Ed. Note: Yesterday was the Feast of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher, Martyrs, and the first day of Fortnight for Freedom as called for by the U.S. Bishops in response to the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services mandate requiring religious institutions to pay for contraceptive drugs and services through insurance health coverage.
Before the bells struck nine times on the morning on July 6, 1535, a man renowned for his talent in philosophy, law, politics and even theology, stood before a crowd, seconds away from the most important speech of his life.
Those who had gathered weren’t there to hear a lecture on metaphysics, divine grace or a keystone legal principle. Nor were they there to hear a speech which sought to guide the ship of state on a prudential course of action. Rather, they were there to see this philosopher-lawyer-politician-theologian lose his head over a single idea.
By the world’s reckoning, it was a cheap price for one’s life.
But it was an idea which would touch on all these disciplines which not only defined his public life but perhaps even prepared his life, public and otherwise, for this one moment on his final rostrum.
This condemned man was none other than Sir Thomas More, until recently the Chancellor of England (a post only second to the king himself), a close friend of King Henry VIII, a welcomed guest of royal and legal courts alike, and one of the most brilliant minds of his day not only in England but in all of Europe.
But, having been stripped of honors and wealth alike, this late medieval celebrity would soon be known by a different, more exulted title – St. Thomas More, Martyr.
As he stood before the crowd, perhaps he took some comfort in the fact that he was abandoned by all but his family and closest friends. It would have to have been a consolation. After all, did not his master and savior have at least that much as he clung to his last labored breaths, hanging from the midday cross outside the gates of another famous city far to the east of London?
Of course, More’s fine mind would have made the proper distinctions: Christ was without sin and therefore died in complete innocence. He, More, while guiltless in this particular case, was as flawed as any man born of original sin.
No matter, though – for he knew that even that primal flaw – the same shared by every king and pauper, nobleman and commoner, all the players on the stage of history – had been provided a remedy through the blood and mercy that God spilled on that other hill far east of London’s time and place, more than 1,500 years ago – that same blood and mercy which, with the fall of the executioner’s axe blade would come, he prayed, to his assistance now that the hour of his death was upon him.
Nor did he ever lose the calm which stood as testament to the easy commerce of faith and reason within his mind and soul. Even Joseph Addison, not the first but perhaps one of the best to reside over Caesar’s inkwell, willingly renders unto Christ what was Christ’s: he would have willingly agreed with the Catholic Encyclopedia (1911) which declared that “no martyr ever surpassed [More] in fortitude.”
Indeed, as he notes in the retrospective Spectator, Addison observes, “that innocent mirth which had been so conspicuous in [More’s] life, did not forsake him to the last . . .his death was of a piece with his life. There was nothing in it new, forced or affected. He did not look upon the severing of his head from his body as a circumstance that ought to produce any change in the disposition of his mind“.
As he stood there before the crowd – it was a brief interim between his ascending the scaffold and his head making the return trip – even then, he was not without mirth (“I pray you, I pray you, Mr. Lieutenant,” he was heard to say, “see me safe up and for my coming down, I can shift for myself!”). Perhaps as he stood there, though, he thought for a split second of that other Thomas who stood at the noonday of the medieval age and on the edge of a more peaceful yet equally joyful death.
Already the medieval age had been in full decline with the “new learning” that More, his friend and fellow mega-scholar Erasmus and even King Henry had helped popularize. In many ways, the medieval age, already in its twilight, would meet its midnight with More’s death.
And perhaps in thinking of Aquinas, More also thought about the mystic-philosopher’s final revelation, that all the wealth and wisdom of the world is “like straw” compared to the vista of heaven’s riches that was permitted to him in his own final days.
The philosopher in More could as ably distinguish the chaff of accidents from the essential wheat of being which Aquinas had gleaned to the benefit of Church and history. After all, weren’t More’s own final words the same notion uttered by Aquinas, only reset – like the lines of block type in that contraption already become popular in More’s day, the printing press – in his own field of expertise, the political order?
For all his devoted service to secular thrones and powers of England, this servant recognized that his earthly duties were no more than straw compared to his obeisance to the true throne and only power that rules all nations.
Standing on the sill of heaven itself, awaiting the fall of the blade which would separate his head from his body, More would see his earthly pilgrimage come to an end.
And what, to get to the bottom of it, washis crime?
The particulars matter greatly – and give the bracing pulse and beat to historian and playwright alike. But for our purposes, suffice it to say that More’s crime was part of the same drama that governments and secular leaders had rehearsed on countless saints before and since Sir Thomas ascended the scaffold, More’s last place on earth – which he no doubt saw as a mere stepping stone to God’s mercy and a bitter yet brief prelude to the sweet hope of heaven.
A prominent wooden gantry, solidly built and firmly set in the middle of the square served as the stage on which More and his executioner played the only two roles necessary in this drama.
It’s only action was the fall of an ax (or in other variations – the drop of a trap door to allow the law of gravity to make its final ruling, the fixing of flesh by steel to wood, the slow mutiny of the human body itself tortured in extremis).
Yet after the blade’s fall, expert and precise, its sound reverberates like a song through the centuries even to our own time.
And leave it to More to add words to the song.
Before genuflecting to the chopping block, More’s final speech, the shortest of his life, also rang out across the square that day – his last day on earth and first in heaven.
“I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first!”
Perhaps more effectively than any other words written or spoken by Thomas More, these last words stand as a eviscerating critique of those who would subordinate the individual conscience (formed by its adherence to the teachings of the one, true and apostolic Church) to the corporate wishes or collective whims of any earthly power.
These words defy and refute the worldly and misguided motives of history’s politicians who have allowed for an unholy space within the conscience to accommodate a law or laws reprehensible to God and nature and evacuate justice and mercy, truth and righteousness – even (as Thomas More himself might say with his famous sense of humor – in turns bawdy and scatological) as a harlot would accommodate her customers by evacuating her bowels.