He was a dead man walking. To have crossed the King was offense enough, but to have betrayed a friend was quite another. And that was how King Henry VIII, self-proclaimed Supreme Head of the Church of England, perceived his Lord Chancellor and friend’s behavior. When Thomas More refused to take the Oath of Supremacy acknowledging the King’s “incontestable” leadership of the English Church, it was considered wicked perfidy.
And so he must die.
But he would not die in an ordinary fashion. First, he must be removed from family and friends only to languish in the unforgiving stone-walled harshness of the Tower of London. And if being deprived of warmth, adequate food and sanitation wouldn’t concentrate and “reform” his mind about the Oath, then his fate would be sealed. The official conviction of treason would be a formality bolstered by perjury, judicial indignation and draconian condemnation. And the sentence?
To be “drawn on a hurdle through the City of London to Tyburn, there to be hanged till he should be half dead; then he should be cut down alive, his privy parts cut off, his belly ripped, his bowels burnt, his four quarters sit up over four gates of the City and his head upon London Bridge.”
But surely Thomas More, the lawyer, knew this. After all, it was the standard sentence for high treason. Without question, he considered this fate hourly in his drafty flea-ridden Tower cell over fourteen miserable months.
But during this time, Thomas More remained faithful. Fearful? Most definitely. Despairing? Likely, at times. But faithful.
And as he penned letters to his family and his moving works, A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, A Treatise Upon the Passion of Christ, and The Sadness of Christ, he offered this prayer from the all-consuming blackness.
Give me Thy grace, good Lord,
To set the world at naught; to set my mind fast upon Thee; and not to hang upon the blast of men’s mouths.
To be content to be solitary; not to long for worldly company; little and little utterly to cast off the world, and rid my mind of all the business thereof; not to long to hear of any worldly things, but that the hearing of worldly phantasies may be to me [displeasing].
Gladly to be thinking of God; piteously to call for His help; to lean unto the comfort of God; busily to labour to love Him.
To know mine own [vileness] and wretchedness; to humble and meeken myself under the mighty hand of God. To bewail my sins past; for the purging of them patiently to suffer adversity; gladly to bear my purgatory here; to be joyful of tribulations; to walk the narrow way that leadeth to life.
To bear the cross with Christ; to have the last things in remembrance; to have ever afore mine eye my death that is ever at hand; to make death no stranger to me; to foresee and consider the everlasting fire of hell; to pray for pardon before the Judge come.
To have continually in mind the passion that Christ suffered for me; for His benefits [unceasingly] to give Him thanks.
To buy the time again, that I before have lost; to abstain from vain confabulations; to eschew light, foolish mirth; and gladness; recreations not necessary to cut off; of worldly substance, friends, liberty, life and all, to set the loss at right nought for the winning of Christ.
To think my most enemies my best friends; for the brethren of Joseph could never have done him so much good with their love and favour as they did him with their malice and hatred.
These minds are more to be desired of every man than all the treasure of all the princes and kings, Christian and heathen, were it gathered and laid together all upon one heap.
On July 6, 1535, Thomas More would be beheaded (his more gruesome sentence commuted by the King) and his head placed on a pike for a month as a warning to deliberating traitors. Four hundred years later, he would be canonized St. Thomas More by Pope Pius XI.
On June 26, I visited his relic with my wife and young daughters at our local Cathedral.
And I wondered…
In our life and times, will we have his courage? Will we have his faith?
St. Thomas More, pray for us.