Authors: Peter Ackroyd
In the early months of 1525 the battle of Pavia had set the seal upon Imperial ascendancy: the French king was captured and some eight thousand of his troops killed. But Charles V was not magnanimous in victory; there had been great official rejoicing in London on news of the defeat of Francis, yet the emperor refused to assist Henry in any further invasion of French soil. So it was time finally to change sides, and More was deputed to be one of the principal negotiators in arranging a proper
truce with France. It was More, also, who signed as one of the witnesses of a final treaty in the summer of 1525. For his part in successfully concluding the new alliance, the French king (or, rather, his proxies) granted him an annual pension of 150 crowns. So ended England’s active participation in warfare; Henry would not intervene militarily in European affairs for another two decades.
Throughout these years of turbulence and division More continued to work in close collaboration with Henry and Wolsey, just as he had done when he was Speaker of the Commons. He was one of the three or four people in the kingdom who realised the true direction of affairs; in particular, he knew the extent to which Henry and Wolsey were playing devious games in order to protect England’s position in European matters. Perhaps this is reason enough to explain his involvement in various dubious strategies: he was genuinely concerned that the safety and honour of his country be protected. Of course he preferred peace to war, and he may have believed that Wolsey’s policy was designed to create peace. And, if modern historians are to be trusted, he may well have been correct in that belief. Whether More was an active maker of policy or a particularly brilliant counsellor who obeyed the orders of his superiors as a ‘bounden duty’ cannot now be established, although the available evidence suggests the latter.
Some of that evidence emerges in the period when More was engaged in negotiations with the French ambassadors. An envoy who had been sent on a parallel mission to Spain, Sir Richard Wingfield, died in Toledo in the summer of 1525 from a fever. Wolsey learned in August that ‘it hath pleased Almighty God to call Mr Wingfield out of this present life’.
One of the posts which Wingfield had held was that of chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and, later in the year, it was offered to More; he in turn resigned the office of under-treasurer, which was granted to Sir William Compton. A smaller duchy appointment, also previously held by Wingfield, was given to Sir William Kingston; but it is a measure of More’s influence that William Roper, one of the More household, became Kingston’s deputy.
The post of chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was not an ancient one, having been established in the early fifteenth century to protect and preserve the income from royal lands, but it was important; in the reign of Elizabeth it was described as ‘one of the most famous princeliest and
stateliest pieces of the Queen’s inheritance’.
The estates of the duchy lay in Lancashire, Yorkshire and Staffordshire, as well as in Kent and parts of London itself; there were also some thirty or forty livings within the gift of the chancellor of the duchy and his salary has been reckoned at £160 (with various additional unknown sums).
In no sense, then, was this a demotion of More at the behest of a jealous Wolsey, as previous biographers have suggested. Since More possessed greater independence and judicial authority in this new role, it might even be considered a promotion as a result of his successful negotiations with the French earlier in the year.
His first responsibility was to preside in the Court of the Duchy Chamber, in an upstairs room of Westminster Hall, and for the next four years he heard cases of trespass, theft, arson, tolls, elections and murder, as well as the various suits over the ownership of land. ‘In ffull humble wyse Complanynge’, the clerk of the court at Wigan testified that one defendant in an action for debt had seized the records of the court and ‘Threst them’ into the eyes of the clerk. Then, ‘contenuynge in hys ungracyus fury Tok a gret Staf in hys hande … and said that yf eny of them ull come nere hym that he should Brayn them’.
More ordered him to appear before him at Westminster. A farmer of the king’s coal mines in Burnley complained that about eighty tenants, pleading ancient rights, ‘brake and hewed in pieces’ the coal beds there.
One defendant argued that they had used no violence and carried no weapons except those that ‘had staves with them as they used when going to Church, for it was a procession day in “gange” week’.
It was the day to walk the bounds of the parish, but such a pious excuse did not conciliate More; commissioners were sent to investigate the matter and, over a year later, he gave the judgment. ‘Memorandum, it ys ordered that every of the persones above namyd shall pay to the kynges farmor ii s iii d for every fother [or cart-load of coal] above expressid.’
It is signed in More’s own handwriting ‘Thomas More, knight’. He also wrote memoranda to himself on matters of law, he questioned individual petitioners, brought patent books into the Duchy Chamber ‘by his own hand’,
and on one occasion ‘callythe hastily for the sute of the obligaceion therffor’.
Eminently practical in his conduct of the court, energetic and conscientious as ever, More was becoming the greatest administrator of his generation.
It was in his more general capacity as royal counsellor that he led a raid upon the Steelyard in the early weeks of 1526. This was the home of the Hanseatic merchants, where they lodged and kept their stocks of grain, or wax, or linen; it was situated by the river, with a stone gate of three arches facing Cousin Lane and a wooden crane by its landingstage. It was a Friday evening, and the merchants were about to sit down for dinner in their hall when Thomas More, together with councillors or noblemen and their armed retainers, burst upon them; the keys of the door were taken and the hall closely watched. More then rose to address them, and from contemporary accounts it is possible to furnish the details of his speech. ‘There is no need to be alarmed at our coming here. We have been sent by the Council and by his grace the lord cardinal. You know that one of your number has lately been imprisoned for clipping the king’s coins. We of the Council would not be highly concerned about this matter, but we have received reliable news that many of your number possess books by Martin Luther. We are also informed that you import these books and so cause great error in the Christian faith among his majesty the king’s subjects.’ After he had finished speaking he ordered that three named merchants be immediately arrested, and demanded that a list of all others be brought to him early on the following morning. On that next day he returned to the Steelyard and asked for any Lutheran books on the premises to be given to him; the chambers of the merchants were then thoroughly searched. Eight of their number were taken to Westminster and brought before Wolsey, who lectured them severely and forbade any member of the Steelyard to leave England within the next twenty days.
More had invaded the Steelyard in order to uphold a ‘monition’ issued by the Bishop of London fifteen months before; Cuthbert Tunstall had forbidden the publication or importation of any book containing Lutheran doctrines. But they were not to be extirpated easily and at the end of 1525 a doctor of divinity, Robert Barnes, preached against the worldly wealth and power of the Church. He was promptly accused of heresy and brought to London for trial. By the second month of 1526, Barnes and four of the German merchants were brought to St Paul’s on 11 February and forced to kneel in the aisle with faggots tied to their backs; Wolsey presided over the Mass and John Fisher preached a mighty sermon against the new heresies. He was not easily heard, however,
‘for ye great noyse of ye people within ye church’.
The guilty men were then conducted to Paul’s Cross in the precinct of the church, where, despite heavy rain, they threw their faggots into the flames of a large fire; these bundles of wood were a potent symbol of the death they might have endured in Smithfield. At the same time volumes of Lutheran doctrine were also despatched into the flames.
It is clear that More was closely involved in the detection of heresy; as High Steward of Oxford and Cambridge universities, also, he must have been particularly vigilant about its dissemination among the scholars; there were official ‘visitations’ of both Oxford and Cambridge, when certain men were interrogated and certain rooms searched, but they proved inconclusive. He is also likely to have been involved more directly in the battle against Luther. In the summer of 1526 Henry wrote a scathing answer to a somewhat apologetic letter from the famous heretic, but the king’s response is couched in terms so close to the vocabulary and arguments of More that it might well be More’s own work. When Luther is accused of encouraging ‘a bold lyberte of leude lyueng’,
for example, the alliteration and sentiment are identical with those of
Responsio ad Lutherum.
More suffered a minor embarrassment, however, when his own daughter’s translation of Erasmus’s
Treatise of the Paternoster
was brought before the Vicar-General; its publisher had neglected to show or ‘exhibit’ it to the ecclesiastical authorities, and so was technically at fault. It was wholly a production of the More household; Margaret Roper had translated the work and the tutor Richard Hyrde had contributed a preface. Within a few weeks of its withdrawal from sale, a second edition was issued; this contained the arms of Cardinal Wolsey, as well as the legend
‘cum privilegio a rege indulto’.
More had acted swiftly.
Despite the precautions, Lutheran tracts continued to find their way into England—often by being smuggled in the goods of Antwerp merchants. In the autumn of 1526 Cuthbert Tunstall felt obliged to issue a second and more solemn ‘monition’ against heretical literature; in particular he inveighed against Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament, which had been published in Worms at the beginning of that year. The book had reached London soon after and was being distributed privately. Robert Barnes, who had recanted publicly at Paul’s Cross and who was still kept under house arrest in an Augustinian friary, sold a
copy of it to some Lollards for 3s 2d. This was what Tunstall denounced as the ‘pestiferous and pernicious poison, dispersed in our diocese of London’.
In the following year he gave More permission to read, and keep, heretical volumes so that More might be able to respond to them with books of his own.
In fact More was already at work, fighting a polemical campaign against heresy which would last for the rest of his life. A short Lutheran tract by John Bugenhagen, entitled
Letter to the English
, had found its way to its addressees at the end of 1525; almost at once More produced a sharp reply. This was not some private decision, however; it is clear that he and Tunstall worked closely together in the attempt to expunge Lutheran doctrine, with the king and cardinal also playing a prominent role. That is why More’s
Letter to Bugenhagen
was never published; it was superseded by the king’s own letter to Luther. But More’s unpublished piece of polemic has peculiarities of its own. It was apparently written under the guise of anonymity, but there is nothing generalised about the attack. More truly believed Lutherans to be
(‘agents of the demons’) who must, if necessary, be destroyed by burning.
Already, in these early days of English heresy, he was thinking of the fire. It is a measure of his alarm at the erosion of the traditional order that he should, in this letter, compose a defence of scholastic theology—the same scholasticism which in his younger days he had treated with derision. This was no longer a time for questioning, or innovation, or uncertainty, of any kind. He blamed Luther for the Peasants’ Revolt in Germany, and maintained that all its havoc and destruction were the direct result of Luther’s challenge to the authority of the Church; under the pretext of
which had in turn led to rape, sacrilege, bloodshed, fire and ruin. He also denounces Luther for marrying a nun. This was truly the whoredom of Babylon, and there is almost a lubricious note in his description of his opponent’s behaviour. Luther
he writhes in incest and wriggles his bum even as he preaches on virtue. In More’s writing hatred and anger are never far from sexual or scatological imagery.
How close such imagery was to the surface of his life is evident in two other works of this period. Both emanate from the More household and both are touched by a licentious humour that is not normally associated
with the calm piety of that family.
A Hundred Merry Tales
was published in 1526 by John Rastell, More’s brother-in-law, and it is believed to be largely the work of More himself; he had already written ‘Meri Gestes’ in his youth, and this production bears the marks of his humour.
The Twelve Mery Jests of Wyddow Edyth
, published in the previous year, springs directly from the household. It is partly set within the More family, and is purportedly written by one of More’s servants; it is possible that this somewhat lascivious poem is also the work of More, who as royal counsellor could hardly append his own name to it. It is the story of a bawdy old party, Edith, who manages to extort money from men by pretending to be a widow of means. She purported to be of ‘great inheritaunce’ and ‘mouable substance not a lyte’,
thus touching upon a central preoccupation of the period. The narrative of her twelve adventures is humorous enough, with moments of vernacular which still light up the page:
Then fare wel, honycombe, til I se you againe
God be with you, and shield you from the raine.