Tuesday, October 22, 2013

"The 1535 Society": Where Was St. Thomas More Held in the Tower of London?

According to this story in The Telegraph, Sir Richard Dannatt, Constable of the Tower of London, is launching a campaign to reburbish parts of the Tower in the name of religious freedom, focusing on the memory of St. Thomas More:

“Thomas More was a very intelligent, articulate man, a scholar and a personal friend of Henry VIII,” says Lord Dannatt, the former head of the Army who is now the Constable of the Tower.

“However, he could not support Henry’s divorce, nor the king’s decision to split from Rome and make himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England. This was a man who stood up for what he believed, and who was willing to die for it.”

The cell is in the basement of a tower built in the 12th century. It is not usually open to the public, as the entrance is within a historic house now occupied by Lord Dannatt, as the man in charge of the Tower of London.

He is allowing me to spend the night in the cell in support of his campaign to focus attention on More and others who lost their lives “in pursuit of religious freedom” during that turbulent time.

The martyrs of both the Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions will be remembered on Tuesday morning, when the Bishop of London and the Archbishop of Westminster meet in the cell to pray.

They will then walk to the nearby Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula, where the headless body of More now lies. Since 1980, he has been recognised as a saint by both Anglicans and Catholics. . . .

The article describes how poorly the correspondent faired in the cell overnight, and includes a video. As the author notes, however, he was able to leave the cell after that one night for a hot shower and nice breakfast--Thomas More did not leave it except for his trial and then his execution. A special ecumenical service is being held today to launch "The 1535 Society", as both the Catholic Church and the Church of England honor St. Thomas More as a martyr (and St. John Fisher).

It was not until 1935 that Pope Pius XI canonised More, along with Cardinal John Fisher, who had also been kept in the Tower and executed. The Church of England has since recognised More as one of the Saints and Heroes of the Christian Church.

The traditions will meet in the cell on Tuesday when the Bishop of London, the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, prays with the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols.

Choir members will also sing. “This is a very special ecumenical moment,” says Lord Dannatt, who will use it to begin the final phase of his appeal. So far he has raised £1.1 million. The first donation came from the Queen, who is expected to attend a service of thanksgiving in a year’s time, when the refurbishment is complete.

“The furniture in the Chapel Royal has been there for 50 years. A million visitors a year sit on it,” says Lord Dannatt. “The whole thing needs a lift as befits its status.”

Members of the 1535 Society will have the right to name some of the new furniture in the chapel and to attend the royal thanksgiving, as well as other exclusive events. The inaugural society dinner will be held in February.

Obviously, St. Thomas More was in a "nicer" cell in the Tower of London when he and his daughter Meg watched the protomartyrs leave the Tower for Tyburn on May 4, 1535 (the Carthusian priors whom More knew well among them), as depicted above by John Rogers Herbert of the Royal Academy. (Remember that he had been imprisoned in the Tower in April of 1534 and was writing devotional and meditative works like A Treatise on the Passion, A Treatise on the Blessed Body, A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, and De Tristitia Christi (The Sadness of Christ).)

The article emphasizes the cold and dampness of the cell and of course the removal of books, paper and pen from More's use, which I believe occurred early in 1535. I am a little confused by the Constable of the Tower's references to the coldness of the winter in 1535: if St. Thomas More and Margaret were in the Bell Tower on an upper floor, in a cell with a window, when they saw the martyrs leave on May 4, 1535, when was Thomas More moved to this smaller underground cell? If it was in June of 1535, he certainly did not spend the winter there. In fact, there is some controversy about exactly where he was held, according to this article from The Guardian 13 years ago:

Historians have demolished the claim that a small white-washed cell at the Tower of London, which opens to the public for the first time today, [the cell in which The Telegraph correspondent just spent the night, I presume] was the last prison of Sir Thomas More. To mark the millennium, Historic Royal Palaces, which manages the tower, will launch guided tours of the cell, and a display of historical material including the hairshirt worn by More, one of the most likeable figures in English history.

Visitors will be told the room is where More was held prisoner for 14 months, and that he walked from there to his death on Tower Green on July 6 1535. However the official Tower historian, Geoffrey Parnell, said: "There isn't a shred of evidence that More was ever held there." . . .

However Dr Parnell, and the historical researcher Stephen Priestley, an expert on early manuscripts, have been tracking More through reams of documents on Tower history, and can find no evidence that he was ever in the cell, though he was certainly in the Tower of London. "There is no evidence at all that he was held in the Bell Tower, and some reasons why he was not likely to have been," Dr Parnell said.

Mr Priestley said: "It is really very frustrating because there is so much documentation about his imprisonment, his letters, details of his visitors, details of his interrogation, and you would think one of them would mention where he was held. But there is nothing."

The mystery deepened when Mr Priestley found an inventory of prisoners, tower by tower, taken on the day of More's execution, which does not mention his name. It is known that he was a prisoner there, because an earlier inventory mentions the cost maintaining him and his servant. . . .

A Historic Royal Palaces spokeswoman admitted: "We cannot be 100% sure that More was held in the Bell Tower, but it seems very likely".

Dr Parnell said: "It is the sort of story that everyone wanted to believe, but I think they just made an inspired guess."

So the (now former) official historian of the Tower of London and the Constable of the Tower of London have differing views on how confident we can be of where St. Thomas More spent his last days on earth in 1535. Rather awkward.


  1. Back in the early 1990s a small group met in St Thomas More's cell every Friday night where a priest would celebrate Mass for them. Queen Elizabeth II heard of this and banned the practice immediately.

  2. Captain Alan ParsonsOctober 22, 2013 at 2:39 PM

    Richard I dont know where you get your facts from but this is completely untrue.

    1. I have the press cuttings from the time. It was widely reported and never questioned up until now. I was planning to blog on the issue myself within the next couple of days.

  3. My apologies, having checked my facts I find that it was in St John Fisher's cell that the Mass was celebrated from 1991 to 1994.

  4. Thanks for double checking, Richard--a post about those Masses in St. John Fisher's cell would be very interesting!

  5. Is it possible to visit St Thomas More's cell?

    1. There's a pilgrimage hosted by Inside the Vatican going there next month that plans to! http://insidethevatican.com/june-2017-england-pilgrimage

  6. How can my husband and I (both practising Catholics) visit St Thomas More's cell?

    1. You'd have to contact the Tower and make special arrangements, I suppose.