Monday, November 25, 2002

More on the King’s Good Servants

Thomas More was not the only one to suffer in the tribulations brought on by King Henry VIII's "great matter." Others suffered with him, before him, and in the manner of their death, much more horribly. This is the story of a few brave men and one remarkably heroic woman: the monks of the Carthusian Abbey, and More's adopted daughter Margaret Clements, nee Gigs. Extended excerpts from Mr. Chambers' book will be in blockquotes, shorter ones in standard quotes, and single quotes (') indicate excerpts from William Roper's account.

...But about the time that Fisher and More were committed to the Tower, in the spring of 1534, Commissioners demanded the oath from the Prior of the London Charterhouse, John Houghton. He refused, and, with the Steward of the Community, Humphrey Middlemore, he was sent to the Tower. But after a month they were persuaded to relent, largely through the influence of their bishop. They were released, and some kind of oath was sworn by the Community, apparently with the saving clause 'so far as lawful'.

'Our hour is not yet come,' Houghton told his brethren, 'but within a year I shall complete my course.' Great as More's sufferings had been, those which now beset Prior Houghton were beyond measure greater...Houghton was responsible for a Community of some thirty choir monks and lay-brethren; and under the Act of Treasons he was faced..not merely by an ignominious death, but by the horror of leaving his Community unprotected; it might be dissolved, and his monks cast upon the world. 'What shall I say, brethren, or what shall I do, if at the Judgement I can show no fruit of those whom God has given me?' 'Let us die in our simplicity,' his monks replied; and Prior Houghton would gladly have led them out to one common martyrdom. 'But,' he said, 'I do not think that they mean to do so much good to us, or so much harm to themselves.' He saw that the Court policy would be to kill him and the seniors, and then to win over the younger monks, many of whom were well-born, by contact with their courtly kinsfolk. The Prior ordered three days of solemn preparation for the coming trial; the first was a day of general confession. On the second, Prior Houghton knelt in the Chapter House before each monk in succession, from the senior at his side to the last lay brother, asking forgiveness for any offence; and one by one his monks did likewise before each other. On the third day, whilst Houghton was celebrating Mass, there 'came a soft whisper of air, which some perceived with their bodily senses, while all experienced its sweet influence upon their hearts.' The words are those of Maurice Chauncey, the historian of the Community, who must himself have been present. Houghton was so overcome that for some time he was unable to continue the Mass.

Houghton was the head of the Carthusians in England, and the heads of two other houses had come to London to seek his counsel. The three visited Secretary Cromwell to set forth their difficulties. How, they asked, could a layman be Head of the Church of England? And Cromwell retorted, "You would make the King a priest then?" and sent all three to the Tower.

Richard Reynolds, of the Monastery of Sion, had also denied the Supremacy, and was sent to the Tower....He was the most learned monk in England, skilled in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew; a man of 'angelic spirit and of angelic countenance'. On 20 April Robert Laurence of Beauvale, Augustine Webster of Axholme, and Richard Reynolds of Sion were again interrogated, and said that they could not take the King to be Supreme Head. On 26 April Houghton, Laurence, Webster, and Reynolds repeated their refusal. Preparations were already being made for the Special Commission which was to try them, consisting of the Chancellor Audeley {More's successor}, Norfolk, Cromwell, and nearly a score of the leading peers and judges....All four, whilst refusing to take the King as Supreme Head, pleaded 'not guilty' on the ground that they were not refusing 'maliciously'. It was on this one word, which had been inserted into the statute to save them and men like them, that the lives, not only of these four monks, but of Fisher and More also, were now depending.

At trial, the monks repeated their position, and the jury, believing them, would not condemn them. At this, the judges rendered the Statute's wording null and void by admonishing the jury that "whosoever denied the Supremacy denied it maliciously," yet still the jury would not condemn, inspiring Cromwell to appear before them, in a rage, and threatening them with death.

And so, being overcome by his threats, they found them Guilty, and had great thanks; but they were afterward ashamed to show their faces, and some of them took great thought for it....Reynolds asked his judges to obtain for him a few days' respite that he might prepare his conscience, and die like a good monk.

More, in the meantime, was further examined in the tower, with Cromwell pressing hard on the King's behalf, telling More that, since Parliament had made Henry Supreme Head, the King would know More's mind on the matter. "Whereunto I answered," said More in a letter to Margaret, "that in good faith I had well trusted that the King's highness would never have commanded any such question to be demanded of me.." He went on to say that he was the King's true and faithful subject, that he prayed for him daily, but that "neither would he meddle in the world again, to have the world given me... but that my whole study should be upon the passion of Christ, and mine own passage out of this world." But, of course, Cromwell persisted, saying it was More's demeanor that made others "so stiff as they be," to which More reasserted his faithfulness to the King, and that he was innocent of having interfered with other men's consciences in this affair (for the Carthusian resistance was seen as tied to his own, and to Fisher's), and concluded by saying:

"I do nobody no 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 divers times in the case that I thought to die within one hour. And I thank our Lord I was never sorry for it, but rather sorry when I saw the pang past. And therefore my poor body is at the King's pleasure. Would God my death would do him some good."

Even the relentless Cromwell was moved by this, and assured More "full gently" that no advantage would be taken of anything he had said.

Margaret Roper was allowed to visit More in the Tower, probably at an hour of Cromwell's choosing, for together they watched the Carthusians set off on their "terrible journey to Tyburn." And, according to Margaret, her father was as one "longing in that journey to have accompanied them." For, in his own words, "....see, mine own good daughter, what a great difference there is between such as have in effect spent all their days in a straight, hard, penitential and painful life religiously, and such as have in this world, like worldly wretches, as thy poor father hath done, consumed all their time in pleasure and ease licentiously."

The fate of the monks...

roused consternation and admiration as news of it passed to the different capitals of Europe. They were dragged on hurdles, in their religious habits, to Tyburn, where the Duke of Norfolk, and a crowd of noblemen and courtiers were assembled. Houghton was offered pardon if he would submit to the King's laws. He refused...lest he should offend the Majesty of God. He was hanged, cut down, and disemboweled while still alive; as his entrails were torn out, he was heard to say gently, "Oh, most merciful Jesus, have pity upon me in this hour!" The other monks had to watch his tortures, and, as each awaited his turn, also those of their fellows....Reynolds, last to die, spoke at length to the thousands assembled, without any sign of distress or fear...

And yet, "...the resistance of the London Charterhouse had not been broken. After the death of their Prior, the leadership fell into the hands of the surviving officials, Middlemore and Exmewe...and Sebastian Newdigate, who had been a courtier and favourite of Henry..." All three were brought before Cromwell, refused to acknowledge the King's Supremacy, and were taken to the Tower of London...

'where they remained seventeen days, standing bolt upright, tied with iron collars fast by the necks to the posts of the prison, and great fetters fast rived on their legs with great iron bolts; so straitly tied that they could neither lie nor sit, nor otherwise ease themselves, but stand upright, and in all that space were they never loosed for any natural necessity.' On June 19th, they were executed at Tyburn in their religious habits, and with the same barbarities as their Prior had suffered. was not till after another two years of struggle that almost half the monks were persuaded to submit. Ten who remained obdurate were sent to Newgate, where, as one of Henry's clerics said, they were 'despatched by the hand of God': that is to say, they were tied to posts, as Middlemore, Exmewe and Newdigate had been, but in this case they were left to their fate. For many days they were fed by More's adopted daughter, Margaret Gigs. Her husband, John Clement, was now court physician, and she bribed the gaoler to allow her to enter the prison disguised as a milkmaid, 'with a great pail upon her head full of meat, wherewith she fed that blessed company, putting meat into their mouths, they being tied and not able to stir, nor to help themselves; which having done, she afterwards took from them their natural filth.' When the terrified gaoler refused to admit her anymore, she made unsuccessful efforts to feed the prisoners from the roof. All but one died, 'what with the stink and want of food'. The survivor, a lay brother, William Horn, was removed to the Tower. Five years after the death of his companions, he was still refusing to recognize the Supremacy. So he was drawn to Tyburn, and died under the knife of the executioner at the same time as More's son-in-law, Giles Heron. Thirty-five years to a day after the death of More, Margaret Clement, 'not less dear to him than a daughter', lay dying in exile at Mechlin. But it was not the figure of More that hovered before her dying eyes on the Utas of St. Peter, 1570. 'Calling her husband, she told him that the time of her departing was now come, for that there were standing about her bed the Reverend Fathers, monks of the Chartehouse, whom she had relieved in prison in England, and did call upon her to come away with them, and that therefore she could stay no longer, because they did expect her.'

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