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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Thomas More Executed, July 6, 1535

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Today in 1535, Sir Thomas More was executed in London, England. This lawyer, statesman and trusted advisor to the king surrendered everything, even his life, instead of denying his steadfast belief in Catholicism and the supremacy of the Pope in his governance of the Christian Church.

Thomas More was born in 1478. His father was a successful lawyer whose standing allowed Thomas to attend the University of Oxford for two years before returning to study law and eventually becoming a barrister. Soon afterward, More considered joining the Franciscan order, but instead married his first wife, Jane Colt, in 1505. Jane bore four children before before her death in 1511. More soon married again, this time to Alice Middleton, a wealthy widow.

From 1510 to 1518, More served as one of the two undersheriffs of the city of London, a position of considerable responsibility in which he earned a reputation as an honest and effective public servant. In 1517 More entered the king's service as counsellor and "personal servant". After undertaking a diplomatic mission to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, More was knighted and made undertreasurer in 1521. As secretary and personal advisor to King Henry VIII, More became increasingly influential in the government, welcoming foreign diplomats, drafting official documents, and serving as a liaison between the king and his Lord Chancellor, Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, the Archbishop of York. In 1523 More became the Speaker of the House of Commons.

More was a very successful writer; the term “utopia” is a word he invented as a name for an imaginary island nation in the book of the same name. He worked on a manuscript entitled “History of King Richard III”, which may have been the basis for Shakespeare’s “Richard III”. In service to King Henry VIII, More co-authored the “Defense of the Seven Sacraments”, a work attacking Protestant doctrine. Pope Leo X was so impressed by the work that he granted Henry the title “Defender of the Faith” in 1521. The coming years would betray the irony of that act.

Henry VIII had been married to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, for 20 years when he met Anne Boleyn, one of the ladies of the royal court. Because of his desire to marry Boleyn and the fact that Catherine had not produced a male heir, Henry sought an annulment of his marriage through his Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey. When the Pope refused to grant the annulment, Henry fired the Cardinal and replaced him with his trusted advisor, Sir Thomas More.

More saw the rise of Protestantism in Europe as a threat to order, social, moral and political. Despite the king’s growing rift with Rome, More continued to write in defense of the Catholic Church. In 1530, his opposition to Henry came into the open when he refused to sign a petition that had been approved by the leading English churchmen asking the Pope to grant Henry an annulment. Over the next two years, he tried to resign his position twice; finally, the King granted his request when he complained of health problems.

What King Henry saw as More’s insubordination came to a head in 1533, when More refused to attend Anne Boleyn’s coronation. Two false charges were made against More in the following months; he proved his innocence in court both times. In April, 1534, More was called before a group of royal appointees and asked to swear allegiance to Act of Succession, an act of Parliament that made Anne Boleyn’s daughter Elizabeth the heir to the throne. More agreed that Parliament had the right to decide royal succession, but he would not swear alliegance to the act because it contained wording which denied Papal authority. More was soon arrested and put in the Tower of London.

More was charged with treason and put on trial in front of a group of judges that included the new Lord Chancellor, and three men from Anne Boleyn’s family. He refused to answer any questions meant to entrap him and was successful in not openly disagreeing with the King’s assertion of ultimate authority over the Church of England. Frustrated, the judges produced Richard Rich, the Solicitor General, who claimed that he had heard More deny the King as head of the English church during private discussions. No one could corroborate Rich’s testimony, but it did not matter---Sir Thomas More’s fate was sealed.

On the way to the scaffold to be beheaded, More was quoted as saying, “See me safe up; for my coming down, I can shift for myself.” In his last statement, he said that he died “the king’s good servant but God’s first.”

Sir Thomas More was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886 and canonized a Saint of the Roman Catholic Church in 1935.

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