Reign of Henry the Eighth - (Concluded). page 2
Whilst these horrors struck with consternation all at home, Henry proceeded to a deed which extended the feeling of abhorrence over all Europe. He shed the blood of Fisher and More. We have stated that Parliament had not enacted the precise oath for the refusal of which Fisher and More were arraigned. But this made no difference: the king willed it, and the submissive legislature passed a bill of attainder for misprision of treason against them both. On this they and their families were stripped of everything they had. The poor old bishop was left in a complete state of destitution, and had not even clothes to cover his nakedness. Sir Thomas More was dependent wholly for the support of his life on his married daughter, Margaret Roper. They were repeatedly called up after their attainder, and treacherously examined as to any act or word that they might have done or uttered contrary to the king's supremacy, as if to aggravate their crime and justify a more rigorous sentence. The Pope Clement was dead, and was succeeded by Paul III., who, hearing of the sad condition of the venerable Fisher, sent him a cardinal's hat, thinking it might make Henry less willing to proceed to extremities with him. But the effect on the tyrant was quite the contrary. On hearing of the Pope's intention, he exclaimed, "Ha! Paul may send him a hat, but I will take care that he have never a head to wear it on."
Accordingly, the aged prelate was brought out of the Tower, on the 22nd of June, beheaded, and his head stuck upon London Bridge, with his face turned towards the Kentish hills, amid which he had spent so many pleasant years. The body of the old bishop was stripped, and left naked on the spot till evening, when it was carried away by the guards, and buried in Allhallows churchyard at Barking. Such was the manner in which this supreme head of the Church treated his former tutor, and one of the most accomplished and pious men of Christendom.
More, the scholar, the wit, the genius, raised reluctantly to the chancellorship, had there so far been deteriorated from the noble mood in which he had written his "Utopia" as to have become, contrary to all its doctrines and spirit, a persecutor. He had even degraded his wit by exercising it, with a sad levity, on his victims, yet not so hopelessly but that the wit of others could awaken his old nature in him. A man of the name of Silver being brought before him for heresy, Sir Thomas said, "Silver, you must be tried by fire." "Yes, my lord," replied the prisoner, "but you know that quicksilver cannot abide the fire." The chancellor, who would have burned the heretic, at once set at liberty the undaunted punster. On the 14th of June he was visited in the Tower by Doctors Aldridge, Layton, Curwen, and Mr. Bedle, and there strictly interrogated in the presence of Pelstede, Whalley, and Rice, as to whether he had held any correspondence since he came into the Tower with Bishop Fisher, or others, and what had become of the letters he had received. He replied that George, the lieutenant's servant, had put them into the fire, contrary to his wish, saying there was no better keeper than the fire. He was then asked whether he would not acknowledge the lawfulness of the king's marriage, and his headship of the Church. He declined to give an answer.
But he had over and over said enough to satisfy any one but the king in his present mood. He had written a most touching letter, saying, "I am the king's true, faithful subject, and daily bedesman. I pray for his highness, and all his, and all the realm. I do nothing harm; I say no harm; I think no harm; and wish everybody good; and if this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith I long not to live. I am dying already, and since I came here have been divers times in the case that I thought to die within one hour. And, I thank our Lord, was never sorry for it, but rather sorry when I saw the pang past; and, therefore, my poor body is at the king's pleasure. Would to God my death might do him good!"
The stern monarch, however, so far from being sensible to the generous sentiments of such a man, equally celebrated for his talents and his virtues, only sought to make his confinement the more miserable. He sent Rich, the Solicitor-General, afterwards Lord Rich, to take away all More's books, papers, and writing materials. But, probably, by means of George, the good-hearted servant to the Lieutenant of the Tower, who dared more in his favour than any man of more account in the world's eye, he obtained a scrap of paper, and wrote upon it his last affecting letter to his daughter, who had in vain earnestly and repeatedly implored him to submit to the king, and take the oath. But More would not now pollute his conscience to save the wretched residue of his life. Though he had formerly so far forgotten himself as to force other men's consciences, he now stood firmly for his own.
At length, on the 1st of July, he was brought out of the Tower, and was conducted on foot through the streets of London to Westminster. He was wrapped only in a coarse woollen garment, his hair was become grey, his face was pale and emaciated, for he had been nearly a year a close prisoner. This was thought well calculated to teach a lesson of obedience to the people; when they saw how the king handled even ex-chancellors and cardinals. When he arrived, bowed with suffering, and supporting himself on a staff, in that hall where he had formerly presided with so much dignity, all who saw him were struck with astonishment. In order to confound him, and prevent the dreaded effect of his eloquence, his enemies had caused the indictment against him to be drawn out to an immense length, the charges grossly exaggerated, and enveloped in a world of words.
When this voluminous document had been read through, the Duke of Norfolk, the Chief Justice Fitzjames, and six other commissioners who presided at the trial, informed him that it was still in his power to submit his judgment to the king's, and to receive a full pardon. More declined to accept pardon on such conditions. He declared that though it was impossible for him to remember one-third of the indictment, he could conscientiously say that he had never violated the statute, nor done anything in opposition to the rule of his Sovereign. He acknowledged that he had never approved of the king's marriage with Anne Boleyn, but then he had never expressed that disapprobation to any one but to the king himself, and that only when he had commanded him, on his allegiance, to inform him of his real sentiments. The indictment charged him with having traitorously endeavoured to deprive the king of his title of head of the Church. Where, he asked, were the proofs of that? On being committed to the Tower, he had said, when examined, that from the date of his attainder, he was politically dead, and incapable of giving an opinion on the merits of any law; that his only occupation would be to meditate on the passion of Christ, and to prepare for his own death. But in that answer, he had spoken no single word against the statute, he could only be charged with silence, and silence had never yet been declared treason. A second count of the indictment charged him with exhorting Bishop Fisher in letters, while confined in the Tower, to resist the king's supremacy. He denied the charge, and demanded the production of the letters. Again it was stated that Fisher had held the same language as himself, and that was treated as proof of a conspiracy. Whatever Fisher might have said, he contended, was wholly unknown to him; but this he did know, that he had never communicated his own opinion on the subject to any one - no, not to his dearest friends.
But the vile tools of the king were prepared to crush him by means of evidence foul and false. The infamous Rich deposed that in private conversation with More, in the Tower, he had said that "the Parliament cannot make the king the head of the Church, because Parliament is a civil tribunal, without any spiritual authority." On this, More, with a bold dignity, which evidently no longer feared anything that man could do to him, spoke out, and not only utterly denied the statement, but reminded the Court of the infamous character of Rich, which was such that no one who knew him would believe him upon oath. Rich, smarting under this well-merited castigation, thereupon called a couple of witnesses, but even they were ashamed to support such vile testimony against such a man, and declared that though they were in the room, they did not attend to the conversation. Foiled in the hope of direct proof of the charge, the slaves in the shape of judges decided that silence was treason, and the other slaves in the shape of jurymen, without even reading the indictment, gave a verdict against the prisoner. Sentence of death was then pronounced upon him, and he rose to address the Court finally. In the rudest manner, they attempted to silence him, and twice, by their clamour, they succeeded; but the firmness of the noble victim at length triumphed, and he told them that he could now openly avow what he had before concealed from every human being, that the oath of supremacy was contrary to all English law. He declared that he had no enmity against his judges. There would, he observed, have always been a scene of contention, and he prayed that as Paul had consented to the death of Stephen, and yet was afterwards called to tread in the same path, and ascend to the same heaven, so might he and they yet meet there. "And so," he added, in conclusion, "may God preserve you all, and especially my lord the king, and send him good counsel."
As he turned from the bar, his son rushed through the hall, fell upon his knees, and implored his blessing; and, on approaching the Tower Wharf, his daughter, Margaret Roper, forced her way through the guard which surrounded him, and, clasping him round the neck, wept and sobbed aloud. The noble man, now clothed with all the calm dignity of the Christian philosopher, summoned fortitude enough to take a loving and a final farewell of her; but as he was moved on, the distracted daughter turned back, and, flying once more through the crowd, hung on his neck in the abandonment of grief. This was too much for his stoicism; he shed tears, whilst with deep emotion he repeated his blessing, and uttered words of Christian consolation. The people and the guards were so deeply affected, that they too burst into tears, and it was some time before the officers could summon resolution to part the father and his child.
On the 6th of July he was summoned to execution, and informed that the king, as an especial favour, had commuted his punishment from hanging, drawing, and quartering, to decapitation. On this Sir Thomas, who had now taken his leave of the world, and met death with the cheerful humour of a man who is well assured that he is on the threshold of a better, replied with his wonted promptitude of wit, "God preserve all my friends from such favour." As he was about to ascend the scaffold, some one expressed a fear lest it should break down, for it appeared weak. "Mr. Lieutenant," said More, smiling, "see me safe up, and for my coming down let me shift for myself." The executioner then approached, and asked his forgiveness. More embraced him, and said, "Friend, thou wilt render me the greatest service in the power of any mortal; but." putting an angel into his hand, "my neck is so short, that I fear thou wilt gain little credit in the way of thy profession."
The same fear of the eloquence of the illustrious victim which had attempted to stop his mouth on the trial, now forbade him to address the multitude; he, therefore, contented himself with saying that he died a faithful subject to the king, and a true Catholic before God. He then prayed, and, laying his head upon the block, bade the executioner stay his hand a moment, while he put back his beard. For "that," said he, "has never committed any treason." His head was severed at a single blow, and was, like Fisher's, fixed on London Bridge.
The execution of these two illustrious men, who were celebrated all over Europe - especially Sir Thomas More, for his wit, his genius, his learning, and general character; Fisher being scarcely less so for the solid piety and integrity of his character - produced a sensation of horror throughout every civilised nation, and stamped the King of England as a cruel tyrant, even in that age of tyranny. The only crime of these martyrs to freedom of opinion was, that they tacitly, not publicly, not daringly, not officiously, refused to believe any absurd or tyrannic doctrine that the Royal egotist pleased to assert. In Rome, where they were regarded as martyrs to the Papal supremacy, the ferment was excessive, and Paul III., the new Pope, was incited to prepare a bill of excommunication against Henry, though his prudence induced him to withhold its publication. The Emperor of Germany and the King of France were less reticent of their expressions of execration. Charles told Eliott, the English ambassador, "If we had been master of such a servant, of whose abilities we ourself have had these many years no small assurance, we would rather have lost the best city in our dominions, than so worthy a counsellor." Francis spoke with still greater asperity to the English ambassador at his Court of these executions, and said, "Why does not your master rather banish offenders than put them to death? "
Henry was highly incensed that even kings should venture to find fault with his arbitrary temper, and sent word that "they had died by due course of law, and were well worthy to have died ten times worse deaths, if they had a thousand lives." But the world took the liberty of judging for themselves, and it saw only in him what he was, a monster of self-will, and a murderer on a throne. The learned men joined the monarchs in a more lasting record of Henry's infamy. Cardinal Pole denounced him, in the most eloquent and vehement writings, as a disgrace to humanity; and Erasmus wrote to his friend Latomus, that the English were now living under such a reign of terror, that they dared not to write to foreigners, nor receive letters from them. Corvinus, in his epistles, says that he had seen the tears of many for the fate of More, who never saw him in their lives, nor were in any way affected by any of his actions.
A full measure of the indignation of the public, both at home and abroad, fell upon the queen, Anne Boleyn, for these measures, as she was deemed the chief cause of the breach with Rome, and this fatal power being conferred on a man so ill calculated to bear it. Though the English were obliged to speak their feelings in whispers, the populace abroad made very free with the Royal butcher of the wise and good, and with his new queen. In the Netherlands cloths were painted with the portraits of Henry, and were sold in the fairs, with "the picture of a wench, also painted on cloth, pinned upon it," the said wench holding a pair of scales in her hand, in which were, in one scale, a pair of hands united, and on the other a feather with a "scripture over the wench's head, 'Love is lighter than a feather,'" at which the people made great jeering and laughter, uttering the most opprobrious words against Queen Anne, Nor did Anne escape reproach even from her own savage lord. When the announcement of More's execution was brought to Henry, he was playing at tables with Anne, whereupon he cast his eyes reproachfully at her, and saying, "Thou art the cause of this man's death," he rose up, leaving his game unfinished, and shut himself up in his chamber, in great perturbation of spirit. Nor were there wanting already the prophetic declarations of the sorrowful reward she would reap for her encouragement of the fell tyrant. When the beloved daughter of More, Margaret Roper, visited her father in the Tower one day, he asked her how Queen Anne did. "In faith, father," she replied, "never better; there is nothing else in the Court but dancing and sporting." "Never better!" said he; "alas, Meg! alas! it pitieth me to think into what misery, poor soul, she will shortly come. These dances of hers will prove such dances, that she will spurn our heads off like footballs; but it will not be long ere her head will dance the like dance." Queen Catherine felt the same certain conviction of Anne's own troubles, for both she and More knew the fickle, unrestrainable nature of the man in whose hand her fate was. "At the time of her sorest troubles," says Dr. Harpfield, "one of her gentlewomen began to curse Anne Boleyn. The queen dried her streaming eyes, and said, earnestly, 'Hold your peace! Curse not - curse her not, but rather pray for her; for even now is the time fast coming when you shall have reason to pity her and lament her case.'" Yet how little could even they guess how near that day was!
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