Sir Thomas More and the Heretics

More is often thought of as a gentle family man who died for his principles, not as a disciplinarian and burner of heretics...

Thomas More, painted by Hans Holbein the Younger
Thomas More, painted by Hans Holbein the Younger

The fame of Sir Thomas More, who became Henry VIII's Lord Chancellor in 1529, rests in great part upon his authorship of Utopia. This novel, written in Latin and published in Louvain in 1516, is generally regarded as the quintessence of Christian humanism in its English context, a brilliant manifesto of social idealism within the tradition of the reforming ideas of Erasmus.

More’s vision of human progress was modelled on Plato’s Republic and conceived in terms of imagining a perfect society as the best means of achieving at least its partial realisation in an imperfect, materialist world. Subtitled ‘The Best State of a Commonwealth’, Utopia held out the promise of a basic subsistence to the working-classes, a six-hour working day, national health, state education, universal adult suffrage, religious toleration, and the ordination of women.

But the primary ideal of Utopia was not liberty, but discipline. No one was entitled to waste time or arrange anything to suit himself; no wine-shop, ale-house, brothel, 'lurking hole' or 'secret meeting place' was to be permitted. People were obliged instead to work or play according to government regulations, subjected to a system which was totalitarian par excellence . As Chambers, More's leading biographer, wrote, Utopia was influenced 'by some of the most severe disciplines the world has ever known. Through Plato's Republic it goes back to the barrack life of a Spartan warrior, through More's own experience to the life of a Charterhouse monk'. For instance, discussion of public policy outside strictly official channels was punishable by death to discourage subversion of the constitution - political coercion with a vengeance.

A similar obsession with discipline characterised another aspect of More's public career, namely his attitude to heretics. More could champion the ideal of religious toleration in Utopia because he was writing in 1515 and 1516. The fragmentation of the Western Church caused by the Reformation had not yet begun. But in October, 1517, Europe was challenged to public disputation by Dr. Martin Luther, an obscure German friar and university teacher, who boldly argued that the sale of indulgences contravened the teaching of the Scriptures. Nothing thereafter was the same, for the German Reformation was to fracture the unity of Christendom; in particular, the atmosphere of Erasmian free-thought which had generated Utopia was irrevocably soured. It became necessary for humanists in England like More, John Colet, William Warham, Cuthbert Tunstall and Richard Pace, who put high value on the maintenance of the unity of Christendom, to demonstrate their absolute fidelity to Catholic orthodoxy, and to rejuvenate the intellectual rigour of the Middle Ages in a concerted attack on heresy and heretics. On June 15th, 1520, Luther's books were burned by Papal order at Rome in the Piazza Navona. Not long afterwards, the university accounts at Cambridge included an allowance to the deputy vice-chancellor, 'for drink and other expenses about the burning of the books of Martin Luther'. By March, 1521, Warham had confessed to Cardinal Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor of England, that Oxford, too, was 'infected with Lutheranism.'. On May 12th following, a public holocaust of Luther's books was organised in London by Wolsey and Pace. A bonfire took place in St. Paul's churchyard, while Bishop John Fisher of Rochester preached a two-hour sermon, declaring that Luther 'hath stirred a mighty storm and tempest in the Church'.

Erasmus remarked that burning Luther's books would remove them from the libraries but not from men's minds. A policy of Catholic repression was unavoidable after 1520, and More's involvement began on a literary plane. In the first half of 1521 he assisted Henry VIII by 'sorting-out and placing the principal matters' contained in the King's own book against Luther, entitled Assertio Septem Sacramentorum . The Assertio was an attack on Luther's The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), a propaganda piece which Tunstall had warned must be kept out of England at all costs. In it Luther had denied the validity of four of the seven sacraments - marriage, orders, confirmation and extreme unction - and Henry responded with a vigorous defence of Catholic theology that earned him the title 'Defender of the Faith' from Pope Leo X. Catholic apologists loudly praised the royal author for being as adept with the pen as he was with the sword just possibly a backhanded compliment and Cardinal Campeggio, one of the Cardinal Protectors of England, expressed the enthusiasm of many when be called him 'Lutheromastica'. MeanwhiIe, More's precise share in the Assertio 's composition remains obscure: he himself said that he was an editor, not a co-author, and Henry stated that the book 'is well knowen for myn and I for myne avowe it'. More was naturally bound to take a back seat, since the Assertio 's prime polemical value was that it was written by a king. On the other hand, the work's stylistic mediocrity supports the King's claim to sole authorship. Luther, however, remained incredulous, jibing that Henry was a stooge who had put his name on a book written by others. This rankled, as did the fact that Dr. Martin's Contra Henricum Regem Angliae (1522) was a work of unusual violence and vulgarity. Henry did not deign to reply. Instead, he commissioned Thomas More to give Luther a trouncing on his behalf. The result was More's Responsio ad Lutherum (1523), published under the unlikely pseudonym of William Ross - the name of a deceased victualler of Calais who had been highly regarded in Germany.

In the course of writing the Responsio , More developed a deep and complex commitment to Catholic repression in the interests of the peace and unity of Christendom. His attitude became biased, emotional, intransigent and at times abusive or, as Erasmus disapprovingly remarked, 'imperious'. More saw heresy as a raging disease which infected all doctrines held by the heretic and corrupted all his morals. Luther was a heretic and a pervert, according to the Responsio , a man totally evil, 'who does not allow the priests who take wives to be joined to any other than public strumpets'. More believed this prophecy fulfilled when Luther married a nun in June, 1525. Similarly, Luther's followers were criminals who 'bespatter the most holy image of Christ crucified with the most foul excrement of their bodies destined to be burned'.

As a King's Councillor, More then became personally active in the task of detecting heretics and policing printers and booksellers. About 1523 he battled successfully for the soul of William Roper, his son-in-law, during its temporary apostasy. In March, 1526, he joined Wolsey in a campaign to prevent the import of Lutheran books into England. One night in January, 1527, he organised a raid on the German Steelyard, the London depot of the merchants of the Hanseatic League. With a large force, More burst in on the Germans after supper in search of Lutheran books, and although nothing was found returned next day to issue a stiff warning for the surrender of anything hidden. Six months later, More helped Wolsey devise a Star Chamber order against heresy and seditious preaching. With Sir William Kingston, More next interrogated Humphrey Monmouth in May, 1528. Monmouth was a rich merchant of All Saints, Barking, who in 1524 had sponsored William Tyndale and William Roy on a visit to Germany to study under Luther and to make an English translation of the Bible. Tyndale worked in Wittenberg and Cologne, and published a complete translation of the New Testament at Worms in 1526. Monmouth, it was suggested in 1528, had then arranged the importation and distribution in England of this influential but plainly Lutheran Bible. More and Kingston accordingly arrested the merchant, interrogated him and searched his house. Monmouth's papers and ledgers were examined page by page, but nothing incriminating was found. Nevertheless, More had the man committed to the Tower on suspicion, allegedly by Wolsey's authority.

Despite strenuous efforts at control by the government, a growing quantity of Protestant literature began to flow into England from continental presses. In addition to Luther's and Tyndale's works, there were soon also available pithy tracts by Roy, Jerome Barlow and Simon Fish - authors who knew how to spice their heresy with popular political satire. It became clear that heretical books had not only to be outlawed, but their arguments had also to be publicly refuted in a propagandist counter-offensive. More volunteered for the job, and obtained a licence from Tunstall, Bishop of London since 1522, permitting him to read and retain heretical books in order to defend the Catholic faith. Issued in March, 1528, the licence noted that since More was able to 'rival Demosthenes in our vernacular as well as in Latin', he was the best man to write in English books that would help the common man to 'see through the cunning malice of heretics and so keep him alerted and better fortified against these traitorous subverters of the Church'. Sir Thomas subsequently wrote six such books: A Dialogue Concerning Heresies (1529), The Supplication of Souls (1529), The Confutation of Tyndale's Answer (1532-33), The Apology of Sir Thomas More (1533), The Debellation of Salem and Bizance (1533), and An Answer to a Poisoned Book (1534). In addition, More's son John joined the battle of the books in 1533, publishing an exposition of Catholic doctrine on the Eucharist translated from a sermon by Fridericus Nausea, later Bishop of Vienna.

On October 25th, 1529, Thomas More was appointed Lord Chancellor in succession to Wolsey. He quickly placed the total extermination of heresy high on his official list of priorities, an attitude which it should be said was firmly in line with Henry VIII's current policy. What was exceptional in a layman was the passionate zeal which More brought to the task. First revealed in the Responsio ad Lutherum , it was further developed in the Preface he wrote for The Confutation of Tyndale's Answer . Henry VIII, he reasoned, desired nothing on earth as much as 'maintenance of the true catholic faith', being deservedly styled 'Defender of the Faith'.

Now seeing the king's gracious purpose in this point, I reckon that being his unworthy chancellor, it appertaineth... to help as much as in me is, that his people, abandoning the contagion of all such pestilent writing, may be far from infection.

Heresy was a poisonous cancer eating away the good in society. It must be ruthlessly eliminated, punishment of offenders being especially valuable as a deterrent to those still unaffected. Heresy was often incurable, and the burning of heretics was necessary when nothing would do but 'clean cutting out' of the part infected in order to safeguard the remainder of society. As the highest magistrate under the King, More believed he had a fiduciary duty to this end by virtue of his Chancellor's oath, and by 'plain ordinance and statute'.

More began his attack on heresy with a proclamation against heretical books. Promulgated on June 22nd, 1530, this was wholly concerned with the need for censorship, and implemented the findings of a conference which Henry VIII had held the previous month. Specific titles by Tyndale, Fish, Frith and others were formally proscribed, and it was now laid down that no other vernacular books printed outside England on any subject at all should in future be imported into the realm, the same titles being forbidden also in French or Dutch translations. All banned books were to be handed over to the bishops within fifteen days, and the authorities were to arrest persons possessing proscribed books thereafter and present all suspects before the King's Council at Westminster. For the future, no new Scriptural books or translations of the Bible were to be printed in England unless 'examined and approved' by a bishop, and books approved and printed were to include the names of both examiner and printer. This was also the moment at which More became convinced that it was impossible to issue even an approved Bible translation because the mere fact of such an issue would appear 'to give succour to heretics'. The point here is that the Lollard heresy had been disseminated through vernacular translations of the Scriptures. The view of Henry's conference, which More had attended, that the Bible in English was 'not necessary' was thus repeated in the proclamation, Sir Thomas had capitulated to the bishops on this point, the reason given being 'the malignity of this present time, with the inclination of people to erroneous opinions'. Scripture was, instead, to be expounded in sermons. Nevertheless, More announced that if the people abandoned all heresies, the King would go ahead, after all, with an official English Bible, a concession that was Henry's personal contribution to this proclamation. Lastly, More ordered all existing English, French or Dutch Bibles in print or manuscript to be surrendered to the bishops within fifteen days.

Later in 1530, a second proclamation was issued 'for resisting and withstanding' heresy. A law and order measure, its rationale was that no bigger threat faced a community than 'wretched and desperate heretics', to use the phrase of Archdeacon Harpsfield, one of More's biographers. It began by denouncing Lutheranism as sedition, and warned that heresy was afflicting England through 'blasphemous books lately made and privately sent into this realm' by Luther's disciples and other heretics. It then revived the medieval heresy laws in full, commanding all public officers from peers to village constables to implement them and thereby wipe out heterodox teaching and preaching. Sermons and books against Catholic doctrine were forbidden, all unlicensed preaching was banned, and heretical books were again to be handed in to the bishops within fifteen days. Finally, fifteen new books by Roy, Bullinger, Tyndale and others were added to those proscribed earlier in the year, and persons owning copies were to be reported  to the bishops.

These proclamations codified More's policy of Catholic repression. They stood in line with the policies of such rulers as Charles V in the Netherlands and Francis I in France, but a material difference was the intensity of More's devotion to press censorship. Fundamental to his scheme, too, was the rule announced by the June proclamation that offenders were to be brought before the King's Council rather than their bishops. It was as if More despaired of the bishops' real concern to stamp out heretical literature. Plainly, he now intended to attack Protestant literature by using his prerogative powers as Lord Chancellor. He had erected an Index Librorum Prohibitorum , and had empowered himself to enforce it in Star Chamber by virtue of the Council's inherent but hitherto seldom used powers to punish breaches of proclamations. It was, in fact, the beginning of Star Chamber's jurisdiction in the field of censorship deemed most odious a century later under Archbishop Laud.

That More meant what he said is shown by three Star Chamber cases brought as a result of the June proclamation. On October 25th, 1530, John Porseck, one Seymour and their associates were sent by More from the Star Chamber to the Tower 'for having books against the King's proclamation'. In addition, they had to perform public penance, wearing humiliating placards while led through London's streets on horseback facing back-to-front. After this, they had to burn their Protestant books on a bonfire in Cheapside. About the same time, John Tyndale (William's brother), Thomas Patmer (a London merchant) and another were reported to More by Bishop Stokesley as distributors of Tyndale's New Testament. Sir Thomas had them arrested and taken before the Star Chamber. They confessed, and More imprisoned them in the Counter. The next market day, they, too, performed public penance on horse-back, being pelted with rotten fruit while wearing coats 'pinned thick' with the proscribed books. After another bonfire at Cheapside, the men were gaoled pending More's assessment of their fine. The third case was heard on October 14th, 1531. John Cook was on that day convicted in Star Chamber of owning an English New Testament, his Bible being confiscated and he himself imprisoned in the Fleet by More.

Patmer's case had an interesting sequel. He was imprisoned again in 1531, this time by Stokesley. His servant John Stanton tried to raise the matter publicly by petitioning Parliament, but More, he alleged, intervened to attack him as a favourer of heresy, sending him to the Fleet as a frivolous suitor. Stanton next complained to Henry VIII, but Patmer remained in prison until after More's resignation.

Even more controversial was More's role in events leading up to several burnings for heresy. In close co-operation with Stokesley, More arrested George Constantine for heresy in 1531. Constantine was a dealer in Protestant books, who gave away much information about his fellow reformers before escaping in early December. More had had him imprisoned in the stocks at his house in Chelsea, which he kept in his porter's lodge. But Constantine broke the frame, scaled More's garden wall and fled to Antwerp. Sir Thomas joked in his Apology that he must have fed the heretic properly for him to achieve this feat of strength. Yet More's humour was sadly inappropriate. It was on information gleaned from Constantine that Richard Bayfield, a Benedictine monk and book pedlar, was seized, interrogated by Stokesley and burned at Smithfield. Bayfield had been converted to Lutheranism by Robert Barnes, and when caught had in his possession books by Luther and Zwingli. Being a relapsed heretic, More described him in his Confutation as 'a dog returning to his vomit'. Next Sir Thomas caught a leather-seller named John Tewkesbury, who was also held at Chelsea until tried by Stokesley. On sentence, he was handed back to the secular arm and burned on December 20th, 1531. James Bainham, a Middle Temple lawyer, was then reported to More. Examined by Stokesley at More's house, he was found to own books by Tyndale, Frith and Joy. At first Bainham abjured and performed his penance, but later reaffirmed his Protestant faith. He was tried and burned at the stake in April, 1532. More's apologists cannot thus deny that Sir Thomas was personally involved in detecting three out of the six cases of heresy which resulted in burnings during his chancellorship. Neither was he inactive in two of the remaining cases. He railed in the Confutation at Sir Thomas Hitton, burned at Maidstone in 1530, as 'the devil's stinking martyr' who 'hath taken his wretched soul with him straight from the short fire to the fire everlasting'. He also launched a most irregular Star Chamber investigation into the question of Thomas Bilney's supposed recantation prior to his being burned in the Lollards' Pit in Norwich in August, 1531, using his powers as Lord Chancellor inquisitorially and in a style contrary to the Star Chamber's accepted procedure.

More resigned the Chancellorship on May 16th, 1532, for reasons which had nothing to do with heresy. Yet by the time of his departure, his repressive discipline, already too close for comfort to the totalitarianism of Utopia , had become unacceptable to many people. Anne Boleyn, who became Henry VIII's second wife in 1533, and Thomas Cromwell were in the ascendant, and both were crypto-Lutherans dedicated to the destruction of Rome's supremacy in England. It was said that Anne had even encouraged Henry VIII to read Tyndale's The Obedience of a Christian Man (1528). Central to this work was Luther's doctrine of the absolute sovereignty of the prince. We have been taught as babes, Tyndale's prologue announced,

to kill a Turk, to slay a Jew, to burn an heretic, to fight for the liberties and right of the Church as they call it... It is the bloody doctrine of the Pope which causeth disobedience, rebellion and insurrection. For he teacheth to fight and to defend his traditions and what so ever he dreameth with fire, water and sword, and to disobey father, mother, master, lord, king and Emperor.

As the story goes, Henry delighted in this philosophy, saying 'this book is for me and all kings to read'. By contrast, More recognised the piece at once: like Tyndale's Bible translations, it was 'the worst heresies picked out of Luther's works, and Luther's worst words translated by Tyndale, and put forth in Tyndale's own name'. But the fact remained that it was Tyndale's 'heretical' translation which later formed a cornerstone of the Great Bible issued in 1539, the Bible finally authorised by Henry VIII's government for use in every parish church in England.

John Guy in a Lecturer in History at Bristol University.

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