Tuesday, August 23, 2016

From "Margaret Pole": Thomas More's Trial and Execution

Amberley Publishing provides these bullet points to demonstrate what makes this book special:

  • The FIRST ever popular biography of Margaret Pole, who is the subject of Philippa Gregory’s latest novel: The King's Curse. [note that this distinguishes this book from Hazel Pierce’s biography Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury 1473-1541: Loyalty, Lineage and Leadership (University of Wales Press, 2003)]
  •  Endorsement from LEANDA DE LISLE, author of Tudor: The Family Story, will appear on the cover: “At last, a biography of one of the most powerful and fascinating women of the Tudor period: the tragic and dramatic story of Margaret Pole, the last Plantagenet, has too long been overlooked.' 
  • Tudors have never been so popular. The BBC TV adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy Wolf Hall has been a massive hit, helping to maintain high level of interest in all things Tudor. 
  • Margaret Pole had connections to all manner of visitor attractions, including Farleigh Hungerford Castle, Somerset, where she was born,and the Tower of London.

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 7, "Unheard-Of Cruelty", describing the trial and execution of Sir Thomas More.

More's trial took place on 1 July. Among the judges were Thomas, Duke of Norfolk (uncle to Anne Boleyn), Charles, Duke of Suffolk (married to the king's sister Mary), Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire (the queen's father), George Boleyn, Lord Rochford (the queen's brother), Thomas Audley, Lord Chancellor, and Thomas Cromwell. Henry Pole, Lord Montague, was also appointed to the commission of oyer and terminer to try More, but Duncan Derrett notes that he did not take his place there. This may have been due to indisposition (as we shall see shortly, he was reported dangerously ill a few days later), but it may have also been that he found an excuse to avoid sitting in judgment of a man with whom his family had been on excellent terms. Years before, the apparently ailing More had written to John Clement and Reginald Pole, then at Oxford, to thank them for their solicitude for their health, and had added, 'I thank you, my dear Pole, doubly for deigning to procure for me the advice of so skillful a physician, and no less for obtaining from your mother--noblest and best of women, and fully worthy of such a son, the remedy prescribed and for getting it made up'. More had also proudly informed his scholarly daughter, Margaret Roper, that 'a young man of the noblest rank and of the widest attainments in literature . . . as conspicuous for his piety as he is for his learning' had been dumbfounded to realize that his daughter was the author of a letter More had shown him; the man whose opinion pleased More so much was likely Reginald Pole.

The star witness was Solicitor General Richard Rich, who had turned up at More's prison cell in June to seize his books and writing materials and, it appears, to entrap him into treason. Rich claimed that as his companions busied themselves with removing More's cherished books, he entered into a discussion with More, who stated that Parliament had no authority to make the king the supreme head of the church. Too weak to stand for his trial, More nonetheless mounted a vigorous defense, accusing Rich of perjury and attacking his character. Telling Rich that he was 'sorrier for your perjury than for my own peril', he reminded his accuser that they lived in the same parish, where 'you were esteemed to be very light of tongue, a great dicer, and of no commendable fame. And so in your house at the Temple, where has been your chief bringing up, were you likewise accounted'. Turning to his judges, More asked, 'Can it therefore seem likely to your honourable lordships that I would, in so weighty a cause, so unadvisedly overshoot myself as to trust Master Rich, a man by me always reputed for one of very little truth . . . that I would utter to him the secrets of my conscience touching the king's supremacy?' More's defense rattled Rich sufficiently for him to call his companions at the interview, Sir Richard Southwell and Master Thomas Palmer, to corroborate his story, but to no avail. Both men claimed, rather improbably, to have been so absorbed in seizing the bibliophilic More's library that they had paid no heed to the conversation between him and Rich.

Despite this poor evidentiary showing, More was promptly found guilty. But More was not yet done. As Audley, the chancellor, prepared to pass the grim sentence upon him, the prisoner, himself a lawyer and former chancellor, interrupted to remind him that it was the custom for ask the prisoner why judgment should not be given against him then to protest against his indictment as 'grounded upon an Act of Parliament directly repugnant to the laws of God and His Holy Church'. Continuing in this vein, More managed to thoroughly discomfit his judges, but the victory was fleeting, ending as soon as Audley resumed his task of pronouncing the sentence. More's execution was scheduled for 6 July, the same day the court was departing on a progress.

Not wanting his hair shirt exposed to public view as he was stripped to his undergarments during his execution, More sent it, along with an affectionate letter, to his daughter on 5 July. The next morning, Sir Thomas Pope came from the king and his council to announce, as More had already surmised, that he would die that day. Pope brought the order that More refrain from 'using many words' on the scaffold, but also assured him that the king would allow his family to attend his burial. With Pope's departure, More dressed in his best clothing for his execution, only to be dissuaded by the Lieutenant of the Tower, William Kingston (who in less than a year would be presiding over an even more high-profile execution) that the executioner, who would be getting More's clothing as a perquisite of the job, was 'worthless fellow' who would make ill use of it. More settled for sending the executioner a gold coin known as an angel and changing into a less costly garment. Then, in William Roper's words:

And so was he brought by Mr. Lieutenant out of the Tower, and from thence led towards the place of execution, where going up the scaffold, which was so weak that it was ready to fall, he said to Mr. Lieutenant, "I pray you, I pray you, Mr. Lieutenant, see me safe up, and for my coming down let me shift for myself." Then desired he all the people thereabouts to pray for him, and to bear witness with him, that he should then suffer death in and for the faith of the holy Catholic Church, which done he kneeled down, and after his prayers said, he turned to the executioner, and with a cheerful countenance spake unto him. "Pluck up thy spirits, man, and be not afraid to do thine office, my neck is very short. Take heed therefore thou shoot not awry for saving thine honesty." So passed Sir Thomas More out of this world to God.

Reginald Pole would later write to the king, of the deaths of More and the rest, 'From the time that I heard of the slaughter of those men, I do not deny that I lay senseless and unable to speak for almost a month, so stunned was I by the novelty and wonder of such unheard-of cruelty'.

The entire chapter recounts the executions or martyrdoms of those who had opposed Henry VIII's religious supremacy: the six Carthusians, Father Richard Reynolds of Syon Abbey, Father John Haile, and Bishop John Fisher. As Higginbotham narrates those stories, she interweaves the fate of Katherine of Aragon and her daughter Mary, especially after Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn wed and Elizabeth is born, and of course, Margaret Pole, dismissed from Mary's household--and Reginald Pole, who leaves England, not to return for more than 20 years, during the reign of Mary I.

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