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Sunday, August 20, 2017
Date Posted:

Thomas More

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Thomas More: Zero tolerance (Part II)

William Tyndale was burnt at the stake for translating the Bible into English. And the man who condemned him to death was probably none other than the sainted Sir Thomas More. Brian Moynahan reveals the evidence (continued…)
Brian Moynahan

(continued from Part I) …

Tyndale's friends and readers at home were another matter. There had been no burnings in England for eight years when More became chancellor. He soon put a stop to that. Heretics, he said, must be "punyshed by deth in ye fyre". He spun a web of spies and informers. He personally led house searches to track down Tyndale Testaments and the "nyght scoles of heresye" where Tyndale's "infeccyone" was spread.

The first victim was Thomas Hitton, a priest who had joined Tyndale and the English exiles in the Low Countries, and who had returned to England on a brief visit. He was seized near Gravesend in January 1530 as he made his way to the coast to take ship. Hidden pockets in his coat were found to hold letters "unto the evangelycall heretykes beyonde the see". At his interrogation, Hitton was true to the new beliefs. "The mass he sayed sholde never be sayed. Purgatory he denyed." He was burnt at Maidstone on February 23, 1530. Hitton had learnt his "false faith and heresies" from "Tyndale's holy books", More wrote, and he had become "an apostle, sent to and fro betwene our Englysshe heretykes beyonde the see and such as were here at home. The spirit of errour and lyenge hath taken his wretched soul with him strayte from the shorte fyre to ye fyre ever lastyng. And this is lo sir Thomas Hitton, the dyuyls [devil's] stynkyng martyr, of whose burnynge Tyndale maketh boste".

The wrath of the church damned their victims twice. The poena sensus, the punishment of the senses, had been achieved by the earthly "shorte fyre" at Maidstone. But the heretic was also condemned to the poena damni, the sentence of damnation that separated him from God in the everlasting fire of hell. A suspected heretic, nonetheless, had clearly defined rights. A secular judge could detain him for no more than 10 days before delivering him to a bishop. The bishop could imprison him for no more than three months before trial. If the accused was acquitted, he could no longer be detained on the same charge.

The chancellor, as the senior law officer in the kingdom, should have set an example in upholding these safeguards. Wolsey had done so. More broke them within six months of coming into office. A London leather seller named Thomas Philips was a typical suspect. More interrogated him personally in his Chelsea home, which he had equipped with stocks and a whipping tree. "I perceyued fynally the person suche that I could fynde no trouthe," More wrote, "a man mete and lykely to do many folkie mych harme." The jury which heard the case disagreed with More and refused to convict. More was obliged by law to release Philips immediately. Instead, the miserable man was excommunicated and committed to the Tower, where he languished for three years. John Field was held illegally in the Chelsea house for 18 days. More then had him sent to the Fleet prison, although no sentence had been passed against him or proof of heresy established. Field was in the Fleet for two years, in clear breach of statute. He complained that More often had him searched, sometimes at midnight, "besides snares and traps laid to take him in".

Another leather seller, John Tewkesbury, was said to have been pinioned "hand, foot and head in the stocks" at Chelsea for six days, and to have had "his brows twisted with small ropes, so that the blood started out of his eyes". Of his terrible death at Smithfield, More purred that Tewkesbury was "burned as there was never wretche I wene better worthy". Informers subsequently told him that Tyndale had praised Tewkesbury as a martyr. More commented that "I can se no very grete cause why but yf he rekened it for a grete glory that the man dyd abyde styll by the stake when he was faste bounden to it". He rejoiced that his victim was now in hell, where "Tyndale is like to fynde hym when they come together".

More's resignation as chancellor did not dim his hatred; it seemed evidence that Tyndale and his heretics were ushering the Antichrist into the seat of power. "I find that breed of men absolutely loathsome," he told Erasmus. "I want to be as hateful to them as anyone possibly can be; for my increasing experience with these men frightens me with the thought that the whole world will suffer at their hands."

In the case of John Frith, More used all the qualities of subtlety and manoeuvre that were later let loose on Tyndale. Frith was "ientle & quyet & wel lerned", a young scholar with a charm and grace that beguiled all who knew him. He had become an evangelical at Cambridge, and sailed for Antwerp. Here he had become Tyndale's closest and most loved friend, "my dear son in faith". Frith returned to England in secret to maintain contact with Tyndale's sympathisers. More got wind of this as Frith passed through London and on to Essex to take a ship back to Antwerp. A reward was put on his head and the roads close to the coast were watched. Frith was taken, like Hitton, as he neared the sea.

It seemed likely that Frith would survive. The king needed every theologian he could muster to support his marriage to Anne Boleyn, and he was impressed by reports of Frith's learning. Cromwell arranged for him to be kept in loose detention, unshackled, in the Tower. Frith had pen and paper; materials and correspondence were smuggled into him, and his completed writings were smuggled out. More seized on this to destroy him.Frith was asked by a friend to write his views on the Lord's Supper. This was very dangerous. Years before, Henry VIII had written a treatise defending the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, which holds that the Eucharist bread and wine are transformed into the real body and blood of Christ. The pope had rewarded him with the title of fidei defensor, defender of the faith - the title still appears as FD on modern coins. From Antwerp, Tyndale warned: "Of the presence of Christ's body in the sacrament meddle as little as you can..." But Frith wrote down his belief, denying the real presence of Christ. The treatise was passed to one of More's agents. More boasted of receiving two other copies, and a copy of Tyndale's letter to Frith as well.

More now used all his skills to ensure that the treatise would bring Frith the fate he planned for him. He no longer had the king's favour and could not bludgeon Frith with a public denunciation. Instead, he prepared a paper for private circulation entitled A Letter of Sir Thomas More, Knight, impugning the erroneous writing of John Frith against the blessed Sacrament of the Altar. It was targeted at the king. More was careful to flatter Henry for being "lyke a moste faythfull catholyke prynce for the avoydynge of suche pestylente bokes". A royal chaplain backed the letter up by preaching a sermon on the Eucharist in front of Henry, pointing out that there was a prisoner in the Tower at that moment who was "so bold as to write in defence of heresy".

Henry ordered Cranmer and Cromwell to have Frith brought for trial. Tyndale wrote him a farewell letter - "Your cause is Christ's gospel, a light that must be fed with the blood of faith. The lamp must be dressed and snuffed daily, and that oil poured in every evening and morning, that the light go not out... If the pain be above thy strength, remember: 'Whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, I will give it thee'" - and Frith was gone, the wind at Smithfield blowing the flames away from him, so that his dying was prolonged.

Conscience will not have prevented More from doing with Tyndale what he had done with Frith. In terms of local knowledge and contacts in the Low Countries, More was well placed. He was highly regarded by the emperor. Charles V had written him a letter of support and encouragement for his efforts on behalf of Catherine of Aragon. More was faithful to the old religion and to the emperor's aunt; there was every reason for the Brussels court to look favourably at a petition from him. He knew Antwerp personally, and had set the opening scene of Utopia in the city. He almost certainly had some idea of Tyndale's movements. At the time of Tyndale's betrayal, Stephen Vaughan, who provided

intelligence for Cromwell from Antwerp, suspected that More was financing two English monks in the city who were known to be hard-line Catholics.

One factor alone seems to rule More out of contention: at the time of the betrayal he was a prisoner in the Tower. But even from the Tower, he had the opportunity. Phillips received his commission and his money during the autumn of 1534, probably in October or November. By December 21, he had arrived in the Low Countries and was matriculating at Louvain. More was under very loose guard then. The Tower was part royal palace; among the "liberties" More was able to enjoy was the royal menagerie, with its exotic birds and lions. He had his own manservant, John ˆ Wood, and his daughter Meg's maid, Dorothy Colley, to run errands for him. He received presents - including a warm camlet of wool and goat's hair so that, unlike Tyndale, he was able to ward off the damp - and correspondence from his friend Bonvisi, who in turn had contacts in Antwerp and the Low Countries. He was able to write freely, to receive visitors, to walk through the grounds, and to send out lengthy manuscripts.

If God was More's stated motive for wishing Tyndale harm, Phillips's was money. More had that, too: stories that his family were reduced to burning bracken to stay warm after his fall are fable. He had been one of the best-paid men in the country for many years. He had speculated in property. In 1523 he paid £150 for Crosby Place in Bishopsgate Street in London, a "very large and beautiful" building, selling it on eight months later for £200. In 1524 he bought 7 acres of land in Chelsea for £30, and 71/2 acres in Kensington. He also bought the guardianships of two rich, landowning lunatics.

Perhaps most telling of all, we know what More was thinking. He was writing a final work, De Tristitia Christi (On the Sadness of Christ), which was smuggled out of the Tower. It is unfinished - it breaks off with the words "and they laid their hands on Jesus" as Judas led the soldiers to arrest him - and it crackles with hatred of heretics. He compares them to Judas: as Judas betrayed Christ with a kiss, so heretics claim love for Christ while continuing their treacheries. Sustaining himself in his own wretchedness in the Tower - "tristiciam timorem tedium et dirae mortis horrorem", "sadness, fear, boredom and horror of ghastly death"- More described his feelings on the fate of the heretic: "The air longs to blow noxious vapours against the wicked man. The sea longs to overwhelm him in its waves, the mountains to fall upon him, hell to swallow him up after his headlong fall, the demons to plunge him into gulfs of ever-burning flames..."At the close of 1534, when Harry Phillips was commissioned, More was thinking of Tyndale and what he wished to happen to him.

Posterity has been kind to More. He progressed smoothly from beatification in 1886 to canonisation in 1935. His lust for "ye fyre", his unholy joy in the burning of Tyndale's friends, is largely forgotten. On October 31, 2000, John Paul II paid More the most singular honour. The pope proclaimed him the patron saint of politicians, to remind them of "the absolute priority of God in the heart of public affairs".

Politicians are no doubt in special need of a patron saint. But St Thomas More? Is it wise - is it Christian - to remind politicians of a man who held his incinerated opponents to be "wel and worthely burned"? Is it not an insult to English-speakers to honour a man who devoted himself to the suppression of the English Bible? What, in particular, are Anglicans to make of it? Or is it simply black humour?Tyndale seems neglected by comparison with his sainted enemy. But in truth, his memorial is embedded in our language. Seventy-five years after his death, a committee of divines appointed by James I produced the great Authorised Version, or King James Bible. It has remained the most familiar - to many, the only - English Bible. The New Testament is drawn 84% word for word from Tyndale; more than three-quarters of the Old Testament books that he lived to complete are his.

"That old tongue, with its clang and its flavour," as the critic Edmund Wilson wrote of the King James, "that we have been living with all our lives" is Tyndale's tongue. Its cadence, its rolling and happy phrases, its consolations and the elegance of its solace, are his.The English Paternoster, to which Todd Beamer instinctively turned for comfort aboard flight 93 last September 11, as English-speakers have down the generations, is Tyndale's: "Oure father which arte in heuene halowed be thy name..." So is the sadness and rejoicing of the Eucharist: "this ys my bloude of the newe testamente, which shalbe shedde for many for the forgeunes of synnes". But God did not spare Tyndale's life. His betrayal robbed us of the beauty he would have brought to the poetical books of the Old Testament.

Among the Sarum Use epistles he translated is the most exquisite rendering of the second chapter of the Song of Songs, the epistle on the Visitation of Our Lady."I am the floure of the felde," Tyndale wrote, "and lyles of the valeyes. As the aple-tre amonge the tres of the wood so is my beloved amonge the sons: in his shadow was my desire to sitt... Beholde my beloved sayde to me: up and haste my love, my dove, my bewtifull and come, for now is wynter gone and rayne departed and past... Up haste my love, my dove, in the holes of the rocke and secret places of the walles..."

King James's men, who did not have this fragment, did well enough, perhaps, but a comparison shows up the measure of our loss. "In his shadow was my desire to sitt," writes Tyndale in a phrase that itself tingles with desire. "I sat down under his shadow with great delight," plods the King James. "Up and haste my love, my dove, my bewtifull and come," flows Tyndale, where the King James stutters with less urgency and command: "Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away." Tyndale writes: "For now is wynter gone and rayne departed and past." It is a sentence warm with the promise of spring. King James bumbles: "For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone." That is a weather report.

Tyndale left no epitaph. A passage of his from I Corinthians serves as well: "And though I gave my body even that I burned, and yet had no love, it profiteth me nothing." As More hated, so Tyndale loved the Bible and its English readers; he burned, and the English language and soul profited.

This article appeared as a review in the Sunday Times Magazine 19.05-02. The book ‘If God Spare My Life’, by Brian Moynahan, is published by Little, Brown on May 30, price £17.99

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