THE KING'S GOOD SERVANT, BUT GOD'S FIRST
by Thomas J. McGovern
In 1929 Chesterton remarked that Thomas More was
Chesterton had a habit of saying things during his lifetime which were often considered farfetched at the time. History, however, has proved him right on so many occasions and, in the case of St Thomas More, there would already appear, less than fifty years on, to be such exceptional interest in his life and writings that even Chesterton himself would have been surprised.
In this the 500th anniversary of the birth of More, it would seem appropriate to comment on the significance of a man who was only very recently described by an English historian as 'the most saintly of humanists, the most human of saints', a man whose qualities were such that over the past five centuries he has been loved and appreciated by people of the most diverse outlooks, including men like Samuel Johnson, Erasmus and Dean Swift. It is surely an extraordinary compliment that More should be described by Swift as 'the person of the greatest virtue this kingdom ever produced'.
Up to the time of his canonisation (1935) More scholarship was concentrated in England, culminating in the publication of Chamber's classic biography in the same year. In post war years, however the initiative in More studies had already passed over to scholars in the U.S.A. This American commitment has resulted in the magnificent undertaking of Yale University to publish, for the first time, a critical edition of all More's writings in sixteen volumes. To date eight of these have already appeared.
A major landmark in the development of a wider interest in More outside the halls of academia was the publication by Robert Bolt of his play, A Man for All Seasons, in 1961. This, together with the superb screen version of the play, created a new, world-wide interest in the life and personality of More. In his introduction to the play Bolt describes how he came to write about More, his search for a 'picture of the individual man against which to recognise ourselves and against which to measure ourselves'. In a society which had lost its sense of the fundamental reality of the individual human being he became fascinated by More as 'a man with an adamantine sense of his own self,.... a hero of selfhood'. Though not a Catholic, 'nor in any meaningful sense of the word a Christian', Bolt took More, a canonised saint, as his hero because he had a total command of himself and his destiny, a man who was not prepared to 'put his hand on an old black book and tell an ordinary lie'.
Thomas More (1478-1535) the son of Sir John More, a judge of the King's Bench, was born a Londoner, a city he was to serve and for which he bore a special affection during his life. He was 'brought up in the Latin tongue' at St Anthony's School, and at about the age of thirteen was placed in the household of John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury and later Lord Chancellor, where his precocity won from his master the prediction 'This child here waiting at table, whosoever shall live to see it, will prove a marvellous man'. For two years (1492-94) he was an undergraduate at Oxford where he fell under the influence of some of the Renaissance humanists and acquired a love for the classics. His father, a hard-headed lawyer, rather alarmed at these exotic studies, moved his son from the University before he had taken his degree and put him to study law at Lincoln's Inn.
Thomas fulfilled his father's hopes by becoming proficient at jurisprudence, but he did not neglect the study of the humanities which had so strongly appealed to him at Oxford. In 1499 More met the Dutch scholar Erasmus. It was the beginning of a life-long friendship.
While enjoying the intellectual companionship of his friends and lecturing on law, More hesitated between law and the cloister. He had been brought up in a family environment which was truly Christian, and his formation in the practices of Christian piety had not been neglected at school nor in Oxford. His study of the humanities led him naturally to a deeper appreciation of the Fathers of the Church and of Sacred Scripture. But this was not simply an intellectual exercise; it had a profound effect on his interior life and led him to look for spiritual guidance and for a commitment which would respond to the yearnings in his soul and give a fundamental meaning to his life. In the end More decided that his vocation was to find God, not in a monastery, but in the sanctifcation of those talents for law and literature, friendship and human love, which he had to such an extraordinary degree.
Contemporary Appreciation of More
What kind of person was Thomas More? How authentic, for example, is the attractive and compelling personality portrayed in A Man for All Seasons? Erasmus, as we have said, became a lifelong friend of More. He shared More's intellectual interests and was able to observe More at first hand when he stayed with him in his house in Chelsea, which he did on several occasions. In reply to a request from a German noble for a full description of More, Erasmus, after outlining the physical qualities of the man at forty, as he then was, continues:
After describing his simple tastes with regard to food and clothes he goes on:
It must be remembered that Erasmus did not have a reputation for saying nice things about other people.
Another contemporary of More  refers to his extraordinary ability with languages and to his exceptional qualities as an extempore speaker. However, there is one aspect of this fluency and eloquence in language which stands out above all others, i.e. his particular quality of humour and wit. It is a quality which runs through every aspect of his life from the most serious to the most commonplace — in his family life and in the fulfillment of his duties as Lord Chancellor; in his defence of the Church against heresy and even at the very moment of his death. This is perhaps the quality of More's life which has most attracted people, and yet for many it is an enigma, a certain lack of seriousness, even a lack of responsibility. It was not that More was merely an entertainer, a jester or a punster. What many have failed to appreciate is that More's humour and wit drew its validity from his fundamental conception of life and of history: an unfaltering confidence in the paternal hand of God active in human history, and a profound sense of personal divine filiation which is reflected in all his writings and in everything he did.
More's conception of life was one which dictated that he use to the full the talents God had given him in the service of his fellow men. He did this admirably well in all his diverse undertakings, whether in the dispensation of justice at the bar or in the many offices of state he held under Henry VIII; whether in the exquisite fulfillment of his family duties or in his committed defence of the Church. In the midst of this ceaseless activity he found refuge, serenity and peace in the calm of his household in Chelsea. The affection which he bestowed on his family was returned in full measure by his children. The extant letters between More and his own daughters must surely rank as one of the most beautiful pictures of family life on record. This is a chapter which, because of its richness and More's prophetic insights into the field of education, deserves separate consideration.
From 1517 More was used by Henry for several diplomatic missions abroad in the course of which he was brought into contact with the centres and the men of power in Europe. At home he grew in influence as royal secretary — intermediary between Cardinal Wolsey and the King. He was appointed Speaker of Parliament in 1523 and High Steward of Oxford University in 1524. A man of More's perception was in a particularly advantageous position to assess the issues of the day. Consequently it is not surprising to hear him say to his son-in-law Roper, as he walked with him one day along the banks of the Thames, that he would be quite happy to be put in a sack and thrown into the Thames if three ambitions were fulfilled. When Roper asked his father-in-law to elaborate on his ambitions, More replied:
The passion for universal peace was one which More shared with his scholar friends. During the twenty years of Henry's reign England had been plunged into one futile campaign after another in Europe. That Christian princes should be struggling one against another, while Belgrade and Rhodes were falling and the Turks reached the gates of Vienna, seemed to More to be treachery to the common cause. It was not that More wanted a policy of selfish isolationism for England but rather that he loved Europe, and that he felt that war between Christians was detestable. More was a true European centuries before the concept was rediscovered in the latter half of the 20th century; a thoroughly loyal Englishman for whom the rising passions of nationalism were the greatest danger to European peace. While Wolsey was busy over the divorce issue, Henry sent More to Cambrai to negotiate peace with Spain and France. In the epitaph which he wrote for his tomb at Chelsea, and in which, after his career was closed he summarized the whole meaning of it, the peace of Cambrai is the only public event of which More makes mention. It was an achievement of which he felt justly proud.
In July 1520 Martin Luther was excommunicated and in May 1521 his books were publicly burned in London. Later in the same year Henry finished a book of his own which attacked Luther's doctrines and defended the seven sacraments of the Church, and for which he was rewarded by the Pope with the title Defender of the Faith. Luther read the King's book and fell into a fury. His reply to Henry is regarded as being one of the most scurrilous productions ever written, and without parallel in literature. He called Henry, to mention a few of the less offensive epithets, a louse, an ass, a mad fool with a frothy mouth and a whorish face, a thomist pig.
Since Henry could not reply to such an attack, More was asked to take up his pen in defence of the king. This he did under the assumed name of William Rosseus. He deftly demolished Luther's argumentation and showed that he could also match Luther's language when it suited his case. Yet his defence of the Church and the primacy of the Pope reflects those qualities of loyalty, magnanimity and erudition which were to characterise everything he wrote.
More showed himself to be a true reformer, a man of patience:
Thomas More was not blind to the papal scandals of the time, so his longing for 'Popes as befit the Christian cause' came from a sorrowing heart. But that in no way shook his faith in the authority they had received from God.
More's exquisite charity and loyalty to the Pope is surely a challenge to Catholics of every generation.
To try to appreciate more fully the significance of the stand taken by More in defending the supremacy of the See of Peter, it is useful to consider the human and material circumstances of the Papacy in the first third of the 16th century, and perhaps, more significantly, the general level of theological awareness of the doctrine of papal supremacy at the time.
More lived under the worst of the Renaissance popes; Alexander VI ruled and died within More's lifetime. The papacy he knew was very different from the papacy we know and respect today. He died for a papacy that, as far as men could see, was little else than a small Italian princedom ruled by some of the least reputable of the renaissance princes. This was the marvel of his faith. In fact More tells us that as a young man he had believed in the authority of the general councils as against the authority of the Pope. But owing to the definition of the Papal primacy in the council of Florence (1439) and the arguments of Bishop John Fisher, he became entirely convinced that with the papacy lay the hope of the world.
At his trial, after More had been asked whether he had anything to say against his sentence, he replied that not only could supremacy in the Church not belong to a layman, but that 'it rightfully belonged to the See of Rome, as granted personally by Our Lord when on earth to St Peter and his successors'. The full significance of this assertion against the background of Henry's treachery, the capitulation of the hierarchy, the venality of the judges, the perjury of the witnesses, and the intimidation of the jury, was captured powerfully by Bolt in his magnificent trial scene. It was the point towards which More's whole life seemed directed and he carried it through with a strength and a nobility which must find few parallels in history.
What was happening in Germany was clear evidence to More of the danger of the Lutheran heresy, and of what might happen if Luther's teaching became generally accepted. Within two years of writing his book against Luther (1523) the bloody Peasants' War had fulfilled the worst of his fears for Germany. Over the next ten years More was to spend his best energies in defence of the Church against heretics. In 1528, when his friend Bishop Tunstall of London commissioned him to write refutations of heretical works which were being distributed in England, he was having recourse to a man who was eminently well qualified to do so. More had a profound knowledge of Sacred Scripture and he was an acknowledged authority on the Fathers of the Church.
Fathers of the Church
More read the early Church Fathers all his life. His exceptional ability with Latin and Greek gave him an immediate entrée to the Christian wisdom of the patristic age. At twenty-three he was already giving public lectures on St Augustine's De Civitate Dei to the intelligentsia of London. In all his apologetic writings, the Faith of the Fathers of the Church was the solid foundation to which all his arguments inevitably returned.  For More, the Fathers were the interpreters of Scripture; they had established certain lines of interpretation which had been accepted as authentic by the magisterium of the Church, and without the guide of this authentic interpretation the reading of Scripture would present endless difficulties. The examples of the Reformers, with their innumerable schisms, was proof enough to More of the dangers of reliance on Scripture alone.
Apart from using the Fathers as interpreters of Scripture, More also looked to them to vindicate the Catholic Church of his own time against the attacks of the reformers who insisted that the Church of the 16th century was a corruption of the Church of the Fathers. He believed in the existence of an oral tradition emanating from the apostles and passed along through the history of the Church. He used the Fathers to witness to a great many beliefs and practices which the reformers rejected, e.g. the doctrine of Purgatory, the perpetual virginity of our Lady, etc. He used the Fathers, too, to reinforce his condemnation of Luther's immoral situation. With Luther's marriage to the nun Katherine von Bora ever before his eyes, of one thing More was certain: if God were to make a relevation against his Catholic Church he would not send a 'friar out of a nun's bed to preach it'.
We are told by Roper that, when Henry first asked More for an opinion on the marriage question, he showed More some passages from the Old Testament which seemed to support the argument for the invalidity of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. More went off and, naturally, studied these scriptural references in the light of the interpretation of the Fathers. He came back to Henry with several references from St Jerome, St Augustine and other patristic sources which were not at all to the king's liking, but because of his respect, at that time, for More's erudition and intellectual honesty, he took it in good part with a view to discussing it further with More. This was in 1527 before the divorce issue came up, and when Henry still had a very confident and affectionate relationship with More. 
Scripture and St Thomas
More's detailed knowledge of sacred Scripture was another of his powerful weapons in the battle against heresy. He eagerly upheld the study of sacred Scripture as the most fruitful occupation of the theologian. He had studied it from boyhood, and he was engaged on a commentary on the Passion when his books and writing materials were taken from him in the Tower. On the other hand, his appreciation of Scripture made him realize that in the hands of the unlettered it could be a dangerous instrument.
He emphasises the need to read Scripture in the light of faith, with the Fathers as a guide. Some of his harshest words are reserved for preachers who give personalised interpretations of Scripture, and who are more interested in receiving applause for their pseudo-scholarship than in putting the Word of God in its integrity before their hearers. Nevertheless, More argued eloquently for an English translation of the whole Bible to be read by the laity. His sense of discipline, however, was too strong to allow him to press this claim against the opinion of the bishops; but under episcopal supervision, at any rate, translations of the Bible in whole or in part should be issued, he thought, and even issued, where necessary, gratis. But it must be an authorised translation made by the most responsible scholars.
In addition to his competence in patristic theology and sacred Scripture, proof of the fact that he studiously read St Thomas Aquinas is related by More's own secretary, John Harris. A book by some heretic, which had just been printed, was brought to More and he read it as he was been rowed along the Thames from his house in Chelsea to the city of London. After a little he pointed with his finger to some place and said to Harris,
More's phenomenal memory stood him in good stead in the field of theology as in so many other areas of his incredible intellectual activity,
Writing against heretics
What was More's attitude to heretics? Was he, as some commentators have argued, vindicative and repressive in his treatment of them? In his epitaph More stated that he had been 'troublesome to thieves, murderers, and heretics'. To More, however, the word heresy conveyed a very different meaning from what it does today. It was the private choice, by an individual, of a doctrine contradictory to that held to be clearly revealed by the divinely guided society to which that individual had belonged. And to understand this attitude it must be appreciated that, at the time of More, there was one fundamental fact which is at the root of the difference between attitudes then and now.
With his exceptional political foresight More realised, as few other men did, how chaos and religious wars would follow, if the unity of the medieval Church was shattered.
Writing in his Apology in 1533 after his resignation from the Chancellorship, More gives us a further insight into the policy he adopted towards heretics while he was in office.
He was intransigent with regard to doctrine but showed the utmost consideration and tolerance in his personal dealings with people. It is precisely because some commentators have failed to make this essential distinction that they have been unable to come to an objective conclusion about More on this point. Bishop Tunstall, however, had no hesitation in asking More to take on the task of refuting all heretical works. From 1528 until 1534 when he was lodged in the Tower, More was to stand out in England as the champion of the Church, and in doing so was to write nearly a million words in its defence.
Defence of the Church
Defending the Catholic position, More does not deny, here any more than elsewhere, the need for a reformation of morals both among the clergy and the laity. In a climate of violent anticlericalism he makes a plea for objectivity in regard to the clergy. His view was that poor standards — human, intellectual and moral — among the clergy would be half solved if bishops would be much more careful and selective in their choice of candidates for the priesthood. There were, he thought, too many bishops and priests engaged in too many activities which were definitely not priestly.
The great attack was made on the Church in the form of a Supplication from the House of Commons against the bishops. Henry pointed out to the bishops that they could not have divided loyalties — they must opt for him or the Pope. The reply of the bishops did not satisfy Henry and they were asked to reconsider the matter. This they did. After Henry had sent back their second reply as unacceptable, his demands were again placed before Convocation. On 15 May 1532 the hierarchy made their complete surrender to Henry. Next day More resigned his office as Chancellor.
Unhappily, the government of the Church was in the hands of men who were more interested in their own material prosperity than in the propagation of the Faith. Too many of the parish clergy were ignorant and could neither teach nor preach.
The hierarchy were not unmindful or unappreciative of More's efforts, and it was as an expression of this appreciation that the bishops of England arranged for a collection to be made as a reward for his labours in combating heresy. More, although now retired from public life, without any significant source of income, thanked their lordships for the gesture, but in no way would be persuaded to take the money, not even for the sake of his wife and children.
More saw that he had a duty to use his God-given talents to defend the truth. He did not expect, and would not accept, any material reward for this service. His stand on this point was totally consistent. He had a sense of personal integrity which was incapable of being undermined, because he always acted with the highest motives even when the consequences were to cause him to be deprived of his just rights both for himself and his family, and, ultimately of his life.
More at Court
More's decision to serve at court was taken with a certain reluctance. As Erasmus commented at the time 'The King really dragged him there. No one ever strove more eagerly to gain admission there than More did to avoid it'. He foresaw that it would create difficulties for him, and he could have chosen a life of greater freedom by continuing to practise at the bar. Although Henry had given tangible and repeated expression of his confidence in him, More had no illusions about the man he was dealing with. As he was to confide to Roper, 'if my head could win him a castle in France, it would not fail to go'. More saw that, for him, fulfillment of his civic responsibilities meant that he should take an active part in state affairs despite any reluctance he might have in that direction. He adopted a positive approach to his new assignment, a philosophy to which he had already given expression in his Utopia, published some years previously. In discussing how wise counsels can be brought to bear on the actions of princes, he comments:
He knew the men around Henry, he was fully aware of the inherent limitations of his situation, and thus his expectations were tempered with a realism which he had already articulated in his inimitable laconic manner:
When More decided to join the royal service, Henry told him that he should 'look first to God and after God to him', i.e. to Henry a command which was in effect an assurance to More to overcome his reluctance. This must have meant a lot to More during the years that followed, when honours and promotion came in rapid succession: Knighthood, Master of Requests, Privy Counsellor, Under-Treasurer, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and, finally, Lord Chancellor of England. All the externals of success cannot have weighed very heavily on a man who first saw the royal service as an opportunity to guide affairs, for good ends, if possible and, if impossible, for those which were least bad.
When More resigned the Lord Chancellorship, he warned Thomas Cromwell, the man now at the centre of the English political scene:
It was on the one hand an admission of failure, yet on the other a magnificent assertion of nobility and loyalty, and of the qualities to be expected in a truly Christian statesman.
Before More assumed the chancellorship in 1529 he had made it quite clear to Henry that on religious grounds he could not approve of the divorce. Henry assured him that his conscience would be free. While Cromwell with Machiavellian style tactics was developing the scenario which would eventually lead to the break with Rome and the confiscation of the monasteries, More loyally refused to express an opinion in public on the divorce issue. After the capitulation of the hierarchy on 15 May 1532, More saw that he could no longer serve the king as Chancellor and resigned from office the next day. In retirement he continued to write in opposition to heretical opinion, and on 1 June 1533 he refused to accompany the bishops to the coronation of Ann Boleyn: 'It lieth not in my power', he told them, 'but that they may devour me; but, God being my good Lord, I will provide that they shall never deflower me'.
More would not allow himself to be cornered into a situation which would compromise his firmly held view on the divorce question.
Imprisonment, trial and defence
The story of the Act of Supremacy is well known. Cromwell shrewdly devised an oath which included not only the succession but also the Royal Supremacy. More, though opposed to the divorce, would have been willing to agree to the succession of Ann's children. But the matter of Papal Supremacy was a question of a totally different order. Here was an attempt to undermine his very deepest conviction, something which contradicted his most cherished beliefs with regard to the nature of the Catholic faith.
More had an intuition of what was in store for him when he was summoned to appear before the Council at Lambeth on 13 April, 1534. He left his home and family at Chelsea with a heavy heart. As he was being rowed along the Thames, with his son-in-law Roper, for a while he continued to be sad. Then he turned suddenly to Roper and said, with all his old confidence returned, 'Son Roper, I thank our Lord the field is won'. He had already taken a decision which was to reach its final consequences on Tower Hill fifteen months later. Several efforts were made to get him to subscribe to the oath of Supremacy. When they found that civility could not achieve its purpose they turned to threats. More answered the insult that he should barter his conscience for mere cravenness, in a proud and splendid phrase. "My lords," he said, "these terrors be arguments for children and not for me".
Even his beloved daughter Margaret tried to persuade him to change his mind. When she argues that by not yielding he will lose the support of all his friends, he replies without bitterness, but with a great humility and a profound confidence in God:
In the end, when he was brought to trial in Westminster Hall on July 1st, 1535, the government was able to secure a conviction on the charge of treason on the basis of perjured evidence. He was executed on Tower Hill on July 6th and, though he had not achieved any of his three cherished ambitions, he was able to die, as he claimed in his last words from the scaffold, 'the king's good servant, but God's first'.
More did not judge the king and neither did he condemn those whose opinions differed from his own. In the divorce matter he left everyone to his conscience. In a letter to Margaret he states that
Conscience for him is a supreme value, as he wrote to Margaret
More did not of course mean that the dictates of conscience should be followed blindly. Everyone he claimed is bound to inform his conscience
Before coming to a conclusion which imposed itself on his conscience, More did his homework thoroughly, as in the case of his conclusion about the validity of Henry's marriage to Catherine. Against the false accusations and the false witnesses, against the king, against the wavering bishops, against the half-hearted importuning of his beloved Meg, More's conscience stood firm.
At a purely human level, those like Bolt who find in More a character of extraordinary attraction are impressed by his nobility and loyalty to conscience. Because they are unable to comprehend the supernatural dimension of the man and the working of grace in such fertile ground, his life and his death must always remain an enigma to them. Other admirers of More have been able to penetrate a little closer to the core of things, and have put in perspective for us the worth of the life of one man who responded so generously to the particular vocation God had given to him.
Because he so richly expressed in his own life all that was best in human excellence and in Christian virtue, his personality has always evoked not only admiration and reverence, but a depth of affection and warmth of response which few other men in history have achieved.
1. G.K. Chesterton, 'A Turning Point in History' in The Fame of Blessed Thomas More (London 1929), p. 63.
2. Hugh Trevor-Roper in Sunday Times, 27 November 1977.
3. R.W. Chambers, 'Fame among his countrymen' in The Fame of Blessed Thomas More, p. 13.
4. R.W. Chambers, Thomas More (London 1935).
5. Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons (London 1961), p. xiii.
6. T.E. Bridgett, Life and Writings of Sir Thomas More (London 1891), pp. 59-61.
7. Edward Surtz, 'Richard Pace's Sketch of Thomas More' in Essential Articles for the Study of Thomas More, (Connecticut 1977), p. 184.
8. T.E. Bridgett, 'The Wit of Thomas More' in Essential Articles, p. 485.
9. Daniel Sargent, Thomas More (London 1938), p. 178.
10. Bridgett, Life, p. 250.
11. Ibid, p. 210
12. E.E. Reynolds, St Thomas More (London 1953), p. 166.
13. Ibid, p. 167.
14. Bridgett, Life, p. 219.
15. Bede Jarret O.P., 'A National Bulwark against Tyranny' in The Fame of Blessed Thomas More, p. 113.
16. Bridgett, Life, p. 424.
17.G.K. Chesterton, op cit., p. 64.
18. R.C. Marius, 'Thomas More and the Early Church Fathers' in Essential Articles, p. 413.
19. Reynolds, op. cit., p. 204.
20. Christopher Hollis, Thomas More, (London 1934), p. 197.
21. Bridgett, op. cit., p. 307.
22. R.W. Chambers, 'Martyr of the Reformation: Thomas More' in Essential Articles, p. 493.
23. Reynolds, op. cit., p. 205.
24. Chambers, Thomas More, p. 286.
25. Bridgett, Life, p. 261.
26. Reynolds, op cit., p. 208.
27. Hollis, op. cit., p. 168.
28. 'The Kings Good Servant' : Commemorative Exhibition Catalogue (London 1977), p. 73.
29. Hollis, op. cit., p. 145.
30. Reynolds, op. cit., p. 93.
31. Ibid., p. 264.
32. Hollis, op. cit., p. 97.
33. Bridgett, Life, p. 198.
34.Rudolf B. Gottfried, 'A Conscience Undeflowered' in Essential Articles, p. 256.
35. Chambers, op. cit., p. 291.
36. Reynolds, op. cit., p. 279.
37. Sargent, op. cit., p. 227.
38. Hollis, op. cit., p. 236.
39. Dame Bede Foord (ed.), Conscience Decides: Sir Thomas More's Letters and Prayers from Prison (London 1971), p.45.
40. Ibid., p. 57.
41.Andre Prevost, 'Conscience the Ultimate Court of Appeal' in Essential Articles, p. 568.
article first appeared in Position Paper 52, April 1978.
This version: 12th February 2003.