University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The Workes of Sir Thomas More Knyght

Volume XXXVI  · 1983 
The Workes of Sir Thomas More Knyght


It would be hard to think of a more appropriate volume than this folio of 1557 to constitute the two millionth book acquired by the Library of the University of Rochester. Thomas More was a lover of books in every possible way: he collected books as treasures of the human mind; he read books eagerly; he wrote books copiously, as the size of this great folio shows; and he even had a close association with the printing of his own books. His brother-in-law, John Rastell, was one of England's earliest printers, and he became the printer and publisher of More's important work of religious controversy, the Dialogue Concerning Heresies, in 1529. After this, up to the time of More's death in 1535, John Rastell's son William carried on the work of printing and publishing More's voluminous works of controversy, in close association with the author. And so, appropriately, William Rastell became the editor and publisher of his uncle's collected English works, as he tells us in his dedication to Queen Mary, explaining that he "did diligently collect and gather together, as many of those his works, books, letters, and other writings, printed and unprinted in the English tongue, as I could come by, and the same (certain years in the evil world past, keeping in my hands, very surely and safely) now lately have caused to be imprinted in this one volume."

The essential part that books played in the life of Thomas More and his family is well illustrated in the group portrait of the entire More family that Hans Holbein painted in 1527 -- an enormous painting nearly 12 feet wide -- now lost, but we have what appears to be a faithful copy made about 1593 and fortunately preserved in the manor house of Nostell Priory in Yorkshire.1 It contains portraits of More's three daughters, all in their early twenties; his son, aged 19; the son's fianc√©, aged 15, More's foster daughter, aged 22; More's father, aged 76; More's second wife, aged 57; and Thomas More himself, aged 50, in the center. Three other figures, characteristic of More's personality and interests, also appear: his fool, a man aged 40, with whom More loved to exchange jests; his secretary, holding a scroll; and far off in the background, in another room, a man studying a book. But books are everywhere in the painting, on the sideboard, on the laps of people sitting, under the arm or in the hands of people standing. It is in fact a portrait of More's family "academy," where the young women received the same education as the young man -- and some of the young women here excelled the young man as scholars, for daughter Margaret became a fluent Latinist and Margaret Gigs, the foster daughter, became a successful physician.

The atmosphere of this little private school is well represented in a letter that Thomas More, busy at Court in 1521, wrote to his family. The letter is in Latin, which he expected all of them to be able to read, since they were all at least 13 years old, and if they could not read Latin easily by that time there was no hope for them. But you will forgive me if I read the letter in a translation.

At Court 23 March 1521

Thomas More to his whole school greeting.

See what a compendious salutation I have found, to save both time and paper, which would otherwise have been wasted in listing the names of each one of you in salutation, and my labor would have been to no purpose, since, though each of you is dear to me by some special one is dearer to me by any title than each of you by that of scholar. Your zeal for knowledge binds me to you almost more closely than the ties of blood.... If I did not love you so much I should be really envious of your happiness in having so many and such excellent tutors. But I think you have no longer any need of Master Nicholas [Kratzer], since you have learned whatever he had to teach you about astronomy. I hear you are so far advanced in that science that you can not only point out the polar star or the dog star, or any of the ordinary stars, but are able distinguish the sun from the moon! Onward then in that new and admirable science by which you ascend to the stars! But while you gaze on them assiduously, consider that this holy time of Lent warns you, and that beautiful and holy poem of Boethius keeps singing in your ears, teaching you to raise your mind also to heaven, lest the soul look downwards to the earth, after the manner of brutes, while the body is raised aloft.

Farewell, all my dearest.2

The combination there of scholarly concern, religious exhortation, poetical interest, fatherly love, and playful wit is typical of the complex character of Thomas More and helps to explain his broad appeal to people of every faith and every persuasion. Now what were the books that were most treasured in this little academy? Surprisingly enough, the Holbein painting is so enormous that we can really read the lettering on some of the bindings and on some of the open pages. The one on the lap of Margaret Roper, his favorite daughter, can be clearly read: it is opened to a passage of Seneca's tragedy Oedipus, the chorus beginning "Fata si liceat mihi. . ." It is a passage so appropriate to More's own way of thinking that one suspects he told the painter to choose that passage. It runs like this in English: "Were it mine to shape fate at my will, I would trim my sails to gentle winds, lest my yards tremble, bent [be]neath a heavy blast. May soft breezes, gently blowing, unvarying, carry my untroubled barque along; may life bear me on safely, running in middle course."3 That wish was never granted: no one had a more turbulent life than Thomas More.

On the opposite side of the picture, his second daughter, Elizabeth, is holding under her right arm a book bearing the title Epistolica. Seneca-- Letters of Seneca -- and on the sideboard is a book labeled De Consolatione Philosophiae -- the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. It was not enough for Thomas More that books should be exhibited: we must know exactly what books they are and what they are saying.

This, then, was the great family portrait designed to hang on a wall in More's home, where visitors and friends might see it. But there is another version of the portrait, significantly different. There exists in the museum at Basel a small pen-and-ink sketch of this family group, apparently preliminary to the big painting; and in this sketch the large books that the painting shows on the laps of daughters Cecily and Margaret are not present: the books are now quite small. Big books are scattered on the floor, but all the figures are now holding small books that look like prayer books -- an effect enforced by the fact that Cecily is now holding a rosary, and More's wife is now kneeling at a prie-dieu, whereas in the painted version she is seated in a chair. What we are seeing here is a family assembled for a service of prayer and devotion. But this is a private matter, not suitable for public display.

So it was, always, with More. One would not guess, looking at the famous Holbein portrait of More in the Frick collection, that he wore, all his adult life, a hair shirt next to his skin. His outward manner was always that of the man of the world, which he was: lawyer, judge, negotiator of trade pacts with merchants on the Continent, chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, lord chancellor of England at the insistence of Henry VIII, teller of merry tales, writer of witty epigrams, beloved as a dinner companion, though he drank very little. (He was one of those people who are always putting water in the wine.)

Erasmus sees him as a man of the most delightful personality, constantly amusing and always intensely interested in every aspect of human or animal life. Erasmus had lived in More's house on several occasions, and he gives us a good report of More and that household.

In company his extraordinary kindness and sweetness of temper are such as to cheer the dullest spirit. . . From boyhood he was always so pleased with a joke, that it might seem that jesting was the main object of his life . . . There is nothing that occurs in human life, from which he does not seek to extract some pleasure . . . One of his amusements is in observing the forms, characters and instincts of different animals. Accordingly there is scarcely any kind of bird, that he does not keep about his residence, and the same of other animals not quite so common, as monkeys, foxes, ferrets, weasels and the like . . . there is something in every room which catches your eye, as you enter it; and his own pleasure is renewed every time that he sees others interested .4

How was it, then, that such a man could become a martyr for his faith, while all his closest friends and all his family made the necessary accommodation to the demand that Henry VIII be recognized as Supreme Head of the Church in England? No one, in 1535, except perhaps his daughter Margaret, could really understand the inner nature that led him to this choice; but in 1557 his road toward that choice was revealed to all careful readers in the hitherto unpublished writings that his nephew William Rastell included near the end of his great collection of his uncle's works -- writings that Rastell believed were written in the Tower of London during the 15 months of More's imprisonment before his execution. These works included an English treatise on the Passion of Christ (actually begun, we now know, before More entered the Tower) -- a treatise that changes in midstream into a Latin meditation on the agony of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane. Now Rastell is not otherwise giving translations of More's Latin works (thus the famous Utopia is not included); but Rastell rightly regarded this Latin treatise on the theme of Gethsemane as so important that he printed it in an English translation made by More's granddaughter, Mary Basset -- thus indicating incidentally that More's tradition of female education was being carried on by his descendants.

Why, one may ask, why did More change from English to Latin, in the midst of the sequence of his ponderings on the Passion? The reasons may be much the same as those that dictated the difference between the public and the private portraits of the More family. For the English treatise on the Passion seems designed for public consumption: it is really a series of lectures or sermons on the meaning of the events leading up to the Last Supper. But the Latin treatise is something quite different, as though something drastic had happened to alter More's intention. One may conjecture that this change was caused by More's incarceration in the Tower of London in April 1534 -- to stay there until his execution on July 6, 1535.

In a prefatory note to this Latin treatise Rastell says that More began the work "being then prisoner, and could not achieve and finish the same, as he that ere he could go through therewith (even when he came to the exposition of these words, Et iniecerunt manus in lesum [and then they laid hands upon Jesus] was bereaved and put from his books, pen, ink, and paper, and kept more straitly [confined more closely] than before, and soon after also was put to death himself." Notice how those last words -- "and soon after also was put to deathhimself" -- point up the parallel between Jesus and More. Rastell has indeed read his uncle's treatise very accurately, for this work is, as the title of Mary Basset's translation may suggest, a long meditation on "the sorrow, weariness, fear, and prayer of Christ" in the garden. In the sanctuary of this Latin (the language of the Church) More is pondering and applying to himself, as he faces almost certain death, the question evoked by Christ's plea in the garden: "Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me." (Luke 22:42) More finds this to be a sign of encouragement to the fainthearted, reluctant martyr -- evidence that it was not wrong to seek, as More did, all honorable and legal ways of escape. The law that condemned him to death required that the oath of Supremacy must be refused maliciously, as Rastell points out in some notes that he made for a projected life of More. Speaking of the Act of Treasons passed very reluctantly (with More as chief object) in February 1535, Rastell reports:

"Note diligently here that the bill was earnestly withstood [by Parliament], and could not be suffered to pass, unless the rigour of it were qualified with this word maliciously; and so not every speaking against the Supremacy to be treason, but only maliciously speaking. And so, for more plain declaration thereof, the word maliciously was twice put into the Act."5

Thus they had to convict More on perjured evidence, for he adopted silence as his defense: he would not tell anyone, not even Margaret, exactly why he felt that he could not sign the oath. How then can a silent man be said to speak maliciously?

From the great series of last letters written from the Tower, preserved by More's family, and first published by William Rastell at the very end of his 1557 folio, we learn all we will ever know about the inner drama of that famous prisoner in his last days. The letters are numerous and long, except for the few brief and pathetic letters that More and Rastell tell us were "written with a coal" -- that is, with a piece of charcoal from his fireplace in the Tower when, from time to time, as a form of mental torture, More's books and pen and ink were taken away from him, so that he could not find solace in his reading or his writing and could not communicate with his beloved family. The greatest single contribution of the 1557 folio to history is, I believe, the arrangement, annotation, and publication of these letters, which gave to generations following the complex portrait of More that has come down to our own day and has found modern expression in Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons and in the movie derived from that play.

We can see Bolt's debt to the Tower letters in a scene that Bolt places before More entered the Tower, but the basic conception comes from these last letters. More is talking with his wife Alice, who simply can't believe that he would give up everything for his conscience. "Poor silly man," she says, "d'you think they'll leave you here to learn to fish?" "If we govern our tongues they will!" More answers sharply. "Now listen," he adds, "I have made no statement. I've resigned, that's all. On the King's Supremacy, the King's divorce which he'll now grant himself, the marriage he'll then make -- have you heard me make a statement?" "No," says Alice, "and if I'm to lose my rank and fall to housekeeping I want to know the reason; so make a statement now." At this point More exhibits considerable self-control, as Alice snorts with indignation. "Alice," he explains, "it's a point of law! Accept it from me, Alice, that in silence is my safety under the law, silence must be absolute, it must extend to you." "In short you don't trust us," cries Alice. At this More at last becomes impatient. "Look -- (Headvances on her) I'm the Lord Chief Justice, I'm Cromwell, I'm the King's Head Jailer -- and I take your hand (He does so) and I clamp it on the Bible, on the Blessed Cross (Clamps her hand on his closed fist) and I say: 'Woman, has your husband made a statement on these matters?' Now -- on peril of your soul remember -- what's your answer?" "No," she sullenly replies. "And so it must remain," More concludes. Then, seeing their "grave faces," he tries to comfort them by saying things will never really come to such a pass:  "No, no, when they find I'm silent they'll ask nothing better than to leave me silent; you'll see."

Of course it will not turn out that way, and one cannot believe that More ever thought it would. But his friends did try to help him, as Bolt indicates a little later in the play when the Duke of Norfolk tries to save him by stressing More's very point: "But he makes no noise, Mr. Secretary," Norfolk says to Thomas Cromwell; "he's silent, why not leave him silent?" Then Cromwell makes the inevitable answer: "Your Grace, you perhaps don't realize the extent of his reputation. This 'silence' of his is bellowing up and down Europe!"6 Henry VIII tried to suppress that bellowing silence. After More's death, his works were suppressed, his manuscripts were confiscated when they could be found. But somehow the family managed to keep his letters (though these survive only in copies), along with More's own original manuscript of his final meditation on the garden of Gethsemane, for this was discovered in 1963 in the relic cabinet of a monastery in Valencia, Spain, where it had been residing for 400 years. It has now been published in facsimile -- the last extended piece of writing that More performed.

Nothing by More was published in England after his death until the accession of Mary in 1553 made possible the publication of his writings once more. But William Rastell, we should note, took such care in his editing and printing that he could not produce his folio until April 1557 -- only a year and a half before Queen Mary died and Queen Elizabeth took the throne. It was a near miss. This folio, with its meditation on Gethsemane, the last letters, and Rastell's commentary, clearly treating More as a martyr, could never have been published in England during Elizabeth's reign. But here, fortunately, we have it, and on behalf of the community of scholars throughout the world, I should like to express our gratitude to the donor who has made it possible for us to have available here this book of such broad and powerful appeal: to students of history, religion, and literature, and indeed, to everyone who believes that a man of conscience deserves our veneration.



  1.  For reproductions and a detailed account of the painting see Maurice W. Brockwell, Catalogue of the Pictures. . . at Nostell Priory (London: Constable, 1915), pp. 79-98.
  2.  Thomas More, Selected Letters, ed. by Elizabeth Frances Rogers (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961), pp. 146-7.
  3.  Seneca's Tragedies, trans. by Frank Justus Miller, 2 vols. (London: Heinemann, 1917), I, 509 (Loeb Classical Library).
  4. Letter of Erasmus to Ulrich von Hutten, Antwerp, 23 July 1519 (1517?), The Epistles of Erasmus, trans. by Francis Morgan Nichols, 3 vols. (London: Longmans, 1901-18), III, pp. 391-2.
  5. See "The Rastell Fragments" appended to Nicholas Harpsfield's Life of More, ed. by E. V. Hitchcock and R. W. Chambers (London: Oxford University Press, 1932), p. 229. I have quoted the modernization given by Chambers in his Thomas More (New York: Harcourt, 1935), p. 320.
  6. Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons (New York: Random House, 1962), pp. 95-6, 98.


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