EXECUTION OF BISHOP FISHER AND SIR THOMAS MORE. (MAY TO SEPTEMBER 1535.)
NOT long after the death of the Carthusians, Cromwell paid More a visit.
Henry VIII. loved his former chancellor, and desired to save his life. ‘I am your friend,’ said Cromwell, ‘and the king is a good and gracious lord towards you.’ He then once again invited More to accept the act of parliament which proclaimed the king’s supremacy; and the same steps were taken with Fisher. Both refused what was asked. From that moment the execution of the sentence could not be long delayed. More felt this, and as soon as the Secretary of State had left him, he took a piece of coal and wrote some verses upon the wall, expressive of the peace of his soul.
Henry and his minister seemed however to hesitate. It had not troubled them much to punish a few papists and obscure anabaptists; but to put to death an ex-chancellor of the realm and an old tutor of the king — both personages so illustrious and so esteemed throughout Christendom — was another thing. Several weeks passed away. It was an act of the pope’s that hastened the death of these two men. About the 20th of May, Paul III. created a certain number of cardinals: John Du Bellay, Contarini, Caracciolo, and lastly, Fisher, bishop of Rochester. The news of this creation burst upon Rome and London like a clap of thunder. Da Casale, Henry’s agent at the papal court, exclaimed that it was offering his master the greatest affront possible:the matter was the talk of the whole city. ‘Your holiness has never committed a more serious mistake than this,’ said Da Casale to the pope. Paul tried to justify himself. As England desired to become reconciled with the Vatican, he said, it seemed to him that he could not do better than nominate an English cardinal. When Fisher heard the news, he said piously: ‘If the cardinal’s hat were at my feet, I would not stoop to pick it up.’ But Henry did not take the matter so Calmly: he considered Paul’s proceedings as an insolent challenge. Confer the highest honors on a man convicted of treason is it not encouraging subjects to revolt? Henry seemed to have thought that it would be unnecessary to take away the life of an old man whose end could not be far off; but the pope exasperated and braved him. Since they place fisher among the cardinals in Rome, in England he shall be counted among the dead. Paul may, as long as he likes, send him the hat; but when the hat arrives, there shall be no head on which to place it. On the 14th of June, 1535, Thomas Bedell and other officers of justice proceeded to the Tower. The bishop would give no answer to the demand that he should recognize the king as head of the Church. Sir Thomas More, when questioned in his turn, replied: ‘My only study is to meditate on Christ’s passion.’ ‘Do you acknowledge the king as supreme head of the Church?’ asked Bedell. ‘The royal supremacy is established by law.’ — ‘That law is a two-edged sword,’ returned the ex-chancellor. ‘If I accept it, it kills my soul; if I reject it, it kills my body.’ Three days later the bishop was condemned to be beheaded. When the order for his execution arrived, the prisoner was asleep: they respected his slumber. At five o’clock the next morning, 22nd of June, 1535, Kingston entering his cell, aroused him and told him that it was the king’s good pleasure he should be executed that morning. ‘I most humbly thank his Majesty,’ said the old man, ‘that he is pleased to relieve me from all the affairs of this world. Grant me only an hour or two more, for I slept very badly last night.’ Then turning towards the wall, he fell asleep again.
Between seven and eight o’clock he called his servant, took off the hairshirt which he wore next his skin to mortify the flesh, and gave it to the man. ‘Let no one see it,’ he said. ‘And now bring me my best clothes.’ — ‘My lord,’ said the astonished servant, ‘does not your lordship know that in two hours you will take them off never to put them on again?’ ‘Exactly so,’ answered Fisher; ‘this is my wedding-day, and I ought to dress as if for a holiday.’ At nine o’clock the lieutenant appeared. The old man took up his New Testament, made the sign of the cross, and left the cell. He was tall, being six feet high, but his body was bent with age, and his weakness so great that he could hardly get down the stairs. He was placed in an arm-chair.
When the porters stopped near the gate of the Tower to know if the sheriffs were ready, Fisher stood up, and leaning against the wall opened his Testament, and lifting his eyes to heaven; he said: ‘O Lord! I open it for the last time. Grant that I may find some word of comfort to the end that I may glorify thee in my last hour.’ The first words he saw were these:
And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent. Fisher closed the book and said: ‘That will do. Here is learning enough to last me to my life’s end.’ The funeral procession was set in motion. Clouds hid the face of the sun; the day was gloomy; the streets through which they passed seemed dull and in harmony with men’s hearts. A large body of armed men surrounded the pious old man, who kept repeating in a low tone the words of his Testament: Hoec est autem vita aeterna, ut cognoscant to solum Deum et quem misisti Jesum Christum. They reached Smithfield ‘We will help you to ascend,’ said his bearers at the foot of the scaffold. ‘No, sirs,’ he replied, and then added in a cheerful tone: ‘Come, feet! do your duty, you have not far to go.’ Just as he mounted the scaffold, the sun burst out and shone upon his face: They looked unto him and were lightened, he cried, and their faces were not ashamed . It was ten o’clock. The noble bearing and piety of the aged bishop inspired all around him with respect.
The executioner knelt before him and begged his forgiveness. ‘With all my heart,’ he made answer. Having laid aside his robe and furred gown, he turned to the people, and said with gravity and joy: ‘Christians, I give my life for my faith in the holy catholic Church of Christ. I do not fear death.
Assist me, however, with your prayers, so that when the axe falls I may remain firm. God save the king and the kingdom!’ The brightness Of his face at this moment struck the spectators. He fell on his knees and said: ‘Eternal God, my hope is in thy deliverance.’ The executioner approached and bound his eyes. The bishop raised his hands, uttered a cry towards heaven, and laid his head on the block. The doomsman seized his heavy axe, and cut off the head at one blow. It was exposed by Henry’s orders on London bridge; but soldiers carried the body to Barking church-yard, where they dug a lowly grave for it with their halberds. Doubts have been thrown upon the details of this death; we believe them to be authentic, and it is a pleasure by reporting them to place a crown on the tomb of a Roman-catholic bishop whose end was that of a pious man.
It was now the turn of Sir Thomas More. On the 1st of July, 1535, he was summoned before the court of King’s Bench. The former Chancellor of England quitted his prison in a frieze cloak, which had grown foul in the dungeon, and proceeded on foot through the most frequented streets of London on his road to Westminster. His thin pale face; his white hair, the effect not of time but of sorrow and imprisonment; the staff on which he leant, for he walked with difficulty, made a deep impression on the people. When he arrived at the bar of that tribunal over which he had so often presided, and looked around him, though weakened by suffering, with a countenance full of mildness, all the spectators were moved. The indictment was long and perplexed: he was accused of high-treason.
Sir Thomas, endeavoring to keep on his feet, said: ‘My Lords, the charges brought against me are so numerous, that I fear, considering my great weakness, I shall be unable to remember them all.’ He stopped: his body trembled and he was near falling. A chair was brought him, and after taking his seat, he continued: ‘I have never uttered a single word in opposition to the statute which proclaims the king head of the Church.’ — ‘If we cannot produce your words,’ said the king’s attorney, ‘we can produce your silence.’ ‘No one can be condemned for his silence,’ nobly answered More. ‘Qui tacet consentire videtur, Silence gives consent, according to the lawyers.’ Nothing could save him: the jury returned a verdict of guilty. ‘Now that all is over,’ said the prisoner, ‘I will speak. Yes, the oath of supremacy is illegal. The Great Charter laid down that the Church of England is free, so that its rights and liberties might be equally preserved.’ — ‘The Church must be free ,’ said the lawyers: ‘it is not therefore the slave of the pope.’ ‘Yes, free ,’ retorted More; ‘it is not therefore the slave of the king.’
The chancellor then pronounced sentence, condemning him to be hanged at Tyburn, and then quartered, while still alive. Henry spared his illustrious subject and old friend from this cruel punishment, and ordered that he should be merely beheaded. ‘God save all my friends from his Majesty’s favor,’ said Sir Thomas, ‘and spare my children from similar indulgences...
I hope, my lords,’ said the ex-chancellor, turning meekly towards his judges, ‘that though you have condemned me on earth, we may all meet hereafter in heaven.’
Sir William Kingston approached; armed guards surrounded the condemned man, and the sad procession moved forward. One of the Tower wardens marched in front, bearing an axe with the edge turned towards More; it was a token to the people of the prisoner’s fate. As soon as he crossed the threshold of the court, his son, who was waiting for him, fell at his feet distracted and in tears: ‘Your blessing, father,’ he exclaimed, ‘your blessing!’ More raised him up, kissed him tenderly, and blessed him. His daughter Margaret was not there: she had fainted immediately on hearing of her father’s condemnation. He was taken back to prison in a boat, perhaps to withdraw this innocent and illustrious man, treated like a criminal, from the eyes of the citizens of London. When they got near the Tower, the governor, who had until then kept his emotion under, turned to More and bade him farewell, the tears running down his cheeks. ‘My dear Kingston,’ said the noble prisoner, ‘do not weep; we shall meet again in heaven.’ ‘Yes!’ said the lieutenant of the Tower, adding: ‘you are consoling me, when I ought to console you.’ An immense crowd covered the wharf at which the boat was to land. Among this crowd, so eager for the mournful spectacle, was a young woman, trembling with emotion and silently waiting for the procession: it was Margaret. At length she heard the steps of the approaching guards, and saw her father appear. She could not move, her strength failed her; she fell on her knees just where she had stood. Her father, who recognized her at a distance, giving way to the keenest emotions, lifted up his hands and blessed her. This was not enough for Margaret. The blessing had caused a strong emotion in her, and had restored life to her soul. Regardless of her sex, her age, and the surrounding crowd, that feeble woman, to whom at this supreme moment filial piety gave the strength of many men, says a contemporary, flew towards her father, and bursting through the officers and halberdiers by whom he was surrounded, fell on his neck and embraced him, exclaiming ‘Father, father!’ She could say no more; grief stopped her voice: she could only weep, and her tears fell on her father’s bosom. The soldiers halted in emotion; Sir Thomas, the prey at once of the tenderest love and inexpressible grief, felt as if a sword had pierced his heart. Recovering himself, however, he blessed his child, and said to her in a voice whose emotion he strove to conceal: ‘Daughter, I am innocent; but remember that however hard the blow with which I am struck, it comes from God. Submit thy will to the good pleasure of the Lord.’
The captain of the escort, wishing to put an end to a scene that might agitate the people, bade two soldiers take Margaret away; but-she clung to her father with arms that were like bars of iron, and it was with difficulty that she could be removed. She had been hardly set on the ground a few steps off, when she sprang up again, and thrusting those who had separated her from him she so loved, she broke through the crowd once more, fell upon his neck, and kissed him several times with a convulsive effort. In her, filial love had all the vehemence of passion. More, whom the sentence of death had not been able to move, lost all energy, and the tears poured down his cheeks. The crowd watched this touching scene with deep excitement, and ‘they were very few in all the troop who could refrain from weeping; no, not the guards themselves.’ Even the soldiers wept, and refused to tear the daughter again from her father’s arms. Two or three, however, of she less agitated stepped forward and carried Margaret away. The women of her household, who had accompanied her, immediately surrounded her and bore her away from a sight of such inexpressible sadness. The prisoner entered the Tower.
Sir Thomas spent six more days and nights in prison. We hear certainly of his pious words, put the petty practices of an ascetic seemed to engross him too much. His macerations were increased: he walked up and down his cell, wearing only a winding-sheet as if he were already a corpse waiting to be buried. He often scourged himself for a long time together, and with extraordinary violence. Yet at the same time he indulged in Christian meditations. ‘I am afflicted,’ he wrote to one of his friends, ‘shut up in a dungeon; but God in His mercy will soon deliver me from this world of tribulation. Walls will no longer separate us, and we shall have holy conversations together, which no jailer will interrupt.’ On the 5th of July, desiring to bid his daughter a last farewell, More took a piece of charcoal (he had nothing else), and wrote to her: ‘To-morrow is St. Thomas’s day, and my saint’s day; accordingly, I desire extremely that it may be the day of my departure. My child, I never loved you so dearly as when last you kissed me. I like when daughterly love has no leisure to look unto worldly courtesy. ... Farewell, my dearly beloved daughter; pray for me. I pray for you all, to the end that we may meet in heaven.’
Thus one of the closest and holiest affections, that of a father for his daughter, and of a daughter for her father, softened the last moments of this distinguished man. Sir Thomas sent Margaret his hair-shirt and scourge, which he desired to conceal from the eyes of the indifferent. What an inheritance!
That night he slept quietly, and the next morning early (6th of July, 1535), a fortnight after the death of the bishop, Sir Thomas Pope, one of his familiar friends, came to inform him that he must hold himself in readiness. ‘I thank the king,’ said More, ‘for shutting me up in this prison, whereby he has put me in a condition to make suitable preparation for death. The only favor I beg of him is, that my daughter may be present at my burial.’
Pope left the cell in tears. Then the prisoner put on a fine silk robe which his wealthy friend Bonvisi, the merchant of Lucca, had given him. ‘Leave that dress here,’ said Kingston, ‘for the man to whom it falls by custom is only a jailer.’ — ‘I cannot look upon that man as a jailer,’ answered More, ‘who opens the gates of heaven for me.’
At nine o’clock the procession quitted the Tower. More was calm, his face pale, his beard long and curly; he carried a crucifix in his hand, and his eyes were often turned towards heaven. A numerous and sympathizing crowd watched him pass along — a man one time so honored, lord chancellor, lord chief-justice, president of the house of Lords whom armed men were now leading to the scaffold. Just as he was passing in front of a house of mean appearance, a poor woman standing at the door, went up to him and offered him a cup of wine to strengthen him: ‘Thank you,’ he said gently, ‘thank you; Christ drank vinegar only.’ On arriving at the place of execution: ‘Give me your hand to help me up,’ he said to Kingston, adding: ‘As for my coming down, you may let me shift for myself.’ He mounted the scaffold. Sir Thomas Pope, at the king’s request, had bogged him to make no speech, fearing the effect this illustrious man might produce upon the people, More desired however to say a few words, but the sheriff stopped him. ‘I die,’ he was content to say, ‘in the faith of the catholic Church, and a faithful servant of God and the king.’ He then knelt down and repeated the fifty-first Psalm ( Psalm 51): Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving-kindness, according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
When he rose up, the executioner begged his forgiveness: ‘Why do you talk of forgiveness?’ replied More; ‘you are doing me the greatest kindness I ever received from man.’ He desired the man not to be afraid to do his office, and remarked that his neck was very short. With his own hands he fastened a bandage over his eyes, and then laid his head on the block. The executioner, holding the axe, was preparing to strike, when More stopped him, and putting his beard carefully on one side, said: ‘This at least has not committed treason.’ Such words, almost jesting, no doubt, startle us at such a moment; but strong men have often been observed to manifest the calmness of their souls in such a manner. More probably feared that his long beard would embarrass the executioner, and deaden the blow. At length that head fell, through which so many noble thoughts had passed; that keen clear eye was closed; those eloquent Lips were the lips of a corpse. The head was exposed on London bridge, and Margaret discharged the painful duty her father had bequeathed her, by piously burying his body.
Thus, at the cost of his life, this eminent man protested against the aberrations of a cruel prince, who usurped the title given by the Bible to Jesus Christ alone. The many evangelical martyrs who had been sacrificed in different countries and who were to be sacrified, showed in general, to a greater extent than Fisher and More, an ardent love for the savior, a lively hope of eternal Life; but none showed greater calmness than they. These two good men wanted discernment as to what constitutes the pure Gospel; their piety bound them too much, as we have said, to monastic practices; they had (and More especially) in the days of their power persecuted the disciples of the Lord, and though they rejected the usurpations of the king, had acted as fanatical defenders of those of the pope. But at a time when there were so many cringing bishops and servile noblest — when almost every one bent the head timidly before the mad popery of Henry VIII., these two firmly held up theirs. More and Fisher were companions in misfortune with Bilney and Fryth: the same royal hand struck them all. Our sympathies are for the victims, our aversion for the executioner.
The death of these two celebrated men caused an immense sensation. In England, the people and even the nobility were struck with astonishment.
Could it be true, men asked, that Thomas More, whom Henry had known since he was nine years old, with whom he used to hold friendly conversations by night on the terrace of his country-house, at whose table he used to love to sit down familiarly, whom he had chosen, although a layman and a knight only, to succeed the powerful Wolsey:— could it be true that by the king’s orders he had perished by the axe? Could it be true that Fisher had met with the same fate — that venerable old man of fourscore years, who had been his preceptor, the trusty friend of his grandmother, and to whose teaching he owed the progress he had made in learning? Men began to see that resistance to a Tudor was the scaffold.
Every one trembled, and even those who had not known the two victims could not restrain their tears. The horror which these executions caused among the enlightened men of the continent was displayed with more liberty and energy. ‘I am dead,’ exclaimed Erasmus, ‘since More is dead: for, as Pythagoras says, we had but one soul between us.’ — ‘O England! O dearly beloved country,’ said Reginald Pole; ‘he was not only Margaret’s father, but thine also !’ — ‘This year is fatal to our order,’ said Melancthon the reformer; ‘I hear that More has been killed and others also. You know how such things wring my heart.’ — ‘We banish such criminals,’ said Francis I. sharply to the English ambassador, ‘but we do not put them to death.’ — ‘If I had two such lights in my kingdom,’ said Charles V., ‘I would sooner give two of my strongest cities than suffer them to be extinguished.’ At Rome in particular the anger was terrible. They were still flattering themselves that Henry VIII. would return to his old sympathies; but now there was no more hope! The king had put to death a prince of the Church, and as he had sworn, the cardinal’s hat could find no head to wear it. A consistory was immediately summoned: Cardinal de Tournon’s touching letter was read, and all who heard it were moved even to tears. The embarrassed and speechless agents of England knew not what to do; and as they reported, there was everything to be feared.
Perhaps nobody was so confounded as the pontiff. Paul III. was circumspect, prudent, deliberative, and temporizing; but when he thought the moment arrived, when he believed further manoeuvring was not required, he no longer hesitated, but struck forcibly. It is known that he had two young relations whom, in his blind tenderness, he had created cardinals, notwithstanding their youth and the emperor’s representations. ‘Alas!’ he exclaimed, ‘I feel as mortally injured, as if my two nephews had been killed before my eyes.’ His most devoted partisans, and above all a cardinal of his creation put to death! There was a violent movement in his heart; he worked himself into a fury; he desired to strike the prince whose cruel deeds had wounded him so deeply. His anger burst out in a thunder-clap. On the 30th of August he issued a bull worthy of Gregory VII., which the more zealous partisans of the papacy would like to remove from the papal records. ‘Let King Henry repent of his crimes,’ said the pontiff; ‘we give him ninety days and his accomplices sixty to appear at Rome. In case of default, we strike him with the sword of anathema, of malediction, and of eternal damnation; we take away his kingdom from him; we declare that his body shall be deprived of ecclesiastical burial; we launch an interdict against his States; we release his subjects from their oath of fidelity; we call upon all dukes, marquises and earls to expel him and his accomplices from England; we unbind all Christian princes from their oaths towards him, command them to march against him and constrain him to return to the obedience due to the Holy Apostolic See, giving them all his goods for their reward, and he and his to be their slaves.’ Anger had the same effect upon the pontiff as inebriety; he had lost the use of his reason, and allowed himself to be carried away to threats and excesses of which he would have been ashamed, had he been sober.
Accordingly the drunkenness was hardly over, before the unfortunate Paul hastened to hide his bull, and carefully laid aside his thunderbolts in the arsenal, free to bring them out later.
Henry VIII., more calm than the pope, having heard of his discontent, feared to push him to extremities; and Cromwell. a month after the date of the bull, instructed Da Casale to justify the king to the Vatican. ‘Fisher and More,’ he was to say, ‘had on all points of the internal policy of England come to conclusions diametrically opposed to the quiet and prosperity of the kingdom. They had helot secret conversations with certain men notorious for their audacity, and had poured into the hearts of these wretches the poison which they had first prepared in their own. Could we permit their crime, spreading wider and wider, to give a deathblow to the State? Fisher and More alone opposed laws which had been accepted by the general consent of the people, and were necessary to the prosperity of the kingdom. Our mildest of sovereigns could not longer tolerate an offense so atrocious.’ Even these excuses accuse and condemn Henry. Neither More nor Fisher had entered into a plot against the State; their resistance had been purely religious; they were free to act according to their consciences. It might have been necessary to take some prudential measures in an age as yet little fitted for liberty; but nothing could excuse the scaffold, erected by the king’s orders, for men who were regarded with universal respect.