It was Alice's face that he remembered most, a haunted, grieved, frightened face that had watched him leave the house in quiet sorrow that it was likely she might never see him again. Alice had been a marriage of convenience after the death of his first wife, but in the years since they had grown to love one another, to cling to each other's ideals and to share their hearts with an openness he had never thought possible. Alice was slowly coming to understand him, but even then he could see the hurt and anger in her eyes when he had looked at her one last time, his hand falling from hers, and walked resolutely out the front door, away from the children that might never see him again, from the house he had so carefully designed, from the life that had served him well along the banks of the Thames.
Why will you not sign the oath?
He could hear the question echoing across the miles, coming from numerous silent voices, some pleading and others infuriated. Alice could not comprehend his reasons, but she trusted and knew he would always follow his convictions. Henry would be less understanding. Thomas knew he would be furious that their friendship had not amounted to more than this, that he could not force his former dearest friend and advisor to go against his conscience. To sign the oath and damn his soul, to pronounce the king head of the Church of England, and to state that the children of that harlot Anne Boleyn were the rightful heirs to the throne. Thomas had been willing to concede to the latter, resentment spiraling through every line of his being, if it would have saved his children; but to the former, he would not concede even if they tore him limb from limb. Henry, the mad, arrogant, heretical Henry, was not the moral head of the church and never would be, no matter how many priests he condemned, monasteries he tore to the ground, or threats he made against Rome. He was an anointed sovereign and nothing more.
So many men had signed it, either with clear consciences or much penance to do before God, believing an oath signed under duress held no binding power, but Thomas could not risk his soul in a wager that it might be forgiven. He knew the Queen would not relent, either. Katharine of Aragon had been the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on when she had first arrived in England. He had ridden to see her approach into London with the royal family and been astounded by her presence, so much power compressed into such a tiny form, for she barely came up to his shoulder, and her exquisite, pale features were surrounded in mounds of rich reddish-golden hair that fell in soft waves past her waist, framing an enormous, intelligent pair of magnificent blue eyes. He had watched her over the years as she fought and struggled against their male-dominated society, first resolute against her vicious father in law after the death of Arthur, and then learning to manage Henry through stormy political seas.
He had seen her when news had come that the Scots were planning to invade while her husband was abroad; without hesitation, Katharine had forced them back through fearless warfare, her triumph coming in the form of the dead body of King James of Scotland. Thomas had seen her compassion when she had witnessed the carcass, her hesitation in their questions as to what to do with it. He had watched her hold her head high over the years, despite rumors that she could not bear children, had seen her go to her knees to beg for the lives of prisoners that had attempted to storm the French embassy, nearly trampling him in the process. He had watched as she had suffered in silence her husband's indiscretions and mistresses, had not even condemned Bessie Blount when she had born Henry an illegitimate son. Katharine had given the little boy much kindness and affection … and this was the woman Henry wanted to overthrow for the dark-eyed Anne Boleyn. Whether through discontent or madness, Henry had tired of his first wife and desired a second – and that was what had begun it all. The quarrels, the protests, the papal court, and now, the impending Reformation, the one thing Thomas feared most.
Lutheranism was creeping in among them, flourishing now that Henry had made it foremost in his policies, knowing once he obtained the coveted title as Head of the Church, he could pronounce his first marriage annulled. Thomas had fought and prayed; he had spoken with the king and consulted with the queen. He had remained as silent as possible on the divorce, praying he would not be asked more than his personal opinion, knowing he would be damned for it. Even Katharine had told him to remain out of it, her eyes searching his as she rested her small hand on his arm. "You must not involve yourself, Sir Thomas," she had counseled him in that wonderful, rich voice of hers, still thick with an accent but surprisingly coherent in English. "This is my battle, and I would not have you endangered through it. Maintain your silence; I have need only of your prayers."
And she had smiled at him in that manner she had of maintaining confidence even as the world crumbled around her, pale from anxiety and somewhat thinner than he had seen her last, for her servants had told him that she was not eating. That had been the last time he had seen her, before she had been moved once again to an even danker, lesser known castle more distant from the countrymen who loved her most. Katharine was in exile, her health deteriorating even while she remained resolute, determined not to acknowledge or sign the oath. Her daughter was similarly inclined and Henry was absolutely furious, having already crowned Anne Boleyn and placed her on the throne. Mary was abused, Katharine exiled, and he imprisoned. The cold stone walls of the Tower surrounded him, left only a few books and papers so he might continue his writing, and a small silver cross that he carried with him for use in his prayers.
Various individuals had come to plead with him to accept the oath, begging him to consider his wife and children, his legacy, the merit of his own life, but none of them understood that he could not, would not, that it was not worth the risk of losing his soul to gain mortal life. Others had signed without compulsion, and would have to answer for it in their own way, but he would not sign. Thomas More would never put his name to such a spiritually incriminating document, just as Katharine would never sign it, nor Bishop Fisher, her champion and Henry's former spiritual advisor, who maintained ill health in the prison cell above Thomas', his mature years dictating an unsteady stomach that often rejected prison food. Cromwell had come to see them separately, showing a hint of respect behind his shrewd, cold eyes. There would be hearings for both of them, and Thomas knew they would both be condemned, no matter how much legal maneuvering he took to ensure otherwise. At least his family could not be touched; he had managed their estate and properties in such a way that it could not be confiscated by the king.
The morning of Fisher's trial came with sunny skies, the heavens smiling down on them despite the impoverished, dejected state of its most ardent defenders. Thomas' stomach was uneasy and he could not eat whatever was brought to him, leaving it untouched on the tray as he went to the window that overlooked the courtyard, watching as a humble older man was brought forth, blinking, into the light. Bishop Fisher had once struck quite a formidable pose in his purple robes, with his resonating voice and strength of conviction, but now he was much degraded and humiliated, his steps uncertain as he accompanied the guards. Thomas felt a heaviness in his breast that he could not explain, a foreboding that continued throughout the afternoon and deepened when his supper was brought, the young man bearing it looking at him a long moment before saying, "Bishop Fisher is condemned to death."
Thomas did not answer, for he had known it was coming, that there would be no escaping it, that Fisher, like himself, would never deny the authority of the true Church and would go to his death in the service of Christ. He had once spoken with his daughter Margaret of the price of martyrdom, not so much upon the condemned but those who remained behind. She had looked at him with such earnest sorrow and intent understanding, for she had her father's natural thought process and instinctive mind. "It is not that men set themselves up as martyrs, but that it is chosen for them when they cannot abandon their principles," he had told her, and she had nodded, soberly. That, she could understand, although it had made her deeply unhappy when her father had gone to his imprisonment without a word of protest, or any attempt at salvation other than through evasion. It was the king who had forced this upon him, who had not allowed him to remain silent on such matters, who had refused to respect his wish to be left out of it. Henry had wanted his affirmation so much that he would kill him for it, for Thomas was his dearest friend, the one person whose opinion truly mattered, and in this instance they could not agree, and neither would concede, one out of conviction and the other a refusal to stand in the wrong. "I will never ask you to go against your principles," Henry had promised him when Thomas had been offered the position of Chancellor. "You must always follow God first, and myself second." He may have meant it then, with his boyish smile and eager ambition, but such promises had been abandoned long since, leaving only ruination behind. Had he not made and broken such promises before, to Cardinal Wolsey, to Katharine, to his daughter?
Margaret came to see him the day before his own trial, her beautiful dark hair tucked beneath a stylish cap and her enormous eyes full of sadness. She looked miserably around her at the cramped little cell devoid of any elements of comfort save the presence of a narrow cot and a writing table and he could see her heart breaking as she came forward to embrace him, her slender frame shaking as he offered her a chair. "Father, you cannot go on living like this," she admonished softly, and he smiled at her, the corners of his eyes crinkling as he answered, "Soon, I will not be, for I will be in a much better place."
He knew it would not please her but had to say it, to attempt to comfort her in some small fraction, to let her know that he was content with his decision and what it would cost him. She looked at him silently and lowered her gaze to her slender hands, churning uneasily in her lap. "I wish you would not do this, Father," she whispered.
"I have no other choice."
"You do have a choice! You can sign the oath and come home with me to Mother, and to the children! Please say you will consider it, that you will not condemn us to living without you!"
He reached for her hand, finding it colder than he would have liked, but it was not the chill in the Tower that made it thus as much as the fear creeping through her soul. His beautiful Margaret, the pride and joy of his heart, his favorite among his children for her swiftness of mind and keenness of instinct, an activist and a conversationalist, a clever girl with a magnificent grasp of learning, for he had seen to it that all his daughters were well educated, a rarity in their times. It was a principle the Queen had carried over into the tutelage of her own daughter, and Thomas was proud that he could claim his daughters were just as well-versed as Princess Mary. While he loved all of his children, it was Margaret who created the most warmth in his heart, whose tearful pleas had so often shaken his resolve, and this was why she had come to him, why it was her instead of Alice, for his wife knew the one person capable of changing his mind sat before him, tearful and pleading for his reconsideration.
"It does not comfort me to leave any of you," he told her, gripping her hand and forcing her to look up at him, praying she would understand. "I wanted never to reach this moment, never to be forced to choose… it was why I resigned, why I did not make myself apparent to the king, why I ceased communication with the queen even though she desperately needed my support. But it seems God does not want me to live in peace while others suffer for their convictions, and like the best of them, I must not turn against my beliefs or my conscience. I do not condemn you or any of the others for taking the oath, but I cannot commit to it, and pray you will remain strong and allow me to do this. If it is God's will I survive, I will do so, but if it is not, you and the others must go on without me." Tears came into his eyes and he rested his forehead against her own as she attempted to contain her misery.
Margaret trembled with her emotions, sniffing quietly as she blinked away tears. "Bishop Fisher is to die," she whispered, and her father gathered her into his arms, allowing her to cry softly against his broad chest. The prison cell seemed so forlorn, the light feeble against the gray stone walls; the Tower was astoundingly quiet for the amount of imprisoned souls within. Some nights the wailing was so profound he could not sleep, tossing and turning on his narrow cot with no thought other than the fact that the hours counted down to his demise.
"Have you heard anything of the Queen?" he asked her when she had gathered her strength, and Margaret considered for a moment, hesitant to speak of their former monarch, now abandoned in the wilds of the north, under close guard and forbidden any visitors except the priest who administered to her spiritual needs and often smuggled correspondence in and out for her. Thomas felt a sinking of his heart as she looked at him, knowing whatever she had heard was not pleasant, but prompted her further. Margaret wiped her eyes and answered, "They say her spirits are decidedly low, that she does nothing but pray and bathe the stones in the chapel with her tears, but she has refused to sign the oath, and his majesty has forbidden any communication with her. Not even the Spanish ambassador may see her."
Thomas knew him well, an energetic and exceptionally clever man of the Emperor's employment who had been Katharine's alley throughout the trial and its aftermath. When he had been first forbidden from visiting the exiled queen, Chapuys had put up a tremendous skirmish at the English court, full of violent protestations and veiled threats that Henry had dismissed without consequence; he had no interest in Katharine, nor feared her nephew the Emperor, and would not concede to the wishes of a mere ambassador. The action had astounded all in observance and infuriated powers abroad, but there was nothing to be done. Thomas was merely sorry that Katharine remained in England, for he knew she would have been much safer abroad. There had been tentative plans to rescue her, but she had refused most of them, in the knowledge that if she and her daughter left England, Mary could never claim the throne.
"Do you not fear what might come of a female succession?" Thomas had once asked her as they walked together in the garden, and Katharine had looked at him with a smile. It was a lazy summer afternoon and Mary was running before them along the narrow path, ribbons streaming after her, her hair like a flash of fire in the sunlight. The Thames had sparkled behind them, traveling through the long grasses and beneath the boughs of the trees whose branches dipped into its waters. Katharine observed her daughter shrieking with laughter and answered, "If Mary is anything like her grandmother, no force would dare stand against her." There was a hint of nostalgia in her voice as she said it, no doubt remembering the magnificence of her mother. Isabella had been a force to be reckoned with, so politically strong that her enemies crumbled in her wake, her military precision unmatched, for she had personally led their armies into battle, scattering the Moors from Spain in an unrelenting tide on horseback, mud- and blood-spattered, with her hair flying in a crimson streak behind her. England had never successfully maintained a female monarch on the throne, but the Castilian-Tudor bloodline was formidable, and he had no doubt that just as Katharine might have ruled alone, Mary could as well. Mary had been so innocent then, full of opinions but swayed by her mother's gentle graces. Thomas could not envision her now, a displaced "bastard" monarch of a marriageable age, infuriated with her father's attempts to humiliate her mother and remove her from power. Dear God, he wondered, what would she become?
His thoughts were mostly of his wife and children as he went to his trial, glimpsing their faces in the crowd that surrounded the building, Margaret trying to force her way to his side, the guards attempting to bar her from reaching him. Her husband could only comfort her as Thomas was taken through the doors into the courtroom, where he faced his judges, a line of biased counsel determined to undermine his legal arguments. But he would not go down without a fight and refuted them, so many times that two of them became openly aggravated and the third drew such a heavy line across his brow that his eyes all but disappeared into the rolls of fat on his face. They had known this would not be easy, for Thomas More had a reputation for legal brilliance that remained unsurpassed on foreign shores. Many had supposed it was Thomas who had given Katharine the information needed to fight in court, but Thomas had never spoken to her of such matters; she had managed that on her own. But he could see the suspicion in their eyes, and the fears of those who observed in the gallery, some of them hoping he would win his case, and others praying he would not.
For just an instant there was a fragment of hope that he might escape alive, but it came crashing down around them with the introduction of new evidence that stated he had openly denied the influence of the king within his own realm, not only over the church but the state as well. Once the witness opened his mouth, Thomas knew he was damned, that he could do or say nothing now to save himself, that the fragment of possibility was gone, the window of chance closed forever against him. There was no use in denying it, in fighting it, for their minds were made up, and so he chose to go out like a lion rather than a lamb, with a snarl rather than a cower, his head held high even as his heart was heavy as he was removed from the building with the sentence of death hanging over him. This time Margaret was able to slip through the guards and throw her arms around him, her tears dampening his garment before her arms were pried loose and she was flung back into the crowd. He did not want her to witness his death, and told her as much in a note that his prison guard agreed to deliver for him. She would be angry, but he knew she would honor his request.
The days that passed between his condemnation and execution were long and tedious, full of soul searching and prayers for strength, and when the morning of his death came, his spirit was eased and he felt no fear as the guards arrived for him. He had not shaved since his imprisonment and had a full scruff on his face, deepening the color of his eyes as he stepped forward into the sunlight. There was a crowd gathered, both of his friends and his enemies; he did not look at them all as he moved forward, but he saw Chapuys in the distance, wearing a grim expression and with his hands folded, no doubt his presence both as a show of moral support and out of sadness that the queen could not intervene. Then there were the Boleyn men, wearing self satisfied expressions, for Thomas had been their most adamant rival for the king's affection. Thomas stumbled as he reached the first step of the platform, the first faint hesitation coming out in his step when he saw the bloodstained block, and the hooded executioner.
One of his associates reached out to steady him, and he thanked him, adding, "I will shift for myself on the way down," in a wry tone that indicated he maintained a morbid sense of humor. Alice would have slapped him if she had heard it, tears sparkling in her eyes. She was at home pacing the floor, locked in his study with tears flowing down her face, for she knew the hour of his execution. Dear Alice, whom he had married for convenience and grown to love passionately, for she had warmed his heart as much as his bed, her quiet presence and opinions soothing to the turmoil of his soul. She at least had understood in the end, for she had come to say farewell, gripping his hands in hers and saying, "I cannot fault you for being a man of principle, Thomas More, though my heart will ache for a good long while after yours is at peace." She had kissed him then and cried as she left, her footsteps haunting him throughout the night that had followed, spending most of it in prayer on his knees.
Her voice echoed in his ear as he climbed those fateful steps, the wind rustling his hair and hinting at the presence of an oncoming storm, for the heavens were turning gray in the north. There was absolute silence among the crowd as memories flashed through his mind of the most monumental moments of his life … his decision not to enter the monastery in his youth … his first marriage and the loss of his wife … the birth of his children … his introduction to young King Henry … the countless hours they had spent together … his friendship with Katharine … his actions as chancellor… the face of his wife as she had forgiven him, in acceptance of his death … the voices and features of his children, his beloved children, whom he prayed would come to understand his reasoning. He might have lived for them, but they would learn more the ways of honor though his death.
The faces looking up at him were emotionless but some of them were tearful; their presence in silent protest against the execution as much as to show moral support. Thomas could not find anything to say to them, though he had considered this moment gravely many times over the past week. "His majesty would rather you did not speak," the warden told him. Yes, he was certain Henry would rather he gave no parting words, for he feared they would be of recrimination or judgment. A dying man had nothing left to fear, for his final words could be of his own choosing, but Thomas harbored him no ill will; to do so at the hour of his death would have meant damnation. He nodded and stepped toward the block, turning as the executioner asked his forgiveness. "You may have it," Thomas told him, and meant it.
It was tempting to say nothing, but he could not bear it and so looked out across the crowd, seeking out the faces he valued and trusted, those that had been his friends over the years and whom had signed the oath out of fear for their lives. "I will make no speeches," he said to their unwavering silence, "save to say that I die the king's good servant, but God's first," and he knelt. He crossed himself and prayed silently, many of those in observance doing the same.
The block felt cold and rough beneath his fingers, his head coming to rest against it carefully as he looked up at the executioner. A twinkle came into his eye and he said, "Mind the beard, for it has committed no offense." The man stared at him in shock through the black holes of his mask and Thomas turned his eyes downward, still holding his little silver cross in his hand. His joke had made all those who heard it uneasy and there was a shifting of feet and numerous awkward glances. He could feel the presence of the executioner beside him though he could not see it, sense the shadow that was falling across him, but never felt anything, not the swish of the ax as it fell through the air nor the connection against his flesh, nothing but a burst of light followed by weightlessness. The women in the crowd looked away and some of the men, hands closing over open mouths as his fingers loosened their grip and the cross went spiraling to the ground, blood seeping across its slender silver form. There was no roar of approval or indignation as usually accompanied such executions, nothing but a stunned state of mind that gave way to the distant rumbling of thunder as everyone stood rooted into place, wondering if the heart of England had been severed as well.
Chapuys had fallen to his knees at the moment of impact, unable to watch, fearing what would happen next, for if the king had condemned and killed his dearest friend over a matter of policy, what might he dare to do to his wife and daughter if they continued to stand against him? Anne Boleyn was oblivious to what had transpired, traipsing about the far garden with her ladies and her lute player, laughing as she discussed her future plans for the court. In a distant castle, the king's eldest daughter slammed the door to her cramped, threadbare room and threw herself against it, attempting to breathe for the emotions spiraling through her slender form, as she had known and admired Thomas More. He had swung her through the air on many occasions, her laughter wafting around them and her mother watching from a slight distance. Her corset restricted her ability to move and she sank to the floor surrounded by billowing skirts, tears coursing down her face.
Much further to the north, Mary's mother stared out into the impending storm, her hair blowing about her shoulders, feeling as though a light had gone out in the distance and left an ache in her soul. She knew the bishop would soon come to inform her of the execution, could even see the distant church spire against the darkening skies. Those magnificent blue eyes that had so often turned to him across the room, accompanying animated conversation about philosophy and reverent religious passion were immensely sad, in a face as pale as that of a ghost. "Thomas…" she said, followed by, "Oh, Henry, what have you done?"
Henry was in an unfathomable rage, sending the contents of his magnificent oak desk to the floor in a single sweep of his arm and then screaming out in grief.
And above them all, the skies raged in an unforgiving storm.
This was written both as a modest tribute to Sir Thomas More and because I had not the opportunity to write his execution in my novel set during the same period. Readers may choose to view it as an independent short story, as a continuation of events from The Tudors, or as an addition to Chapter Forty-Nine of "Isabella's Daughter," my novel about Katharine of Aragon. (You can find out more information about the book, as well as read sample chapters, or purchase a paperback or download, at lulu dot com – just type in the book title).