For a pilgrimage earlier this year, I made arrangements to visit the cell in the Tower of London where St. Thomas More was imprisoned as he underwent trial for refusal to take the Oath of Supremacy imposed by King Henry VIII.
St. Thomas is my patron saint in Confirmation, and today (June 22) is his optional memorial.
Although the Tower of London was used to detain the King’s prisoners from time to time, it is not a prison per se. Rather, it was (and is) a secure location belonging to the Monarch, which, in addition to quarters for guards and officers, also provides cells for certain “special” prisoners. Usually, such prisoners would be brought in upon a boat from the Thames through the “Prisoner’s Gate”, and then marched from there to their cell within the Tower complex.
St. Thomas, due to his status and rank, qualified to be imprisoned there, in relative “comfort” compared to the prison of the time for commoners of the realm.
As he first arrived at the Tower in April 1534, he had some privileges which his guards and examiners slowly stripped away. For example, he was permitted a writing table and chair, sufficient light and supplies for writing, books (in particular his breviary), as well as reasonably warm clothing.
Within the cell itself, not atop a “tower” but actually quite close to ground level, which had open windows overlooking a moat ringing the Tower, there was a cavernous arched roof, and lack of heat and exposure to the elements would have been a tremendous discomfort, particularly in the damp London winter.
The rest of the time, if it were more temperate, the open cistern the served as the cell’s “bathroom” would emit noxious fumes and gases back into the cell from the collecting sewage below.
Over time, as St. Thomas remained obstinate and his handlers grew impatient and frustrated, “privileges” were removed; no more books for reading, no more paper and ink for writing, the spartan furnishings were taken away, food become less frequent and plentiful, and finally, the very clothes warming his body were stripped from him.
Meanwhile, St. Thomas would sometimes catch a glimpse of his daughter Margaret from outside the window. No doubt, he was aware that he was not the only one of his family sacrificing to defend what was true. Positions for sons and sons-in-law evaporated as St. Thomas had lost the king’s favor, his “friends”, and became a political pariah. No more prestige for anyone connected to the More family, but rather the opposite — infamy. The
Crown would take possession of his land holdings and turn his wife Alice out of their home. All of St. Thomas’ income was lost as well.
Despite his rhetorical prowess, St. Thomas is most impressive (to me) because he withheld from making any public statements about the situation of the King’s marriage. He avoided the controversy, and deftly navigated — deflected — from taking a position. Ultimately, even his silence caught up with him, until his silence became a source of condemnation.
St. Thomas is perhaps too frequently cited as the outspoken herald for religious liberty, when the opposite was really true. He was inchoate prudence and restraint when it came to stating his convictions. How often do we (somewhat impetuously) “jump the gun” in “taking a stand”? Here, in our particularly troubled times where freedom of religion is assailed, St. Thomas serves as a fitting guide and witness. He managed to do more for much longer because he let himself be guided in prayer to the Lord regarding when and how to act and speak.
It was only once the jury (after just fifteen minutes) found him guilty upon hearsay that he put to rest the question of his “guilt”. Only then did he once for all make known that the king could not become head of any “church of England” and that the king’s marriage to Queen Catherine was true and binding upon him.
Shortly thereafter he was taken from his cell to Tower Hill (nearby) and beheaded. He said to the crowd that he “died the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” Also, retaining his (sometimes ribald) sense of humor to the end, and having become rather hirsute from his time locked up in the Tower, St. Thomas swept his profuse beard away from the path of the ax — saying, “This [my beard] has not offended the king!” — lest it fall the way of his head.
Surprisingly, throughout his imprisonment, and despite his high station, St. Thomas’ enjoyed a popularity among the people. He was respected — perhaps he developed a reputation for fairness over a long and distinguished legal career, or shrewdness, or managed to avoid giving offense unnecessarily, but he was beloved. His bodily remains came to be venerated very shortly after his execution, though he was not canonized until 1935 by Pope Pius XI.
In today’s Office of Readings, we find part of a letter written to St. Thomas’ daughter, Margaret, while he was imprisoned in the Tower (from the English Works of Sir Thomas More, London, 1557, p. 1454):
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 had 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.
Father, you confirm the true faith
with the crown of martyrdom.
May the prayers of Saints John Fisher and Thomas More
give us the courage to proclaim our faith
by the witness of our lives.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.