On July 6, 1535, St. Thomas More spoke briefly on the scaffold, proclaiming himself “the King’s good servant and God’s first.” He was echoing the direction his king, Henry VIII, had given him when he entered his service: “Look first to God and then to King.” More lived and died according to that priority, using it to guide his public and private life with integrity and grace: that’s why he continues to fascinate us. There is more to More than his martyrdom, heroic as that is. More, not Henry VIII, who gained the title by defending the Seven Sacraments of the Church against Martin Luther’s teaching, was the true Defender of the Faith. He mounted a defense of Christendom that is still relatively unknown and definitely misunderstood.
More dedicated the last ten years of his life to defending the unity and the integrity of the Catholic Church in England because as Richard Rex states in an exploration of More’s campaign against heresy in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas More, he saw the threat of heresy to the common good—dividing society—and feared that these new heresies from the Continent, as opposed to the old Lollards, might succeed in their efforts. He saw that they would not reform the Church but fundamentally change and deny the established teachings of the Church founded by Christ and inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Once we explore More’s defense of Christendom, we can see that his campaign against heresy is integral to his refusal to swear the oaths of either succession or supremacy. More may not have envisioned all that would happen once Henry exerted absolute control over the Church, but he knew England would lose its connection with the great cloud of witnesses from the Apostles to the Fathers and the Councils of the Church, that community of conscience he called upon at his trial.
Thomas More defended Christendom and the Catholic faith on as many fronts as one man could:
- At home, saving his son-in-law Will Roper from dalliance with Lutheran doctrines;
- In London, raiding warehouses to find illegally smuggled heretical books;
- As Chancellor, enforcing England’s heresy laws and fulfilling his oath to assist the Church in preventing heresy from influencing the Body of Christ;
- As an apologist and polemicist, stealing hours from sleep, writing tracts in response to Luther, Tyndale, Fish, and others;
- And finally as a prisoner and martyr, refusing to consent, when all else failed, to the dividing of Christendom in England.
We are so used to having lay apologists that we may not fully appreciate More’s achievement in this defense of Christendom. He was a pioneer.
While More’s Utopia has been constantly translated from Latin and has been a popular text for years, his English apologetic works are less well known because they need translation into Modern English with now standard spelling and punctuation. Fortunately for us, Scepter has been publishing updated English versions of More’s works: the Dialogue Concerning Heresies, his letters, and A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation. This effort includes The Supplication of Souls, which More wrote in 1529 just before he was appointed Lord Chancellor of England.
More wrote this work in response to Simon Fish’s A Supplication for the Beggars. Fish wrote—purportedly—on behalf of the poor in England who were suffering, Fish said, because of the power of the Church and the donations the laity made for Masses and prayers for the Dead, the Poor Souls in Purgatory. Instead of writing in his own voice, More assumed the voice of the Poor Souls, refuting Fish’s arguments and exposing his true purposes.
More provides a scriptural defense of the doctrine of Purgatory, citing of course the Second Book of Maccabees, with support from the Fathers of the Church. The Poor Souls finally make their plea, urging the living to pray for them, just as the living will need prayers for their sufferings after death.
More and the Poor Souls see through Fish’s supplication. His real goal is not to help the poor but to destroy the Church. The Poor Souls demonstrate how Fish’s attack on Purgatory and prayer for the dead will affect the common good: it will break the bonds between the living and the dead. Christians on earth, in heaven, and in purgatory are united in the hope of heaven.
The Poor Souls regret that they forgot to pray for so many of their loved ones when they were living:
Know well, dear friends, that among the many great and grievous pains that one suffers here—of which God send you the grace to suffer either none or few—the uneasiness of one’s conscience in the consideration of one’s uncharitable forgetfulness is not the least of them all.
Therefore, dear friends, let our folly teach you wisdom. Send here your prayer, send here your alms before you….
We wish to God we ourselves had done as we now counsel you to do.
The Poor Souls beg all on earth to remember them:
And in all your almsgiving, somewhat remember us. Our wives there, remember your husbands here. Our children there, remember your parents here. Our parents there, remember your children here. Our husbands there, remember your wives here.
On their part, the Poor Souls promise to greet the living someday in heaven:
So may God keep you out of here, or not long here, and bring you shortly to that bliss to which, for the love of Our Lord, you help bring us. And we will set hand to help you join us there.
By defending the doctrine of Purgatory and the devotional practice of praying for the Poor Souls, More was defending not just Christendom on earth but the communion of the Church on earth, in heaven, and in purgatory. Because he lived within that communion of Saints, More did not want to see it broken apart, especially when he faced execution.
After More was condemned to death for treason on July 1, 1535 he still hoped that he and his judges, however they had managed to find him guilty, would meet merrily in Heaven. He comforted the Constable of the Tower, William Kingston, who led him back to the Tower condemned, with the same hope; thanked his daughter Margaret for her devotion in his last letter and consoled her, and even Thomas Pope, who warned him not to speak too long on the scaffold, with the hope they would also meet in Heaven—promising to pray for Henry VIII in this life and the next.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said on May 4, 2010 that if Henry VIII escaped Hell—that is, if Henry VIII is in Heaven—it would be only through the prayers of the Carthusian martyrs, the protomartyrs of the English Reformation, whose departure from the Tower for Tyburn More witnessed with his daughter Margaret on May 4, 1535. This was the bond of common good between the living and the dead More defended in The Supplication of Souls and he promised to “set hand to help them (his judges, Henry VIII, Margaret, Kingston, and Pope—perhaps even Richard Rich, his perjuring betrayer) join him there” when he met them merrily in Heaven.
Although Thomas More was beatified and canonized as a martyr, reading his apologetic works demonstrates that while he lived he was a confessor and defender of the faith. He defended the faith to serve his monarch, even when that king denied the faith. By looking first to God, More, like the Carthusian priors, may have served his king best by praying for Henry VIII in this life and the next.
St. Thomas More, pray for us!
Editor’s note: The image above titled “St. Thomas More” was painted by Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1625-30.