Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Thomas More by John Guy
On 26 March 1534 Henry got Parliament to approve an Act of Succession, settling the inheritance of the crown on his heirs by Anne Boleyn with a clause requiring any subject to swear an oath affirming the 'whole effect and contents' of the Act, including a paragraph saying that Anne's marriage was legally valid. Deeds or writings threatening the king or slandering his marriage were to be adjudged high treason, with the same offenses by words alone punishable with life imprisonment and loss of property. One day encountering Thomas in London, the Duke of Norfolk said to him, "By the mass, Master More, it is perilous striving with princes. And therefore I would wish you somewhat to incline to the king's pleasure. For by God's body, Master Moore, the wrath of the prince is death."
"Is that all, my Lord?", Thomas replied. "Then, in good faith, is there no more difference between your grace and me, but that I shall die today, and you tomorrow."
The day before the Act of Succession came into law, More put all his property into trust, naming his trustees. Should he die, they were to distribute his assets in accordance with a set of sealed instructions deposited for safe-keeping with his secretary. This was technically legal but might be regarded as the equivalent of a debtor setting up a trust on the eve of an insolvency claim. His chief concern was for his daughter Margaret, his favorite child, remembering that he'd never got around to giving her dowry to William Roper. Plainly troubled as to whether his settlement would hold (it didn't), two days later he signed a second conveyance removing the two and a half acre plot known as Butts Close from the trustees, throwing in a house, barn, garden, and making them over to the Ropers unconditionally. They moved to Butts Close, barely five minutes walk away from the mansion house, a few days later, enabling Margaret to stay beside her father, but with her future in Chelsea secure.
The rest of the family must have been oblivious to the danger since, according to the eyewitness recollections of Harris and Margaret's new maid, Dorothy Colley, Thomas decided to give them a visceral, macabre warning, inviting them all to dinner, then arranging for one of the king's messengers to call in the middle of the meal. The man knocked at the door, entered the hall, and pretended to summon More to appear before the King's commissioners administering the oath. Pandemonium ensued, before Thomas confessed that this was a dress rehearsal. He'd wanted, he explained, to prepare those dearest to him for what fate [ providence by More's own reckoning] was about to bring; it would be the more devastating for them to be taken unawares.
Once everyone was calm again, Thomas spoke of his own fears and doubts, of the joys of heaven and the pains of hell. Only with the blessing of his wife and children, he said, did he think he could find the strength to refuse the oath, for after over twenty years of doing everything he could to keep his public and private business seperate, he'd finally been forced to concede that he was too gregarious, too emotionally dependent on his family, to face Henry's terrible wrath alone, and that far from screening them from what was too come, he could only achieve his aims with their constant love and support.