Thomas More was hard to dislike. “I am entirely devoted to this man,” wrote Italian scholar Niccolo Sagundino. “I often relax in his delightful company as one might lodge in some beautiful place. I never see him without his sending me away better informed and more attached to him. You could not imagine, I assure you, a more agreeable, charming, and amusing man. His wonderful elegance as a writer, his choice of words and well-rounded sentences are universally admired, but no more so than his keen mind, set off by fairness, humor, wit, and courtesy.”
Dean Swift thought More the greatest man of virtue “this kingdom ever produced.” Erasmus agreed. He described More as cheerful, having quick humor and ready smile, being a faithful husband, a persuasive orator, a man alert. “In short,” said Erasmus, “what did Nature ever create milder, sweeter, and happier than the genius of Thomas More.”
These merits propelled More to the highest office in England on October 26, 1529, when he was named Lord Chancellor under King Henry VIII. But it proved his undoing, for More was a deeply religious man. He gave liberally to the needy, sang in the choir of his parish church in Chelsea, led in family prayer each night, and built a small chapel by his house for personal prayer and Bible study. Here he occasionally engaged in self-flagellation with a whip of knotted cords in the medieval manner. He was devoted to his church. He forcibly opposed Protestants. He was a man of principle. Henry VIII didn’t like men of principle, and he was incensed when his Lord Chancellor refused to obtain from the pope the desired divorce from Catherine of Aragon. He was further enraged when More refused to recognize him as head of the Church of England. Henry imprisoned him in the Tower of London and tried him for treason. On July 7, 1535, Thomas More mounted the scaffold and told the hushed crowd that he died being the “king’s good servant, but God’s first.” Then he read Psalm 51 and laid his head carefully on the block.
I have sinned and done wrong since the day I was born. But you want complete honesty, so teach me true wisdom. Wash me with hyssop until I am clean and whiter than snow. (Psalm 51:5-7)
Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Oct.26.