St. Thomas More: Family Strength in a Time of Crisis

St. Thomas More: Family Strength in a Time of Crisis

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St. Thomas More: Family Strength in a Time of Crisis

Picture: St. Thomas More comforts his distraught daughter, Margaret, before his execution.

“An Affectionate Father”: St. Thomas’ Faith and Family Life

St. Thomas More, one of the martyrs of the English Reformation, was a devoted husband and father.  Though thoroughly devoted to the practice of law, and would eventually go on to become Lord Chancellor of England, St. Thomas understood that has Catholic faith and his dedicated to his family came first and foremost.  More married Jane Colt in 1505. Erasmus reported that More wanted to give his young wife a better education than she had previously received at home, and tutored her in music and literature. The couple had four children before Jane died in 1511: Margaret, Elizabeth, Cicely, and John.

Given that he was left a widower with four young children, he saw the need to provide his children with a stepmother to assist in raising them. He chose a rich widow, Alice Harpur Middleton. The speed of the marriage was so unusual that More had to get a dispensation of the banns, which due to his good public reputation he easily obtained. Erasmus, the famous humanist and a close friend of More’s, called their marriage happy.

More had no children from his second marriage, although he raised Alice’s daughter from her previous marriage as his own. More also became the guardian of a young girl named Anne Cresacre, who would eventually marry his son, John More. An affectionate father, More wrote letters to his children whenever he was away on legal or government business, and encouraged them to write to him often.

More insisted upon giving his daughters the same classical education as his son, a highly unusual attitude at the time. His eldest daughter, Margaret, attracted much admiration for her erudition, especially her fluency in Greek and Latin. More told his daughter of his pride in her academic accomplishment in September 1522, after he showed the bishop a letter she had written:

“When he saw from the signature that it was the letter of a lady, his surprise led him to read it more eagerly … he said he would never have believed it to be your work unless I had assured him of the fact, and he began to praise it in the highest terms … for its pure Latinity, its correctness, its erudition, and its expressions of tender affection. He took out at once from his pocket a portague
[A Portuguese gold coin] … to send to you as a pledge and token of his good will towards you.”

More’s decision to educate his daughters set an example for other noble families. Even Erasmus became much more favorable once he witnessed their accomplishments.

“Living According to My Conscience”: A Family Struggles with a Father’s Choice

St. Thomas succeeded to the office of Lord Chancellor in 1529. He dispatched cases with unprecedented rapidity. Fully devoted to Henry and the royal prerogative, More initially co-operated with the King’s new policy, joining the opinion of the theologians at Oxford and Cambridge that the marriage of Henry to Catherine had been unlawful. But as Henry began to deny Papal authority, More’s qualms grew.

As the conflict over supremacy between the Papacy and the King reached its apogee, More continued to remain steadfast in supporting the supremacy of the Pope as Successor of Peter over that of the King of England. In 1530, More refused to sign a letter by the leading English churchmen and aristocrats asking Pope Clement VII to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, and also quarrelled with Henry VIII over the heresy laws. In 1531, Henry had isolated More by purging most clergy who supported the papal stance from senior positions in the church. Parliament’s reinstatement of the charge of praemunire in 1529 had made it a crime to support in public or office the claim of any authority outside the realm (such as the Papacy) to have a legal jurisdiction superior to the King’s. In 1531, a royal decree required the clergy to take an oath acknowledging the King as “Supreme Head” of the Church in England. As a layperson, More did not need to take the oath and the clergy, after some initial resistance, took the oath with the addition of the clause “as far as the law of Christ allows.” However, More saw he could not render the support Henry expected from his Lord Chancellor for the policy the King was developing to support the annulment of his marriage with Catherine. In 1532 he petitioned the King to relieve him of his office, alleging failing health. Henry granted his request.

On April 13, 1534, More was asked to appear before a commission and swear his allegiance to the parliamentary Act of Succession. More accepted Parliament’s right to declare Anne Boleyn the legitimate Queen of England, but he steadfastly refused to take the oath of supremacy of the Crown, which proclaimed the King as the “Supreme Head” of the Church in England, severing ties with Rome and the Papacy. Holding fast to the teaching of papal supremacy, More refused to take the oath and furthermore publicly refused to uphold Henry’s annulment from Catherine. John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, refused the oath along with More. The oath reads:

…By reason whereof the Bishop of Rome and See Apostolic, contrary to the great and inviolable grants of jurisdictions given by God immediately to emperors, kings and princes in succession to their heirs, hath presumed in times past to invest who should please them to inherit in other men’s kingdoms and dominions, which thing we your most humble subjects, both spiritual and temporal, do most abhor and detest…

With his refusal to support the King’s annulment, More’s enemies had enough evidence to have the King arrest him on treason. Four days later, Henry had More imprisoned in the Tower of London. There More prepared a devotional Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation. While More was imprisoned in the Tower, his wife Alice and his daughter Margaret visited him, and begged him to take the oath.  They explained that they had both done so, though within their hearts they did not truly believe it.  St. Thomas explained to them that he could not, in good conscience, swear an oath that broke the law of Christ.  St. Thomas begged Alice and Margaret not to be angry with him, as that would have made the remainder of his imprisonment most unbearable.  His wife and daughter, though distraught at the seemingly inevitable loss of their dear husband and father, assured St. Thomas of their love.  St. Thomas was convicted of treason in a “show trial,” and died a martyr’s death on the scaffold on July 6, 1535.  His last words are said to be: “I am the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”

Read more about St. Thomas More on

What can we learn about Family Life from St. Thomas More?

God calls us to be dedicated husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, grandfathers and grandmothers, and uncles and aunts.  He calls us to love our family unconditionally, and make it a priority of the utmost importance to lead our loved ones to heaven.  However, this can only happen if we put God and Faith first.  Margaret, Thomas More’s daughter, was distraught at the idea of losing her father.  However, it was through St. Thomas’ example in suffering and martyrdom for Christ that Margaret truly learned the beauty of devoting oneself to the Lord, even in the face of adversity. 



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