The choice of his first victim showed the ruthless precision with which Cromwell was to strike. In the general opinion of Europe, the foremost Englishman of the time was Sir Thomas More.
Henry VIII Makes Himself Head of the Church of England, featuring a series of excerpts selected from A Short History of the English People by John R. Green published in 1874. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
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The choice of his first victim showed the ruthless precision with which Cromwell was to strike. In the general opinion of Europe, the foremost Englishman of the time was Sir Thomas More. As the policy of the divorce ended in an open rupture with Rome, he had withdrawn silently from the ministry, but his silent disapproval of the new policy was more telling than the opposition of obscurer foes. To Cromwell there must have been something specially galling in More’s attitude of reserve. The religious reforms of the New Learning were being rapidly carried out, but it was plain that the man who represented the very life of the New Learning believed that the sacrifice of liberty and justice was too dear a price to pay even for religious reform.
In the actual changes which the divorce brought about, there was nothing to move More to active or open opposition. Though he looked on the divorce and remarriage as without religious warrant, he found no difficulty in accepting an act of succession passed in 1534 which declared the marriage of Anne Boleyn valid, annulled the title of Catherine’s child, Mary, and declared the children of Anne the only lawful heirs to the crown. His faith in the power of parliament over all civil matters was too complete to admit a doubt of its competence to regulate the succession to the throne. But by the same act an oath recognizing the succession as then arranged was ordered to be taken by all persons; and this oath contained an acknowledgment that the marriage with Catherine was against Scripture, and invalid from the beginning.
Henry had long known More’s belief on this point; and the summons to take this oath was simply a summons to death. More was at his house at Chelsea when the summons called him to Lambeth, to the house where he had bandied fun with Warham and Erasmus or bent over the easel of Holbein. For a moment there may have been some passing impulse to yield. But it was soon over. Triumphant in all else, the monarchy was to find its power stop short at the conscience of man. The great battle of spiritual freedom, the battle of the Protestant against Mary, of the Catholic against Elizabeth, of the Puritan against Charles, of the Independent against the Presbyterian, began at the moment when More refused to bend or to deny his convictions at a king’s bidding.
“I thank the Lord,” More said with a sudden start as the boat dropped silently down the river from his garden steps in the early morning, “I thank the Lord that the field is won.” At Lambeth, Cranmer and his fellow-commissioners tendered to him the new oath of allegiance; but, as they expected, it was refused. They bade him walk in the garden, that he might reconsider his reply. The day was hot, and More seated himself in a window from which he could look down into the crowded court. Even in the presence of death, the quick sympathy of his nature could enjoy the humor and life of the throng below.
“I saw,” he said afterward, “Master Latimer very merry in the court, for he laughed and took one or twain by the neck so handsomely that if they had been women I should have weened that he waxed wanton.” The crowd below was chiefly of priests, rectors, and vicars, pressing to take the oath that More found harder than death. He bore them no grudge for it. When he heard the voice of one who was known to have boggled hard at the oath, a little while before, calling loudly and ostentatiously for drink, he only noted him with his peculiar humor. “He drank,” More supposed, “either from dryness or from gladness,” or “to show quod ille notus erat Pontifici.”
He was called in again at last, but only repeated his refusal. It was in vain that Cranmer plied him with distinctions which perplexed even the subtle wit of the ex-chancellor; More remained unshaken and passed to the Tower. He was followed there by Bishop Fisher of Rochester, the most aged and venerable of the English prelates, who was charged with countenancing treason by listening to the prophecies of a religious fanatic called the “Nun of Kent.” But for the moment even Cromwell shrank from their blood. They remained prisoners, while a new and more terrible engine was devised to crush out the silent but widespread opposition to the religious changes.
By a statute passed at the close of 1534 a new treason was created in the denial of the King’s titles; and in the opening of 1535 Henry assumed, as we have seen, the title of “on earth supreme head of the Church of England.” The measure was at once followed up by a blow at victims hardly less venerable than More. In the general relaxation of the religious life, the charity and devotion of the brethren of the Charter-house had won the reverence even of those who condemned monasticism. After a stubborn resistance they had acknowledged the royal supremacy and taken the oath of submission prescribed by the act. But, by an infamous construction of the statute which made the denial of the supremacy treason, the refusal of satisfactory answers to official questions, as to a conscientious belief in it, was held to be equivalent to open denial.
The aim of the new measure was well known, and the brethren prepared to die. In the agony of waiting, enthusiasm brought its imaginative consolations; “when the host was lifted up, there came as it were a whisper of air which breathed upon our faces as we knelt; and there came a sweet, soft sound of music.” They had not long, however, to wait, for their refusal to answer was the signal for their doom. Three of the brethren went to the gallows; the rest were flung into Newgate, chained to posts in a noisome dungeon, where, “tied and not able to stir,” they were left to perish of jail fever and starvation. In a fortnight five were dead and the rest at the point of death, “almost dispatched,” Cromwell’s envoy wrote to him, “by the hand of God, of which, considering their behavior, I am not sorry.”