Saint Thomas More, Martyr

July 9

Today is the feast day of Saint Thomas More.  Ora pro nobis. 

Saint Thomas was born in London in 1480. Saint Thomas was the sole surviving son of Sir John More, barrister and later judge, by his first wife Agnes, daughter of Thomas Graunger. While still a child Thomas was sent to St. Anthony’s School in Threadneedle Street, kept by Nicholas Holt, and when thirteen years old was placed in the household of Cardinal Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Lord Chancellor. Here his merry character and brilliant intellect attracted the notice of the archbishop, who sent him to Oxford, where he entered at Canterbury Hall (subsequently absorbed by Christ Church) about 1492. His father made him an allowance barely sufficient to supply the necessaries of life and, in consequence, he had no opportunity to indulge in “vain or hurtful amusements” to the detriment of his studies. (3)

At Oxford he made friends with William Grocyn and Thomas Linacre, the latter becoming his first instructor in Greek. Without ever becoming an exact scholar he mastered Greek “by an instinct of genius” as witnessed by Pace (De fructu qui ex doctrina percipitur, 1517), who adds “his eloquence is incomparable and twofold, for he speaks with the same facility in Latin as in his own language”. Besides the classics he studied French, history, and mathematics, and also learned to play the flute and the viol. After two years’ residence at Oxford, More was recalled to London and entered as a law student at New Inn about 1494. In February, 1496, he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn as a student, and in due course was called to the outer bar and subsequently made a bencher. His great abilities now began to attract attention and the governors of Lincoln’s Inn appointed him “reader” or lecturer on law at Furnival’s Inn, his lectures being esteemed so highly that the appointment was renewed for three successive years. (3)

By the age of 32 he was already accomplished, having completed his education at Oxford. As a layman in the London soon to be drenched with the blood of Catholic Martyrs, he practiced the self-denial and piety of the Carthusian Monks, which was a blessing since he would follow them to Martyrdom; he then married and had four children while holding several influential posts—–administrator, ambassador, judge, counselor, in particular personal counsel to Henry, and was known as a scholar.  But he was for all practical purposes “a commoner” because he so readily identified with the poor and those who suffered injustice at the hands of the powerful. The little man, dispossessed and ignored, could count on a “friend” at court. An amiable, naturally kind man, he would earn his reputation as a strong debater, regardless of whose egos might be bruised, because the truth and the justice that it engenders was his hallmark. (1)

Saint Thomas came under suspicion by King Henry VII when he strove in the Parliament to reduce the burden of excessive taxes which the people bore, though he never spoke against the king. But his capacities were appreciated, and when Henry VII died, his 18-year-old son, who was to become Henry VIII in 1509, showed him great favor during the first twenty years of his reign. Saint Thomas was knighted in 1521, and was made Speaker of the House of Commons in 1523, High Steward of Cambridge University in 1525, and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in the same year. Nonetheless, the king’s protege foresaw what could easily happen to anyone who did not agree with his sovereign; he said to his son-in-law in 1525, If my head could win him a castle in France, it would not fail to go. In effect, when in 1530 the order was issued to the clergy to acknowledge Henry as Supreme Head of the Church, insofar as the law of God would permit, Saint Thomas immediately resigned as Lord Chancellor. (2)

Through Henry VIII he became attached to the royal court and was finally appointed Lord High Chancellor. The time had now arrived in which the Tertiary was to manifest how sincerely he had grasped the spirit of the Saint of Assisi. As should be expected, Saint Thomas More continued to make his accustomed religious practices even as an important statesman. He set aside every Friday as a day of introspection. His charity was limitless.

Saint Thomas More experienced special delight in serving the priest at holy Mass, and he received Holy Communion daily. He was once told, by way of reproach, that it was unbecoming for a layman with so much work to do and so many distractions to communicate daily. But he replied:

“You are advancing the very reasons for the need of frequent Holy Communion. If I am distracted, Holy Communion helps me to become recollected. If opportunities are offered me each day to offend my God, I arm myself anew each day for the combat by the reception of the Eucharist. If I am in special need of light and prudence in order to discharge my burdensome duties, I draw nigh to my Savior and seek counsel and light from Him.”

It was not long before his doom was sealed. Blinded by unholy passions, King Henry divorced his lawful wife and married Anne Boleyn, a lady in waiting at the court. When Rome justly condemned his adulterous act, the king severed his connections with Rome and set himself up as the head of the Church in England. Whoever disapproved of his conduct was doomed to die.

The first person who opposed the king was his loyal chancellor, Thomas More. He was cast into prison. There he wrote a pamphlet entitled “Death Endured for the Faith Need Cause No Fear.” When his wife endeavored to persuade him to give up his opposition and prolong his life, he asked her just how long she believed he would still live. She answered, “At least twenty years.” “Indeed!” said Thomas More. “Had you said a few thousand years, that might make a difference. But surely even he would be a poor merchant who would run the risk of losing an eternity for the sake of a thousand years.”

Saint Thomas More was beheaded on July 6, 1535. Pope Leo XIII beatified this great Tertiary, and Pope Pius XI canonized him on May 19, 1935. (4)

Feast 22 June (Catholic Church)
6 July (Church of England)
9 July (Catholic Extraordinary Form)

Saint Thomas More WRITINGS

More was a ready writer and not a few of his works remained in manuscript until some years after his death, while several have been lost altogether. Of all his writings the most famous is unquestionably the Utopia, first published at Louvain in 1516. The volume recounts the fictitious travels of one Raphael Hythlodaye, a mythical character, who, in the course of a voyage to America, was left behind near Cape Frio and thence wandered on till he chanced upon the Island of Utopia (“nowhere”) in which he found an ideal constitution in operation. The whole work is really an exercise of the imagination with much brilliant satire upon the world of More’s own day. Real persons, such as Peter Giles, Cardinal Morton, and More himself, take part in the dialogue with Hythlodaye, so that an air of reality pervades the whole which leaves the reader sadly puzzled to detect where truth ends and fiction begins, and has led not a few to take the book seriously. But this is precisely what More intended, and there can be no doubt that he would have been delighted at entrapping William Morris, who discovered in it a complete gospel of Socialism; or Cardinal Zigliara, who denounced it as “no less foolish than impious”; as he must have been with his own contemporaries who proposed to hire a ship and send out missionaries to his non-existent island. The book ran through a number of editions in the original Latin version and, within a few years, was translated into German, Italian, French, Dutch, Spanish, and English.

    A collected edition of More’s English works was published by William Rastell, his nephew, at London in 1557; it has never been reprinted and is now rare and costly. The first collected edition of the Latin Works appeared at Basle in 1563; a more complete collection was published at Louvain in 1565 and again in 1566. In 1689 the most complete edition of all appeared at Frankfort-on-Main, and Leipzig. After the Utopia the following are the most important works:

  • “Luciani Dialogi . . .compluria opuscula . . . ab Erasmo Roterodamo et Thoma Moro interpretibus optimis in Latinorum lingua traducta . . .” (Paris, 1506);
  • “Here is conteigned the lyfe of John Picus, Earle of Mirandula . . .” (London, 1510);
  • “Historie of the pitiful life and unfortunate death of Edward the fifth and the then Duke of York his brother . . .”, printed incomplete in the “English Works” (1557) and reissued with a completion from Hall’s Chronicle by Wm. Sheares (London, 1641);
  • “Thomae Mori v.c. Dissertatio Epistolica de aliquot sui temporis theologastrorum ineptiis . . .” (Leyden, 1625);
  • Epigrammata…Thomae Mori Britanni, pleraque e Graecis versa. (Basle, 1518); Eruditissimi viri Gul. Rossi Opus elegans quo pulcherrime retegit ac refellit insanas Lutheri calumnias (London, 1523), written at the request of Henry VIII in answer to Luther’s reply to the royal “Defensio Septem Sacramentorum”;
  • “A dyaloge of Syr Thomas More Knyght . . .of divers maters, as of the veneration and worshyp of ymages and relyques, praying to sayntys and goyng on pylgrymage . . .” (London,1529);
  • “The Supplycacyon of Soulys” (London, 1529[?]), written in answer to Fish’s “Supplication of the Beggars”;
  • “Syr Thomas More’s answer to the fyrste parte of the poysoned booke . . . named ‘The Souper of the Lorde’ ” (London, 1532);
  • “The Second parte of the Confutacion of Tyndal’s Answere . . .” (London, 1533); these two works together form the most lengthy of all More’s writings; besides Tindal, Robert Barnes is dealt with in the last book of the whole;
  • “A Letter impugnynge the erronyouse wrytyng of John Fryth against the Blessed Sacrament of the Aultare” (London, 1533);
  • “The Apologye of Syr Thomas More, Hnyght, made by him anno 1533, after he had given over the office of Lord Chancellour of Englande” (London, 1533);
  • “The Debellacyon of Salem and Bizance” (London, 1533), an answer to the anonymous work entitled “Salem and Bizance”, and vindicating the severe punishment of heresy;
  • “A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation . . .” (London, 1553).

    Among the other writings in the collected volume of “English Works” are the following which had not been previously published:

  • An unfinished treatise “uppon those words of Holy Scripture, ‘Memorare novissima et in eternum non peccabis’ “, dated 1522;
  • “Treatise to receive the blessed Body of our Lorde, sacramentally and virtually both”;
  • “Treatise upon the Passion” unfinished;
  • “Certein devout and vertuouse Instruccions, Meditacions and Prayers”;
  • some letters written in the Tower, including his touching correspondence with his daughter Margaret. (3)

Image: Saint Thomas More (6)

Research by REGINA Staff


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