SIR THOMAS MORE AND THE REFORMATION

Keith Randell, Henry VIII and the Reformation in England, Hoder & Stoughton, Londres, 1993, rééd. 2001.

Sir Thomas More was one of the most fascinating characters of the early sixteenth century. (…) Over the centuries, there have been almost as many published pages devoted to discussing what sort of man he was as there have been to assessing Henry VIII. And the variety of judgments offered has been almost as large. At one extreme he has been presented as a flawless saint (he was canonised by the Catholic Church, along with Fisher, in 1935), while his detractors have portrayed him as a confused genius who unnecessarily sacrificed his life for a technicality. So much conflicting evidence exists that there is never likely to be a consensus among historians among him. (…) However, there is general agreement about the facts of the major events in his life and about many of his dominant attributes and characteristics. He was born in 1478 in London and spent almost his whole life in the city and its environs. He followed his father’s footsteps into the law but, although he became expert in it, he was equally interested in all other branches of the learning. His intellect and his ability to work hard were such that, before the age of 30, he had established a reputation as one of Europe’s leading scholars. His well-developped social skills made him highly popular in some circles and the young Henry VIII came to regard him as a friend. Not satisfied with a successful legal career and an outstanding academic career, More was prepared to be drawn into the political court circle and to act as the king’s representative in a wide variety of diplomatic situations. In the process, he became thought of as a very able and totally reliable royal servant. His strict moral code prevented him from doing the things needed to become a front-line political figure and i twas therefore something of a surprise when he was chosen to suceed Wolsey as Lord Chancellor in 1529. This was especially so as he was known by Henry VIII and by his leading courtiers to be opposed to the divorce on principle. The new Lord Chancellor set himself the task of eradicating heresy in England, following a long period during which his predecessor had virtually turned a blind eye to its existence. As a result of his initiative numbers of both lutherans and less radical reformers were burnt at the stake. Henry’s mounting attack on the independence of the Church led More to feel unbearably uncomfortable remaining in office as here was another matter of principle over which he could not agree with his master. His belief was that the Church would no longer be spoken to directly by God if it fell under lay control. Henry finally allowed him to resign once the Submission of the Clergy had been safely made in 1532.

The two men’s perception of their relationship was now radically different. More regarded himself as the king’s loyal servant who would always obey his monarch to the very limit his conscience would allow and who would never do anything actively to oppose him. Henry thought of his former Lord Chancellor as a dangerous enemy who had deserted him in his hour of greatest need and who deserved to be punished for what he had done. The hatred he frequently felt for his erstwhile friend was extreme. The collision course had been set. More tried to retire completely from public life but Henry was determined to corner him. Cromwell would have been satisfied with More’s assurance that he would do nothing to aid or assist the king’s opponents but his master insisted that the oath, which he knew contained sentiments with which More fundamentally disagreed, must be sworn. More could not be persuaded to do so. He joined Fischer in the Tower, was tried and found guilty on a legal technicality. He was executed in July 1535, a month after his distinguished co-prisoner. Henry had dealt his own reputation a further unnecessary blow.

James A. Williamson, The Tudor Age, Longmans, Londres, 1957. (compiled from)

Oxford produced the most notable English scholars of Henry VII’s reign, as Cambridge was to do in that of his son. Thomas More, whose mind was intent on all learning and whose sympathy and practical humanism made him the center of a circle of like-minded friends, was younger than John Colet and Thomas Linacre. Although intensely devoted to religion and reform, More remained a layman and became a lawyer. He sat in Henry VII’s last Parliament and made himself prominent by fearless opposition to royal demand. The Church was being constructively criticized, as it had often been before, by some of its most devout members. It was not being attacked by heretics who wished to overthrow it. Yet there was one type, who was to provide high explosive for the use of future assaillants –Erasmus of Rotterdam, whom it is an understatement to describe as a Dutchman, since he was a European at home in any land of Christendom.

With the reign of Henry VIII Tudor history enters its revolutionary period ; and the first and most intricate phase of the revolution was dominated by Henry himself. Revolutions, however, are not made by solitary men, and the condition of the English people, its religion, and its Church, worked upon by new forces common to all Christendom, were such as to created the upheaval whose early course was directed by a king of high ability. In the closing years of the 15 th century, Erasmus and More were staying at a country house of Lord Montjoy, an intimate of the royal family. The poor scholar would sometimes turn up infrmally at the royal table. Henry VIII’s friendship with More was already formed, neither knowing how friendship was to end. In due course, Henry VIII became a king, a horseman, a sportsman, a musician, a scholar, especially in theology, generous and accessible, good to look upon, the pattern of a sovereign after the English heart.

Scolarship flourished in England during the first decade of Henry VIII. Thomas More lived in the world as it was but  for the world as it ought o be. He loved his England, full of the faults of which he could dream as one day to be amended. He was loyal to his Church, rampant as he saw it with folly and villainy, because these things were incidents which good men would correct. Loyalty was the toughest sinew of the inner character of More, as friendship was his greatest gift. In a sense, we may reckon him the first great liberal, but not entirely, for his second greatest gift was humour. More published his Utopia in 1516. In some way the book is unlike its author, for there is little geniality or liberty in the society it depicts. The people’s bodies are well cared for. All wear uniform, dwell in cities built as exactly alike the ground permits, assemble to eat in public at the call of the bugle, discuss no politics except in open council, take their prescribed turns at town and country work. Only in religion have their thoughts a qualified emancipation. To the nineteenth century, which lived in freedom, Utopia was an admirable essay in planning. To the twentieth century, which knows more of communism, Utopia is a cold hell in which virtue reigns. There are no taverns, no betting, no money, no competition to improve one’s position. But More did not mean his Utopians to be taken seriously. They are a peg on which he hung his satire of his fellow-Europeans, and his exposition of the moral principles which should inform government. Yet, it must be said that, in his later years, as Lord Chancellor, More did lend himself to persecution of herectics in accordance with the contemporary ethic and contrary to that expressed in his great book.  

Religion and the Claims of the Church enwrapped the whole life of the people. Church courts had a range of jurisdictions additional to that of the ordinary law. The Church took its dues on birth, marriage, and death, and controlled the probate of wills and much other non-spiritual business, always with substantial fees. The conduct of everyday life was moulded and supervised by the clergy. Although the Church practised much charity and kindliness, care of the sick and relief of the hungry, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that its hold upon the people was mainly that of fear. Then in the early sixteenth century a New Learning began to spread telling people that their fear was exaggerated. All over the country the wealth of the Church was apparent : the great estates of hundreds of monasteries rich by the pious gifts of former generations were now accused of spiritual decay and failed to justify their wealth. As the nobility was diminished, middle-class man, merchants and squires were looking on Church land as something that might soon be ripe for development.

More resigned the chancellorship after the « submission of the clergy act » and retired into private life. Once Henry had divorced and the act of Supremacy proclaimed, the oath to support the succession was being tendered to all men of consequence, and few were refusing. As framed, it required not only the recognition of Anne’s marriage and the priority of her children, but also the constructive repudiation of the Pope by declaration that the marriage of Catherine had been invalid. More would accept the first but not the second. He was brought to the Tower. Henry gave no sign of compassion for the man in whose garden he had so often strolled in friendly conversation. On the contrary, he considered that More was guilty of ingratitude for signal favours.

 

Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain, Edinbourg, 1964, reed.1985, 2005.

The demand for reform did not come solely from outside the Church. There was an active and swelling movement within it, and this was given new impetus by the Christian Renaissance, spread throughout Europe by Erasmus of Rotterdam. Desiderius Erasmus, born in 1466, came to maturity in a Europe that was being transformed by the Italian Renaissance. The ‘rebirth’ in question was that of the ancient world, many of whose written treasures had remained lost to sight for centuries in monastic libraries and other repositories. As Renaissance scholars sought out to publish unknown or forgotten works of Latin and Greek authors, they created an intellectual ferment which paralleled the creative stimulus given to contemporary artists and sculptors with whom the term ‘Renaissance’ is more usually associated. These scholars were known as humanists, for like the classical writers they so admired thay made the study of man their principal concern. (…) England had its own humanist scholars, of whom the most distinguished were William Grocyn, Thomas Linacre, Thomas More and John Colet. They, like Erasmus, saw the recovered learning of the ancient world as the key to the understanding of man and his relationship to God. (…) The English humanists were in an optimistic mood, for there were indications that the new king, Henry VIII, shared their interests and aims. It was at Henry’s insistence that Thomas More accepted appointment as a councillor in 1517, and shortly before this More’s friend and fellow humanist, Cuthbert Tunstall, had been appointed Master of the Rolls. The ecclesiastical hierarchy also included a number of advocates of the new learning. In short, the elements of reform were present in both state and Church. (…)

The Church was well-rooted in society, as was shown by the continuing flow of gifts to parish guilds and churches, and its courts were popular and well-respected. While the Church as a whole was popular, and many parish priests were loved and respected figures in their local communities, there was resentment at the charges imposed by the clergy for their services. (…) The heyday of the religious orders in England had been during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when their studies in divinity and canon law made the monks the intellectual leaders of Christendom. But the fifteenth century saw the spread of the new learning, with its emphasis on classics and philosophy, and although it did not affect England until the reign of Henry VII, English education had meanwhile shifted its emphasis towards the study of common and civil law.