The English Reign of Terror
When calculating and enterprising men embark on a career of evil, they create a godless atmosphere in which to succeed, seek like-minded men in association, and ruthlessly crush any men of principle who may serve as a focal point of opposition. Thomas Cromwell provides an excellent case study of this historical phenomenon.
As mentioned before in this series,1 Cromwell followed the political philosophies of Marsilius of Padua and Nicola Machiavelli, especially the former's claim that the Catholic Church should be subjected to lay control. He was also influenced by the latter's advice that in public life one may ignore the difference between right and wrong, but, nevertheless, always keep up the appearance of rectitude.
After Wolsey's fall, he adroitly changed sides and quickly rose in the King's service to become his Secretary. In that position he led Henry by degrees to accept his long-cherished agenda to suppress the monasteries and plunder the Church's wealth, but he had to be careful because of the greedy King's increasingly unbalanced and violent nature. As his disease corrupted both his body and mind, Henry turned his hatred against the most pious and influential men in his realm in proportion to their holiness because they stood as a rebuke against his sinfulness.
In 1534 Cromwell pushed through a compliant Parliament a series of Acts which culminated in the Act of Supremacy that removed direction of the English Church in all its aspects from Rome and gave it to the King along with the title "Supreme Head of the Church of England." The carefully selected legislature also carried this coercion to its limit by demanding that every adult must take an oath to that effect under the pain of death. The King then appointed Cromwell his vicar general with complete jurisdiction to direct all religious activities of the bishops, priests and monks on the troubled island.
The biblical scholar, Father Andrew Breen once commented in referring to the seemingly unreasonable hatred of the Scribes and the Pharisees towards Our Lord, "There are some natures so consumed with evil that the greater and nobler a man is, the more bitter becomes their opposition."2 And so it was with Henry and Cromwell, who moved against the holiest and most admired men in the realm. As Henry's moral disorder increased, he turned his violent rage against any principled Catholics whom he saw or even suspected of opposing his extravagant claims, including once beloved members of his own family. Cromwell on the other hand in his cold, calculating way merely saw them as obstacles to be eliminated. In order to pursue his pernicious goals, the determined vicar general established an extensive network of spies and agents, the most repugnant scoundrels available.
The first martyrs to fall under the crown's outrageous tyranny were the Carthusians, always an early target for persecution because of their great austerity and piety. Their houses were destroyed in France during the French Revolution of 1789, then in Europe by Napoleon, in Italy during the nineteenth century revolutions, and in Spain during the civil war in the twentieth. Saint Ambrose's remark on holy virginity certainly applies to the holy monks of Chartreuse, "chastity deserves our praise, not because it is found in martyrs, but because it makes martyrs." The earliest atrocities revolved around the prior of the London Charterhouse, John Houghton, who was already considered a saint by his contemporaries because of his devotion to perfecting the community's prayer life. The prior did not enter into the controversy with a foolhardy bravado but tried to reconcile the teachings of the Church with the new laws without yielding on the essentials. However in his holy simplicity, he did not realize that Cromwell had already preordained the destruction of his order.
Houghton, two other priors, and two additional priests were tried for treason. When the jury saw that the three Carthusians and their companions were saintly, pious religious, they had great difficulty in pronouncing the desired sentence. Cromwell stormed into their chamber and with great wrath threatened the jurors with their own death. Sufficiently cowered, they sentenced the innocent victims to the most cruel death imaginable.
On the day of their execution they were placed on a wooden frame and dragged three or four miles by horses over rough roads, which scraped and cut their backsides, to the scaffold at Tyburn. John Houghton, the first to suffer, was strung up by a thick rope so as to avoid snapping the neck. After elevating the holy monk, the executioner immediately cut the rope, dropping him still alive to the ground. The blessed martyr was stripped of his clothes and violently thrown on the quartering block, where he was ripped up in the middle. His intestines were torn out and burned. He continued to pray during this most savage ordeal with incredible fervor and love. While watching his heart cut out, he cried, Good Jesus what will ye do with my heart?" He was then hacked into quarters, parboiled and exposed on spikes in different parts of the city. After watching this brutal spectacle, the other four priests followed his holy example.
Six weeks later, their three replacements were dragged to Tyburn where they met the same fate. During the next two years, by relentless harassment and abuse, Cromwell's agents were able to break down all Carthusian resistance with the exception of ten monks who remained constant. They were sent to the hideous dungeon of Newgate where they were chained standing to posts by their ankles and neck with their hands tied behind them. In an atmosphere of foul air, little or no food, and their own filth, they became feverish and died--all except one. As a reward for his stamina, he was also sent to Tyburn to be butchered.
Profile: Saint John Fisher
An academician and eventually Chancellor at Cambridge University in his earlier days, Fisher became Bishop of Rochester through the patronage of the Countess of Richmond and her son King Henry VII. His elevation came not from political influence, but for his widespread reputation for learning, piety and diligence to his holy duties. Although Rochester was the smallest and poorest diocese in England, the ascetic bishop constantly resisted his transfer to one with more prestige and revenue.
Alone among the English bishops, he carried out his pastoral duties with exceptional zeal and thoroughness and maintained an austere private life, eating little, limiting his sleep to four hours, and using the discipline freely. He kept a skull before him while he ate his meals and said Mass to remind him of death. Books were his one earthly pleasure, inspiring him to form one of the finest libraries in Europe, but unfortunately his great collection was destroyed during his imprisonment.
As the storm of repression fell over England, Fisher displayed a resistance and intransigence as far as his frail and aging body would allow (he was close to seventy years old). At every juncture, every confrontation, every crisis, he always made a decision based on the highest principles of his calling, which usually resulted in an increase of suffering. In the aforementioned Convocation of 1531 and in the same assembly two years later, the Bishop of Rochester resolutely fought against the king's encroachment, but to no avail. During the height of the divorce proceedings and Boleyn's coronation in 1533, the champion of the Church's prerogatives was arrested and held for three months, presumably to keep him silent and out of the way. At least one attempt to poison him had been made which resulted in the death of a servant, and a shot from a small piece of ordnance fired from the Boleyn residence penetrated the bishop's library.
Pope Clement VII finally pronounced in March of 1534 that the marriage between Henry and Catherine was valid and that the subsequent actions by Cranmer were null and void. Vengeance followed swiftly. While Parliament was increasing the penalties for those who defied the King's will but before the final Act of Supremacy, Cromwell demanded that Fisher take an oath denying papal authority. He absolutely refused and was placed in the Tower of London for the last fourteen years of his life. In the cold, inhospitable atmosphere of the ancient fortress without proper clothing and food, the suffering prelate endured long months of agony yet cheerfully composed several treatises. Before Fisher's death the Pope announced that he would send a cardinal's hat to the valiant bishop. When Henry was informed of the honor, he went into a sadistic, impious rage and roared, "whenever it comes, he will have to wear it on his shoulders, for a head to put it on he shall have none:'3 And so it was, the skeleton of a man was taken from his cruel confinement to Tower Hill and beheaded. The severed head of the martyr was impaled on a spike on London Bridge, where day by day it took an appearance of one returning to a healthy life, which many took for a miracle. Finally it was removed and thrown into the river to make room for that of Saint Thomas More.
Profile: Saint Thomas More
The fame and attractiveness of Thomas More rests largely on the nobility of character which he displayed in his public life as a lawyer and jurist and his intransigent adherence to a principle that caused his death. His ability to rise above the temptations of youthful concupiscence, of venality, and the fame of royal approval came from the profound spiritual formation he experienced as a young man. He illustrated the necessity of spiritual combat in the many literary compositions which he produced throughout his life. During his early twenties, More, although he maintained a separate residence nearby, spent most of his day in the London Carthusian monastery (Charterhouse) where he participated in the monk's life of prayer and learned the ways of austere living. For four long years, these spiritual masters taught the future martyr not to rely on his talent or effort alone but on divine grace in order to understand and follow the will of God.
As a lawyer he acquired a widespread reputation for honesty and integrity, for he would never take a case unless he was satisfied of it justice, always looking to the interests of his clients rather than his own. His love for justice and truth became even more prominent when he served as a prosecutor for the city of London and eventually judge, at a loss of some revenue for his growing estate. Public service, then as now, paid considerably less than the private sector, especially since More scrupulously refused to take bribes. In 1522 More entered the service of the King as his private secretary, finally advancing to the position of Lord Chancellor of the realm, replacing Wolsey on October 25, 1529. However, the upright jurist (his duties were largely legal for he would not participate in the divorce) expressed his reluctance in a letter to his friend Bishop Fisher, "...I keep my place there precariously as an unaccustomed rider in the saddle."
Cromwell's effort to bring about a revolutionary change through Parliament was opposed by More's artful and indirect tactics. In frustration, Cromwell adjourned Parliament for Easter (1532) and turned his attention to the Convocation of the Clergy where he was more successful, especially after Archbishop Warham of Canterbury died and Fisher became seriously ill. When the bishops gave Henry vast authority over spiritual matters, Fisher made his famous commentary, "The fort is betrayed even by those who should have defended it:' and More complained that the capitulation sprang from an attitude "which despairs of God's help."4 The next day, More resigned by walking into the garden of the King's residence and handing him the white leather bag containing the great seal. As he left, More looked into the King's eyes with a piercing gaze and Henry, with his conscience still somewhat intact, glanced away.
In his retirement, More wrote several treatises successfully attacking the growing notion that state law has precedence over Church law and that the State itself has power over an individual's conscience. When More's writings rendered Cromwell's propaganda ineffective, the great jurist's doom was sealed. If any man could evade the violent King's fury and Cromwell's calculating terrorist agenda, More's deep spirituality and vast legal knowledge offered him a slight chance, but in the end, the force of evil proved to be too great. The eminent judge was arrested and when he refused to take an oath, which at that time had not been written into law, was remanded to the Tower where he spent the last fifteen months of his life. Four days later on April 21, 1534, Fisher was sent to the same wretched prison.
The seventh session of the Reformation Parliament sat between early November and the middle of December, 1534. Until then, the penalty for not recognizing the King's preposterous claims was imprisonment. The new legislation called for the death penalty for those who placed the love of God above all other considerations.
As the winter months rolled into spring, More occupied himself by continuing his writing. (Yale University Press has published his complete works in fourteen volumes.) For his last work, the serious writer chose the Passion of Christ for his topic. More noted that Christ was overwhelmed by sadness, fear, and weariness which only could be resisted through prayer as Our Lord constantly reminded the sleeping Apostles.
By then, all parties must have recognized that Henry and Cromwell were working towards More's execution, for imprisonment was no longer sufficient. In the middle of June, his writing materials and books were removed. He then closed the shutters on his cell windows and spent his last days meditating on the Four Last Things. After a sham trial of cruel injustice, More was beheaded on July 6.
1. for Marsilius see Crusade, Jan./Feb., 2002, p. 17 and for Machiavelli see Nov/Dec. 2003, p. 19.
2. Rev Andrew A. Breen, A Harmonized Exposition of the Four Gospels (Milwaukee, 1928) vol. II, p.22.
3. Dom Bede Camm O.S.B., Lives of the English Martyrs, vol. I, p. 97
4. Both quotes Gerard B, Wegemer, Thomas More, (Princeton, 1995) p. 147
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