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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
6 Jun 2003

St. Thomas More and Modern Martyrdom

by Matthew M. Anger

Imagine a man isolated, defenseless and loyal to a single truth that the rest of men found irksome. Consider a man who "was absolutely alone. He had nothing within or without, nothing promised in the future, nothing inherited from the past, nothing in the traditions of his habits and life, to nerve him for what he did."

That man, described by Hilaire Belloc, was St. Thomas More (1477-1535), the first of the modern saints. It was More who, virtually alone, dared to resist the tide of Henry VIII's schism and rejection of Papal authority which led to the apostasy of England. Though we often compare our situation with the great Arian crisis of the early Church, the English Reformation is arguably even more pertinent. St. Thomas More saw the unraveling of the old Christendom and the birth of the anti-Catholic age which has now extended itself through the world.

More was, as Belloc points out, remarkable for many things—his humor, his talents, his love and friendships—but most of all, for his sacrifice which was offered amid profound loneliness. To his contemporaries it was an act of futility. Beyond the mere physical fact of More's martyrdom is its spirit, and a lesson for us today.

Most Catholics in the past 2,000 years have not suffered death or direct temporal persecution. Even at the height of the worst attacks by pagan Rome, the majority of Christians escaped with their lives. But there were other temptations, more subtle than the prospect of immediate death.

Consider the nature of Protestant persecution in the wake of Henry VIII. There were the bloody executions of the Jesuits under Queen Elizabeth, and there would continue to be sporadic murders of Catholics through the seventeenth century. But for the most part, the policy that was pursued and which was so successful was one of bullying and harassment. Catholics were not immediately threatened with their lives but given the option of either renouncing their faith or paying outrageous fines. Only the rich could afford to do so. The mass of Englishmen either gave up the faith or practiced it secretly, depending on a handful of Jesuits operating underground. In this climate, Catholicism withered on the vine. Some established Catholic families held out for generations but most succumbed, so that by the time of George III (and the American War of Independence) Catholicism seemed as insignificant a sect as the Amish in modern America. It is therefore misleading to think only in terms of the lurid and sensational, overlooking the apathy and moral compromise of our peers which can be even more insidious than the official policies of the state.

A man familiar with the subtle temptation and coercion of pagan society was St. Augustine of Hippo, writing at a time when the Roman Empire was only partially converted. In the City of God, he tells us that God so cares for his people that they can never be completely destroyed or weakened by adversity. Further, He may not always permit the enemy to harm the faithful physically, but some form of tribulation must always be endured. It is the Cross that every Christian is bound to carry.

Persecution, therefore, will never be lacking. For, when our enemies from without leave off raging and there ensues a span of tranquility—even of genuine tranquility and great consolation at least to the weak—we are not without enemies within, the many whose scandalous lives wound the hearts of the devout... So it is that those who want to live piously in Christ must suffer the spiritual persecution of these and other aberrations in thought and morals, even when they are free from physical violence and vexation.

To have thrust in one's face lewd advertising and entertainment on the most mundane occasions, or to have to deal with the immorality of one's neighbors and fellow workers is an example of what the saintly bishop was talking about. It is this drawn-out "spiritual persecution" which, from our own limited point of view, seems lacking in heroism or consolation. By contrast, it is easy to recognize the victory of the great martyrs in hindsight. History shows us the good results rather than the agonizing resolutions. The Church emerged triumphant from the Roman persecutions and the heresiarchs of the Reformation. We sit back quite assured of the inevitability of these victories, never doubting how things were meant to turn out. But for the men and women who lived through those events there was a great deal of natural doubt, overcome by supernatural virtue.

Though St. Thomas More underwent the greatest sacrifice for God, he had first to endure harrowing months of uncertainty, ridicule and increasing poverty. When the time of execution came, he greeted it with relief. In the anxious days before his trial, while sequestered in the Tower of London, his beloved daughter and confident Margaret visited him. More looked out of the narrow cell window and spied Fr. Reynolds and three Charterhouse monks singing on their way to execution. He turned to Margaret (his darling "Meg") and said:

For God, considering their long-continued life in the most sore and grievous penance, will no longer suffer them to remain here in this vale of misery and iniquity, but speedily hence take them to the fruition of his everlasting deity: whereas thy silly father... hath passed forth the whole course of his miserable life most pitifully, God, thinking him not worthy so soon to come to that heavenly felicity, leaveth him here yet, still in the world further to be plunged and turmoiled with misery.

More was not by nature a morose or melancholy individual. He possessed a remarkable wit which he carried with him right up to the execution block. When first entering the Tower the guard asked for his "upper garment." More handed him his hat. Somewhat taken aback, the guard said he wanted his gown. More remained on the best of terms with his jailers and even gave his executioner a present of gold in the manner of St. Cyprian.

Thomas More had behind him the most successful legal practice in England. He was, upon the death of Cardinal Wolsey, the first layman appointed Chancellor to the King. It was the second highest position in the realm. More had been a great orator, teacher and was a leading writer of the Renaissance along with his Dutch friend, Desiderius Erasmus. Like many of his peers, he was on the leading edge of the reform movement which unfortunately carried so many young, intelligent and radical men into heresy by the time of Martin Luther. Indeed, on the question of Papal Supremacy—the pivotal point of the English heresy—More had long been undecided. As Belloc explains:

He had no enthusiasm for the Papacy... He had come out of a generation profoundly shaken in the matter; its intellectuals, contemptuous of the state into which the See of Rome had fallen, full of memories of the Schism and the Councils, far from admiring the temporal pomp and what was worse, the mechanical revenues of the Papal Court. Had Thomas More's death been a death for the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Sacrament of the Altar... it would have been quite another matter. He would have been engaged, the whole man would have been at work. So has it been for great troops of martyrs. But not with him.

More was inclined to consider the Papacy as an historical development, "a man-made thing." In the England of that day, the Vatican was seen as a nominal institution, since the King appointed all the bishops and abbots. Only when obliged to solemnly reject the Papacy did he thrash the whole thing out in his mind and arrive at an unshakable intellectual conclusion that the Pope was the Head of Christendom, whose authority no Act of Parliament under Henry VIII could abolish. Thus, insists Belloc, More had no "affection" for his resolve. There was no emotional support from within nor, sad to say, was there any real support from without. His friends urged him to surrender rather than squander his life on so seemingly trivial a point. More was willing to submit to Henry on every other issue, but on the thing he had himself disputed in years past, he would not budge. His comrade, he Duke of Norfolk, reminded him of his prosperity and achievements. His simple but devoted wife, Dame Alice, made a tearful plea:

What the good year, Mr. More, I marvel that you, that have been always hitherunto taken for so wise a man, will now so play the fool to lie here in this close filthy prison, and to be content to be shut up among mice and rats, when you might be abroad at your liberty, and with the favor and good will both of the King and his Council, if you would but do as all the bishops and best learned of this Realm have done.

After all, what was this matter of the King's claim as head of the English Church? There had been squabbles between popes and princes before, of little consequence, patched up quickly enough. It must be remembered that it was not until after More's death, with the rise of Cranmer, that the true dismantling of Catholic doctrine and liturgy took place. Henry actually detested Luther, and proclaimed love of the traditional sacraments even as his weak sensuality drove him to seek a divorce and snub the papacy. Perhaps More saw better than others what lay ahead.

Like More, we are alienated by society at large and shunned by many of our co-religionists and supposed pastors. Like him, we see the demoralizing fact that "all the bishops" (or many of them) have collaborated in a worldwide equivalent of Cranmer's renewal and a reformation. Similar to the dwindling faithful of the Protestant era, we may be cut off from others who share our beliefs where once there were entire neighborhoods and communities which followed Catholic practices. Amid so much modern convenience, we are mocked by social inconvenience. The lack of cultural supports is perhaps the greatest single burden of orthodox Catholics, especially those trying to raise good families.

The temptation to be less "stubborn" and ease some of those tensions rings in our ears like the entreaties of More's family in the dim and painful monotony of the prison cell. To insist always on the uniqueness of the present Church crisis may be a mistake. To recognize that men and women have triumphed over similar adversities is to give one hope of victory through perseverance.

Another lesson of St. Thomas More's martyrdom is the manner in which he met it. It might seem that the famous film version, A Man For All Seasons (1966), depicts the saint as an equivocator and a man who legalistically minces words. He does not directly denounce the King. He avoids an open admission of Papal Supremacy and simply refuses to take the oath without declaring his reasons for doing so. It is only when the former Chancellor is driven into a corner by his accusers, who falsely insist on his treason, that More unleashes a stinging rebuttal of Henry and parliament. In this respect the film is fairly accurate. More used every rhetorical means of avoiding punishment.

When [says Belloc] they went through the form of the trial in the last days before his sacrifice, it is remarkable to observe how silent he still remained, how wholly upon the defensive, still asking his opponents to prove their case, and keeping back in reserve all that he might have said.

It is traditionally taught that Christians should do all in their means to avoid death at the hands of persecutors, short of renouncing the faith. In the Martyrdom of Polycarp, written in the 2nd Century, the men and women who willingly faced their deaths are generously praised for their heroism. Yet those who, out of excessive and prideful zeal, tempted God by actively seeking a martyrdom which was not theirs, are chastised.

There was [says Polycarp's chronicler] one man... Quintus by name, a Phrygian... whose courage failed him at the sight of the beasts. It was he who had compelled himself and some others to surrender themselves voluntarily; and after much persuasion he was induced by the Governor to take the oath and offer incense. (And that is the reason, brothers, why we do not approve of men offering themselves spontaneously. We are not taught anything of that kind in the Gospel.)

The early Christians were referring to the verse which says, "When they persecute you in this city, flee yet into another" (Mt. 10:23). Polycarp at the urging of his friends hid himself away in the countryside and was not apprehended until the pagan authorities, after much effort, had discovered and surrounded his hideaway. Even at this point he could have made off. Yet he knew that now was the appropriate time. He faced his end with a brave and even cheerful demeanor, as did St. Thomas More fourteen centuries later.

Martyrdom, such as St. Augustine speaks of, and as St. Thomas More gave witness to, requires patience and thoughtful fervor. Martyrdom means accepting penance at God's pace, not our own. It means avoiding rash and presumptuous actions, not making an insolent display of supposed piety or giving into irritation in the face of Our Lady of Fatima's simple request to devoutly perform the duties of our state in life. It is never hard to discover what the Faith is about. There is no special formula which will unlock hidden secrets to easy salvation. By that same token, we find it difficult to bend our wills to God's Commandments. Some of the greatest Christians of the past, admired for their learning, such as Origen and Tertullian, gave way to selfish enthusiasm. From being the scourge of heresy, they became heretics themselves. It is a lesson to those would cling to tradition not to become like the Pharisees who were the ultra-traditionalists of their day, but only in an outward and hypocritical manner.

Finally, modern martyrdom requires charity. This is worth reiterating when the temptation urges us to revile our enemies. When St. Polycarp was discovered by his captors, "he went down and chatted with them; and everyone there was struck by his age and his calmness." Even as More called upon the popes, saints and faithful of ages past to bear witness against the Act of Parliament "directly oppugnant to the laws of God and His Holy Church" in the most resounding tones and in the face of the Crown's prosecutors, he closed on this quiet and generous note:

More have I not to say, my Lords, but like as the blessed Apostle St. Paul... was present, and consented to the death of St. Stephen, and kept their clothes that stoned him to death, and yet be they now both twain holy saints in Heaven, and shall continue there friends forever, so I verily trust and shall therefore right heartily pray, that though your Lordships have now in earth been judges to my condemnation, we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together to our everlasting salvation.


Matthew Anger currently resides in the Richmond, Virginia area with his wife and six children. He is a frequent writer for traditional Catholic publications on historical, political and cultural topics.

  • St. Augustine of Hippo, City of God, Image Books, Doubleday, 1958.
  • Hilaire Belloc, Characters of the Reformation, TAN Books and Publishers, 1992.
  • Hilaire Belloc, "The Witness to Abstract Truth," One Thing and Another, ed. Patrick Cahill, Hollis & Carter, 1955.
  • Maxwell Staniforth, ed. Early Christian Writings, Penguin Books, 1978.
  • William Roper, Life of St. Thomas More, Vol. 36 of Harvard Classics, P.F. Collier & Son, 1910.
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