Stories From English History: II - Alfred J. Church

The Great Chancellor

When Wolsey gave up the Great Seal, it was to Thomas More that the King handed it. Thomas More, who was then nearly fifty years of age, was one of the most famous, as he was one of the very best men in England. He was the son of a judge, and had himself followed the profession of the Law. But he was a good deal more than a lawyer. He had studied at Oxford, and had been very well thought of as a scholar, and he was a member of Parliament at the early age of twenty-one. In Parliament he was noted for his independence, even persuading the House of Commons to refuse, on one occasion, the money which the King demanded. This was in the days of Henry VII. When the younger Henry came to the throne, he soon took More into his service. As time went on he continued to rise in favour. In 1521 the King published a book on theology, in which More is said to have helped him; and More himself wrote a book in defence of the King. Henry professed, and we may believe really felt for the time, a great affection for him. More was not only very learned but also very witty, and the King, as long as he was not thwarted in what he desired, could be very friendly and even affectionate. But More always knew how very easily all this might be changed. Once when the King had come unexpectedly to More's house at Chelsea, and had dined with him, he walked after dinner about the garden with his arm round his host's neck. When he was gone More's son-in-law, Thomas Roper, said to him that he must be very well pleased to have the King on such friendly terms with him. He had never been seen before to be so familiar with a subject, except that once he had walked arm-in-arm with Wolsey. "I find his Grace my very good lord indeed," was More's answer, "and I believe he does as singularly favour me as any subject within this realm. However, son Roper, I may tell thee, I have no cause to be proud thereof, for if my head would win him a castle in France, it should not fail to go."

Henry VIII of England


Nor did it fail to go, as we shall see, but not for a castle in France. The way this came about was as follows: the Pope would not pronounce that the King's marriage to Queen Katharine was null. So the King, having got opinions in his favour from sundry learned persons, had sentence pronounced to that effect by Thomas Cranmer, the new Archbishop of Canterbury. This was in May 1533, but the King had been already for some months married to Anne Boleyn. Early in the next year an Act of Parliament was passed which declared that the realm of England was not under the spiritual rule of the Pope, and that the King was entitled to have the supreme power which had hitherto been exercised by the Pope. We must not suppose that all this was done on Anne Boleyn's account. The English people had always been jealous of the Pope's power, and the best English kings had been careful to see that it never grew too great. Thus a decree or Bull of the Pope, so called from the large round seal—bulla—which was fastened to it, could not be brought into the country without the King's leave. There was then a good deal to make Henry think that he was doing right when he acted as he did. On the other hand, we may be sure that if the Pope had given way in the matter of the divorce, the course of things would have been very different.

For some time More had seen something of what was going to happen. We may wonder that he ever took the office of Chancellor. Perhaps he hoped that the King would give up his plans if he found that the Pope was firmly set against them. He certainly did not fear, at least then, that there would be an absolute breaking away from Rome. And it must be remembered that it was not easy to refuse anything to King Henry, especially when he asked it in a good-humoured way. However, in May 1532 he gave up the Great Seal. He told the news of his giving it up to his wife in this way. He was at Chelsea Church on the day after his resignation, and had been singing as usual in the choir. It had been the custom for one of his gentlemen to go to Lady More's seat, and to let her know that the Chancellor had left the church by saying, "My Lord is gone before." This time he went himself and said, "My Lord is gone" (i.e. he was no longer my lord). Lady More was very angry when she found out what had happened. Among other things she said, "Would to God I were a man, you should quickly see what I would do. What! why, I would go forward with the best; for, as my mother was wont to say, it is ever better to rule than to be ruled, and therefore I would not be so foolish as to be ruled where I might rule." All that Sir Thomas said to this was, "By my faith, wife, I dare say you speak truth, for I never found you willing to be ruled yet." So far the King was very friendly. But the end was to come soon. The new Queen was to be crowned on May 31, 1533, and Sir Thomas More was invited to be present at the ceremony. He would not go; he was not satisfied, he said, of the lawfulness of the marriage. This year More's enemies, of course at the desire of the King, endeavoured to destroy him by what was called an Act of Attainder. This was a Bill brought into Parliament declaring that such and such a person was guilty of a certain crime named. If the two Houses passed this Bill; and the King gave his assent, the person was taken to be guilty just as if he had been tried in the regular way by a judge and jury. However, the attempt failed. There really was nothing to bring up against More, and his name was struck out of the Bill. Then these same enemies tried to make out that he had taken bribes while holding his office of Chancellor. They failed again. There never had been a more honest judge upon the Bench, and More was easily able to show that the stories brought up against him were nothing at all. One may serve as a specimen. It was said that he had received from a certain widow-lady, who had a suit in his court, a New Year's present of a pair of gloves with forty gold pieces. The lady had sent the gloves and the money, hoping, we may suppose, to bespeak the Chancellor's favour. He returned the money with this message—

"It would be against good manners to refuse a lady's gift; therefore I take the gloves, but as for the lining, I utterly refuse it."

The next attack was one which could not fail. In April 1534 Parliament passed an Act, declaring that the King's marriage with Katharine was null, that his marriage with Anne Boleyn was lawful, and that any child of his by Anne had the right of succession to the throne. (A child, afterwards Queen Elizabeth, had been born in September 1533.) It was also provided that any person might be called upon to take an oath that he assented to all these things, and that if he refused to do so he was guilty of treason. This oath More was at once called upon to take. He refused. He would swear, he said, to the succession, but the oath as it stood was against his conscience. Nothing could move him. When the Duke of Norfolk warned him that it was dangerous to resist the King, quoting the text, "The wrath of a King is death," "Is that all?" he replied. "Then there is no more difference between your Grace and me, than that I shall die to-day and you to-morrow; and 'tis surely better to offend an earthly king than the King of heaven." For four days he was put in the charge of the Abbot of Westminster, the King hoping that he might be persuaded. As he still refused, he was sent to the Tower. The Lieutenant of the Tower apologized to him for not making him as comfortable as he could wish. The King, he said, would be displeased. "Good Master Lieutenant," said More, "whenever I find fault with the entertainment which you provide do you turn me out of doors."

For many months he was kept in prison, many persons trying to frighten or persuade him. But they came in vain. He could not act against his conscience. On July 1 he was brought to trial. He defended himself well, but in those days, a man accused of treason was never acquitted, and the jury, after but a few minutes' consideration, found him guilty. The Lord Chancellor was about to pronounce sentence, when the prisoner stopped him. "My lord," he said, "when I was towards the law, the manner was to ask the prisoner whether he could give any reason why sentence should not be pronounced against him." The Lord Chancellor had to own that he was wrong, though of course nothing that More could say could make any difference. He was taken back to the Tower with the edge of the axe turned towards him. When he reached the wharf where he was to land, his daughter Margaret Roper rushed through the guard and threw her arms round his neck, crying out, "My father, my father!" He blessed her, and sought to comfort her. Still she clung to him, till the rough soldiers themselves were in tears.

After this he had not long to wait for his release. In the early morning of July 6, the King's messenger came to him with the tidings that he must die that day at nine o'clock. He heard the message with calmness. He would have dressed himself in his best clothes—the clothes belonged by custom to the executioner,—for, as he said, "if they were of cloth of gold I should think them well bestowed on him who should do me so singular a service." He was persuaded, however, to change them for a frieze gown; but he sent the executioner a gold coin. When he came to the scaffold, he thought that it looked weakly built. "Lend me thy hand, Master Lieutenant," he said, "and see me safe up; as for my coming down, let me shift for myself." He said the fifty-first Psalm ("Have mercy upon me, O God, after Thy great goodness"), and then said to the executioner, who had asked his pardon, as was the custom, that it was the greatest of services. "Pluck up thy spirits," he added, "and be not afraid to do thy office. My neck is very short; see that thou strike not awry for thy credit's sake." And yet again, bidding him hold his hand a moment, till he should put his beard out of the way, "for that is no traitor: it hath not offended his Highness."

His Highness was playing backgammon with Anne Boleyn when the news of his old friend's death reached him. "Thou art the cause of this man's death," he said to her in an angry tone, and left the room. Whatever he felt did not prevent him from seizing the dead man's house and goods. But it added to the aversion that was growing up in his mind against the Queen herself. In less than a year she had followed More.

Margaret Roper got possession of the severed head. She had it embalmed and placed in a casket. When she was dying it was put in her arms, and it was placed in her coffin.

"Morn broaden'd on the borders of the dark,

Ere I saw her, who clasp'd in her last trance

Her murder'd father's head."

Tennyson, Dream of Fair Women.