Sir Thomas More did not account his own death an evil; not only, in his last moments, did he mention the king with sweet loyalty, but he also displayed a cheerfulness which has scandalized some writers. Holinshed, for instance, charges him with having been “a jester and scoffer at the houre of his death.” This mirthful disposition of More’s has made his character an interesting subject of inquiry. But irreverence has nothing in common with that genial tendency which Southey has called pantagruelism, and the desirability of which he has advocated. For pantagruelism is not buffoonery, levity, cynical insensibility; neither does it consist in mere play of wit, intellectual tumbling, and playful freaks of fancy. Jests are but its effects, the ripples, fitfully reflecting the sunlight on the surface, and showing that the underlying mass is a running stream and not a stagnant fen. Music and prayer are sisters; cheerfulness is the music of life, and harmonizes human passions into rest; it is most consistent with that holy creed, the apostle of which taught men to “rejoice evermore;” it is an ascensional force, a verbum, as the old mystics would have said, which carries the spirit upward, and turns human nature toward the bright side of things. He who was the teacher of its outwardly most grotesque aspect has by implication defined pantagruelism as a “marvellous contempt and holding cheap of fortuitous things,” (Introd. to Gargantua;) its basis is a want of love for the things that are in the world; its effect is, therefore, a sweet smile at the contrast, perpetual in this earthly life, between aspirations and realities. Hence More’s pleasantry, always harmless and free from sarcasm—sparks issuing from a healthy and beautiful spirit. Pantagruelism itself becomes linked, in some natures, to a gentle melancholy, the sadness of the soul exiled from its eternal birthplace; in northern minds especially is this solemnity of reverie frequent; More, to whom religion was a daily food, evinced this dreamy pensiveness, side by side with his mirth, from his youth to his death. It also seemed as if, gifted with the sagacity of a Machiavel, but without craft, he had in the most prosperous moments of his life a power of intuition which could divine his fate, and thus cast a softening radiance over what to other men would have appeared a most dazzling brightness of worldly success. Hence there is in the expression of his features a sort of anxiety mixed with cheerfulness; the penetrative and humorous nose is like that of Erasmus; but the bony, caustic traits of the humorist have otherwise an expression very different from the melancholy which tempers More’s face, the open gray eyes, that seem anxiously anticipating the future or contemplating religious things, the lips that half project in that pouting way to be noticed on many Saxon types of countenances.
When Henry VIII ascended the throne, More ventured to express, in a poem which attracted the royal favor, a conceit which was at once a criticism of the past reign, a hope, and a foreboding for the future:
“So after six and thirty thousand year All things shal be the same which once they were; After the Golden came the Silver age: Then came the Brass, and Iron the last stage. The Golden age is revolv’d to your reign: I now conceive that Plato did not feign.”
From that time began the prosperity of More; but his previous life had been both happy in a domestic capacity, and remarkable in a literary point of view. He had already been an ascetic, a husband, and a poet. As Disraeli remarks, “More in his youth was a true poet; but in his active life he soon deserted these shadows of the imagination.”
Whether in poetry or in prose, More was to fulfil Cardinal Morton’s observation, that “The child here waiting at table, whomever shall live to see it, will prove a marvellous man.” It was at the archbishop’s that More won his first spurs in wit, devising pageants and allegories. But while his airy character early manifested itself, his early poems also reflect a vein of ascetic thoughtfulness; as in the Ruful Lamentacion he wrote on the death of Queen Elizabeth, mother to King Henry VIII:
“O ye that put your trust and confidence
In worldly joy and frayle prosperite,
That so lyve here as ye should never hence,
Remember death, and joke here uppon me.
Ensaumple, I thinke there may no better be.
Yourself wotte well that in this realme was I
Your quene but late, and lo, now here I lye.
“If worship myght have kept me, I had not gone;
If wyt myght have me saved, I neded not fere;
If money myght have helpe, I lacked none.
But, good God, what vayleth all this gere?
When deth is come, thy mighty messengere,
Obey we must there is no remedy.
Me hath he summoned, and now here I ly.
“Yet was I late promised otherwyse,
This yere to live in welth and delice.
Lo, whereto cometh thy blandishyng promyse,
O false astrology and devynatrice,
Of Goddes secrets makyng thyselfe so wyse.
How true is for this yere thy prophecy—
The yere yet lasteth, and lo, nowe here I ly.”
Rhenanus, Brixius, Erasmus, commended his early poems; he was admitted among the brotherhood of those who cultivated lettered lore. This was a period of general renovation throughout Europe. For good or for evil, the torch of knowledge had been lighted. Vocabularies and lexicons had reached a fearful multiplication in Germany and Italy toward the close of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth century. Nuremberg, Spires, Basil, teemed with rudimentary treatises, dictionaries, and grammars; men were feeding on Latin and Greek, studying eight or ten hours at a stretch. England and Italy surpassed France in the literary movement; and Budé complained that, in his countrymen’s estimation, philological studies were the hobbies of a few monomaniacs. More began his contributions to the learning of the age by translating Lucian and Augustine’s City of God. Erasmus, in a letter to Hutten, described him as a unique genius in England. But he gave his attention to religion no less than to literature. “Erudition,” Stapleton quaintly remarks, “however varied and extensive, is, without piety, like a golden ring in the nostrils; there is nothing more absurd than to set a precious jewel in a decaying piece of wood. Knowledge is ill suited to a corrupt breast.” To knowledge without goodness, Plato had denied the name of wisdom, and given the inferior designation of cleverness. But the youthful More was no less eager to attain piety than to become proficient in learning. He manifested these aspirations according to the tenets of his creed; he wore a hair-shirt, he slept on the bare floor, his head resting on a wooden block; he restricted his hours of rest to four or five at longest; acquainted with watchings and fastings, he nevertheless made no ostentatious display of these and similar austerities—often, on the other hand, concealing them under as conventional an appearance as it was possible to bear.
Finding it useful to have some great man as an ideal, he translated Pico della Mirandola’s life. At that time, Colet, dean of St. Paul’s, was preaching in London; More derived much comfort from his friendship, and compared himself to Eurydice following Orpheus, but in danger of falling back into the realms of darkness. In a letter to the dean he thus expatiates upon the annoyances of life in London: “The roofs intercept a great portion of the light, and do not allow a free view of the sky. The air is not bounded by the circle of the horizon, but by the housetops. Therefore I the more willingly bear with you for not repenting of your residence in the country, where you see good people around you, void of the cunning of towns; where, whithersoever you turn your eyes, the bland face of the earth delights you. There you see nothing but the benignant gifts of nature, and, as it were, the sacred vestiges of innocence.” As for his literary study, Lilly and Tonstall were his associates—Linacre and Grocinus his tutors. Now began that series of friendships which he was through life always willing to contract with educated men, such as Crooke, or Croke, one of the greatest students of the sixteenth century, who wrangled at Leipzig, “de dogmatibilitatibus” and other long things—schools then disputed on the weight of Hercules’s club and the size of Diogenes’s tub—who taught Greek to Henry VIII., and succeeded Erasmus in the chair of Greek at Cambridge; Lee, who wrote against Erasmus; Fisher, who wrote sturdily against reformers; Dorpius, who was shocked at the new classical studies, hearing people swear “by Jove,” and was desirous of limiting Grecian studies to the works of Chrysostom and the Eastern fathers; Goclenius, who professed for twenty years; Cornelius Crocus, who wrote Latin with Terentian elegance, and became a Jesuit when fifty years old; Grynaeus, who taught Greek, who, although a reformer, never insulted his antagonists and discovered six books of Livy; Peter AEgidius, or Giles, whom Erasmus called a most agreeable host, and who wrote a Greek lexicon while Luther was bewailing his sins in a convent cell; Paulus Jovius, who spent twenty-seven years in writing his Latin history, was esteemed by Leo. X. above Livy, and wanted a great lady to send him some jam from Naples, because he was getting sick of new-laid eggs; Vives, who was one of the literary triumvirs of the age, and who, at his lectures at Corpus Christi College, was often applauded by Henry and Queen Catherine. In the mean while he had, in a more practical sphere, taken the virile gown, before practising as a barrister, and at twenty-eight years of age been elected to the office of perpetual “shyrevus” or sheriff. His business was to “administer justice” for the subordinate sheriffs, “pro istis shyrevis” (Stapleton,) who were incompetent in matters of law. While he was filling this office, a riot took place in the city. For several years past there had been a great increase of foreign workmen, to the great annoyance of the native working classes. A popular preacher of the day, Dr. Bell, preached a sermon, in which he urged the people to expel the foreign usurpers. Apprentices and artisans, therefore, agreed that on the first of May, after business, there should be a massacre of the foreigners. This trades’ demonstration, however, was baffled through the foresight of More. He issued an edict, enjoining all well-disposed persons to stay within doors after nine o’clock on the first of May. On that day there was no disturbance. A few days after, however, several riotous crowds of working-men gathered in their thousands, rushed to Newgate, and set free some tiny minorities of swains who had been locked up for robbing, murdering, or otherwise annoying the foreigners. Hour by hour they mustered in huger strength; angry shouts in homeliest Saxon rang through the air; the whirligig was getting louder and louder to one’s ears. It seemed at one time rather hard to say how all this would end. More, being loved by the town mob, tried to speak to the crowd of small boys, big men, and roughs. Was it a Saturday night, that there should be such noise in the streets? Did the working-men forget their duty? They did; and it was at last needful to send for the red coats, who, with queer-looking harquebuses, soon put the mob to flight. Thirteen ringleaders were arrested and condemned to death; one only, however, was executed, the others being saved through the intercession of three queens and the influence of More.
In 1503 he was made a member of Parliament, and opposed a grant of money to Henry VII. That monarch, who has been compared to Louis XI. of France, was not to be bearded in this manner, and More was obliged to fly to the continent. But when Henry VIII. began his reign, More became the object of royal favor. His literary talent and jovial mood were qualities too valuable not to be appreciated by the king, who was surrounding himself with all varieties of genius. Like Gargantua, the young king was athirst of all that could adorn his court; More was therefore bound to the court by a golden chain. He was made a knight, and one of the privy council. In return for the royal favor he had to enliven the king with witty sayings, until this yoke became almost too heavy for him. He had scarcely any time left for his home enjoyments and his literary pursuits. In self-defence he was at last driven to a kind of stratagem; he affected dulness, and tried as much as he possibly could to become a bore. At last he succeeded and was allowed more freedom and privacy.
At that period he resided in Chelsea, then a fashionable suburb. There Sir Thomas lived in a semi-patriarchal fashion. So strict was he in religious observances in his family that his house has been compared to a kind of convent or religious abode. Meekness, order, industry characterized the inmates. He set every one an example of gentleness and wisdom. Roper says that, during sixteen years spent with Sir Thomas, he never saw the latter in a “fume.” A young lady who had been brought up in the family used to behave badly for the sole purpose of being chid by More, whose gentle pity and gravity were delightful to observe. In his second wife, Mrs. Alice Middleton, who had an acrid and disagreeable temper, he had an opportunity for taming a shrew, and had performed that feat with more credit to his skill and patience than pleasantness to himself. He used to give his wife and children plenty of sound ethical advice: “It is now no mastery (difficulty) for you children to goe to heaven,” he would say, “for everybody giveth you good counsel and good example. You see virtue rewarded and vice punished, so that you are carried up to heaven as it were by the chins.” He would encourage them to bear diseases and afflictions with patience, and to resist the devil, whom he would compare to an ape—”for as the ape, not well looked to, will be busie and bold to do shrewde turnes, and contrarily being spyed and checkt for them, will suddenly leap back and adventure no further; so the devil,” etc. Thus at dinner and supper did he entertain his family with high moral purpose; he allowed them, for their recreation, to sing or to play on “violes.” Some biographers allege that he once cured his daughter of the sweating sickness. Ellis Haywood published at Florence a little book called “Il Moro,” in which many details are given respecting the home life of More. Thus he is represented as entertaining six guests at dinner. After the meal the party ascend the mound in the garden, and, sitting on a greensward, they admire the meanderings of the river, the hills undulating on the horizon, the turf and flowers of the river side. His establishment, in its simplicity, greatly contrasted with Wolsey’s household, and its five hundred dependents, chancellors, chaplains, doctors, ushers, valets, and others. More, however, a jester, the middle-ages custom of keeping a “fool” not yet having been discontinued. Henry VIII. had his Somers, Wolsey his Path, and More his Patterson.
Sir Thomas was desirous of appropriating his leisure to the production of some notable work. Already, while still unnoticed by Henry, he had written a History of Richard III., in which he gave the following portrait of that king:
“Ill fetured of limmes, croke backed, his left shoulder much higher than his right, hard-favoured of visage … he was malicious wrathful, envious, and from afore his birth, ever frowarde. … Hee was close and secrete, a deepe dissimuler, lowlye of countenance, arrogaunt of heart, outwardly coumpinable where he inwardly hated, not letting to kisse whome hee thoughte to kyll; dispitious and cruell, not for evill well alway, but after for ambition, and either for the suretee or encrease of his estate. Frende and foo was muche what indifferent, where his advantage grew; he spared no man’s deathe whose life withstoode his purpose. He slewe with his owne handes King Henry the Sixt, being prisoner in the Tower, as menne constantly saye.”
Shakespeare no doubt borrowed from this sketch some of the traits with which he depicted the ambitious monarch. On the other hand, Horace Walpole, in his “Historic Doubts,” will have it that this history was written “from a most corrupted source.”
More now began to concentrate his energies for a work of more universal interest. He became more abstemious than ever in his food and sleep; he snatched as many hours as possible from his official pursuits, in order to cultivate literature. The result of this labor was the famous “Utopia,” composed in 1516. In a letter to Peter Giles or AEgidius, he describes the manner in which that work was written: “After having been engaged in pleading or hearing causes, either as judge or arbiter, there is left me but scant opportunity for literature. I return home; I must talk with my wife, amuse my children, confer of household affairs with my dependents. It is necessary to do all this unless you are to be a stranger in your own house. … When therefore can I write? Neither have I mentioned the time necessary for sleep or food.” … In fact he used at that time to rise at two o’clock in the morning, writing till seven. Under these difficulties he effected his purpose—he completed a work which won him a European reputation.
Poets and philosophical dreamers react in their speculations against the barrenness or terror of reality; and the more striking is this background, the more impressive is the effect of the whole. More’s book had an appropriate practical contrast in the political circumstances of the time. There were rumors of great wars; the Moslem emperor was threatening Christendom. This fact, perhaps, not less than the intrinsic merit of the book, explains the brilliant success of the “Utopia.” Every educated man read it. Morus [sic] was greatly delighted, and candidly gave expression to his feelings. He was, he averred, more pleased with Tunstall’s appreciation than if he had received an Attic talent. Sometimes he fancied that his Utopians were about to elect him their king for ever. In reality, he was highly praised by AEgidius, Jovius, Busleyden, Paludanus, and others. The new republic, these friendly critics averred, transcended the polity of ancient Athens or Rome. A way had been shown toward the attainment of true happiness. The book was a masterpiece of erudition, philosophy, knowledge of the world. All this approbation was the more acceptable to More, that he had been somewhat diffident concerning the reception of his work. In a letter to Peter AEgidius, or Giles, of Antwerp, he had indulged in that superciliousness toward the multitude which is the besetting temptation of solitary thinkers. He complained of the discordances of criticism, the small qualification of many for the exercise of lettered appreciation:
“The tastes of men are very different; some are of so morose a temper, so sour a disposition, and make, such absurd judgments of things, that men of cheerful and lively tempers, who indulge their genius, seem much more happy than those who waste their time and strength in order to publishing a book; which, though of itself it might be useful or pleasant, yet instead of being well received, will be sure to be either laughed at or censured. Many know nothing of learning, others despise it; a man that is accustomed to a coarse and harsh style thinks everything is rough that is not barbarous. Our trifling pretenders to learning think all is slight that is not dress’d up in words that are worn out of use; some love only old things, and many like nothing but what is their own. Some are so sour that they can allow no jests, and others so dull that they can endure nothing that is sharp; while some are as much afraid of anything gay and lively, as a man with a mad dog is of water; others are so light and unsettled, that their thoughts change as quick as they do their postures. Some, again, when they meet in taverns, take upon them, among their cups, to pass censures very freely on all writers, and with a supercilious liberty to condemn everything they do not like; in which they have an advantage, like that of a bald man, who can catch hold of another by the hair, while the other cannot return the like upon him. They are safe, as it were, from gunshot, since there is nothing in them solid enough to be taken hold of; others are so unthankful, that even when they are well pleased with a book, yet they think they owe nothing to the author.”
Although More did meet with some of these ignorant or malevolent critics, he must have been gratified at finding himself exalted into a modern Plato. Nor was the praise he received partial or exaggerated. He had expressed the leading idea of the time. Casting a general glance over the social field, he had applied the newly arisen spirit of research and criticism to the survey of society. Judging the actual, he had also evolved the ideal, which the humanitarians of the age had more dimly viewed. Being a man of genius, he had expressed a certain order of thought—concisely, but not the less comprehensively—for all ages; and modern Positivists, Owenists, Fourierists, and many other ists, might, from a study of the “Utopia,” gather another illustration of the great truth that there is nothing new under the sun.
The plan of the work is as follows: More supposes himself in Flanders, in the capacity of ambassador to Charles the Fifth, and in the company of “that incomparable man, Cuthbert Tonstal, whom the king, with such universal applause, lately made master of the roles.” At Antwerp, they become acquainted with Peter Giles, or AEgidius, “a man of great honor and of good rank in his town, though less than he deserves;” and they make another acquaintance in this wise: “One day, as I was returning home from mass at St. Mary’s, which is the chief church, and the most frequented of any in Antwerp, I saw him (Petrus AEgidius, or Giles) by accident, talking with a stranger, who seemed past the flower of his age; his face was tanned, he had a long beard, and his cloak was hanging carelessly about him; so that by his looks and habits I concluded he was a seaman.” This ancient mariner, however, turns out to have travelled as an observer and philosopher as well as a naval man; his name is Raphael Hythloday. He is a Portuguese, who has travelled with Americus Vespucius. It is in conversation with the stranger that More becomes acquainted with the history and manners of the Utopians. In the first part of the book, Raphael censures the polity of ordinary countries; he complains that “most princes apply themselves more to affairs of war than to the useful arts of peace; they are generally set more on acquiring new kingdoms, right or wrong, than on governing well those they possess.” Such opinions had a peculiar pungency at a time when Selim was threatening to root out the Christian name from Europe. Raphael criticises those in power, and their conservative spirit; he betrays an implacable hostility toward those who “cover themselves obstinately with this excuse, of reverence to past times;” he had, he said, met with them chiefly in England, where he happened to be when the rebellion in the west was suppressed, “with a great slaughter of the poor people that were engaged in it.” When relating his sojourn in England, Raphael also indulges in the eulogy of that reverend prelate, John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury—in whose house More had been brought up— “A man, Peter, (for Mr. More knows well what he was,) who was not less venerable for his wisdom and virtues, for the high character he bore: he was of a middle stature, not broke with age: his looks begot reverence rather than fear; his conversation was easy, but serious and grave; he sometimes took pleasure to try the force of those that came as suitors to him upon business, by speaking sharply though decently to them, and by that he discovered their spirit and presence of mind, with which he was much delighted, when it did not grow up to impudence, as bearing a great resemblance to his own temper, and he looked on such persons as the fittest men for affairs. He spoke both gracefully and weightily; he was eminently skilled in the law; had a vast understanding, and a prodigious memory; and those excellent talents with which nature had furnished him were improved by study and experience. When I was in England, the king depended much on his councils, and the government seemed to be chiefly supported by him; for from his youth he had been all along practised in affairs; and, having passed through many traverses of fortune, he had with great cost acquired a vast stock of wisdom; which is not soon lost, when it is purchased so dear.” More’s talent for keen observation and portraiture is also evinced in the delightful sketch of the lawyer whom Raphael observes at Archbishop Morton’s. This gentleman “took occasion to run out in a high commendation of the severe execution of justice upon thieves, who, as he said, were then hanged so fast that there were sometimes twenty on one gibbet; and upon that he said he could not wonder enough how it came to pass that, since so few escaped, there were yet so many thieves left who were still robbing in all places.” Raphael, who in that nineteenth century which takes upon itself to realize almost all the visions of dreamers, would have been a zealous advocate for the abolition of capital punishment, objects that “this way of punishing thieves was neither just in itself, nor good for the public; for as the severity was too great, so the remedy was not effectual; simple theft not being so great a crime that it ought to cost a man his life; no punishment, how severe soever, being able to restrain those from robbing who can find out no other way of livelihood. Not only you in England, but a great part of the world, imitate some ill masters that are readier to chastise their scholars than to teach them.” Here is included the modern fallacy about reforming criminals, which has been so much insisted on, as if that reformation was so easy a task, as if so many probabilities were not against it, as if it was not better for poor criminals to be sent to a better world, than to be left open in this life to almost irresistible temptations. However, that form of sentiment called humanitarianism—which would spare the wicked and lost, while the honest and useful are left to slow tortures, as in the case of merchant sailors—that humanitarianism is continually displayed by this Raphael, in a completeness and energy beyond which no later speculations have attained. The lawyer maintains about the thieves that “there are many handicrafts, and there is husbandry, by which they may make a shift to live, unless they have a greater mind to follow ill courses;” and Raphael’s rejoinder discloses a state of things which was not very well calculated to make the army popular: “That will not serve your turn, for many lose their limbs in civil or foreign wars, as lately in the Cornish rebellion, and some time ago in your wars with France, who, being thus mutilated in the service of their king and country, can no more follow their old trades, and are too old to learn new ones. He owns, however, that wars do not occur every day. The following opinion of his may be advantageously recommended to the careful study of enlightened and disinterested democrats, who, by the magical power of their thought, can amplify it, transmogrify it, intensify it for the benefit of their country’s flesh and blood: “There is a great number of noblemen among you, that are themselves as idle as drones; that subsist on other men’s labors, on the labor of their tenants, whom, to raise their revenues, they pare to the quick.” Applying this to his theory of thieves, Hythlodoeus says that these noblemen keep a great number of servants who, on their master’s death, are turned out of doors and betake themselves to larceny. The lawyer, in nowise disconcerted, answers that these tatterdemalions, constitute a capital recruiting-ground for the army. Raphael retorts that a converse metamorphosis of efficient soldiers into able robbers is liable to take place. He also inveighs against France for keeping up a ruinous military establishment: “But this bad custom, so common among you, of keeping many servants, is not peculiar to this nation. In France there is yet a more pestiferous sort of people; for the whole country is full of soldiers, still kept up in time of peace, if such a state of a nation can be called peace; and these are kept in pay upon the same account that you plead for those idle retainers about noblemen, this being a maxim of those pretended statesmen, that it is necessary for the public safety to have a good body of veteran soldiers ever in readiness. They think raw men are not to be depended upon, and they sometimes seek occasions for making war, that they may train up their soldiers in the art of cutting throats; or, as Sallust observed, for keeping their hands in use, that they may not grow dull by too long an intermission. But France has learned to its cost how dangerous it is to feed such beasts. The fate of the Romans, Carthaginians, and Syrians, and many other nations and cities, which were both overturned and quite ruined by those standing armies, should make others wiser.” And Hythloday in his enthusiasm adds a stinging taunt, the truth of which, however, subsequent agitations and rebellions have not confirmed: “Every day’s experience shows that the mechanics in the towns or the clowns in the country are not afraid of fighting with those idle gentlemen.” He further attributes the great number of thieves to the increase of pasture, “by which your sheep, which are naturally mild and easily kept in order, may be said now to devour men and unpeople not only villages, but towns;” land was enclosed, tenants turned away, and Hythlodoeus points out a cattle plague among the results of this state of things, adding somewhat fiercely: “To us it might have seemed more just had it fell on the owners themselves.” He does not seem to perceive that by this enclosure the land is saved from that exhaustion which must ultimately reduce Europe to a barren state, and thus annihilate civilization; but humanitarianism was never remarkable for excess of foresight. The lawyer is about to reply in a speech divided into four points, but the humane archbishop interferes, and “eases him of the trouble of answering;” unfortunately, however, or perhaps from a relish for humor, he allows Raphael to indulge in a long speech on the reasons against putting thieves to death. Hythloday recommends a punishment which no sensible thief would prefer to death, namely, that the criminal should be made to work all his life in quarries or mines. But as this was the ancient Roman method, it is not perfect enough for the ingenious Raphael, who would much prefer a scheme according to which the thieves are let loose in the daytime, engaged in working for the public; and, although liable to be whipped for idleness, these debonair convicts punctually return to prison every evening, and answer to their names before being locked up for the night. The reformer adds somewhat naively, “the only danger to be feared from them is their conspiring against the government.” The unfortunate lawyer, rather taken aback at the idea of London being full of convicts with cropped ears and a peculiar dress, playing the part of commissionaires or otherwise making themselves generally useful to Londoners, says that he fears this could not take place without the whole nation being endangered; the sensible cardinal avoids this slight exaggeration, and answers with quiet irony that it is not easy to form a judgment with respect to the success of this scheme, since it is a method that has never yet been tried. If, in this exquisite scene, which evinces such dramatic genius, there is any trace of a lyrical element, this is most likely to be found in the cardinal’s verdict, who is confessedly the most honored and reverend personage, and withal one with a real prototype. There is no reason to suppose that Morus was a Hythloday; of course, reflecting the thoughts of his age, he had entertained similar ideas; but instead of petrifying them in his mind, he vaporized them, dramatized them, as it were, in the character of Hythloday, contemplated their embodiment or type in an objective, extraneous form, and thus remained, as to his inner self, impartial and moderate.
Now, however, the Pantagruelistic element tends to predominate, and More will expend some humor in satirizing friars, those bétes noires of educated men in the sixteenth century. A jester who is standing by gives it as his opinion that mendicants should become monks and nuns. A friar says that even that transformation would not save the kingdom from beggars; the jester calls the friars vagabonds; the friar falls into a passion and overwhelms the fool with epithets. Notwithstanding a scriptural reminder from the jester, “in patience possess ye your souls,” the friar wrests the words of Scripture to the purposes of his anger. The cardinal courteously exhorts him to govern his passions; “but,” answers the friar, “holy men have had a good zeal—as it is said; the zeal of thine house hath eaten me up.” “You do this perhaps with a good intention,” replies the cardinal; “but in my opinion, it were wiser in you, and perhaps better for you, not to engage in so ridiculous a contest with a fool.” The friar retorts that “Solomon, the wisest of men, said to answer a fool according to his folly,” and asserts that “if the many mockers of Elisha, who was but one bald man, felt the effect of his zeal, what will become of one mocker of so many friars, among whom there are so many bald men? We have likewise a bull, by which all that jeer at us are excommunicated.” Seeing the matter is not likely soon to end, the archbishop sends the jester away and changes the subject.
After criticising the policy by which Henry VII. extorted money from his subjects, Raphael Hythlodoeus, the radical, freely avows his opinion, that “as long as there is any property, and while money is the standard of all other things, I cannot think that a nation can be governed either justly or happily; not justly, because the best things will fall to the share of the worst men; nor happily, because all things will be divided among a few, (and even those are not in all respects happy,) the rest being left to be absolutely miserable.” An Owenite of the nineteenth century could not express himself more plainly. Again, he asserts that “till property is taken away, there can be no equitable or just distribution of things, nor can the world be happily governed; for, as long as that is maintained, the greatest and the far best part of mankind will be still oppressed with a load of cares and anxieties. I confess that, without taking it quite away, those pressures that lie on a great part of mankind may be made lighter; but they can never be quite removed.”
In the second book Raphael gives up criticising the established order of things, and describes the condition of Utopia. That island, once called Abraxa, lies on the other side of the Atlantic. In days of yore it was conquered and redeemed from a barbarous condition by the great legistor Utopus. There are fifty-four cities in the island, and Amaurot is the metropolis. All these towns are as like one another, in outward conformation, laws, and customs, as possibility will admit. Farm-houses fill up the rural part of the island. Agricultural business is carried on by means of a kind of transportation from the cities; parties of inhabitants, in families of forty, are sent to rusticate for two years, after which lapse of time they return to town and others are sent out. There is in this manner a continual and well regulated supply and demand in agricultural labor; and the pursuits of tillage are conducted so intelligently as to avoid that scarcity of corn which would occasion unpleasant complications in so well-regulated a country. Among these husbandmen’s devices is a plan for the artificial hatching of eggs. So wonderful a system of Fetichism prevails in Utopia that “he that knows one of their towns knows them all, they are so like one another, except where the situation makes some difference.” Raphael describes Amaurot, where he has resided for not less than four years. “Their buildings are good, and are so uniform that a whole side of a street looks like one house. The streets are twenty feet broad; there lie gardens behind all their houses, which are large but inclosed with buildings, that on all hands face the street, so that every house has both a door to the street and a back door to the garden.” The magistrate was, of old, called the syphogrant, but is now designated as the philarch; and over every ten syphogrants is a higher functionary anciently called the tranibore, and now the archphilarch. The syphogrants elect the prince by ballot—”they give their voices secretly so that it is not known for whom every one gives his suffrage.” The prince is elected for life, with, however, this reservation—”unless he is removed upon suspicion of some design to enslave the people.” The syphogrants in their council have it for their peculiar mission to prevent any conspiration being formed by the prince and the tranibores for the enslavement of the nation. Mechanics in Utopia have their day’s work limited to six hours; the rest of the twenty-four hours being by them devoted to hearing lectures if they are of a studious turn, or to reading, eating, sleeping, etc. After supper, they go in winter to music halls; in summer, to gardens; or they divert themselves with games, “not unlike our chess,” between “virtues and vices,” in which are represented, in a manner combining instruction with amusement, “the methods by which vice either openly assaults or secretly undermines virtue; and virtue on the other hand resists it.” There are no taverns or ale-houses. The Utopians prefer iron to gold or silver; they make their commonest utensils of what to other nations are the precious metals; of silver and gold they also make chains for slaves, adding to the infamy of convicts by making them wear golden earrings or coronets. Pearls they find on the coast, and diamonds on the rocks. The ambassadors of Anemolia were therefore disappointed when, thinking to astonish the Utopians by a profuse display of gold ornaments, they were only derided by this utilitarian race as wearers of useless metal.
As to knowledge, the Utopians are fortunate in having all the wisdom of the ancients without the trouble of being acquainted with dead languages; for it seems that they themselves have made “the same discoveries as the Greeks, both in musick, logick, arithmetick, and geometry.” Their habit of mind, unlike that of the Scotch, is rather outer than inner, objective than subjective, inclined to practical science rather than to metaphysics; they would be unable to understand a definition of man in the “aibstract.” They are acquainted with astronomy, but eschew divination by the stars. Touching the causes of things, and the problems of moral philosophy, there is by no means a perfect agreement among them: they have a tendency toward the ‘happiness’ principle. Such is their aversion to war that, when compelled to enter the field, they immediately set a price on the head of the enemy’s king, or of any of his ministers who may have been instrumental in bringing about the outbreak of hostilities. The admirers of More have been somewhat shocked at this practice, more utilitarian than honorable; but there is no reason to suppose he would have consented to such a course in a similar conjuncture; it is as an artist, and to complete the necessary development of the Utopian character, that he has imputed to them this utilitarian, positivistic device; a nation which could be brought to regard war as an evil, damaging the happiness of the greatest number, would not stick at sacrificing a few princes in a quiet way in order to secure the advantage of the many through the ruin of the few. Here’s account of the high esteem in which the Utopians hold their priests, is, perhaps, more lyrical than consistent with the character of that imaginary nation; he makes them go so far in their reverence as to bring no sacerdotal criminals to account, the punishment of these offenders being “left to God and to their own consciences.” It must be recollected, however, that they have but few priests, and those chosen with great caution. The Utopians have ritualistic tendencies. “They burn incense, and other sweet odors, and have a great number of wax lights during their worship; not out of any imagination that such oblations can add anything to the divine nature, which even prayers cannot do; but as it is a harmless and pure way of worshipping God, so they think those sweet savors and lights, together with some other ceremonies, by a secret and unaccountable virtue elevate men’s souls and inflame them with greater energy and cheerfulness during the divine worship.” The priests’ vestments “are parti-colored; and both the work and colors are wonderful. … They say that, in the ordering and placing those plumes, some dark mysteries are represented, which pass down among their priests in a secret tradition concerning them; and that they are as hieroglyphics, putting them in mind of the blessings that they have received from God, and of their duties both to him and to their neighbors.” Raphael concludes the book by saying that “there are many things in Utopia which I rather wish than hope to see followed in our governments;” and this hint shows the dreamy nature of the scheme. The Utopia is, indeed, a mere philosophical romance, in which More sacrificed to the humanitarian tendencies of the age, but which left his deep and inner convictions unshaken. His after life showed that he was free from any tendency to realize the Utopian idea; and the more so, perhaps, because he had written the Utopia; for there is in the utterance of thought a peculiar virtue which clears the mind from the effects of a lingering and stagnating condition of ideas. Like Plato’s Atlantis, the Utopia is an ingenious play of fancy rather than a production intended to convey serious truths under a veil; it is alike removed from the earnest intensity of thought pervading Cicero’s Republic, and the semi-prophetic rapture of Bacon’s New Atlantis. And in relation to our age, the Utopia serves to show that what enthusiasts have imagined, under the influence of the modern sceptical spirit, had been foreshadowed and included at the very dawn of that spirit, by the comprehensiveness of genius; and that the class of schemes which are designated by the name of Sir T. More’s production, are as far from their practical fulfilment now as they were three hundred or three thousand years ago.
Like every successful author, More had his literary quarrels. The favor with which the Utopia had been received, excited the gall of a French man of letters, who had already broken a few lances with More. This Brixius, Brice, or Brie according to Rabelais, published a book called Anti-Morus, in which he carefully raked up every mistake in grammar and quantity to be found in More’s early Latin poem. He punned on More’s name, likening it to Môros, the Greek word for madman. Erasmus wrote to this critic, charging him with being a very child compared with More. Sir Thomas speedily prepared an answer, but Erasmus advised him to meet the attack with silent contempt. There is nothing so galling to fools. More perceived that to be attacked by dunces is an advantage rather than otherwise.
It was about that period that Oxford was convulsed by the introduction of Grecian studies. The “Trojans,” as they called themselves, evinced an implacable hostility toward the “new learning.” Priam, Hector, Paris, waged war against Hellenic writings. But the tide of grammars, aorists, accents, was no more to be staid than the hosts of real invaders at the siege of Troy. More played the part of Sinon. He wrote to the Oxonians that Greek was being learned at Cambridge, that the king and Wolsey were in favor of Greek; that in the end the Trojans would have to be wise; and at last the reactionists gave in.
In 1523, Sir T. More was appointed speaker of the house of commons. This advancement he accepted with some reluctance. In his opening speech, he besought the clemency of the king in behalf of any man who, in the house, should chance to speak unadvisedly and roughly: “Such is the weight of the matter, such is the reverent dread that the timorous hearts of your naturall subjects conceive towards your highnesse, (our most undoubted soveraign,) that they cannot in this point rest satisfied, except your gracious bounty therein declared, put away the scruple of their timorous mindes, and animate and encourage them from all doubt; may it therefore please your majesty, (our most gracious king ) of your great goodnesse, to pardon freely, without doubt of your dreadful displeasure, whatsoever shall happen any man to speak in the discharging of his conscience, interpreting every man’s words, how unseemly soever couched, yet to proceed of good zeal to the prosperity of the kingdome, and the honour of your royall person.” Not long after, a grant of money being before parliament, the cardinal, fearing it would not pass the lower house, bethought himself of attending the debate. Previously there had been a slight disagreement or “garboyle” between the cardinal and the honorable members, with whom Wolsey was displeased, because they were addicted to revealing in ale-houses what had been said within the walls of parliament. On this occasion, therefore, the new speaker urged the necessity of the cardinal’s entering the house in full pomp: “Masters,” said Sir Thomas, “for as much as my lord cardinall, not long since, as ye all know, laid to our charge the lightnesse of our tongues, for things spoken out of this house; it shall not, in my judgment, be amisse to receive him with all his pomp; his maces, his pillars, his pole axes, his crosses, his hat, and great seal, too; that so if he blame us hereafter, we may be the bolder to excuse ourselves, and lay it upon those that his grace bringeth hither with him.” The house agreed to this, and the cardinal, in a “solemn oration,” gave many reasons for granting the money; but the house remained silent. He made another appeal: “Masters, you have many wise and learned men among you, and since I am, by the king’s own person, sent hither unto you for the preservation of yourselves and all the kingdome, I think it fit you give me some reasonable answer.” Still every man held his peace, so that he called them by name. Mr. Murray (afterward Lord Murray) and several others of “the wisest of the house,” when challenged in this way, returned no answer, “being before agreed.” The cardinal expressed his surprise at “this marvellous obstinate silence,” and called on the speaker to answer. Sir Thomas, first meekly kneeling upon his knees, pleaded that the house was abashed by so illustrious a presence as the cardinal’s; showed that, besides, the ancient liberty of the house allowed the members to be silent; averred that he was quite unable to speak in their name, “except every one of them could put their several wits into his head.” The poor cardinal retired in despair, and afterward gave vent to his grief by saying to More, in the gallery at Whitehall: “Would to God, Mr. More, you had been to Rome when I made you speaker!” “Your grace not offended, so would I too, my lord.” rejoined Sir Thomas. Then, with his usual kindly tact, he changed the subject.
And now More was to enter on the fiercer struggles of the theological arena. He was to write in a weighty, but also nervous and popular manner, often condescending to the humorous anecdote, or “merrie tale,” those ample controversial treatises in which was laid the broad foundation stone of English prose. Even for so dreamy and gentle a thinker, there could be no avoiding the contests of the age. The times were too stirring for mere literary dilettanteism. As Le Bas has remarked, “Things which, for many a century, had been deemed by multitudes immutable as the laws of nature, were now found to contain within themselves the elements of a change. The supremacy of the Roman pontiff, more especially, had till then been very generally regarded as a fundamental principle of revealed religion. Yet this was precisely the principle against which the first violence of the spirit now abroad was vehemently directed; and, what was still more astounding, the assault against it was either directed or assisted by men who had pledged themselves to its maintenance by the most solemn sanctions which religion can impose. All this cannot have happened without a perilous convulsion of the public mind. It may be said, without the smallest exaggeration, that no disturbance in the order of the physical world could have produced, in many a heart, much more confusion and dismay than that which was occasioned by this rupture of immemorial prejudices and associations. The fountains of the great deep were breaking up before their eyes, and the summits of ancient institutions seemed in danger of disappearing beneath the deluge.” (Le Bas’s Life of Cranmer.) More answered an attack which Luther had made on the king. In 1525, he wrote a very acrid letter against the Reformers, urging Erasmus to more decided action. But the humanitarian had small anxiety for engaging in these disputes. More soon found abundant work for himself. In 1524 or 1525, there was published an anonymous tract, entitled the Supplycacion of Beggers, which was a virulent attack on the clergy.
Erasmus had said that, under a religious veil, the Reformation movement was the quarrel of those who had not against those who had. This, the opinion of most educated men in the sixteenth century, appeared to be confirmed by this tract, which urges a severe blow against the church, not on religious grounds, but in behalf of the poor. In the Supplycacion the king is advised to take the wealth of the monasteries and give it to the poor. In this singular production the long-winded sentences of the opening are the very whine of mendicants:
“Most lamentably complayneth theyre wofull misery unto your highness, your poore, the wretched hidous monsters, (on whom scarcely for horror any dare loke,) the foule unhappy sort of lepers, and other sore people, nedy, impotent, blinde, lame, and sike, that live only by almesse, name that theyre nombre is daily so sore increased that all the almesse of all the well-disposed people of this youre realme is not halfe ynough for to susteine theim, but that for very constreint they die for hunger. And this most pestilent mischief comen uppon youre saide poore by the reason that there is yn the tyrnes of youre noble predecessours passed craftily creypt ynto this your realme another sort (not of impotent but) of strong puissant and counterfeit holy and idell beggers and vacabundes, which syns the tyme of theyre first entre by all the craft and wilinesse of satan are nowe encreased under your sight not onely into a great nobre but also ynto a kingdome. These are (not the herdes, but the ravinous wolves going in herdes clothing devouring the flocke) the bisshoppes, abbottes, priours, deacons, archedeacones, suffraganes, prestes, monkes, chanons, freres, pardoners, and somners. … The goodliest lordshippes, maners, landes, and teritories, are theyrs. Besides this they have the tenth part of all the corne, medowe, pasture, grasse, colts, calves, lambes, pigges, gese, and chickens.”
He calculates the salaries paid to the clergy as amounting to one hundred and thirty thousand angels. “Whereof not foure hundreth yeres passed they had not one peny.” He gives historical illustrations to show the desirableness of being freed from such tributes: “The nobill king Arthur had never ben abill to have caried his armie to the fote of the mountains to resist the coming downe of Lucius the emperoure if such yerely exactions had ben taken of his people. The Grekes had never ben abill to have so long continued at the siege of Troie if they had had at home such an idell sort of cormorantes to finde. The auncient Romains had never ben abil to have put all the hole world under theyre obeisance if theyre people had byn thus yerely oppressed. The Turke nowe yn your tyme shulde never be abill to get so moche groande of Cristendome if he had yn his empire such a sort of locustes to devoure his substance.” As it proceeds, the tract becomes more and more nervous and truculent. Irritated by the utterance of this “beggars’ proctour,” More in 1529 replied in his Supplycacion of Soules.
This purports to be an appeal from the “holy souls in purgatory” to all good Christians. The Supplicacion of Beggars is called “an unhappy boke.” It is urged that “lacke of belief in purgatory bringeth a man to hell.” He refutes the “beggars’ proctour” by showing that Peter’s pence was paid before the conquest, and exclaims: “Oh! the grevouse shipwrak of the comen weale; he sayeth that in auncient time before the coming of the clergye there were but few pore people, and yet thei did not begge, but there was gyven them ynough unasked, because at that time he saith there was no clargy. … In thys place we let pas his threfold foly.” He says that this “beggars’ proctour” should have concluded his “supplycacion” in such terms as these: “After ye the clergy is thus destroied and cast out, then shall Luther’s ghospel come in; then shal Tyndal’s testament be taken up; then shal false heresies bee preached; then shal the sacramentes be set at naught; than shal fasting and prayour be neglected; then shal holy saints be blasphemed;… then shal the servantes set naught by theyr maysters, and vnruly people rebell against their rulers; then wyll ryse vp ryflyng and robbery, murther and mischief, and playn insurreccion. … all which mischief may yet be withstanden easilye, and with Godde’s grace so shal it, yf ye suffer no such bold beggars to seduce you with sedycyouse billes.” More girds on the most substantial armor in the Dialogue concerning Heresies, and other polemical treatises. He maintains that the church cannot err in the interpretations of Scripture; that according to the teaching of early doctors it is lawful to venerate images and render homage to relics. He argues for the real presence, comparing it with St. Chrysostom to one man’s face reflected in several mirrors; all the hosts, although in different places, are but one body and divine oblation. He adduces as one of the reasons for which Tyndal’s New Testament was burned, that in that version the words priests, church and charity, are respectively rendered “seniours,” “congregation,” and “love.” The word senior, he maintains, would apply “Englishly” rather to aldermen of towns than to priests of the church. The word congregation can be applied equally to a company of Christians and a company of Turks though the church is indeed a congregation, yet every congregation is not the church. “Lyke wysedom was there in the change of this word (charitie) into love. For though charitie be alway love, yet is not, ye wote well, love alway charitie.” He blames that “greate arche heretike Wickliffe” for having taken it upon himself to make a new translation of the Scriptures. “Whereas ye hole byble was long before his dayes by vertuous and wel learned men translated into ye English tong, and by good and godly people with devocion and sobrenes wel and reverently red.” He sees no reason why Scripture should not be read in the vulgar tongue. Luther’s books, however, should be proscribed, “because his heresies be so many and so abominable;” a “ich and tikling of vanite and vain glory has set hym besyde hys minde.” He shows that “it is a great token that the world is nere at an ende while we se people so farre fallen fro God, that they can abide it to be content with this pestilent frantike secte;” that “fayth may be without charitie, and so fervent that it may suffer a payneful death, and yet for fault of charitie not sufficient to salvacion.” He establishes that “princes be bounden to punish heretykes.” He charges heretics with being wont to perpetrate “outrages, and temporall harmes” with “destroying Christe’s holy sacramentes, pulling down Christ’s crosse, blaspheming his blessed saints, destroying all devocion.” He contrasts “Saynt Cypryane, Saynt Chrisostome, Saynt Gregory, and al the vertuous and cunning doctours by rowe,” with the doctors “of this newe secte, frere Luther and his wyfe, frere Lambert and his wife, and frantike Tyndall.” It must be remembered that the excesses and seditions brought forth by the Reformation in Germany were calculated to establish an association between the ideas of religious reformer and of rebel; nor does the experience of succeeding centuries go very far toward destroying this link. As a statesman, therefore, if on no other ground, More was inclined toward the display of an uncompromising severity. Nor was he alone in this tendency. Both in England and on the continent, heresy was a crime punishable by law. At the same time, there is no reason for thinking that More carried his doctrines on that point into practice, as Fox, Burnet, and others have asserted. This theory is based on a passage of Erasmus, which declares that while More was chancellor no one was put to death in England for adherence to the new doctrines. (Nisard.) In his apology, written after his fall, More candidly exposes both his opinions and the facts of his administration. He vindicates himself from the “lies neither fewe nor small” which certain “blessed brethren” had industriously spread concerning him. “Dyvers of them have said that of suche as were in my house while I was chauncellour, I used to examine theym with tormentes, causynge them to bee bounden to a tree in my gardeine, and there pituously beaten.” “Of very truth, albeit that for a greate robbery, or an heighnous murder, or sacriledge in a church, I caused sometyme suche thynges to be done by some officers of the marshalsie, with which orderynge of them by their well deserved paine, and without any great hurt that afterward should sticke by them, I founde out and repressed many such desperate wretches as elles had not failed to have gone farther abrode, and to have done to many good folke a greate deale much more harme.”
Only twice did he punish any heretic in this manner—a boy and a lunatic, whose case he thus relates:
“Another was one whiche, after that he had fallen into that frantik heresies, fell soone after into plaine, open fransy beside; and albeit that he had therefore bene put up in Bedelem, and afterward by beating and corecion, gathered his remembrance to him, and begaune to come again to himself, being thereupon set at liberty, and walkinge aboute abrode, his olde fransies begaune to fall againe in his heade, and I was fro dyvers good holy places advertised, that he used in his wandering about to come into the churche, and there make many mad toies and trifles, to the trouble of the good people in the divine service, and specially would he be most busye at the time of most silence, while the priest was at the secretes of the masse, about the levacion. … whereupon I, being advertised of these pageauntes, and being sent unto and required by very devout, religious folke, to take some other order with him, caused him as he came wanderinge by my doore, to be taken by the counstables and bounden to a tree in the streete before the whole towne and ther they stripped him with roddes therefore till he wared weary, and somewhat longer; and it appeared wel that his remembrance was goode enoughe, save that it went about in grasing till it was beaten home; for he could than verie well reherse his fautes himselfe, and speake and treate very well, and promise to doe afterward as well, and verylye, God be thanked, I heare none harme of him now; and of al that ever came into my hand for heresye, as helpe me God, saving, as I said, the sure keping of them, and yet no so sure neither, but that George Constantine could stele away; els had never any of them any stripe or stroke given them, so much as a fylyppe on the forehead.”
He also gives an amusing instance of the manner in which slanderous accusations were fabricated against him. Simon Fryth, author of the “Supplication of Beggars,” charged More with having said that “his heresye shoulde coste him the best blude in his body.” More answers that:
“Some truthe they might happe to heare, whereupon they myghte buylde theyr lye. For so was it that on a tyme one came and showed me that Frithe laboured so sore that he sweat agayne, in studieng and writing against the blessed sacrament; and I was of trouth verie heavy to heare that the younge fooly the felowe shoulde bestowe suche labour about suche a develyshe woorke. For if that Fryth (quoth I) swete in laboring to quench that faith that al true Christen people have in Christe’s blessed body and bloude, which all Christen folke veryly, and all good folke frutfuly receive in the fourme of bread, he shal laboure more than in vayne; for I am sure that Frith and al his felowes, with al the friendes that are of theyr affiniti, shal neither be able to quench and put out that faith, and over that if Frythe labour about the quenching thereof till he sweate, I would some good friend of his shoulde showe hym that I feare me sore that Christe wyll kyndle a fyre of fagottes for hym, and make hym therin sweate the bloud out of his bodye here, and straight from hence send hys soule for ever into the fyre of hell. Nowe in these wordes I neyther ment nor meane that I would it wer so. For so help me God and none otherwyse, but as I would be glad to take more labour, losse, and bodelye payne also, then peradventure many a man would wene to winne that yonge man to Christe and hys true faythe agayne, and thereby to preserve and keepe hym from the losse and peryll of soule and body both.”
And in another part of the same treatise he declares that
“as touching heretikes, I hate that vice of theirs, and not their persons, and very faine would I that the one were destroied, and the tother saved … and if all the favour and pity that I have vsed among them to theire amendement were knowen, it woulde I warrant you well and plaine appere, whereof if it were requysite I could bring forth witnesses more than men would wene.”
In these earnest words is reflected his innocence of persecution. These apologies for his career as chancellor were written after his fall.
In 1529, More had been made lord high chancellor of England. The new dignitary had been sounded by the king concerning the matrimonial cause. Although Sir Thomas excused himself from giving an opinion, on the plea that he was no divine, he was evidently expected ultimately to concur in forwarding the accomplishment of the king’s wishes. But More was too candid and unworldly to adopt a policy of self-interest. He had foreseen the danger of his elevation, and in his opening speech had alluded to the sword of Damocles. One evening he had confided to Roper that he would gladly be tied up in a sack, and thrown into the Thames, if only there could be peace on earth, unity in the church, and a good termination of the divorce question. At last the decisive moment came, and Henry requested More to take the proposed divorce into consideration. The chancellor, falling on his knees, lamented his inability to serve the king in this matter with a safe conscience; he had, he said, borne in mind the words uttered by his majesty on More’s first entering office, namely, first to look unto God, and after God unto the king. Henry, concealing his vexation, expressed a hope that More could serve him in other instances.
Then Cranmer broached his plan, and the universities began to dust folios and hold grave deliberations on the matrimonial cause. Not only Oxford and Cambridge, but Paris, Anjou, Bruges, Orleans, Padua, Toulouse, summoned their doctors, regents, and canons, to weigh and consider the important question. There was “much turning and searching of bookes;” divine law, civil law, were carefully discussed and examined. “There was in the realme much preching, one lerned man holding against another,” (Holinshed.) Foreseeing the impending harvest of determinations and arbitraments, More perceived that the king would marry Anne Boleyn at any cost. In May, 1532, he tendered his resignation. Henry accepted it in an affable manner, and a weight fell from More’s heart—for the nonce he gave himself up to his harmless gaiety. Lady More lectured him severely for not having taken care of his pecuniary interests when in office, and for relinquishing place through a selfish love of ease, without thinking of the children. “Tilly vally, what will you do, Mr. More?” cried Lady Alice; “will you sit and make goslings in the ashes? it is better to rule than to be ruled.” More, quietly turning to his daughters, asked whether they did not see “that her nose standeth somewhat awry.”
With calm dignity he proceeded to reduce his establishment; sent his jester to the lord mayor; and consulted with his children on the best means of avoiding the breaking up of the family. His income was little more than £100 a year; Lady More must have been hard up for pin money wherewith to buy gowns, coifs, and stomachers. He wrote to Erasmus that he had at last obtained freedom from public business; and he had his epitaph inscribed in the parish church of Chelsea. He was beginning to have a foreboding of approaching danger; whether from the declining state of his health—he had been liable, through much writing, to an “ache” in his breast—or his acquaintance with the king’s character, At the height of his friendship with the monarch, when congratulated by Roper on the marks of favor he was receiving, More had mournfully answered that if Henry, by beheading him, could get one castle more in France, he would not scruple to do so. During several nights, it is said, he had been sleepless under the influence of a strange, haunting anticipation; he prayed for strength, his delicate frame being averse to bodily pain—or, as he said, “his flesh could not endure a fillip.”
In the mean while the king married Anne Boleyn; Cheapside ran with claret. Sir Thomas received an order to attend the procession, with twenty pounds to buy a gown; but he declined to be present. The king’s displeasure began to arise. More was much esteemed, had considerable influence, and his prolonged opposition was anything but agreeable to Henry. More’s enemies began to cast about for a ground of accusation against him. The adventure of the Maid of Kent furnished them with an opportunity. Elizabeth Barton was a girl of cataleptic temperament, who had visions and uttered prophecies. Unfortunately for herself and others, she meddled with politics and inveighed against the king. More complained to Cromwell that he had been accused of communicating with that “nun of Canterbury;” whereas he had written to her, “Good madam, I will hear nothing of other men’s matters; and least of all of any matter of princes or of the realm.” The poor “good madam” was executed at “Tiburne.” More’s name had been included in the act of attainder, and a royal commission was appointed to examine him. It soon became apparent that the Maid of Kent’s case had little to do with this prosecution of Sir T. More, and that the real question at issue was, that he should remember the king’s former favors and give his consent to that divorce which the hierarchy, parliament, and the universities had approved. More answered, meekly but firmly, that he had hoped to hear no more of that matter. In the Maid of Kent affair, his innocence was so evident that Henry was obliged to yield to the pressure of the commissioners, who besought him on their knees to dismiss More from the accusation. But More knew this was only a reprieve. The commissioners had assured the king that they would in time find another opportunity that would serve the royal turn better. “Quod differtur non aufertur,” answered More, when his “Megg” congratulated him on the bill being withdrawn. There had been no chance of getting a verdict against him. But a “meet matter” for his enemies to act upon was not long in supervening. The succession to the crown for the issue of the new marriage, and the king’s ecclesiastical supremacy, became law. An oath of allegiance was required. Sir T. More and Bishop Fisher were recusants. More could not be brought to imply that the marriage with Catherine had been illegal. His innate nobleness made him very little anxious as to the consequences of his opposition. The Duke of Norfolk gave him advice one day. “By the mass, Mr. More, it is perilous striving with princes; therefore I would wish you somewhat to incline to the king’s pleasure, for, Mr. More, ‘indignatio principis mors est.” We can imagine the sweet smile with which More answered, “Is that all, my lord? then in good faith the difference between your grace and me is but this, that I shall die to-day and you to-morrow.”
He was too brave and merry not to despise death; but, the day he was summoned to Lambeth, he was afraid to face his family on his departure. Whenever he went down the river, they used to accompany him to the boat and be dismissed with kisses; but that morning he did not allow them to follow him. With Roper he took boat to Lambeth. There the vicar of Croydon, and many London clergy were sworn; after which proceeding, the reverend the vicar, “Either for gladness or dryness, or else that it might be seen ‘quod ille notus erat pontifici,’ went to my lord’s buttery-bar and called for drink, and drank ‘valde familiariter.'” (Sir T. More’s Letters.) Sancho is ever near Quixote. Without blaming those who took the oath, More maintained that his conscience would not be satisfied if he allowed himself to be sworn. In vain did “my lord of Westminster” charge him to “change” his conscience, because the great council of the realm had determined on acknowledging the points at issue. More said his opinion was backed by the general council of Christendom. He and Roper were committed to the Tower, probably through the influence of Queen Anne, who was herself “behedded” a few years afterward.
And now his greatness showed itself in adversity, as it had before brightened his prosperity. He had something worse than a vultus instantis tyranni to endure, namely, the expostulations of his wife. Having obtained leave to visit him, she gave him a lecture in her positivistic philosophy: “I marvel that you, who hitherto have been taken for a wise man, will now so play the fool to lie here in this close, filthy prison, and be content thus to be shut up among mice and rats, when you might be abroad at your liberty, and with the favour and good-will both of the king and his council, if you would but do as all the bishops and best learned of this realme have done; and seeing you have at Chelsea a right fair house, your library, your gallery, garden, orchard, and all other necessaries so handsome about you, where you might, in the company of me, your wife, your children, and household, be merry, I muse what a God’s name you mean here still thus fondly to tarry.” His daughter Margaret, however, proved a better comfort to him. She, too, attempted to persuade him to take the oath; he playfully compared her to Eve, thinking more of his body than his soul. She quoted all the instances of great doctors who had taken the oath. At last she said that, like Cressida in Chaucer, she was at her wit’s end; what could she say more but that his jester had said, “Why does not he take the oath? I have done so,” and that she herself had taken it? More than a year did he stay in that prison, to the detriment of his health. He was then tried and found guilty. On his return from the trial, when he landed at the Tower-wharf, his poor daughter rushed from the crowd and kissed him frantically several times. One more letter did he write to her with a coal. As he had once written, pecks of “cole” would not have sufficed to express all his love for her. He expressed himself much indebted to the king, who was sending him out of this wretched world. He wanted to go on the scaffold in his best clothes, and sent the executioner a piece of gold. On the platform he evinced that mixture of gayety and piety which was characteristic of him. The structure being somewhat cranky, “I pray see me up safe,” he said, “and for my coming down, let me shift for myself.” He then knelt down and said a psalm. He then addressed the executioner: “Thou will do me this day a greater benefit than ever any mortal man can be able to give me. Pluck up thy spirit, man, and be not afraid to do thy office. My neck is very short; take heed, therefore, that thou strike not awry, for saving thy honesty.” When about to lay his head on the block, he craved time to remove his beard, “as that had never committed treason.” “So, with great alacrity and spiritual joy, he received the fatal blow of the axe, which, no sooner had severed the head from the body, but his soul was carried by angels into everlasting glory.”
Margaret bought his head, enclosed it in a leaden box, and it was afterward buried with her at Canterbury. In the nineteenth century, the head was found, with the metal covering corroded away in front.
Dr. Lark, rector of Chelsea, and More’s friend, was so influenced by More’s death that he soon after denied the supremacy, and was executed. More’s death made a deep impression on men’s minds throughout Europe. When the report of the execution reached the king, he looked steadfastly on Anne, and said, “Thou art the cause of this man’s death,” and soon after retired in sadness to his chamber. Scarcely, however, can readers of history deplore a death which brought out the beauty of such a character.
– text taken from magazine, August 1867