The feast of St. Thomas More, which in England is celebrated this month on the anniversary of his martyrdom (6th July), is every year a reminder for us of the crisis which the Church in England went through in the 16th century and which, through England’s vast expansionism in the 19th century, was spread throughout the world. The acceptance of a protestant attack on the liturgy and indeed the very roots of the Faith bears frightening parallels with the meek acceptance of the modernist heresy of our own day with the difference that in England the King and his bishops were in open rebellion with Rome whereas today Rome itself is putting into practice many of the changes in the name of “reform”.
Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509 and even before his break with Rome made Sir Thomas uneasy with the virulence of his passions and lack of equilibrium. At first it was channelled into a vigorous attack on the Protestant errors of Luther which led him and his successors to be given the title “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope. Henry’s way of ruling however provoked More to write the satirical novel “Utopia” and later the history of Richard III where he showed the consequences of a tyrannical King.
Henry, far from being angered by this, desperately sought the friendship of More whom he saw as an honest man in a court of flatterers. More did his duty but never let himself be compromised with gifts or honours.
He had always led a pious life. He had tried his vocation in the Charterhouse for four years but didn’t make the mistake of Luther and when he realised that he didn’t have a vocation he left, married and took up a career in law. Even as Chancellor of England he never altered his daily prayer routine of daily Mass, Compline with his family, litany of Our Lady and the Gradual and Penitential Psalms. To his family when they were ill he would say, “We may not look at our pleasure to go to Heaven in feather beds: it is not the way, for our Lord Himself went thither with great pain and by many tribulations, which was the path wherein he walked thither; for the servant may not look to be in better case than his master”. His servants were also cured of any vices they may have had, he helped the poor and according to his friends could talk with them from the heart about eternal life and the great truths.
In his polemical works against the new errors there was no sign of religious liberty. Protestantism was a “heresy of the devil” and its spread “like a cancer that moves from part to part of the body bringing to all its deadly disease.”
With the failure of Wolsey to obtain an annulment from Pope Clement VII and the former’s subsequent trial for high treason events took a turn for the worse in England. All those in high positions clerical and lay (for Wolsey had been Lord Chancellor as well as Primate) now feared for their lives if they displeased the King as they now saw no-one was safe. More was made Chancellor in Wolsey’s stead.
In 1531 Henry declared himself Head and Protector of the Church in England, an idea he was presented with by Anne Boleyn out of one of the books of Tyndale which he himself had banned. The following year the English clergy accepted the Supremacy and More gave in his resignation “for health reasons”. At the beginning of 1533 Anne Boleyn was carrying Henry’s bastard and so a “marriage” was arranged by the new bishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. More refused to go to the coronation. In 1534 the Supremacy became law and More was required with others whose opposition was known to swear loyalty to it. He refused. At the show trial he declared, “I am not required to adapt my conscience to the laws of the King if these are in contradiction with the whole of Christendom”.