Tuesday, 6 July 2010
July 6th, 1535: The Execution of Sir Thomas More
Today marks the anniversary of the beheading of Sir Thomas More (above), the former confidante and adviser of King Henry VIII of England. More, who had provided the eulogy at the funeral of Henry's mother, Elizabeth of York, in 1503, had served as Lord Chancellor from 1529 to 1532, during which time he became increasingly uncomfortable at his master's ecclesiastical policies. He resigned, but was eventually executed for treason three years later.
Canonised by the Roman Catholic Church in 1935, modern perceptions of Sir Thomas vary - at a recent debate on the role of the Catholic Church in history, the British man of letters, Stephen Fry, thundered at Catholic MP and apologist, Ann Widdecombe, that it was a matter almost obscene that somehow like More should be venerated as a saint, particularly as the patron of private conscience, given his treatment of heretics during his time as Lord Chancellor. Widdecombe defended More's canonisation and something of the differing reactions to him can be reflected in cinematic portrayals of him - be it the hagiographic A Man For All Seasons, the intensely critical God's Outlaw or the more balanced characterisation by Jeremy Notham in The Tudors. As with so many of his contemporaries, what we know (or, rather, think we know) about Sir Thomas is based on hearsay or particularly resilient legends. Chief amongst the more nonsensical stories told about him is the idea that he personally tortured the heretics captured with a cat o' nine tails or that he championed Katherine of Aragon and refused to accept Anne Boleyn as the new queen. In fact, perhaps to his credit, More was one of the few people who personally admired Katherine but didn't see her cause and that of the Catholic Church in England as symbiotic. At the time of Anne's Coronation, the man who would be a saint, wrote: -
"So am I he among his Grace's other faithful subjects, his Highness being in possession of his marriage and this noble woman really anointed queen, neither murmur at it nor dispute upon it, nor never did nor will, but without any other manner meddling of the matter among his other faithful subjects, faithfully pray to God for his Grace and hers both long to live and well, and their noble issue too, in such wise as may be to the pleasure of God, honour and surety to themselves, rest, peace, wealth and profit unto this noble realm."
A legal defense of Sir Thomas is mounted by the excellent blogger, Claire Ridgway, here.