Thomas More: Inquisitor, Torturer, Killer, Saint 6

I noted with a mix of fascination and amusement that the fraud-loving priest in my previous post works at a church named for Sir Thomas More, the 16th-century lawyer, statesman, and enforcer of orthodoxy. There are hundreds upon hundreds of Catholic churches that bear More’s name.

Catholics revere Sir Thomas as a martyr because he was beheaded for refusing to say that the authority of King Henry VIII superseded that of the Pope. Even in secular and humanist circles, More is often given a measure of respect, partly for his collaboration with the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus, and partly because of how More is famously portrayed in the Oscar-winning movie A Man For All Seasons.


What neither group ever seems keen to acknowledge is that Sir Thomas was also a man who so abhorred Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation that he burned Lutherans at the stake with great relish. One of More’s motives for hating the Protestant heretics was that they dared to read the New Testament in English rather than Latin, which was against the law in England at the time.

The historian and religious scholar James Wood reminds us that Thomas More, far from being the consummate “man of conscience,” was

…the heretic hunter of the mid-1520s, who personally broke into Lutherans’ homes and sent men to the stake, … [and who] would punish religious dissent not only with “displeasant” words but with state violence.

Hyperbole? Hardly. The Life of Thomas More by Peter Ackroyd, one of the more positive More biographies, recounts that when Sir Thomas learned that John Tewkesbury, a London leather-seller, secretly possessed banned books, he had the man burned alive. After the execution, More expressed his satisfaction: “[He] burned as there was neuer wretche I wene better worthy.” More cherished the image of Tewkesbury burning not just on earth, but in hell, “an hote fyrebronde burnynge at hys bakke, that all the water in the worlde wyll neuer be able to quenche.”

Richard Marius, an American scholar of the Reformation and the author of Thomas More, A Biography, concludes that More, notwithstanding his earlier wanderings through humanism, was eager to exterminate Protestants,

and while he was in office he did everything in his power to bring that extermination to pass. That he did not succeed in becoming England’s Torquemada was a consequence of the king’s quarrel with the pope and not a result of any quality of mercy that stirred through More’s own heart.

Per James Wood, here is some of More’s handiwork:

With the help of John Stokesley, the Bishop of London, More personally broke into the houses of suspected heretics, arresting them on the spot and sometimes interrogating them in his own home. He imprisoned one man in the porter’s lodge of his house, and had him put in the stocks. He raided the home of a businessman called John Petyt, who was suspected of financing [protestant Bible translator William] Tyndale; Petyt died in the Tower. Six rebellious Oxford students were kept for months in a fish cellar; three of them died in prison. More was now a spiritual detective, a policeman in a hair shirt, engaged in “what would now be called surveillance and entrapment among the leather-sellers, tailors, fishmongers and drapers of London.” Six protesters were burned under More’s chancellorship, and perhaps forty were imprisoned.

Next time you hear the adjective catholic (small c) used in the sense of ‘shifty,’ ‘evasive,’ ‘disingenuous,’ think of Thomas More, and think of this mind-crushing passage from Wood’s essay:

More attempted to answer the charge of the reformers that it was not Christian for the church to burn heretics. The church did not burn people, replied More; the state burned them. This was strictly true, because the ecclesiastical courts tried heretics and the state courts sentenced them. But More’s language is disingenuous. The church, he writes, would never want to kill anyone. “It is not the clergy that laboreth to have them punished to death.” The “spiritual law” is “good, reasonable, piteous, and charitable, and nothing desiring the death of any therein.” The church asks the heretic to repent; if he does not, the church excommunicates him, at which point “the clergy giveth knowledge to the temporalty, not exhorting the prince, or any man else, either, to kill him or to punish him.” The church does not urge anyone to punish the heretic; it “leaveth him to the secular hand, and forsaketh him.”


To Wood, More was

cruel in punishment, evasive in argument, lusty for power, and repressive in politics. He betrayed Christianity when he led it so violently into court politics, and he betrayed politics when he surrendered it so meekly to the defense of Catholicism.

The British historical biographer Jasper Ridley was even less charitable in his final assessment of Sir Thomas, calling him “a particularly nasty sadomasochistic pervert.”

The Catholic world had four or five centuries to come to its senses about More, but never did. In 1929, the Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton fawned over him in The Fame of Blessed Thomas Moore:

Blessed Thomas More is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death, even perhaps the great moment of his dying; but he is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years’ time.

The Vatican agreed that More was a man worthy of our highest adulation. In May of 1935, Pope Pius XI officially declared Sir Thomas a saint.

In October of 2000, Pope John Paul II did his part in trying to make Chesterton’s prediction come true. The pontiff wrote in an apostolic letter that More had “served not power but the supreme ideal of justice,” and lauded him for “unfailing moral integrity.”

Pope John Paul then officially declared  Sir Thomas the patron saint of Catholic statesmen and politicians; and as it concerns one thoroughly disreputable group, that is one honor on which His Holiness and I can agree.

[top image via wikimedia; bottom image by Simon_K via flickr]

6 thoughts on “Thomas More: Inquisitor, Torturer, Killer, Saint

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  4. Yoko No-No Apr 6,2014 4:43 pm

    St. Thomas More had no problems with the idea of an English Bible, what he DID have a problem with was the fact that the heretics weren’t making good, faithful translations. They changed words, left out parts they didn’t like, and added in words to reinforce their false doctrines. These “translations” were misleading innocent people, confusing their minds and imperiling their souls. If there were any English Bibles being printed (there were no whole ones in More’s day, but there were faithful Catholic translations of certain parts like the Gospels or Psalms), St. Thomas More not only wouldn’t have minded the effort, he would have applauded and patronized it.

    And, come on here, people! A “fanatic”? Really? A “fanatic” who only imprisoned about 40 people? A “fanatic” under whom only 5 of the same were executed, and who had little hand in their deaths? A “fanatic” who made every effort to bring any heretics he encountered back into the One, True, Catholic, and Apostolic Church? A “fanatic” who did not kill, torture, imprison, or even shout at his son-in-law when the latter had an affair with Lutheranism, but instead calmly reasoned with and prayed for him until he returned to the Catholic faith? A “fanatic” who did NOT imprison heretics in his home, but invited them there as honored guests with whom he dined and debated peacefully? A “fanatic” who argued with Henry VIII that cruel torture and death penalties were too severe, widely abused, and did little to reduce crime or heresy?

    “Cruel in punishment”?! He was so gentle and mild in his reproaches that his son-in-law came back to the faith and many years later wrote a glowing biography of him, and one of daughters declared that she almost enjoyed getting in trouble.

    “Evasive in argument”?! If this is in reference to More’s original silence on the King’s “great matter”, he was silent in order that he might keep his family safe and continue to look after their welfare. What was he supposed to do?! Run out in the street and shout his disapproval, and thereby have his family and friends dispossessed, exiled, imprisoned, or executed with him?! Or should he have told those closest to him in private, thereby making them vulnerable to interrogation, torture, or possible tongue slips, and the same terrible fates mentioned in the previous situation?!

    “Lusty for power” ?! He only took the chancellorship to please the king, who begged him to have the office, and so he could do good for England, and when he resigned voluntarily, his wife all but called him a fool.

    “Repressive in politics”?! More repressive than King Henry, who silenced all his foes and many friends like More who dared to oppose him with imprisonment, torture, and/or death, and who was not so keen to improve the justice system as More was (those Tudors made torture an art form.)

    St. Thomas More died in defense of Catholicism, politics, Merry Old England, and marriage, and it’s a shame he wasn’t canonized a century or more earlier. St. Thomas More, patron saint of lawyers, politicians, stepparents, large families, blended families, Catholic fathers, adopted children, widowers, difficult marriages, civil servants, court workers, homeschoolers, university students, and of those who suffer from suicidal thoughts, pray for us. Amen.

    • Terry Firma Apr 7,2014 2:37 pm

      How awesome is it that you know better than every independent scholar I quoted? This is one of the amazing things about religious faith: the ability to completely sidestep known facts and instead cling to cherished preconceived notions. To me, that’s no way to go through life … but if your carefully constructed reality-immune shields work for you, good on you, I guess.

      • Yoko No-No Apr 7,2014 10:57 pm

        Mr. Firma, there are many notable independent scholars, all greatly more learned than me, who back up the truth of my claims. Some of them were close friends of St. Thomas More, including Erasmus of Rotterdam, St. John Fisher, and even Henry VIII (shortly after More’s martyrdom, he angrily rebuked Anne Boleyn, saying, “thanks to you, the most honest man in my kingdom is dead!”). It is true, and no surprise, that most of More’s admirers from after his time are Catholic as he was, and these include G.K. Chesterton, Pope Pius XI, and Blessed Pope John Paul II, as you pointed out, and also lesser known More scholars like Gerard Wegemer and E.E. Reynolds, as well as non-Catholics like the Anglican C.S. Lewis, and the agnostic Robert Bolt.

        The Catholic faith is not a shield from suffering or reality. It is a head-on confrontation. The Catholic Church knows that there is evil in the world, and it has the answer to the question of why that is (Sin), and what can defeat it (Prayer, the Mass, the Sacraments, Virtue). These spiritual weapons are quite powerful, but not comfortable or easy much of the time (it’s an effort to go to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day, to take time to pray, and to make the necessary efforts to receive the Sacraments and to practice virtue). St. Thomas More’s life is a case in point. There’s nothing easy or comfortable about seeing a long-time good friend yield to pride and lust, abandon his faith, and rob his subjects of that same faith, or in having to admonish him for his grave errors, or in being imprisoned unjustly, “tried” in a kangaroo court, and ultimately killed in cold blood at the assent of this same friend, especially when that same friend once shared, loved, and defended the Catholic faith and its teachings. Catholics have to be prepared to defend their faith at all costs, even at the cost of their lives; not what I’d call a comfortable proposition.

        Faith gives meaning and purpose to life and death. God created us to know, love, and serve him in this world, and if we do that, we will go to heaven and spend eternity with God in perfect happiness after death. If there is no God, where did man and the whole universe come from? What’s the point of it? What’s the point of living? What happens after death?

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