The Relics of Saints John Fisher and Thomas More, by Monsignor P E Hallett. 10 July 1935

The earliest English life of Saint John Fisher, formerly attributed to Hall, but certainly not his work, tells us that the martyr’s body was buried the evening of the day of his execution in the churchyard nearby of All Hallows, Barking. A fortnight later Saint Thomas More was martyred and his headless body was buried by his devoted daughter Margaret in the chapel of Saint Peter in Chains within the Tower.

It would seem from the testimony both of Stow and of the Grey Friars’ Chronicle that at the same time the Bishop’s body was disinterred and buried with More’s. The former says: “The 6th July Sir T. More was beheaded on the Tower Hill . . . and then the body of Dr. Fisher, Bp. of Rochester, was taken up and buried with Sir Thomas More both in the Tower” (ed. Newdigate, p. 18-19). The latter, after recording More’s death, says similarly: “then was taken up the bishop again, and both of them buried within the Tower” (Grey Friars’ Chron., Rolls Series).

Where are these bodies now? No certain reply can be given to this question. Cresacre More says they were buried “in the belfrey or as some say as one entereth into the vestry.” He cannot have visited the chapel, for there has never been a vestry in the sense of an outbuilding. The place usually pointed out is by the north wall, near to the entrance of the little bell-tower. If that is so, they may still remain there, for they may have escaped the rearrangement of the bodies buried under the floor of the chapel which took place in 1876. This seems to have affected only those bodies in the centre of the chapel, which were taken up and reburied in the vaults. But there is a passage in an anonymous MS. life of Fisher in the British Museum (Arundel 152, fol. 234) which has caused much discussion. It bears intrinsic evidence of having been written in Queen Mary’s reign. It asserts that the martyr’s enemies were vexed at the concourse of people who came to the All Hallows’ churchyard to venerate the body, that therefore they had it exhumed, carried into the Tower, and with the body of Thomas More cast into an obscure place. (This phrase, we may note by the way, is curious, since they were buried in the chapel.) Then it continues: “But certain persons who have taken notes of events have left in writing (the words are ” rerum observatores ” and perhaps should be rendered “chroniclers “) that the bodies of these holy men did not even rest there; but that, when the heat of persecution somewhat abated, they were devoutly carried to the village of Chelsea, where More had resided, and are there kept to this day entombed in a new monument which he had prepared for himself. .. . But while I was endeavouring to discover from common report or from written records the real place Where this precious treasure is hidden, I was hindered. May God grant that some day, when religion revives and peace is restored to the Church, it may be known to the faithful where are those longed-for relics.” We will all heartily join in this wish, but it is doubtful if we can accept this anonymous statement in face of the silence of Stapleton and Cresacre More. How, it may be asked, was it difficult to discover the truth when Roper and so many of More’s grandchildren were still alive? Yet the story is repeated by the antiquaries Weever and Anthony a Wood. The former, in his Ancient Funeral Monuments (London, 1631, p. 505), writes of the two bodies: “How long they lay together in this their house of rest (St. Peter’s Chapel) I certainly know not; yet this is certain, that Margaret, the wife of Master Roper, and daughter of the said Sir Thomas More, removed her father’s corpse not long after to Chelsea; and whether she honoured the bishop by another remove to the place of her father’s burial, I know not; yet she might, by all probability.” From the fact that he is certain about More’s removal and doubtful about Fisher’s, it seems just to infer that his testimony is independent of the Arundel MS., which asserts it of both equally. Anthony a Wood similarly writes: “But More’s body continuing not long in that chapel (St. Peter’s), was by the said Margaret removed to Chelsea Church, near London, and there deposited on the south side of the choir or chancel.”

Following these authorities, and on the principle that positive evidence is to be preferred to negative evidence (i.e., the silence of other writers, which may be capable of various explanations), Father John Morris, S.J., to whom the cause of the martyrs owes so much, accepted the removal of the bodies to Chelsea as a fact. Such authorities, however, as Father Bridgett and Dom Bede Camm are unable to accept it. Both parties appeal to the will of William Roper, which runs as follows: ” . . . my body to be buried at Chelsea . . . in the vault with the body of my dearly beloved wife (whose soul our Lord pardon) where my father-in-law, Sir Thomas More (whose soul Jesus bless) did mind to be buried.” The will was drawn up in January, 1577, just one year before Roper’s death. Father Bridgett and Dom Bede Camm interpret the words as meaning that Saint Thomas wished to be buried there, but in fact was not; but Father Morris considers that Roper was speaking vaguely because of the dangers of the time, that, in fact, Margaret had carried out her father’s desire, “his mind,” and that it was precisely for that reason that she herself, though she lived far away at Canterbury, was brought the long distance to Chelsea to be buried.

But even if we accept the reinterment at Chelsea as a fact, we are not at the end of our troubles. Dr. Cotton, in a letter to The Times recently, suggested an examination of the More vault, but Mr. Reginald Blunt, replying on May 15, showed that there is no certainty where the vault is. The present epitaphMore’s own composition, though recarved – almost certainly does not cover the vault. Weever (1.c., p. 522), like the above-quoted Anthony a Wood, indeed says that the body ” lieth under a plain monument on the south side of the choir of this church,” but John Aubrey, another seventeenth-century writer, states that More’s trunk “was interred in Chelsea Church near the middle of the south wall” (Letters by Eminent Persons, edit. 1813, p. 463). But wherever the vault may be – for there have been several enlargements and alterations to the fabric of the church – it is satisfactory at least to know that Father Morris afterwards found reason to reject the story he had at first believed, viz., that the vault was empty, the coffins having been rifled, as it was said, for the sake of the lead (cf. Month, February, 1891, p. 200; and Bridgett, p. 460). Leaving the vexed question of the body, we are on surer ground when we state that the head of Saint Thomas More reposes in the Roper vault at Saint Dunstan’s Church, Canterbury. Thomas Stapleton, writing at Douay in 1588, is the first witness for the fact that Margaret Roper bribed the officer to give her the head after it had been exposed on London Bridge for nearly a month. He was a close friend of Dorothy Colley, Margaret Roper’s maid, of her husband John Harris, More’s secretary, and of others of More’s friends abroad, and got his information from them. “There was no possibility of mistake,” he writes, “for she, with the help of others, had kept careful watch, and moreover, there were signs so certain that anyone who had known him in life would have now been able to identify the head. A tooth was missing, which he had lost in life. . . . Margaret, as long as she lived, kept the head with the greatest reverence, carefully preserving it by means of spices, and to this day it remains in the custody of one of his relatives.” (Life of Sir Thomas More, p. 213.) Remembering that Margaret was brought before the King’s Council for keeping her father’s head as a sacred relic, we need not be misled by Stapleton’s vague words, apud aliquem suorum custoditur, nor by those of Cresacre More, “she buried it where she thought fittest.” The evidence that the skull at Saint Dunstan’s is that of our martyr is, as the vicar, in reply to my inquiry, very courteously wrote to me, traditional; but Stapleton’s account, the place of burial, the fact that no other member of More’s or Roper’s family was beheaded, and the fact that no other place claims to possess More’s head, together supply strong and cumulative support for the truth of the tradition. The earliest witness to the placing of the relic in Saint Dunstan’s that I have been able to find is Anthony a Wood, the seventeenth-century antiquarian, who writes that it was by Margaret “for a time carefully preserved in a leaden box, but afterwards with great devotion ’twas put into a vault (the burying-place of the Ropers) under a chapel joining to Saint Dunstan’s Church in Canterbury, where it doth yet remain.” Nor need the error he proceeds to make, in stating that Margaret Roper was buried in the same vault (whereas, in fact, she was buried at Chelsea), invalidate his witness. Thomas Hearne, a later antiquary, states that the aforesaid box, being enclosed in an iron grate, was seen when the vault was opened in 1715. It was opened again in August, 1881, and the skull in its shell photographed.

[Saint Thomas More]At Baynards, near Cranleigh, is still shown an old trunk in which it is said that Margaret used to keep the head, enclosed doubtless in the leaden shell. Whether Margaret actually stayed at Baynards does not seem clear, but her daughter Elizabeth was the second wife of Sir Edward Bray, who held the property between 1535 and 1558.t As against the authenticity of the relic at Saint Dunstan’s, it should be mentioned: (1) that in November, 1535, it was reported that the head had turned black and been thrown into the river (L. and P. ix, 873), and (2) that in reply to a book of indignant protest against the martyrdom of Fisher and More, written by John Cochlaens, a German theologian, in which the removal of the two heads was mentioned, Sir Richard Morison, in 1536, writes: “Come here, and you shall see both heads where they were placed, and still warning men by the spectacle not to conspire against the king or the laws of the kingdom.” (Bridgett, p. 436.) First we may note how neatly these two statements contradict each other, and secondly that no doubt, if Margaret had obtained the head by bribery, the report would have been put about that it had been thrown into the river. Lastly, Morison had been commissioned to defend Henry against the execration of Europe. No doubt he thought it safe to lie to an adversary who was in a distant land, and who, if ever he were to undertake the long journey to London, would hardly be in a position to prove that two out of the many decaying and hideously disfigured heads upon London Bridge were not those of our two martyrs. Stapleton’s detailed account remains unshaken.

Another well-known relic which medical examination has declared to be a part of the occipital skull or of the vertebra can be traced back to the Ropers, and may have been detached from the head by Margaret herself. It was originally given to the English Convent of Augustinian Canonesses in Bruges by Mary More, who was prioress there in 1766. She received it from her brother, Father Thomas More, S.J., who had in turn received it from earlier members of the family. It still bears the following memorandum: “That this relic of Bl. Sir Thomas More was delivered unto me in the year of Our Lord 1645 by my cousin Philip Roper, to be kept in one of our (i.e., , Jesuit) houses till better times, and• then to be restored to the heir of the Ropers of Eltham, for the time being, of •the name and blood. Father Henry More, S.J.” (He lived from 1587 to 1661.) Father John Morris, S.J., divided this relic, and half of it is now at Manresa House. I sometimes wonder whether the relic in the possession of the Holy Redeemer parish at Chelsea may not be a fragment gathered up when this separation took place. It is said by Father Penn to be from the Saint’s skull, and it appears to have the authentication of the Bishop of Bruges.

Canon Sheppard of Canterbury has recently received a large complete tooth of the martyr, its authenticity supported by very satisfactory evidence. At Stonyhurst, among several articles belonging to Saint Thomas – which will be referred to afterwards – there is a reliquary containing a piece of bone and a part (or perhaps the whole) of a tooth. Father Morris seems to have thought that they were relics of another saint belonging to Saint Thomas More, but the authorities of the college now believe them to be primary relics of More himself, according to the inscription round the rim: Reliquiae Thomae More Mar. Ang. Chan.

Let me again quote Anthony a Wood: “One More of Hertfordshire (descended from him) had one of his chaps (i.e., jaw bone) and was by him among other rarities preserved till the rebellion broke out in 1642. Jasper and Ellis Heywood, Jesuits, sons of John Heywood, the noted poet in the time of Henry VIII, had one of the teeth of the said Sir Thomas More, but they being loth to part with their right to each other, the tooth fell asunder and divided of itself.” This is typical of the Saint’s merry humour, and is also mentioned by Cresacre More. It is tempting to identify these missing relics with those at Stonyhurst, but there is no evidence for doing so. John Aubrey (ibid.) also speaks of More’s ” chap ” being kept by a Mr. More at Chelston, in Hertfordsire. Moreover, it is stated that the jaw is missing from the skull at Canterbury – another confirmation of its authenticity.

The most famous secondary relic of Saint Thomas is his hair shirt. The larger part is still at the convent of the Augustinian Canonesses at Newton Abbot, but a part has been given to the Dominican Convent at Stone, and there are many smaller portions. One portion was given to the Holy Father in connection with the canonization. The Eystons of East Hendred still possess his drinking cup, made of oak bound together by rings of silver, and his rosary or decadering, which once belonged to Mother Mary More of Bruges, is in the possession of the Trappes-Lomax family. The Watertons appear to have another. The Earl of Denbigh has his Book of Hours with the Martyr’s autograph prayers in the margin, and the Duke of Sutherland, of Sutton Place, Guildford, has his white linen ruff.

The last descendant in the direct male line, Father Thomas More, who was English Provincial of the Jesuits at the time of the suppression of the Society, and died in 1795, bequeathed to Stonyhurst its wellknown collection of relics of our Martyr. In addition to the reliquary containing the tooth and other bone, of which we have spoken, it includes the Martyr’s hat and cap, a large gold medal known as “The George,” More’s seal as Under-Treasurer, a large and a small crucifix, a pouncet box and a cameo of Our Lady. I excuse myself from saying more about these relics, because there is a description of them in the current issue of the Stonyhurst Magazine.

The chief primary relic of Saint John Fisher is a piece of bone, about three-quarters of an inch long by one-quarter across, preserved at Stonyhurst. It cannot be said from what part of the body the bone comes. Its history is obscure. The authentication was given by Dr. William Gordon, Bishop of Salford, in 1905, but an older paper attached to the relic reads: “B. Roffensis Cardinalis,” and it is believed to have come from Rome together with many others of the relics of the English martyrs preserved at Stonyhurst. At Farm Street, according to Father Morris’s list, is a folded paper with scrapings of bone belonging to the Saint. The chief secondary relic of Saint John Fisher is his five-feet-long walking staff of black wood, which is the treasured possession of Mr. Thomas More Eyston, of East Hendred. This gentleman generously allowed a small portion of the staff to be cut away, which he then set in a silver reliquary and personally presented to the Holy Father at the audience given to the English pilgrims on the day after the canonization of our two saints. At Stonyhurst is preserved a gold ring containing a cameo – the head of an old man. It came from the Messiter family, who had the tradition that the ring belonged to Saint John Fisher. The experts at the British Museum, however, though they consider the cameo to be mediwval, state that the ring itself cannot be earlier than seventeenth or eighteenth century.

– article printed in The Tablet, 20 July 1935