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On Low Sunday, 12th April 1534, Sir Thomas More (in his 50's), formerly member of the King's Council, Speaker of the House of Commons and Lord Chancellor of the Realm, was escorted from his home in Chelsea down river to Lambeth Palace where King Henry VIII required him to give his formal assent to the new Act of Succession. This was intended to legitimise the King's divorce from Catherine of Aragon, his new marriage to Ann Boleyn and prescribe the future succession to the throne. More, the only layman being called upon in this public way, knew his King well enough to realise that refusal to take the Oath could result in confiscation of all his goods, imprisonment, and possible death. He had maintained a deafening silence on the whole issue ("the King's Great Matter ") and pointedly refused to attend Henry's and Ann Boleyn's wedding.
The succession to the throne gave More no problem, being within King's and Parliament's jurisdiction, but the oath, as drafted, also entailed giving assent to the divorce and adoption by Henry of the title "Supreme Head of the Church in England" which, for More, was a matter outside the King's remit. The leading figures of the land had already given in to the King and signed the oath; many of them with the mental proviso "so far as the law of God allows". This was an equivocation More could not allow himself. Four days later he was taken to the Tower.
To begin with he was allowed books and writing materials. Members of his family were permitted visits; no doubt the authorities hoped that pressure from the family would persuade More to give up his resistance in order to return home. Thanks to son-in-law Roper we can hear the exasperation in the voice of More's wife Dame Alice:- `What the good year, Master More,' quoth she, 'I marvel that you, that have been always hitherto taken for so wise a man, will now play the fool to lie here in this close, filthy prison and be content thus to be shut up amongst mice and rats, when you might be abroad at your liberty, and with the favour and good will both of the King and his Council, if you would but do as all the Bishops and best learned of this realm have done."
Roper records More's quiet response "Is not this house as nigh heaven as my own?" But his family's inability to understand him must have weighed very heavily on him in the long hours of solitude. As a young man he had been drawn to the life of the London Charterhouse where the monks lived lives of silent contemplation and although he had opted for the life of a busy lawyer and family man, he had remained a deeply spiritual person spending much time in daily prayer.
He was also a close reader of Holy Scripture, the Church Fathers (if only his lectures on St Augustine had survived!) and of devotional works such as Thomas a Kempis and The Cloud of Unknowing. Now he sought inner strength by composing works of meditation and prayer known collectively as The Tower Works.
The most substantial of these is Dialogue of Comfort which shows a man striving to prepare himself for death and provide consolation for his family. The work can be read on several levels. On the face of it, it records a conversation taking place in Christian Hungary under the threat of imminent invasion by the Muslim Turks. It also addresses the equally disturbing menace of internal dissension within the Christian world; the Reformation is as serious a threat to the Universal Church of Christ as the Turks. Thus far the book is a plea for a united Christendom. On another level it touches the dangerous subject of how far a Head of State may dictate the religious beliefs of his subjects (little wonder then that the precious manuscript sheets had to be smuggled out of the gaol bit by bit - in the women's clothing or baskets). Ultimately though, the Dialogue is addressed to the author himself. How can he be sure that his stand against the King is not a manifestation of his own pride? How can he can be sure that he is not being tempted by the Devil or his demons? Had not Christ himself been subjected to temptations? How could he be sure he was not following illusions of the Devil rather than the true revelations of God? When we admire that fine portrait of More by Hans Holbein - so calm and at peace - let us also recall how he had to struggle quite alone against the demonic voices telling him he was the victim of spiritual pride. In the end the answer for More was a matter of placing his hope and trust in God's assistance and the Dialogue closes with contemplation upon Christ's own fear and His passion.
The Passion and the sufferings of Christ are also central to De Tristitia Christi, a meditation on Christ's Agony in the Garden. This work is unfinished. At the words "then, after all this, did they first lay hands upon Jesus" his books, paper and ink were taken from him. Remarkably the pages, carefully bound and in his handwriting, survived. They were discovered only in 1963 in the library of a seminary in Valencia. His prayer book and book of psalms also survive, retaining his annotations and prayers written in the margins.
More had these two books bound together as works of private devotion which he had taken with him into the Tower and they stayed with him to the end. The prayer book was a Book of Hours containing woodcuts of Christ's Life and Crucifixion and More has written a prayer in the space at the top and bottom of each page beginning: "Give me thy grace good lord to sett the world at nought, To set my mynd fast vppon thee"
More had exerted all his strength to save himself by means of the law. To actively seek out martyrdom might be an act of presumptuous pride in response to demonic temptations, but once he had been condemned (on perjured evidence by a hand-picked jury) he felt free to speak out in the knowledge that his death was God's will. The English Parliament could not make a law against the law of the Universal Church, indeed the coronation oath itself swore to uphold the rights of the Church. Henry, in claiming Supremacy of the church in England, was acting beyond his powers. Even if the bishops of the realm had conformed to the King's will there were all the holy saints, bishops and learned men of the past and present standing in opposition "and therefore I am not bound, my lord, to conform my conscience to the council of one realm against the General Council of Christendom."Patrick Rennison