Tuesday, June 22, 2004

The King's good servant, but God's first

painting of Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor by, if memory serves, Holbein

Thomas More was born in London, the son of a judge. Educated as a page in the household of Cardinal Morton, his intelligence was noted, and the cardinal sponsored his entrance to university, where he excelled, but after only a year or two, his father ordered him to leave university and study law, where he also excelled. He came to the attention of the king when, as a member of Parliment, his argumentation kept the king from obtaining a tax increase; he kept the attention of the king by being discrete and wise in counsel, and jolly good company besides. Thomas entered the service of the court, and began a steady stream of promotions, eventually becoming Lord Chancellor of England --- maximum promotion! His personal life was well-ordered and also joyous; with his first wife Jane he had four children; when she died the oldest child was only five. He remarried quickly, a local widow with children of her own. This marriage was stormy but solid, and Alice was a wonderful second mother to the children. Thomas was what we'd call these days a "radical adoptionist", who gathered many stray children of his acquaintance into his own household to be raised and educated as his own.

The King, Henry VIII, had ascended the throne unexpectedly, upon the death of his older brother, and married Catherine of Aragon, the espoused but unconsummated widow of his deceased brother. Henry's stated goal was to be a just and Christian king, and it seemed he actually started out trying just that. He was so determined in defending the Faith against certain challenges being brought into England from Europe that he was awarded the title "Defender of the Faith" by the Pope. But his personal problems began to catch up with him. He was in dire need of an unchallengeable male heir; England has just recovered from a nasty dynastic war, and could not be allowed to descend there again. Catherine had been repeatedly pregnant, but only one child survived the neonate period, and that child a girl. Henry just knew it could not be his fault, since he had had a male illegitimate child. He came to the conclusion that he had to get a new, younger, more fertile queen. Anne Boleyn, the younger sister of his last mistress, had caught his eye as a possibility for the role.

When the Church refused to declare Henry's marriage to Catherine null, he got the Parliment to make his new marriage legal. Since one of the Lord Chancellor's jobs was to introduce the king's bills in Parliment, Thomas More had to resign the Chancellorship, and being seriously out of favor, could not reestablish a law practice. He spent the next several years without income, while the king became more and more insistent that Thomas, and all the other great people of the realm, be seen to approve and support his new queen.

Eventually, the Parliament passed a law mandating an oath, that Anne was queen, that Anne's children would be in the line od succession to the throne, and, the impossible clause, that Henry, and not Christ through Peter's successor, was the head of the Church in England. Thomas More refused to take the oath, he also refused to state why he would not take the oath. He knew that, because he would not swear, that they could imprison him until he died or changed his mind, and confiscate his property, but they could not execute him unless he actually stated his unacceptable "traitorous" opinions. In due time he was convicted of treason, by the perjured testimony of Sir Richard Rich, and he was beheaded, and his head displayed on London Bridge. [Eventually his eldest child, Margaret, stole the head from the bridge, and it is now entombed with her and her husband. The body was buried in an unmarked grave on the grounds of the Tower of London, traditionally underneath the chapel of St. Peter in Chains.]

this is a letter from St. Thomas to Margaret written during his imprisonment, today's passage from the Office of Readings:

Although I know well, Margaret, that because of my past wickedness I deserve to be abandoned by God, I cannot but trust in his merciful goodness. His grace has strengthened me until now and made me content to lose goods, land, and life as well, rather than to swear against my conscience. God’s grace has given the king a gracious frame of mind toward me, so that as yet he has taken from me nothing but my liberty. In doing this His Majesty has done me such great good with respect to spiritual profit that I trust that among all the great benefits he has heaped so abundantly upon me I count my imprisonment the very greatest. I cannot, therefore, mistrust the grace of God. Either he shall keep the king in that gracious frame of mind to continue to do me no harm, or else, if it be his pleasure that for my other sins I suffer in this case as I shall not deserve, then his grace shall give me the strength to bear it patiently, and perhaps even gladly.

By the merits of his bitter passion joined to mine and far surpassing in merit for me all that I can suffer myself, his bounteous goodness shall release me from the pains of purgatory and shall increase my reward in heaven besides.

I will not mistrust him, Meg, though I shall feel myself weakening and on the verge of being overcome with fear. I shall remember how Saint Peter at a blast of wind began to sink because of his lack of faith, and I shall do as he did: call upon Christ and pray to him for help. And then I trust he shall place his holy hand on me and in the stormy seas hold me up from drowning.

And if he permits me to play Saint Peter further and to fall to the ground and to swear and forswear, may God our Lord in his tender mercy keep me from this, and let me lose if it so happen, and never win thereby! Still, if this should happen, afterward I trust that in his goodness he will look on me with pity as he did upon Saint Peter, and make me stand up again and confess the truth of my conscience afresh and endure here the shame and harm of my own fault.

And finally, Margaret, I know this well: that without my fault he will not let me be lost. I shall, therefore, with good hope commit myself wholly to him. And if he permits me to perish for my faults, then I shall serve as praise for his justice. But in good faith, Meg, I trust that his tender pity shall keep my poor soul safe and make me commend his mercy.

And, therefore, my own good daughter, do not let your mind be troubled over anything that shall happen to me in this world. Nothing can come but what God wills. And I am very sure that whatever that be, however bad it may seem, it shall indeed be the best.

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