Gateway to the Classics: English Literature for Boys and Girls by H. E. Marshall
English Literature for Boys and Girls by  H. E. Marshall

The Death of Sir Thomas More

T HERE is much that is quaint, much that is deeply wise, in More's Utopia,  still no one is likely to agree with all he says, or to think that we could all be happy in a world such as he describes. For one thing, to those of us who love color it would seem a dull world indeed were we all forced to dress in coarse-spun, undyed sheep's wool, and if jewels and gold with all their lovely lights and gleamings were but the signs of degradation. Each one who reads it may find something in the Utopia  that he would rather have otherwise. But each one, too, will find something to make him think.

More was not the first to write about a happy land where every one lived in peace and where only justice reigned. And if he got some of his ideas of the island from the discoveries of the New World, he got many more from the New Learning. For long before, Plato, a Greek writer, had told of a land very like Utopia in his book called the Republic.  And the New Learning had made that book known to the people of England.

We think of the Utopia  as English Literature, yet we must remember that More wrote it in Latin, and it was not translated into English until several years after his death. The first English translation was made by Ralph Robinson, and although since then there have been other translations which in some ways are more correct, there has never been one with more charm. For Robinson's quaint English keeps for us something of the spirit of More's time and of More's self in a way no modern and more perfect translation can.

The Utopia  was not written for one time or for one people. Even before it was translated into English it had been translated into Dutch, Italian, German, and French and was largely read all over the Continent. It is still read to-day by all who are interested in the life of the people, by all who think that in "this best of all possible worlds" things might still be made better.

More wrote many other books both in English and in Latin and besides being a busy author he led a busy life. For blustering, burly, selfish King Henry loved the gentle witty lawyer, and again and again made use of his wits. "And so from time to time was he by the King advanced, continuing in his singular favour and trusty service twenty years and above."

It was not only for his business cleverness that King Henry loved Sir Thomas. It was for his merry, witty talk. When business was done and supper-time came, the King and Queen would call for him "to be merry with them." Thus it came about that Sir Thomas could hardly ever get home to his wife and children, where he most longed to be. Then he began to pretend to be less clever than he was, so that the King might not want so much of his company. But Henry would sometimes follow More to his home at Chelsea, where he had built a beautiful house. Sometimes he came quite unexpectedly to dinner. Once he came, "and after dinner, in a fair garden of his, walked with him by the space of an hour, holding his arm about his neck." As soon as the King was gone, More's son-in-law said to him that he should be happy seeing the King was so friendly with him, for with no other man was he so familiar, not even with Wolsey.

"I thank our Lord," answered More, "I find in his Grace a very good lord indeed, and I believe he doth as singularly favour me as any subject within the realm. Howbeit, son Roper, I may tell thee, I have no cause to be proud thereof, for if my head would win him a castle in France it should not fail to go."

And Sir Thomas was not wrong. Meanwhile, however, the King heaped favor upon him. He became Treasurer of the Exchequer, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and last of all Lord Chancellor of England. This was a very great honor. And as More was a layman the honor was for him greater than usual. For he was the first layman to be made Chancellor. Until then the Chancellor had always been some powerful Churchman.

More was not eager for these honors. He would much rather have lived a simple family life, but bluff King Hal was no easy master to serve. If he chose to honor a man and set him high, that man could but submit. So, as Erasmus says, More was dragged into public life and honor, and being thus dragged in troubles were not slow to follow.

Henry grew tired of his wife, Queen Catherine, but the Pope would not allow him to divorce her so that he might marry another. Then Henry quarreled with the Pope. The Pope, he said, should no longer have power in England. He should no longer be head of the Church, but the people must henceforth look to the King as such. This More could not do. He tried to keep out of the quarrel. He was true to his King as king, but he felt that he must be true to his religion too. To him the Pope was the representative of Christ on earth, and he could look to no other as head of the Church. When first More had come into the King's service, Henry bade him "first look unto God, and after God unto him." Of this his Chancellor now reminded him, and laying down his seal of office he went home, hoping to live the rest of his days in peace.

But that was not to be. "It is perilous striving with princes," said a friend. "I would wish you somewhat to incline to the King's pleasure. The anger of princes is death."

"Is that all?" replied More calmly; "then in good faith the difference between you and me is but this, that I shall die to-day and you to-morrow."

So it fell out. There came a day when messengers came to More's happy home, and the beloved father was led away to imprisonment and death.

For fifteen months he was kept in the Tower. During all that time his cheerful steadfastness did not waver. He wrote long letters to his children, and chiefly to Meg, his best-loved daughter. When pen and ink were taken away from him, he still wrote with coal. In these months he became an old man, bent and crippled with disease. But though his body was feeble his mind was clear, his spirit bright as ever. No threats or promises could shake his purpose. He could not and would not own Henry as head of the Church.

At last the end came. In Westminster Hall More was tried for treason and found guilty. From Westminster through the thronging streets he was led back again to the Tower. In front of the prisoner an ax was carried, the edge being turned towards him. That was the sign to all who saw that he was to die.

As the sad procession reached the Tower Wharf there was a pause. A young and beautiful woman darted from the crowd, and caring not for the soldiers who surrounded him, unafraid of their swords and halberds, she reached the old man's side, and threw herself sobbing on his breast. In was Margaret, More's beloved daughter, who, fearing that never again she might see her father, thus came in the open street to say farewell. She clung to him and kissed him in sight of all again and again, but no word could she say save, "Oh, my father! oh, my father!"

Then Sir Thomas, holding her tenderly, comforted and blessed her, and at last she took her arms from about his neck and he passed on. But Margaret could not yet leave him. Scarcely had she gone ten steps than suddenly she turned back. Once more breaking through the guard she threw her arms about him. Not a word did Sir Thomas say, but as he held her there the tears fell fast from his eyes, while from the crowd around broke the sound of weeping. Even the guards wept for pity. But at last, with full and heavy hearts, father and daughter parted.

"Dear Meg," Sir Thomas wrote for the last time, "I never liked your manner better towards me than when you kissed me last. For I like when daughterly love and dear charity hath no leisure to look to worldly courtesy."

Next day he died cheerfully as he had lived. To the last he jested in his quaint fashion. The scaffold was so badly built that it was ready to fall, so Sir Thomas, jesting, turned to the lieutenant. "I pray you, Master Lieutenant," he said, "see me safe up, and for my coming down let me shift for myself." He desired the people to pray for him, and having kissed the executioner in token of forgiveness, he laid his head upon the block. "So passed Sir Thomas More out of the world to God." His death was mourned by many far and near. "Had we been master of such a servant," said the Emperor Charles when he heard of it, "we would rather have lost the best city of our dominions than have lost such a worthy counselor."

More died for his faith, that of the Catholic Church. He, as others, saw with grief that there was much within the Church that needed to be made better, but he trusted it would be made better. To break away from the Church, to doubt the headship of the Pope, seemed to him such wickedness that he hated the Reformers and wrote against them. And although in Utopia he allowed his happy people to have full freedom in matters of religion, in real life he treated sternly and even cruelly those Protestants with whom he had to deal.

Yet the Reformation was stirring all the world, and while Sir Thomas More cheerfully and steadfastly died for the Catholic faith, there were others in England who as cheerfully lived, worked, and died for the Protestant faith. We have little to do with these Reformers in this book, except in so far as they touch our literature, and it is to them that we owe our present Bible.

First William Tyndale, amid difficulties and trials, translated afresh the New and part of the Old Testament, and died the death of a martyr in 1536.

Miles Coverdale followed him with a complete translation in happier times. For Henry VIII, for his own purposes, wished to spread a knowledge of the Bible, and commanded that a copy of Coverdale's Bible should be placed in every parish church. And although Coverdale was not so great a scholar as Tyndale, his language was fine and stately, with a musical ring about the words, and to this day we still keep his version of the Psalms in the Prayer Book.

Other versions of the Bible followed these, until in 1611, in the reign of James I and VI, the translation which we use to-day was at length published. That has stood and still stands the test of time. And, had we no other reason to treasure it, we would still for its simple musical language look upon it as one of the fine things in our literature.

Books To Read

Life of Sir Thomas More  (King's Classics, modern English), by W. Roper (his son-in-law).

Utopia  (King's Classics, modern English), translated by R. Robinson.

Utopia  (old English), edited by Churton Collins.

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