In London, the headless body of St Thomas More lies beneath the Church of St Peter ad Vincula (St Peter in Chains) within the Tower of London. It is really a collection of buildings. But there, St Thomas was imprisoned from 1534 until 6 July 1535 when he was executed. He remained Henry’s loyal servant, but God’s first.
Also at St Peter Ad Vincula lie the remains of St John Fisher and three Queens of England, Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Jane Grey, as well as many others executed in Tower Green. St Thomas More’s skull – once impaled on a spike on London Bridge – lies in a family vault in a church in Canterbury. The English, celebrating the odd, refer St Peter ad Vincula as a “chapel peculiar” under the direct jurisdiction of Queen Elizabeth II.
Crypt of St Thomas More
In a combined initiative of the Catholic Archdiocese of Westminster and the Anglican Diocese of London, there is now a Crypt of St Thomas more under St Peter ad Vincula. The particular vehicle for this is the 1535 Society, which is responsible for restoring St Peter ad Vincula. It is an irony that the first person to make a contribution to the restoration of St Peter ad Vincula and the Crypt of St Thomas More, was Queen Elizabeth II. Her predecessor struck off More’s head, but the Queen honour’s More for his fortitude in resisting her processor.
St Thomas More is now regarded as a Saint by both the Catholic and Anglican Church. A Saint is a person who struggles against his or herself and, if the course of that struggle, with God’s Grace, develops heroic virtue. Saints are not born, but, like St Peter, perhaps, have major faults which they struggle to overcome. There is every reason to think More did have to struggle against himself.
England – From the Tudors to the Stuarts
The period of English history from the Tudors to the Stuarts, was a period when power was used to enforce religious conformity. Catholics were far from blameless – as exemplified by the burning of protestants by Bloody Mary, the terrorism of Guy Fawkes, and the other protagonists of the Gunpowder Plot, the one eyed promotion of Catholics by James II, and the Spanish Amador.
St John Paul II urged us to repent the sins of the past committed in the name of religion and that is something we should do. Yet, despite everything, the gradual development of parliament, an independent judiciary, and the rule of law occurred in England during this period from the Tudors to the Stuarts. This period of English history is our history, the history of the common law world.
St Margaret Clitheroe
There were many English martyrs who followed the example of St Thomas More, for instance, St Margaret of Clitheroe, a butcher’s wife from York, who was pressed to death under the weight of a huge stone. If one goes to York, one can walk along the street, The Shambles, where St Margaret of Clitheroe lived. Elsewhere in York is the covenant where Mary Ward, the founder of the Loreto nuns lived, and where is to be an important relic of St Margaret of Clitheroe. Hopefully, Mary Ward will one cay be canonised.
Whilst the heroism of some saints may seem unobtainable, every Christian is called to sanctity. Sanctity consists, not in canonisation, but in the obtainment of the heroic virtue, usually in the humdrum of ordinary life. The enemy of sanctity is pride, a self-satisfaction which refuses to admit one’s sinfulness, perhaps behind with the condemnation of others.
Law and Justice
The Christian tradition has always insisted that law must be just. A classic illustration of this can be found in St Augustine’s city of god:
Remove justice and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale? What are criminal gangs but petty kingdoms? A gang is a group of men under the command of the leader, bound by a compact of association in which the plunder is divided according to an agreed convention. If this villainy wins so many recruits from the ranks of the demoralized that it acquires territory, establishes a base, captures cities and subdues peoples, it then openly arrogates to itself the title of kingdom which is conferred on it in the eyes of the world, not by the renouncing of aggression but by the obtainment of impunity. For it was a witty and a truthful rejoinder which was given by the captured pirate to Alexander the Great. The King asked the fellow, “What is your idea in infesting the sea?” The pirate answered with uninhibited insolence: “The same as yours, in infesting the earth! But because I do it with a tiny craft, I am a pirate: because you have a great navy, you are called an emperor.”
Perhaps this is something we might consider as we approach the Feast Day of St Thomas More.
President of the St Thomas More Society