Ward's Book of Days.

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What happened on this day in history.


On this day in history in 1478, was born Thomas More.

Saint Sir Thomas More was a humanist, lawyer and politician who rose to become Chancellor under Henry VIII, but was beheaded for refusing to recognise the king as head of the Church of England. 

More was born in London on 7th February 1478, the son of a judge of the King’s Bench. He was educated at Canterbury Hall (now part of Christ Church), Oxford, and Lincolns Inn, after which, he entered the legal profession. After serving for seven years as under sheriff of the City of London, More was appointed as one of Henry VIII’s personal secretaries and advisors, and served on several diplomatic missions.  

During his time in the king’s service, More worked to improve the legal structure, introducing the principle of Equity, a system whereby the Common Law may be overridden where natural justice demands it, into English Law. He wrote the philosophical work Utopia, a name deriving from the Greek ‘no place’, describing an imaginary but perfect state. More also carried out much of the work on Defence of the Seven Sacraments, a text attributed to Henry VIII.  

More experienced a crisis of conscience when Henry VIII began to question the validity of his marriage with his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. At first, More supported the king. He was appointed Chancellor and denounced his predecessor, Cardinal Wolsey, who had been dismissed for not backing Henry’s claim, and bringing in theological evidence to support the king’s argument. But when Henry decided that he alone and not the pope was the supreme head of the Church of England, More asked to be relieved of his position.  

Out of office, More became the subject of accusations from his enemies. When he refused to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, he was accused of high treason. He was accused of accepting bribes while in office, but no evidence was brought. He was blamed for the nuisance being caused by Elizabeth Barton but refuted the charge with proof that he had told her to be quiet. More’s enemies caught him out when he was summoned to Parliament to swear to the Act of Succession, declaring Anne Boleyn to be the rightful queen. He declared that he recognised Parliament’s right to make Anne queen, but could not consent to the section of the Act denying the authority of the pope in spiritual matters. More was sent to the Tower of London to await trial.  

More was tried before a panel of judges including Anne Boleyn’s father, brother and uncle. His defence strategy was to maintain silence, as was his right, knowing that the prosecution could not convict him without evidence. But the king’s new councillor, Thomas Cromwell, brought in perjured evidence that More had denied the king’s authority over ecclesiastical matters. More was convicted of high treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, a judgment later commuted to beheading.  

More was executed on 6th July 1535. His last words were that he died “the king’s good servant but God’s first.” Before he ascended the scaffold he asked for the executioner’s help, saying “See me safe up. For coming down, I can shift for myself.” More is buried in the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, in the Tower of London. [Tower of London, London, EC3N 4AB] His head was exhibited on a spike on London Bridge, until it was rescued by his daughter and buried in St Dunstan’s Church, Canterbury. [St Dunstans Street, Canterbury, Kent, CT2 8BY] 

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