"Even had he not been martyred, he still should have been canonized." These words, written by one of St. Thomas More's many hagiographers, summarize in one short sentence the greatness of heart and soul, the greatness of sanctity, to be found in this "Man for All Seasons."
Thomas More was born in London on the 7th of February, 1477, destined to distinguish himself in public service as few men ever have done. Fifty two years later he would succeed Cardinal Wolsey as Lord Chancellor of England. Throughout his entire life he was a man of singular virtue.
Thomas was the fourth of six children. His father, a successful lawyer, was able to provide him with a good home life and education. He was a bright and outgoing lad and, at twelve, his father arranged for him to be a page at the home of the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Cardinal Morton, also Lord Chancellor of England. Cardinal Morton said of him, “This child here waiting at the table whosoever shall live to see it, will prove a marvelous man.” The Cardinal spoke with prophetic insight.
In 1492 arrangements were made for Thomas to attend Canterbury College at Oxford. He loved his studies and it was the time when the revival of Greek and Latin was popular in the universities. Thomas was able to read and speak both Latin and Greek, he wanted to continue a study of classics and theology.
However, after two years at Oxford, his father brought him back to London and he was apprenticed to a lawyer in preparation to pass the bar, which he passed with customary brilliance. His outgoing personality and sense of humor made him a leader and a favorite of his classmates. He was invited to a dinner at the Lord Mayor of London house. There he met the famous Erasmus, the best known scholar of Europe of his day. Through Erasmus Thomas met other great scholars and it was to Erasmus that Thomas dedicated his famous book “Utopia.”
In 1505 Thomas More had chosen Jane Colt to be his wife, Jane More gave him three daughters and one son, and died, still a very young woman. He had loved her devotedly; the epitaph he wrote for her some years after her death in 1511 is full of tenderness: “here lies Jane, the dear little wife of Thomas More.” Not long after Jane’s death Thomas More married his second wife, Alice Middleton, a widow seven years his senior. Even so, “he cherished her no less and tenderly than if she had been his first young wife.”
Thomas was the most popular public figure of his day. He was a special favorite of King Henry VIII who delighted coming to his home in Chelsea in person, there “to be merry with him.” He would come uninvited to dine at his house, and after dinner would walk with Thomas arm-in-arm while in deep and intimate conversation. However, the Saint was not deceived. He said plainly, “If my head were to win him a castle in France it would not fail to come off.” The Saint well knew a devil when encountering one.
History speaks volumes about Henry’s villainy. This lecherous king had sought to win Thomas More’s support for his unbridled efforts to obtain the annulment of his marriage to Queen Catherine to whom he was married for eighteen years. After several miscarriages she gave him one daughter but not one son as an heir to the throne.
In a devilish rage, he deposed Cardinal Wolsey as Lord Chancellor for his failure to procure from Rome an annulment for his marriage to Catherine. Now the king approached Thomas and asked him to be Lord Chancellor, a singular honor since heretofore, it was always a member of clergy who was selected.
The Protestant writer W. C. Brann summed up what followed shortly: “Because the Pope would not pander to Henry’s unholy passion, the latter proclaimed himself the head of the Church in his Kingdom, made Cranmer his primate ands Thomas Cromwell his vicar-general. In the whole world there was but one man more brutal than Cranmer, and that was Cromwell; but one more bestial than either and that was King Henry. Having gotten Anne Boleyn with child, Henry secretly married her, thereby becoming a bigamist as well as an adulterer….Cranmer, who pronounced Henry divorced from Catherine, subsequently relieved him of Anne by declaring that marriage to be of no effect.”
Henry scandalized all of England by making a public mockery of the sacred sacrament of marriage.
In March 1534 Parliament passed a new Act of Succession which required public men to swear an oath acknowledging the children of Henry and Ann Boleyn to be legitimate heirs to the throne. Both More and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, were willing to take this oath, since they acknowledged the right of Parliament to determine the succession.
What they refused to do was to swear to the preamble of the Act which contained a repudiation of the papal supremacy. Upon their refusal to swear the required oath, both saints were imprisoned in the Tower of London.
On July 1, 1535 Thomas More was indicted for high treason. He denied all the charges made against him, and indeed proved his chief accuser, the wretched opportunist Richard Rich, to be guilty of perjury. Still, the corrupt court found him guilty.
Thomas More addressed that contemptible court with these cutting words: “Seeing that you are determined to condemn me…I will now speak my mind plainly…And as for your Parliament and bishops, I am not bounden to conform my conscience to the council of one realm against a general council of Christendom. For every bishop of yours, I have above one hundred holy bishops of the past, of whom many be now saints in Heaven. And for one council or parliament of yours, I have all the councils made these thousand years. And for this one kingdom, I have all other Christian realms.”
A shaken court then hastily pronounced the death sentence required of them
Early on the morning of July 6th, 1535, St. Thomas More was led out to the scaffold for execution. He was truly a man of singular virtue - a great saint and martyr. In 1886, Sir Thomas More was beatified with John Cardinal Fisher and other English martyrs. It was in May of 1935 that Pope Pius XI canonized him and made him the patron of lawyers. He was a saint first, for his holy life and secondly because he was martyred rather than offend God by an evil oath. “The King’s good servant but God’s first.”
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