Today in London’s history: Thomas More beheaded; wrote about Utopia, but a persecutor of ‘heretics’. 1535

“He was a good man…he was a saint…”

Sir Thomas More is generally revered – as a martyr, by catholics, because he was beheaded for refusing to say that the authority of King Henry VIII trumped that of the Pope; in secular and humanist circles, as an important humanist intellectual, a lynchpin in the stirrings of the liberal enlightenment. Both of these views hold him as man of conscience, of integrity and honour, refusing to compromise his core beliefs even for a king he respected and loved and who was prepared to give him a fair measure of leeway even at the last.

In recent years an alternative view of More has begun to be aired, which stresses his role as a persecutor of early protestants, a man utterly opposed Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation, who as Lord Chancellor oversaw the torture of Lutherans, and the burning of several at the stake. More’s initial efforts were directed against the English scholars and reformers who dared to read the New Testament in English rather than Latin, which was against the law in England at the time, and worse, to translate the texts so that others could also do so.

“…the heretic hunter of the mid-1520s, who personally broke into Lutherans’ homes and sent men to the stake, … [and who] would punish religious dissent not only with “displeasant” words but with state violence.” (James Wood).

When Sir Thomas learned that John Tewkesbury, a London leather-seller, secretly possessed banned books, he had him burned alive. After the execution, More expressed his satisfaction: “[He] burned as there was neuer wretche I wene better worthy.” More cherished the image of Tewkesbury burning not just on earth, but in hell, “an hote fyrebronde burnynge at hys bakke, that all the water in the worlde wyll neuer be able to quenche.”

“While he was in office he did everything in his power to bring that extermination to pass. That he did not succeed in becoming England’s Torquemada was a consequence of the king’s quarrel with the pope and not a result of any quality of mercy that stirred through More’s own heart… With the help of John Stokesley, the Bishop of London, More personally broke into the houses of suspected heretics, arresting them on the spot and sometimes interrogating them in his own home. He imprisoned one man in the porter’s lodge of his house, and had him put in the stocks. He raided the home of a businessman called John Petyt, who was suspected of financing [protestant Bible translator William] Tyndale; Petyt died in the Tower. Six rebellious Oxford students were kept for months in a fish cellar; three of them died in prison. More was now a spiritual detective, a policeman in a hair shirt, engaged in “what would now be called surveillance and entrapment among the leather-sellers, tailors, fishmongers and drapers of London.” Six protesters were burned under More’s chancellorship, and perhaps forty were imprisoned.” (Wood)

When reformers objected that it was not Christian for the church to burn heretics, More’s sharp legal mind was ready with a typically legalistic riposte: the church did not burn people; the state burned them. This was strictly true, because the ecclesiastical courts tried heretics and the state courts sentenced them. But although More asserts that the church is kind and loving, that “It is not the clergy that laboreth to have them punished to death.” that “spiritual law” is “good, reasonable, piteous, and charitable, and nothing desiring the death of any therein”, he knew that the state could be relied upon to torture and execute ‘heretics’. In essence, the church asks the heretic to repent; if he does not, the church excommunicates him, at which point “the clergy giveth knowledge to the temporalty, not exhorting the prince, or any man else, either, to kill him or to punish him.” The church does not urge anyone to punish the heretic; it “leaveth him to the secular hand, and forsaketh him.” You can see him in parliament arguing that torture and extra-ordinary rendition of suspects via Libya had nothing to do with the british security officers present…

More has been described as “cruel in punishment, evasive in argument, lusty for power, and repressive in politics” (Wood)… even as “a particularly nasty sadomasochistic pervert” (Jasper Ridley)

In the Catholic world however he was increasingly revered and eventually canonised: In 1935, Pope Pius XI officially declared Sir Thomas a saint. In 2000, Pope John Paul II even asserted that More had “served not power but the supreme ideal of justice,” and lauded him for “unfailing moral integrity.”, and officially declared  Sir Thomas the patron saint of Catholic statesmen and politicians. We’ve gone beyond irony into somewhere else entirely here.

It is worth reading a fuller description of More’s crusading assault on early protestants in England.

The recent fictional portrayal of More by Hilary Mantel, as a pedantic, snobbish and self-satisfied piousness, opposed by the bluff and honest Thomas Cromwell, may well turn the tables a little, although that may be swinging the pendulum the other say a tad… Hey ho.

While More was undoubtedly an active and avid heretic hunter; is that balanced by his authorship of a classic humanist text? Like most visions of the future or ideal living, Utopia is fundamentally about the times More was going through: times of upheaval, threats to order and economic dislocation.

More was repelled by the effects of economic change on the poor that he could see happening around him in the early 1500s, and his vision criticises the growing inequality enclosure, property etc were producing. But his response very much reflected his background in the London merchant class, and his education, designed to train him up as part of an elite.

In More’s Utopia, although private property has been abolished, Utopia involves hard work and a rigid social hierarchy. Everyone (bar a few scholars) is obliged to work; the common right of all to the fruits of the labour of all is based on shared work (and shared enjoyment, admittedly), on abundance but also on enforced collectivism. Utopia, like Plato’s Republic (a very influential text for early humanists like More), is static, fixed, everyone in their place.

More didn’t trust the lower orders, fearing the poor, afraid that allowing the spread of any kind of questioning ideas among them would lead to riot, disorder, rebellion… He had seen, and taken a leading part in repressing, the tumultuous Evil Mayday riot in 1517, where anger at economic change had been channeled into attacks on migrant craftsmen working in London. More was horrified by Martin Luther’s moderate proposals for church reforms, which he saw as empowering an unleashing of the desires of the poor, and thus as having lead to the Peasants War in Germany. His hatred of heresy may have been fierce, but it was heavily tempered with a pragmatic approach – preventing the spread of discussion of religious ideas among those not properly educated to understand them, because discussion of ideas is dangerous in itself and leads to rebellion.

More’s vision of an ideal ordered society was not even published in English in his lifetime – till 1551 in fact; partly because of its sharp critique of current social policy and economic developments in England. But he was content to see it printed in Latin and circulated in a limited form among the humanist intellectual set in Western Europe that he was a part of. Such ideas were not for the unwashed, only for those who could consider such possibilities in abstraction without the suggestion of actually taking place. In his Utopia there are still convict labourers, and a meritocratic elite.

In contrast of course, the poor and labouring classes had for centuries been evolving a very different utopia of their own – the Land of Cokaygne. A paradise of laziness, where food, clothes and shelter were said to lie around free for all to take; where animals ran around ready cooked, and wine flowed in the rivers; where sexuality was open and unrestrained, morality was abolished, and the social order was turned on its head.

Cokaygne was a dream that in some ways resembled the millennium, the second coming of Christ as related in the bible (though with some serious variations…) While priests taught that this was a religious event in the future, separate from daily reality, the dream of Cokaygne was a powerful one to the hungry poor, living from harvest to harvest at the mercy of the gentry’s whims and wars. But there were rebels attempting consciously to bring about the Millennium, in More’s era. They saw it not as a metaphorical event in a distant future but a political event to be created, by force if necessary. They were not afraid of seizing the moment – because their class background was very different to Thomas More’s; they were experiencing the changes he opposed, directly, but their response was not in Latin, and didn’t involve academic discussion. More’s actual response to dissent, to religious rebels and early protestants, was to oversee their prosecution, and in a few cases their execution, in his position as Lord Chancellor. His perfect society was always one controlled from the top down, with ideas and actions tightly limited if its subjects wanted to eat.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online


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