of England. As intimate adviser and legal counselor to the king, the lord chancellor was the most powerful political position in the land.

In 1526 Henry VIII fell in love with the young lady-in-waiting Anne Boleyn. He demanded that Cardinal Wolsey se­cure a decree of nullity from the pope so he could marry Boleyn. By 1529 it became clear that Cardinal Wolsey had failed. He plummeted from power and died on his way to London to stand trial.

Henry VIII appointed More as Cardinal Wolsey’s successor, and that is when the real trouble began.


From the earliest age Thomas More had a strong spiritual instinct. For a few years he lived next to the Carthusian monastery in London and followed their way of life. Some of his friends were sure he was going to give up everything to become a monk.

His spiritual life provided a burning heart to his service as a lawyer and to his obligations as a husband and father. In 1505 he married Jane Colt, and they had four children together. She died six years later, and More married a widow, Alice Middleton. He broke convention by ed­ucating his daughters equally to his sons and was an affectionate father, paying close attention to their spiritual welfare as well as their education.

More’s integrity as a faithful hus­band and father must have influenced his opinions about the king’s lustful behav­ior. Henry VIII was notoriously promis­cuous — having affairs with many wom­en. When he proposed to divorce Queen Catherine to marry Anne Boleyn, he ex­pected his lord chancellor to not only ap­prove, but also to secure the necessary decree of nullity from Rome.

As a husband and father, Thomas More could not approve. As a devout Catholic, he could not countenance the divorce and remarriage of the king. 42• To subscribe: 800-678-2836


Thomas More was relieved of the diffi­cult job of securing a nullity for Henry VIII because the king took the law into his own hands. By 1531 the king had ban­ished Catherine and brought Anne to court. The next year Thomas Cranmer was appointed archbishop of Canterbury and he gave the king the nullity he re­quired, and immediately Anne and Henry VIII were secretly married.

That same year Thomas More’s quar­rels with the king intensified. While it is true that More opposed Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, his underly­ing opposition was the king’s declared independence from the authority of the Catholic Church. In 1529 parliament had passed an act making it illegal to support any foreign authority outside the realm of England. Two years lat­er the lawmakers required all of the clergy to take the “oath of supremacy” ac­knowledging the king as the head of the Church in England.

In May 1532 Thomas More resigned as Henry VIII’s chancellor. He was suc­ceeded by Thomas Cromwell. Ever the diplomat, More wrote to the king ac­knowledging Anne as queen and wish­ing the king and queen happiness and health. More could accept the legality of the marriage, but he could not sign the oath acknowledging Henry VIII as head of the church.

As a lawyer, Thomas More under­stood better than most that the law was based on a higher authority. Truth is not relative. Just as you cannot make up the law on your own, so you cannot make up your own truth. Truth is rooted in natu­ral law and divine revelation.

As a Catholic, More understood deeply that the divine revelation came through Jesus Christ and that Christ had founded a Church to be the vehicle and voice for his eternal truth.

The pope — the successor of Peter — was the rock on which that Church and that truth was founded. Should that rock be overturned, everything else would crumble and fall.

The ultimate authority of the pope was Thomas More’s line in the sand. He could compromise over everything else, but he could not recognize Henry VIII as the head of the church.


More knew the danger he was in, and he was extremely careful to be silent about “the king’s great matter.” However, when he did not attend the cor­onation of Anne Boleyn in 1533, the king began to take action against him. He was accused of accepting bribes, but there was no evidence. Then his accusers tried to trap him by saying he gave assistance to a group of rebels, but he had been pru­dent and had not said anything against the king.

Then, in April 1534 More was asked to swear his allegiance to an act of parlia­ment that made Anne’s children heirs to the throne. Along with this, the author­ities demanded that he sign the oath of supremacy recognizing Henry as head of the church.

More refused. Four days later he was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. His trial was conducted on July 1, 1535. More defended himself by quot­ing a legal principle that “to remain silent on a matter implied consent.”

In other words, because he had never openly denied the king’s supremacy, it should be concluded that his silence im­plied agreement.

It was a legal trick to impress all good lawyers, but the court was not buying it. They found witnesses who lied and said More had in­deed spoken openly with them against the king and queen. It took the court just 15 minutes to come to their conclusion. More was found guilty of treason and condemned to death.

His execution took place five days lat­er. As he mounted the steps of the scaffold, weakened by his imprisonment, he asked for help, saying jokingly to one of the of­ficials, “I pray you, master lieutenant, see me safe up, but for my coming down, let me shift for myself.” He declared to the crowd that he died “the king’s good ser­vant, but God’s first.” Then he knelt to recite Psalm 51. Following tradition, the executioner asked the condemned his pardon. More stood up, kissed the man, and joked again saying, “My beard is in­nocent. Please spare it. Then he knelt, po­sitioned his beard carefully on the block, and accepted the final blow of the axe.

Thomas More’s body was bur­ied at the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London, and his head was fixed on a pike on London Bridge for a month — the punishment for all traitors. His daughter Margaret res­cued the saint’s head, and the relic is be­lieved to be preserved in the crypt of St. Dunstan’s Church in Canterbury.


Thomas More’s life and heroic death is an example of Catholic courage, but it is also a witness to crystal-clear thinking and prudent priorities.

The 16th century was a time of huge upheaval. European society was going through a religious and cultural revolu­tion. The political leaders were in con­stant conflict. The Church was torn apart by here­sy, immorality, financial corruption, and dissent. In the midst of such tur­moil, emotions ran high. Passionate causes gal­loped on the winds of change. Fiery per­sonalities rose up and rallied crowds. Rebellion and bloodshed, murder and mayhem were everywhere.

In the midst of the storm, Thomas More stood resolutely and clearly for the one truth that mattered: the ultimate au­thority of the Catholic Church and loyal­ty to the pope. It is worth remembering that he did so even though the pope in question was not a stellar example.

Pope Clement VII was from the wealthy Medici family. He was a weak character, bewildered by the turmoil rag­ing about him and incapable of leading with a firm hand.

Despite all this, Thomas More un­derstood that the papacy is the rock, and building one’s house on any other foundation is building on shifting sand. The ages since More’s martyrdom have proven him right. The world continues to spiral into chaos, confusion, and con­flict, but in the midst of the conflict and change, there is one sure place to stand — with Rome on the rock of Peter and his successors.

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