On July 1, 1535 St. Thomas More left Westminster Hall a condemned man. His daughter Margaret was waiting for him as he returned to the Tower of London and embraced him. This historical painting by William Frederick Yeames in 1872 depicts that scene. Notice that Thomas More has a beard, which he is reported to have moved out of the way before he was beheaded since it had committed no treason (having grown while he was in prison).
As Samuel Johnson said in the eighteenth century, "Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." St. Thomas More did not have a fortnight to prepare for his execution--or rather he had had more than a year to prepare for his death while imprisoned in the Tower of London--after he was sentenced to being hanged, drawn, and quartered on July 1, 1535. Once back in his cell, Thomas More concentrated again on his death, writing a prayer that combined devotion, a general examination of conscience, and petitions for God's grace to live and die according to His will. It is a model of devotion, faith, and thoughtfulness, titled "A Devout Prayer". After beginning with the Pater Noster, Ave Maria, and Credo, More continued:
O Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, three equal and coeternal Persons and one Almighty God, have mercy on me, vile, abject, abominable, sinful wretch, meekly knowledging before Thine High Majesty my long-continued sinful life, even from my very childhood hitherto.
In my childhood (in this point and that point). After my childhood (in this point and that point, and so forth by every age).
Now, good gracious Lord, as Thou givest me Thy grace to knowledge them, so give me Thy grace not only in word but in heart also, with very sorrowful contrition to repent them and utterly to forsake them. And forgive me those sins also in which, by mine own default, through evil affections and evil custom, my reason is with sensuality so blinded that I cannot discern them for sin. And illumine, good Lord, mine heart, and give me Thy grace to know them and to knowledge them, and forgive me my sins negligently forgotten, and bring them to my mind with grace to be purely confessed of them.
Glorious God, give me from henceforth Thy grace, with little respect unto the world, so to set and fix firmly mine heart upon Thee, that I may say with Thy blessed apostle St. Paul: "Mundus mihi crucifixus est et ego mundo. Mihi vivere Christus est et mori lucrum. Cupio dissolvi et esse cum Christo."[The world is crucified to me and I to the world. For me to live is Christ and to die is gain. I wish to be dissolved and be with Christ. (Gal. 6:14 and Phil 1:21-23)]
Give me Thy grace to amend my life and to have an eye to mine end without grudge of death, which to them that die in Thee, good Lord, in the gate of a wealthy life.
Almighty God, Doce me facere voluntatem Tuam. Fac me currere in odore unguentorum tuorum. Apprehende manum meam dexteram et deduc me in via recta propter inimicos meos. Trahe me post te. In chamo et freno maxillas meas constringe, quum non approximo ad te. [Teach me to do your will. Make me run in the scent of your unguents. Take my right hand, and lead me in the right path because of my enemies. Draw me after you. With a muzzle and bridle restrain my jaws when I do not draw near to you. (Psalm 31:9)]
O glorious God, all sinful fear, all sinful sorrow and pensiveness, all sinful hope, all sinful mirth and gladness take from me. And on the other side, concerning such fear, such sorrow, such heaviness, such comfort, consolation, and gladness as shall be profitable for my soul: Fac mecum secundum magnam bonitatem tuam Domine. [Deal with me according to your great goodness, O Lord. (Psalm 118:124)]
Good Lord, give me the grace, in all my fear and agony, to have recourse to that great fear and wonderful agony that Thou, my sweet Saviour, hadst at the Mount of Olivet before Thy most bitter passion, and in the meditation thereof to conceive ghostly comfort and consolation profitable for my soul.
Almighty God, take from me all vain-glorious minds, all appetites of mine own praise, all envy, covetise, gluttony, sloth, and lechery, all wrathful affections, all appetite of revenging, all desire or delight of other folk's harm, all pleasure in provoking any person to wrath and anger, all delight of exprobation or insultation against any person in their affliction and calamity.
And give me, good Lord, an humble, lowly, quiet, peaceable, patient, charitable, kind, tender, and pitiful mind with all my works, and all my words, and all my thoughts, to have a taste of Thy holy, blessed Spirit.
Give me, good Lord, a full faith, a firm hope, and a fervent charity, a love to the good Lord incomparable above the love to myself; and that I love nothing to Thy displeasure, but everything in an order to Thee.
Give me, good Lord, a longing to be with Thee, not for the avoiding of the calamities of this wretched world, nor so much for the avoiding of the pains of purgatory, nor of the pains of hell neither, nor so much for the attaining of the joys of heaven in respect of mine own commodity, as even, for a very love to Thee.
And bear me, good Lord, Thy love and favour, which thing my love to Thee-ward, were it never so great, could not, but of Thy great goodness deserve.
And pardon me, good Lord, that I am so bold to ask so high petitions, being so vile a sinful wretch, and so unworthy to attain the lowest. But yet, good Lord, such they be as I am bounden to wish, and should be nearer the effectual desire of them if my manifold sins were not the let. From which, O glorious Trinity, vouchsafe, of Thy goodness to wash me with that blessed blood that issued out of Thy tender body, O sweet Saviour Christ, in the divers torments of Thy most bitter passion.
Take from me, good Lord, this lukewarm fashion, or rather key-cold manner of meditation, and this dulness in praying unto Thee. And give me warmth, delight, and quickness in thinking upon Thee. And give me Thy grace to long for Thine holy sacraments, and specially to rejoice in the presence of Thy very blessed body, sweet Saviour Christ, in the holy sacrament of the altar, and duly to thank Thee for Thy gracious visitation therewith, and at that high memorial with tender compassion to remember and consider Thy most bitter passion.
Make us all, good Lord, virtually participant of that holy sacrament this day, and every day. Make us all lively members, sweet Saviour Christ, of Thine holy mystical body, Thy Catholic Church.
Dignare, Domine, die isto sine peccato nos custodire. [Deign, O Lord, on that day to preserve us without sin.]
Miserere nostri, Domine, miserere nostri. [Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us.]
Fiat misericordia tua, Domine, super nos, quemadmodum speravimus in te. [Let your mercy, O Lord, be upon us, just as we have hoped in you. (Psalm 32:22)]
In te, Domine, speravi, non confundar in æternum. [In you, O Lord, I have hoped, let me not be confounded in eternity. (Psalm 30 2)]
R. Ora pro nobis, sancta Dei genitrix. [Pray for us, holy Mother of God]
V. Ut digni efficiamur promissionibus Christi. [That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.]
Then he prayed for his friends and enemies:
Almighty God, have mercy on N. and N. (with special meditation and consideration of every friend, as godly affections and occasion requireth).
Almighty God, have mercy on N. and N., and on all that bear me evil will, and would me harm, and their faults and mine together by such easy, tender, merciful means as Thine infinite wisdom best can devise, vouchsafe to amend and redress and make us saved souls in heaven together, where we may ever live and love together with Thee and Thy blessed saints, O glorious Trinity, for the bitter passion of our sweet Saviour Christ. Amen.
God, give me patience in tribulation and grace in everything, to conform my will to Thine, that I may truly say: "Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in coelo et in terra". [Thy will be done on earth and it is in heaven. (Pater Noster)]
The things, good Lord, that I pray for, give me Thy grace to labour for. Amen.
prayer book in its Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library:
It is not known how the prayer book survived after More was executed. It first surfaced in an exhibition in 1929 and was purchased by the Beinecke Library in 1965. It actually comprises two printed books: a book of Hours and a Psalter. Printed in 1522 and 1525 in Paris for the English market, the books retain their original simple black binding.
The annotations on the book of Hours were gathered by More’s nephew, William Rastell, and published in his 1557 edition of the English works of Thomas More. (Starting in 1958, Yale’s St. Thomas More Project, an international scholarly collaboration, edited and published 16 volumes of More’s writings; they are all still in print.) These verses show More wrestling with, and reconciling himself to, a painful death and the possible ruin of his family for his religious convictions. They are his best-known spiritual writings.
Yale University Press published a facsimile edition, which is out of print unfortunately:
These facsimile pages are taken from a Latin Book of Hours and a liturgical Latin Psalter which were in St. Thomas More’s possession while he was a prisoner in the Tower of London and which he used for meditation during the period before his execution. In the margins of nineteen pages of the Book of Hours, More wrote his “Godly Meditation,” lines resonant with his intense spirituality as he pondered his awaiting death yet reflecting the lot of any Christian as he endeavors to “walk the narrow way”; the margins of the Psalter include 150 notes that give deep insight into More’s personal grief and sorrows during his imprisonment. The annotated pages of both volumes are here reproduced in their original size, with those from the Book of Hours in full color.
Mr. Martz and Mr. Sylvester, both professor of English at Yale University and chairman and executive editor, respectively, of the Yale Edition of the Works of St. Thomas More, provide full transcriptions of all the marginalia, with translations of the Latin notes, as well as an Introduction describing the books and analyzing the spiritual and scholarly significance of the annotation. A companion volume to the Yale Edition of the Complete Works of St. Thomas More.
An interesting anecdote about More's Prayer Book here.
St. Thomas More, pray for us!