Thomas More: Inquisitor

Andrew Haines has an article over at First Things in which he portrays Thomas More, that Man for All Seasons, as “often and justly revered as the patron of conscience rights.” That he remained true to Rome during the upheavals that attended Henry VIII’s break with the papacy, there is no doubt. That he was willing to extend that right of conscience to others is total hogwash, a myth perpetuated by Robert Bolt‘s fine play and the equally excellent film, which starred the rightly lauded Paul Scofield as More.

But it should be kept in mind that Bolt, himself not a Christian, never mind a Catholic, was using More as a kind of cypher for the “man of conscience” who had endured McCarthyism only to find himself mired in the war and civil rights protests of the 1960s. Therefore it was most probably outside Bolt’s purview to investigate the extent to which his hero was nothing less than an inquisitor, English-style.

Allow me to introduce the name of William Tyndale into this discussion. Tyndale was born in Slymbridge, England, near the Welsh border, circa 1495 and was ordained to the Catholic priesthood in 1521. He soon developed a yearning to translate the Scriptures from the original Hebrew and Greek, and not merely the Vulgate. To do so in Henry VIII’s England was illegal, and so Tyndale fled to the continent, during which time he met with Martin Luther, who was already in a polemical debate with the Tudor king, whose book Assertio Septem Sacramentum (Defense of the Seven Sacraments) was aimed at Luther and was most certainly ghostwritten, at least in part, and undoubtedly by More himself.

As Tyndale’s love of Scripture and contempt for the abuses of ecclesiastical authority grew, so did the opposition’s desire to see the incipient Reformation stamped out. In fact, the Lutheran “menace” lit a fire under More that would burn more than the midnight oil. And it was only a matter of time before Tyndale’s prodigious literary output would catch his attention, especially the translator’s response to the chancellor’s own Dialogue Concerning Heresies. More went after Tyndale in his Confutation, denouncing among other things his translation of Scripture as filled with errors—for example, translating the Greek presbyterous as “overseer.” Buried within its six volumes, we also find this lovely sentiment: “and for heretics, as they be, the clergy doth denounce them; and, as they be well worthy, the temporality doth burn them; and after the fire of Smithfield hell doth receive them, where the wretches burn forever.”

It was at Antwerp, where he worked as a translator and evangelist, that Tyndale was betrayed by a so-called friend who was most probably working for Henry, incensed that Tyndale’s Bibles had been smuggled into England. The Reformer was arrested and thrown into Vilvorde, which seemed to have acted as both a prison and a brothel, where he subjected to hideous conditions (one source has him being raped). His touching Letter from Prison confirms his love of Scripture study even to the end, which came with his being strangled at the stake and then burned in 1536.

More’s vigorous polemics against Luther and Tyndale were to be expected from any serious man of letters who embraced Roman authority as unquestioningly as did the author of Utopia. But More went further: he kept evangelicals under arrest in his own house (to what extent they were subjected to torture has along been a matter of dispute; More emphatically denied it, and he should be given the benefit of the doubt here). In the office of chancellor he oversaw the execution of several Protestants. In fact, biographers of More confirm that the “patron of conscience rights” explicitly defended and approved of burning as the penalty for heresy. (One of the more infamous incidents involved a merchant named John Tewkesbury whose crime was to have in his possession banned books.)

Of course, the Reformers would win out over time, and the King James Bible would incorporate roughly 80–90 percent of Tyndale’s work in its final form. And so the translator/evangelist would be vindicated, and become truly a Man for All People.

Were More’s views or persecution of “heretics” unusual for his age? Of course not. In this respect he was merely typical, and the Protestants would pay Catholics back in kind during the reign of Elizabeth I (actually, they didn’t have to wait that long; Henry VIII, a spiritual pygmy, with apologies to pygmies, had both Catholics loyal to Rome and evangelicals burned who threatened the “peace” of the realm any more than he already had). The vehemence with which More fought against the early Reformers and their disciples must be seen in its historical context. What I object to is the “saint” business and the depiction of More as a model of  “courage in the face of totalitarian injustice,” which he had no qualms perpetuating so long as it was the consciences of evangelicals used to light the night sky.

God keep us from those who fashion themselves engaged in the “regular, ardent, and unfailing pursuit of the truth” — Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and atheist materialist alike — in the manner of a More. (And I dare say, today we have far less to fear from Catholics in this regard.) It is one thing to be willing to die for the truth. Quite another to kill for it — whether literally or figuratively. And many a good man has wound up dead or derailed professionally because of the failure to make the distinction.

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8 thoughts on “Thomas More: Inquisitor

  1. Very good. I’m puzzled about the last paragraph, though. Are you really troubled by the “regular, ardent, and unfailing pursuit of the truth,” or only by those who presume to tell others how they must pursue it?

    • I am troubled by those who would pursue it in the manner of a More. Not that there is no such thing as truth or that it is not worth being pursued and promulgated. Thanks for asking, as it needed clarifying.

  2. “God keep us from . . .” Except for me and you of course, because we really are right all the time. Well, I am anyway.

  3. That More in his capacity as chancellor persecuted Protestants is unquestionably true, and it’s a side of More’s character and occupation that A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS avoids. That said, do you mean to say that the film or the play represents More holding views contrary to this occupation, or contrary to any real position of More’s? Or only that it falsifies by omission?

    I appreciate the kind judgment about Catholics at the end.

    • The latter. But to say even that it “falsifies” is too strong, I think. Bolt fastened on one narrow aspect of More’s life, his unwillingness either to abjure his beliefs regarding papal authority or even massage the truth to save his skin, which is why when More says he did not subject those suspected Protestants held in his home to torture, I am more than willing to believe him.

  4. The whitewash over More’s execution of Protestants is amazing. Some will say that we are being “anachronistic”, but that is not the case. If More should not have been beheaded for his beliefs, then the Protestants shouldn’t have been burned for theirs. To insist that you have a right to act as your conscience dictates, but to insist that others should be killed for following their own consciences is the height of hypocricy.

  5. Robert: More was not beheaded for his beliefs, or for following his conscience. He was put in the Tower for that, and could not lawfully be further harmed.

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