England has no lack of married saints, or saints that were martyred for defending religious liberty. Earlier, we profiled St. Philip Howard, one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI. And today, on the second day of the Fortnight for Freedom, we celebrate the feast of St. Thomas More, husband, father, and martyr under King Henry VIII in 1535. (Today is also the feast day of St. John Fisher, a bishop also martyred in 1535, but here we confine ourselves to married saints.)
- Born February 7, 1478, in London
- Married Jane Colt in 1505; she died in 1511
- Married Alice Middleton in 1511
- Father of four children
- Imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1534
- Executed by beheading on July 6, 1535
- Canonized May 19, 1935 by Pius XI
The Fortnight for Freedom began yesterday, on the vigil of today’s feast day of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher. The timing is intentional. Both men faced suffering, imprisonment, and ultimately death because of their allegiance to their faith.
The contours of St. Thomas More’s life are familiar to many, thanks in large part to the 1966 movie A Man for All Seasons. Born into a well situated family, St. Thomas was educated at Oxford University and, after a period of discerning the religious life, became a lawyer and married Jane Colt, daughter of a country nobleman. The two lived an exceptionally happy marriage and welcomed four children into their family, but their life together on earth was cut short with Jane’s death at the age of twenty-two. For the sake of the children, St. Thomas remarried quickly and his new wife, Alice Middleton, proved to be a more than capable stepmother and household manager. St. Thomas grew to love Alice as well, and in his epitaph wrote, “This one [Jane] so lived with me, and the other one [Alice] now so liveth, that it is doubtful whether this or the other were dearer to me” (as quoted by Ferdinand Holbock in Married Saints and Blesseds Through the Centuries, 323).
Difficulties began to besiege St. Thomas in 1522. The current ruler of England, King Henry VIII, was seeking to annul his marriage with his wife Catherine and marry a lady-in-waiting by the name of Anne Boleyn. Catherine, the widow of King Henry’s brother, had borne a number of children, but each died at birth or shortly thereafter, with the exception of Princess Mary. Seeking an heir to the throne, King Henry petitioned Rome in vain to grant him an annulment.
Enter Thomas More. As a well-respected lawyer, St. Thomas was asked by the King for counsel in the “Great Matter” of his desire for an annulment. After reflection and consultation, St. Thomas replied that his opinion was with the pope – the marriage was valid and could not be annulled. This was not the answer King Henry was hoping to hear. And yet not long after, the King appointed St. Thomas to the weighty position of Lord Chancellor, promising him that his conscience in the matter of the marriage would be respected.
Unfortunately for St. Thomas, his stance became a very lonely one, and the King’s promise of protection began to seem very thin. In short order, leading English lords petitioned Rome to change its decision on the marriage; the bishops (save St. John Fisher) officially broke with Rome; Archbishop Cranmer declared the King’s marriage to Catherine annulled; and in 1533 King Henry’s new bride Anne Boleyn was declared Queen of England. St. Thomas declined to attend the coronation.
Finally, events came to a head for St. Thomas. In March 1534 a law was passed that declared potential heirs only the offspring of King Henry and his new wife Anne. The law also declared the King’s marriage to Catherine invalid and blatantly rejected papal authority. All citizens of England – including Thomas More – were obliged to assent to the so-called Succession Oath. On April 13, St. Thomas appeared before the archbishop of Canterbury and refused to take the oath, saying that he could not swear to it without imperiling his eternal soul. The former lord chancellor of England was then thrown into the Tower of London.
There St. Thomas languished, besieged by constant visitors trying to elicit a treasonous statement against the King of England, now declared the head of the newly formed Church of England. All attempts were unsuccessful. Finally, on the basis of false testimony from one Master Rich, St. Thomas was convicted guilty and sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered. King Henry altered this punishment to beheading, and on July 6, 1535, St. Thomas More was martyred.
A faithful husband and father, and a faithful witness to the indissolubility of marriage against immense political pressure, St. Thomas stands as a model for husbands, fathers, lawyers, and all those seeking to preserve the precious right of religious liberty.
Prayer Resource: St. Thomas More holy card from Fortnight for Freedom
Patron of: lawyers, politicians
St. Thomas More, pray for us!