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For this Sunday...

...something I posted long ago at another place, but which I feel compelled to re-read from time to time, and this is one of those times. I can't say why, exactly, though to the movements of the soul no 'time' should be out of season. It's called

Her Great Cost: Margaret More says goodbye

One of the great loves in the patrimony of Christ's body was that of Thomas More for his daughter Margaret. He had other children, some adopted, all of whom were to their last breath devoted to Thomas and none of whom felt slighted by this firstborn daughter's place in his affections or by her possession of his heart's "secrets" (though even to her there was one secret he could not divulge). Somehow he loved them all to such degree that its return in equal measure would see some of them, like Giles Heron, husband to his youngest daughter, die at the executioner's hand, and others, like Margaret Clement, his adopted daughter, in the comparative comfort of exile. (The story of her heroic ministrations to the imprisoned Carthusian monks can be found in another piece titled "The King's Good Servants.")

It is well known that More educated the women in his charge beyond all accepted boundaries of the time, such that "classical scholars have praised her (Margaret) as one of the few women to whom we owe a convincing emendation of a corrupt Latin text. Her father gloried in her scholarship..." Once, she fell so ill to a terrible disease of those days called the sweating sickness, that "by no invention or devices she could be kept from sleep...both physicians and all other there despaired of her recovery, and gave her over." But More gave himself over to prayer, and though "God's marks, an evident undoubted token of death, plainly appeared upon her, yet she, contrary to all their expectations, was, as it was thought, by her father's fervent prayer miraculously recovered..." And More confided later that, had she died, "he would have withdrawn altogether from the world: would 'never have meddled with worldly matters after.' "

It is also well-known that after he was committed to the Tower she wrote him letters and made visits, many of which the authorities permitted only after extracting from her the promise to persuade him to see "reason," that he might once again move freely among the society of men. One letter, in its "vehement piteous" striving to convince him of his error on a matter 'wherein I have...so often given you so precise answer before,' caused her father such pain and grief, that she replied at once with another of impassioned love from 'your daughter and beadswoman, which desireth above all worldly things...to do you some service.' More was mollified, and her object with the King achieved, that she be allowed to "resort unto her father in the Tower."

She tries one argument, and then another, as to why More should swear the oath, and he defeats them all. But why he refuses the oath he will not say, even to Margaret: 'that thing I will never show you, neither you nor nobody else, except the King's Highness should like to command me.' She even tries the argument of More's former household jester: 'Why, what aileth him that he will not swear?...I have sworn the oath myself.' And so Margaret says, "...but if I should say like Master Harry, 'Why should you refuse to swear, father? For I have sworn the oath myself,'" to which More's reply was to laugh and say, 'That word was like Eve too, for she offered Adam no worse fruit than she had eaten herself.' It is important to note that Margaret here is being unjust to herself, as More well knew, for the form of the oath to which she had sworn contained the exception "as far as it would stand with the law of God." This saving clause was not allowed to More and Fisher, their prominence in public life admitting from the King and Mistress Anne Boleyn no compromise.

There is much more to their dialogue, but I have not the time to reproduce it. It ended when all the arguments had failed, and a daughter's love was able to apprehend through her grief, and her father's parting words, some vision of the path ahead:

And finally, Margaret, this wot I very well, that without my fault he will not let me be lost..And therefore, mine own good daughter, never trouble thy mind, for any thing that ever hap me in this world. Nothing can come, but that that God will...And if anything hap me that you would be loth, pray to God for me, but trouble not yourself: as I shall full heartily pray for us all, that we may meet together once in heaven, where we shall make merry forever, and never have trouble after.
Following his trial and conviction - wherein More at last "discharged his conscience" on an 'Act of Parliament directly repugnant to the laws of God and holy Church, the supreme government of which, or of any part whereof, may no temporal prince presume by any law to take upon him, as rightfully belonging to the See of Rome..,' and further charging that, 'Howbeit, it is not for this Supremacy so much that ye seek my blood, as for that I would not condescend to the marriage' - as he was led back to the Tower, "with the edge of the axe toward him, his son John threw himself at his feet to ask a blessing. At Tower Wharf, Margaret Roper was waiting, with Margaret Clement," and Margaret's husband, William Roper, records the scene:
As soon as she saw him, after his blessing on her knees reverently received, she hasting towards him, and, without consideration or care of herself, pressing in among the midst of the throng and company of the guard that with halberds and bills went round about him, hastily ran to him, and there openly, in the sight of them all, embraced him, took him about the neck, and kissed him.
"One of the crowd of bystanders has told us how Margaret, unable to speak, held her father 'tightly embraced'; but how More only said, 'Have patience, Margaret, and trouble not thyself. It is the will of God. Long hast thou known the secrets of my heart.' Margaret withdrew ten or twelve paces from her father, and then, 'not satisfied with the former sight of him, and like one that had forgotten herself, being all ravished with the entire love of her dear father, having respect neither to herself, nor to the press of people and the multitude that were there about him, suddenly turned back again, ran to him as before, took him about the neck, and divers times together most lovingly kissed him.'"

Margaret was no longer allowed to visit her father, but was still able to send messages to him through her maid, Dorothy Colly. "On Monday, 5 July, More sent to Margaret the hair-shirt which she had washed so often, and a letter 'written with a coal'" [his writing materials having been taken from him]. It was the last thing he ever wrote:

'Our Lord bless you, good daughter, and your good husband, and your little boy, and all yours, and all my children, and all my godchildren and all our friends. Recommend me when ye may to my good daughter Cicely, whom I beseech our Lord to comfort...'
More goes on to mention many of the family by name, including his son John ('I liked well his natural fashion'), the adopted Margaret Clement, and even the maid, Dorothy Colly, whom 'I like special well. I pray you be good unto her.' He beseeches Margaret to be good unto many others, and then:
I cumber you, good Margaret, much, but I would be sorry if it should be any longer than tomorrow. For it is Saint Thomas' even and the Utas of Saint Peter; and therefore tomorrow long I to go to God: it were a day very meet and convenient for me. I never liked your manner toward me better than when you kissed me last: for I love when daughterly love and dear charity hath no leisure to look to worldly courtesy. Farewell, my dear child, and pray for me, and I shall for you and all your friends, that we may merrily meet in Heaven. I thank you for your great cost...

Quoted sections from Thomas More by R.W. Chambers © 1958, University of Michigan Press. Original printing: 1935

Comments (4)

Thank you for this poignant and fascinating post.

I used to walk to school past the little church of St. Thomas More and I had a vague idea of who he was. This post brings it home.

Why, you're welcome.

I've often wondered, and not been sure whether I really wanted to know: Was More simply beheaded, or was he drawn and quartered?

Did he, in this correspondence, write to his wife as well as to Margaret?

He was beheaded, and Fisher too (this latter's body being treated postmortem very contemptuously). Both their heads were posted on the gate of Tower Bridge, so that all entering the city would have to see them. Others suffered hanging and disembowelment, which you can read about here. I'm not sure about any correspondence with his wife - who was his second, his first, Jane Colt, having died. I know she visited him in prison, and that he was very fond of her, even as others liked to refer to her as a 'harpy'. But Margaret seems to have been first in his heart.

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