Conscience or King?

Now we come to quite another sort of hero; a man who enjoyed every day of his life, and loved books and music and pets of all sorts; who played with his children and made jokes with them; who held two of the greatest offices an Englishman can hold, yet laid his head on the scaffold by order of the king, because his conscience forbade him to swim with the tide and to take an oath that king demanded of him. If you try, you will find that this sort of heroism is more difficult than the other. There is no excitement about it, and no praise. Your friends talk of you with contempt, and call you a dreamer and a man who sacrifices his family to his own whims. And very often the family agree with him.

‘Verily, daughter, I never intend to pin my soul to another man’s back, for I know not whither he may hap to carry it. Some may do for favour, and some may do for fear, and so they might carry my soul a wrong way.’

These were the words of Sir Thomas More to his favourite daughter when she came to him in prison, urging him to do as his friends had done, and swear to acknowledge the king as head of the church instead of the pope. All his life he had ‘carried’ his own soul himself, and that was no small thing to be able to say in the reign of Henry VIII., when men’s hearts failed them for fear, not knowing from day to day what the tyrant might demand of them.

Thomas More came of a family bred to the law, and his father, afterwards made a knight and a judge, seems to have been kindly and pleasant, and like his son in many ways, especially in his fondness for children. He set great store by books and learning, and taught Thomas to love them too. The boy was born when the Wars of the Roses were just over, and the country was beginning to settle down again. In London king Edward IV. was still the favourite of the people, and after his death, in 1483, Thomas, then five years old, happened to overhear a gentleman telling his father that it was prophesied duke Richard of Gloucester would be king. When the prophecy came to pass, and Richard snatched the crown for himself, many besides little Thomas were filled with wonder. For Richard had played his part so well that few guessed at what he really was, or that the murder of his nephews would be nothing to him, if he could mount the throne on their bodies.

At that period boys were sent early to school, and after careful inquiries, John More decided to put his son under the charge of one Nicholas Holt, headmaster of St. Anthony’s in Threadneedle Street, a school founded by Henry VI. Here Thomas spent most of his time in learning Latin, which it was necessary for a gentleman to know. Foreign languages were very little studied; instead, Latin was used; hence ambassadors addressed each other in that tongue, and in it men wrote letters, and often books. Thomas, who had been accustomed all his life to hear Latin quoted by his father and the lawyers who came to his house in Milk Street, soon mastered most of the difficulties, knowing well that he would be considered stupid and ignorant if when he left school he should ever make a mistake in his declensions, or forget the gender of a noun.

When John More was satisfied with his son’s progress in Latin, he got leave for him to enter, as was the custom, the house of cardinal Morton as a sort of page. Thomas was then about twelve, quick and observant, and though fond of joking, good-tempered and prudent, taking care to hurt the feelings of nobody. Morton was both a clever and a learned man, a good speaker and excellent lawyer, and the king, Henry VII., frequently took counsel with him and profited by his experience. On his side, Morton took a fancy to the boy, whose sharp answers amused him. His keen eyes noticed that Thomas, who, with the other pages, waited at dinner upon the cardinal and his guests, listened to all that was being said, while never neglecting his own especial duties.

‘This child will prove a marvellous man,’ Morton one day whispered to his neighbour, and the neighbour lived to prove the truth of his words.

Thomas greatly enjoyed the two years he passed in Morton’s house, and made many friends, both amongst his companions and with the older men. There was always something going on which pleased and interested him, for he was very sociable, and liked, above everything, a ‘good argument.’ At Christmas time all kinds of shows and pageants were to take place, and the young pages could hardly sleep for excitement, though their appetites never failed, and the huge pieces of pasty put on their wooden or pewter plates disappeared surprisingly quick. Of course they had no forks to help themselves with, but each boy possessed a knife of his own, in which he took great pride, and a spoon made either of horn or pewter. At Christmas they were given plenty of good things as a treat, and the cardinal, like other great men, flung open his doors, and feasted the poor as well as the rich. Then companies of strolling players would come by, and beg permission to amuse the guests by their acting. On this Christmas Day in 1490 the play was in full swing when young Thomas suddenly appeared on the stage in the great hall, and began to ‘make a part of his own, never studying for the matter, which made the lookers-on more sport than all the players beside.’ It must have been rather difficult for the poor actors to go on with their parts when they did not know what the boy was going to say next; but Thomas seems to have been as clever as he was impudent, and the play ended in applause and laughter.

In those days boys grew into young men much earlier than they do now, and set about earning their living, and even getting married, at an age when to-day they would probably just be leaving a public school. So we are not surprised at hearing that when Thomas was only fourteen he was sent by cardinal Morton to Canterbury Hall, Oxford, a college which afterwards became part of Christ Church, founded by Wolsey. The elder More was a poor man, and Thomas was not his only child; five others had been born to him, but, as far as we can gather, three of these died when they were still babies. Thomas had been brought up from his earliest years to do without many things which must have seemed necessaries to the richer boys in Morton’s house. But he cared little that his dress was so much plainer than theirs, and that when he went home he had what food was needful and no more. As long as he had books, and somebody to talk to about them, he was quite happy, but even he found the fare of an Oxford scholar rather hard to digest. However, throughout his life he always made the best of things, and if he ever went to bed hungry, well, nobody but himself was any the wiser. Law was the study his father wished him specially to follow, but he was eager too to learn Greek, which had lately been introduced into the University, and to improve his Latin style. He also wrote verses, as was beginning to be the fashion with young men, and worked out problems in arithmetic and geometry, while, after his regular work was done, he would carry a French or Latin chronicle to his small window, and pore over the history of bygone times. In his spare moments he would play some old music on the flute or practise on the viol.

After two years, when, according to his son-in-law Roper, ‘he was both in the Greek and Latin tongues sufficiently instructed, he was then, for the study of the law of the realm, put to an Inn of Chancery, called New Inn, where for his time he prospered very well, and from thence was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn, with very small allowance, continuing there his study until he was made and accounted a worthy barrister.’ Like the other youths of his own age – Thomas was eighteen when he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn – he attended classes where law was taught by professors, or ‘readers,’ and took part in the proceedings of mock trials, old French being the language used. When the trial was over, the reader and other teachers gave their opinions as to the way in which the scholars had pleaded, and pointed out the mistakes they had made. We may be sure that young More delighted in this ‘exercise,’ and he evidently excelled in it, for he was soon given a ‘readership’ himself.

It was during the year following his admission to Lincoln’s Inn that More met for the first time his lifelong friend, the celebrated Erasmus. Erasmus, the most learned and witty man of his time, came over from Holland to stay with his former pupil, lord Mountjoy, in his country house, and while there the young lawyer was invited also to pay a visit and to make acquaintance with the famous scholar. In spite of the ten years difference in their ages – More was then twenty-one and Erasmus ten years older – they took pleasure in almost exactly the same things, and in their walks through the woods and about the neighbouring villages would discuss merrily, in Latin of course, all manner of subjects. One day the two bent their steps to the place where Henry VII.’s younger children were living, under the care of tutors and ladies. Princess Margaret, the eldest, afterwards queen of Scotland, stood solemnly beside her brother Henry, aged nine, who received them with the grand manner he could always put on when he chose. Princess Mary, at that time four years old, was kneeling on the floor playing with her dog, and paid no heed to the visitors, whom she thought old and dull. Erasmus was astonished to notice More present prince Henry with a roll on which something, he could not tell what, was written. The prince took it with a smile, and then looked at Erasmus, who guessed directly that a similar offering was expected from him also; and this was confirmed by a message sent him by Henry while the guests were dining, to say how much he hoped to receive some remembrance of the visit of the great scholar. The Dutchman, thus pressed, returned answer that had he dreamed his highness would value any work from his poor pen, he would certainly have prepared himself, but having been taken by surprise, he could only ask grace for three days, by which time he would have composed a poem, however unworthy.

The poem when written was of some length, and full of the praises of the king, his country, and his children. It does not sound amusing, and probably Henry, content with possessing what in these days we should call ‘Erasmus’s autograph,’ did not trouble himself to read much of it.

[Erasmus was astonished to notice More present Prince Henry with a rollFor three years More held his readership; then he seems to have had a wish to become a priest, and, in his son-in-law’s words, ‘gave himself to devotion and prayer in the Charterhouse of London, religiously living there, without vow, about four years.’

Religious More remained all his life, but at the end of the four years he felt that his place was in the world rather than in a monastery, and this decision was largely helped by a visit he paid to master Colt in Essex, a gentleman with three daughters. ‘Albeit,’ says Roper, ‘his mind most served him to the second daughter, for that he thought her the fairest and best favoured, yet when he considered that it would be both great grief and some shame also to the eldest to see her younger sister preferred before her in marriage, he then, of a certain pity, framed his fancy toward her and married her.’

This was indeed being good-natured and obliging, and one hopes that the bride never guessed the reason why he had asked her to be his wife. The young couple settled down in Bucklersbury in the City, and More continued his studies at Lincoln’s Inn and his attendance at Westminster, for he had been elected a member of Parliament almost as soon as he left the Charterhouse and before his marriage. Very early he had given proof that he did not intend ‘to pin his conscience to another man’s back’ by refusing to vote for a large grant of money demanded by Henry VII. as a dowry for his eldest daughter. Chiefly owing to More, the grant was refused, and ‘the king,’ according to Roper, ‘conceiving great indignation towards him, could not be satisfied until he had in some way revenged it. And for as much as he (Thomas) nothing having, nothing could lose, his grace (the king) devised a causeless quarrel against his father (the elder More), keeping him in the Tower till he had made him pay a hundred pounds fine.’

No doubt it was very hard for the More family to raise the money, and Thomas’s heart was hot with wrath. He angrily spurned various attempts made to gain him over, and ‘for some time thought of leaving England and trying his fortune in other lands.’ In fact, he did pay a short visit both to the Low Countries and to Paris, but he could not make up his mind to settle in either, and decided that he could do better for his wife and small children by continuing his practice at the Bar. The next year Henry VII. died, and More hoped that a new era was beginning.

The household in Bucklersbury was as happy as any that could have been found in London. Its mistress, Joan Colt, was, when she married, a country girl, cleverer at making possets and drying herbs than at reading books or playing on the viol. But More, who charmed everybody, easily charmed his wife, and to please him she studied whatever books he gave her, and worked hard at her music. But after five years she died, leaving him with four babies, Margaret, Elizabeth, Cicely, and John, and in a few months More saw himself obliged to marry again. This time he chose a widow with a daughter of her own – a lady ‘neither young nor handsome,’ as he tells Erasmus – but an excellent housekeeper, and the best of mothers to his children.

More soon became known not only as an honest man above all bribery, but as a generous one who would often refuse to take payment for pleading the cause of a poor man or a widow. His practice at the Bar increased, and he was made a judge, or under-sheriff, his income reaching 400l. a year, which would now be reckoned about 5,000l. He needed it all, for besides his own four children and his stepdaughter he had adopted another girl. This girl, Margaret Gigs, afterwards married a learned man, Dr. Clements, who lived in More’s house, and probably shared with John Harris the duties of secretary and of tutor in Greek and Latin to the children. We must not forget either the ‘fool,’ Henry Patenson, or Sir Thomas’s special friend and confidant, William Roper, by-and-by to be the husband of More’s favourite daughter, Margaret, and the man to whom his heart opened more freely than to anyone else.

It naturally took a good deal of money to support this large household and to save something for the children, as well as to bestow a tenth part of his income on the poor, as was More’s rule through life. His charity did not consist in giving to everyone that asked, thereby doing more harm than good, but he went himself to the cottage to make sure that the tale he heard was true, and then would gladly spend what was needed to set the family in the way of earning their own living. If they proved to be ill, dame Alice, whose heart was soft though her words were harsh, would bid one of the girls take them nourishing food or possets, and often the poor pensioners would be invited to the house, to share the family dinner. At other times the guests would be men of learning, such as Colet, afterwards dean of St. Paul’s, and founder of St. Paul’s School, now moved to Hammersmith; Linacre or Grocyn, old friends of long ago; and of course Erasmus, if he happened to be in London. Poor dame Alice must have had a dull time of it, for while the room rang with merry jests in Latin, flavoured sometimes with a little Greek, and even the children could join in the laughter, she alone was ignorant of the matter, and felt as a deaf man feels when he watches people dancing to music that he cannot hear. She must have welcomed the moment when they left the table, and she could show off the skill she had gained since her marriage on four musical instruments, on which, to please her husband, she practised daily – for no man ever lived who was as clever as Sir Thomas in coaxing people to do as he wished. Quite meekly, though she had a quick temper, she bore his teasing remarks as he watched her ‘binding up her hair to make her a fair large forehead, and with strait-bracing in her body to make her middle small, both twain to her great pain’; while she on her part was frequently vexed that he ‘refused to go forward with the best,’ and had no wish ‘greatly to get upward in the world.’

Yet, in spite of the modesty which vexed his wife so much, More’s fame grew daily wider. The king, Henry VIII., who at this time was at his best, had always kept an eye on him, and soon bade Wolsey seek him out. Now More and Wolsey were so different in their ways and in their views that they could never have become real friends, for while Wolsey was ambitious, More was always content with what he had, and never desired to thrust himself into notice. At first he resisted the cardinal’s advances; but rudeness was impossible to him, and as there was no means of checking Wolsey’s persistence, he had to put aside his own feelings and appear both at the cardinal’s house and at court. Indeed, such good company did Henry find him that, as quick to take fancies as he was to tire of them, he would hardly allow the poor man to spend an evening alone, so Sir Thomas in despair gave up being amusing, and sat silent, though no doubt with a twinkle in his eye, resisting all the king’s efforts to make him speak, till at length everyone grew weary of him, and his place was filled by some livelier man.

How Sir Thomas laughed, and what funny stories he told about it all, when he had gained his object, at his own table.

[Sir Thomas sat silent]So the years slipped by, and brought with them many unsought honours to Sir Thomas. Several times he was sent abroad on missions which needed an honest man, as well as a shrewd one, to carry them through. Sometimes he was the envoy of the citizens of London, sometimes of the king himself, and he was present at the wonderful display of magnificence known to history as ‘The Field of the Cloth of Gold’ – the meeting of Francis of France, Henry of England, and the emperor Charles V. He had remained in London during the fearful time of the sweating sickness, to which people would fall victims while opening a window, playing with their children, or even lying asleep. Death followed almost at once, and ‘if the half in every town escaped it was thought great favour.’ It spared the house in Bishopsgate in which More had for some time been living, and where he stayed till, four years later, he moved to a country place at Chelsea.

Few men have held more dignities than Sir Thomas More, or have earned greater respect in the holding. Within eight years he was Under-Treasurer, or, as we should say, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Speaker of the House of Commons, and finally Lord Chancellor. Even dame Alice must have been satisfied; but her content only lasted three years, as by that time events had occurred which made it necessary either for Sir Thomas to resign the Great Seal always entrusted to the lord chancellor, or else ‘to tie his conscience to another man’s back,’ and that back the king’s.

In 1531 Henry had decided to divorce his wife, Katherine of Aragon, and to marry in her stead the beautiful Anne Boleyn. His desire met with violent opposition from almost all churchmen, and from many statesmen, among whom was Sir Thomas More. The pope, of course, entirely refused his consent to any such violation of the law, and Henry, whom resistance only made more obstinate, suddenly resolved to cut himself off altogether from Rome, and declare that he, and not the pope, was the head of the English church. This meant that he could do as he pleased and make his own laws, and he lost no time in demanding the assent of Parliament to his new claim, and afterwards that of the clergy. Once these were obtained, there would be nothing to hinder him from divorcing his first wife and marrying his second. In fact, he would be his own pope.

For a year the battle raged fiercely, and More watched anxiously for the issue. He withdrew himself as far as possible from the king, and kept as much as might be to his own business. At length Henry was victorious. The greater part of the clergy cast off their allegiance to the pope and took the oath required by the king. Sir Thomas saw and understood, and placed his resignation as lord chancellor in the hands of his sovereign.

The loss of his office left More a poor man, and to support the whole family in Chelsea he had only an income of 1,200l. a year. To his great regret, he felt he could no longer lead the easy, happy life that had been so pleasant to him. So the various married men, husbands of the girls of the house, took away their wives and sought employment elsewhere. Only the Ropers remained at hand.

Sir Thomas himself was glad enough to be free of his duties, and to have time to read books and to prepare himself for the trial of faith that was sure to come, though at present the king had only fair words for him, and the clergy had subscribed a large sum as a proof of the esteem in which they held him. More was much touched and pleased with this gift, but he refused to accept it, or to allow his family to do so; instead, he sold his plate and bade dame Alice be careful of her household expenses.

If left to himself, Henry might perhaps have allowed Sir Thomas, whom he undoubtedly liked, to remain in peace, but his absence from her coronation rankled deep in Anne Boleyn’s heart. The late chancellor was a man of mark in the sight of Europe, and could count famous men of all nations among his friends. If he could not be gained over, he must be punished, for the eyes of England were upon him, and he had but to hold up his hand for many to follow. So he was one of the first bidden to take the oath, swearing to put aside the claims of the princess Mary, daughter of Katherine of Aragon, and to settle the crown on the children of the new queen.

It was in April 1534 that More was summoned before the royal commissioners, consisting of Audley, who had succeeded him in the chancellorship, the abbot of Westminster, Thomas Cromwell as secretary of state, and Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury. At More’s own request, the Act of Succession, as it was called, was given into his hand, and he read it through. When he had finished, he informed the commissioners that he had nothing to say as to the Act itself or to the people that took the oath, but that he himself must refuse.

It was probably no more than they expected; but Audley replied that he was very sorry for it, as no man before had declined to swear, and that Sir Thomas might see for himself the names of those who had already signed, whose consciences were perhaps as tender as his own. More glanced down the long roll unfolded before him, but only repeated his answer, nor could any persuasions induce him to give a different one. He was willing, it seems, to take an oath of obedience to the sovereign and his successors, but what he would not do was to swear that the king was the head of the church, and some words declaring this had been introduced – whether carelessly or wilfully we do not know – into the Act of Succession, with which they had nothing to do. It was his refusal to take this part of the oath which caused the downfall of More.

For four days Sir Thomas remained a prisoner in the care of the abbot of Westminster; then he was sent to the Tower. Sir Richard Southwell conveyed him there and placed him under the custody of the lieutenant of the Tower, Sir Edmund Walsingham, an old friend of the More family. As appears to have been the custom, his cap and outside gown were taken from him and kept by the porter, and a man set to spy upon his actions. This was sorely against the wishes of his gaoler, who would fain have made More’s captivity in the Beauchamp Tower as light as might be; but at first it was needful to be very strict, lest inquiries should be made. Later, he was for a while allowed writing materials; he went to church in St. Peter ad Vincula, where so many famous captives lie buried, and occasionally walked in the garden, or took exercise in the narrow walk outside his cell. By-and-by, too, occasional visits from his family were permitted; his stepdaughter, lady Alington, came to see him, and so did her mother, dame Alice, More’s daughter-in-law Anne, and most frequently of all his daughter Margaret.

With these indulgences he might have been content, for all his life he had made the best of things, but the expenses of his captivity weighed on his soul. The barest food for himself and his servant cost him fifteen shillings a week (over 5l. now), and some months later, when he was convicted of high treason and the lands granted him by the king were taken from him, his wife was forced to sell her own clothes so that the money might be paid. But this, we may hope, she kept from Sir Thomas, whose body was bent and broken by painful diseases, though his spirit was as cheerful as ever. He could even ‘inwardly’ laugh at dame Alice when she came to see him for complaining that she would die for want of air if she was left all night in a locked cell, when ‘he knew full well that every night she shut her own chamber, both doors and windows, and what was the difference if the doors were locked or not?’ But he durst not laugh aloud nor say anything to her, for, indeed, he stood somewhat in awe of her.

Most of the hours were passed during the first months of his captivity in writing books in English or Latin; but when pen and paper were taken from him, and he could only scribble a few words with the end of a charred stick, he had plenty of time to think over his life and to recall the years that had been so happy. The harsh words that he had written about men whose religion was different from his own did not trouble him, nor the thought of the imprisonment to which he had sentenced many of them. In those days everyone held his own religion to be right, and any that differed from it to be wrong, and though Sir Thomas never would, and never did, send any man to the block for his faith, yet he would have considered that he had failed in his duty had he left them at liberty to teach their ‘wicked opinions.’ So his mind did not dwell upon those things, but rather upon his coming death, which he well foresaw, and upon the old days in Bishopsgate and Chelsea, when he would examine his children in the lessons they had learned, or set all the girls to write letters in Latin to his friend Erasmus, that he might see which of them proved to have the most skill. From time to time during this year efforts were made to gain him over to the side of the king, who would have given him almost anything he asked as the price of his conscience. Even Margaret Roper joined with the rest, and begged him to consider whether it was not his duty to obey the Parliament, and to remember that it was possible that he might be mistaken in his refusal, as so many good men and true had taken the oath. But nothing would move Sir Thomas.

['What now, Mother Eve?' he answered.]‘What now, Mother Eve?’ he answered. ‘Sit not musing with some serpent in your breast, or some new persuasion to offer Father Adam the apple yet once again.’

‘I have sworn myself,’ said she, and at this More laughed and replied:

‘That was like Eve, too, for she offered Adam no worse fruit than she had eaten herself.’

Finding that his daughter’s persuasions were useless, the king and council sent Cromwell to see if by fair words or threats he could induce More to declare that the king was head of the church. But, try as he might, nothing either treasonable or submissive could be wrung from the prisoner.

‘I am the king’s true, faithful subject, and pray for his highness, and all his, and all the realm,’ said Sir Thomas. ‘I do nobody none harm, I say none harm, I think none harm, but wish everybody good, and if this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith I long not to live. And I am dying already, and have since I came here been many times in the case that I thought to die within one hour. And therefore my poor body is at the king’s pleasure.’ Then Cromwell took his leave ‘full gently,’ promising to make report to the king.

Lord Cromwell having failed also, the whole council next came and put forth all their skill, with no better result; and it was then determined to bring Sir Thomas out of the Tower, and to try him at Westminster on the charge of treason. Neither the prisoner nor the judges had any doubt as to what the verdict would be; but whatever his thoughts as to the future, More must have rejoiced to be rowing once more on the Thames, with the air and sunlight all around him, and after a year’s confinement even the sight of Westminster Hall and the assembly met together, as he knew, to doom him would have been full of interest. He was allowed a chair, for his legs were so swollen that he could hardly have stood; and then began the trial which a late lord chancellor has called ‘the blackest crime under the name of the law ever committed in England.’ At the close, sentence was passed. More had been proved guilty of treason, and was to be hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn.

The constable of the Tower, Sir William Kingston, Sir Thomas’s ‘very dear friend,’ conducted the condemned man back to prison, and so sorrowful was the constable’s face that any man would have thought that it was he who was condemned to death. Margaret Roper was waiting on the wharf, and as her father landed from the barge she flung herself into his arms, ‘having neither respect to herself, nor to the press of people that were about him.’ He whispered some words of comfort and gave her his blessing, and ‘the beholding thereof was to many present so lamentable that it made them to weep.’

The last shame of hanging was after all not inflicted on him, and the King decreed that his faithful servant and merry companion should be executed on Tower Hill, like the rest of the men whose bodies lie in the church of St. Peter ad Vincula within the Tower walls. The day before his beheading Sir Thomas wrote with a charred stick to Margaret, leaving her the hair shirt he had always worn under his clothes, and messages and little remembrances to the rest of the old household. Oddly enough, his wife is never mentioned.

Very early in the morning of July 6 the king sent Sir Thomas Pope to tell More he was to die before the clock struck nine, and to say that ‘he was not to use many words’ on the scaffold, evidently fearing lest the minds of the crowd might be stirred up to avenge his murder.

More answered that he had never meant to say anything at which the king could be offended, and begged that his daughter Margaret might be present at his burial. Pope replied that the king had given permission for his wife and children and any other of his friends to be there, and Sir Thomas thanked him, and then put on a handsome dress of silk which had been provided on purpose by the Italian Bonvisi.

But Sir Thomas was not allowed to be at peace during the short walk between the Beauchamp Tower and the block, for he was beset first by a woman who wished to know where he had put some papers of hers when he was sent to prison, and then by a second, upbraiding him with a judgment he had given against her when he was chancellor.

‘I remember you well, and should give judgment against you still,’ said he; but at length the crowd was kept back, and a path was kept to the scaffold.

Roper was there, watching, and he noticed that the ladder leading to the platform was very unsteady. Sir Thomas noticed it too, and with his foot on the first step turned and said to the lieutenant of the Tower:

‘I pray thee see me safe up, and for my coming down let me shift for myself.’

When he reached the top, he knelt down and prayed; then rising, kissed the executioner, and said:

‘Pluck up thy spirits, man, and be not afraid to do thine office. My neck is very short, take heed therefore thou strike not awry.’ As he spoke, he drew out a handkerchief he had brought with him, and, binding it over his eyes, he stretched himself out on the platform and laid his head on the block.

Thus died Sir Thomas More, because he would not tie his conscience to another man’s back, for he had no enemies save those who felt that this courage put them to shame, and he had striven all his life to do harm to no one. After his death, his head, as was the custom, was placed on a stake, and shown as the head of a traitor on London Bridge for a month, till Margaret Roper bribed a man to steal it for her, and, wrapping it round with spices, she hid it in a safe place. It is possible that she laid it in a vault belonging to the Roper family, in Saint Dunstan’s Church in Canterbury, but she herself lies with her mother, in the old church of Chelsea, where Sir Thomas ‘did mind to be buried.’

What the king’s feelings were when he heard that the act of vengeance had been accomplished we know not, but the emperor Charles V. spoke his mind plainly to the English ambassador, Sir Thomas Eliott.

‘My Lord ambassador, we understand that the king your master hath put his faithful servant Sir Thomas More to death.’

Whereupon Sir Thomas Eliott answered ‘that he understood nothing thereof.’

‘Well,’ said the emperor, ‘it is too true; and this we will say, that had we been master of such a servant, of whose doings ourselves have had these many years no small experience, we would rather have lost the best city of our dominions than such a worthy counsellor.’

- from The Red Book of Heroes, by Mrs Lang, 1909