The full viciousness of the new regime that Henry and Cromwell had brought to perfection by the end of 1534 is not to be seen in the execution of the Nun of Kent, the destruction of the Friars Observant, or the fate of John Fisher and Thomas More. What was done to them was, if horrible, at least understandable. Elizabeth Barton, by ignoring friendly warnings not to meddle in politics in a dangerous way at a dangerous time, had made her own ruin all but inevitable. The Observants, if as innocent as Barton of anything that could reasonably be construed as a capital crime, had certainly gone out of their way to challenge the king and provoke his wrath. The stature of Fisher and More, two of the most esteemed Europeans of their time, made their refusal to acquiesce in the royal supremacy not only gallingly frustrating but an incitement to anyone else inclined to resist. There were reasons for destroying such people.
Nothing of the kind can be said in the case of John Houghton, a man who by his own choosing was so obscure as to be practically invisible, offered Henry all the loyalty that any other king of England had ever required of his subjects, and asked for nothing except that he and the men who had chosen him as their leader should be left alone. If Barton and the others were victims of judicial murder—and they were—Houghton’s murder was of a singularly atrocious kind. His story is a vivid demonstration of the lengths to which Henry and Cromwell were prepared to go, the depths to which they were willing to descend, to break the will of England.
Houghton, when the Act of Succession became law, was in his late forties and his fourth year as prior, elected head, of the London monastery of the Order of Carthusians. This order, unique in the austerity of its rule, had been founded in a remote valley of the French Alps late in the eleventh century for the purpose of permitting its members to live both in community and as hermits. These two aims, if apparently contradictory, were achieved with impressive success. In four and a half centuries Carthusian houses were established all across Europe, so that by the sixteenth century there were more than two hundred. The order had been invited into England by Henry II as part of his effort to show contrition for the murder of Thomas Becket, and by the time of Henry VIII it had nine English houses. These were known as Charterhouses, their inhabitants as Charterhouse monks—an Anglicization of the name of the order’s motherhouse at La Grande Chartreuse in France. The Carthusians were remarkable in never departing from their original rule and so never giving rise to reformist offshoots. In the sixteenth century, in England as elsewhere, they preserved a way of life focused on solitary prayer, contemplation, study, and work. Their daily routine remained identical in every detail to that established by their founders. Even a century and a half after Henry VIII, Pope Innocent XI would say of the Carthusians that they were numquam reformata, quia numquam deformata: never reformed because never deformed.
John Houghton, the son of a family of gentry or near-gentry in Essex, earned a bachelor’s degree at Cambridge University as a young man and, to the intense disappointment of his parents, decided to take holy orders rather than embark upon the kind of career likely to raise the family’s fortunes. Obliged to leave home, he lived with a parish priest while continuing his studies (eventually he would receive three degrees from Cambridge) and at around age twenty-five was ordained into the secular priesthood—meaning that he was a member of the local diocesan clergy, the source of most parish priests. In his late twenties, feeling himself called to something more demanding, he entered the London Charterhouse. Here, apparently, he was content. Like his brother monks he lived alone in a “cell” of three small rooms (one for storage, one for study and sleep, the third for prayer) adjacent to a small walled garden for growing flowers and vegetables. There was one meal a day in winter—always meatless, with each monk cooking foodstuffs delivered to his door—and two in summer, the diet limited to bread and water on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The monks said daily mass alone in their cells but gathered twice a day for worship in common. Like all monasteries, the Charterhouses were required to be financially self-sufficient, and work of some kind was a prescribed part of the daily routine. For most Carthusians this meant making, by hand, scholarly and devotional books for sale. Sundays and the major feast days of the liturgical calendar were special: the monks had mass and a meal together, afterward meeting in chapter to conduct the business of the house and enjoy a period of free conversation.
It was a life stripped down to essentials. Only the roughest cloth was used as clothing and bedding, no silver or gold ornaments were permitted aside from the chalices in which the bread and wine of communion were consecrated, and monasteries were kept small to avoid the complications and distractions of managing large institutions. It was a life that could make sense only to men prepared to sacrifice everything in pursuit of spiritual experience, but the number of such men was not insubstantial in England and on the continent in the late Middle Ages. The London Charterhouse had an abundance of young members in the time of John Houghton, a number of them from noble families. Thomas More, at the start of his career, had thought long and seriously about giving up the law and joining the Carthusians, finally and with real regret deciding that he was not suited to celibacy. As late as 1534 Sir John Gage, a member of Henry VIII’s council described by Charles V’s ambassador as “one of the wisest and most experienced in war of the whole kingdom,” resigned his post as vice-chamberlain and became a Carthusian.
Houghton had entered the order two decades before Gage, progressing in the customary way through a year as a postulant and two or three years as a novice. He then would have taken “simple” (nonperpetual) vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and later the “solemn” vows that bound a man for life. Almost nothing is known, naturally, of his first dozen years as a Carthusian, years spent in training and solitude, but it is clear that he won the respect of his superiors and peers. In 1523 he was made sacristan of the London Charterhouse, with responsibility for the vestments and paraphernalia used in worship services. Three years after that he was elevated to procurator, supervising the monastery’s business dealings with the outside and managing its little corps of lay brothers, nonpriests who performed the labor needed to keep the establishment in good working order. He must have become known beyond London, because in 1531 the monks of the house of Beauvale in Nottinghamshire elected him prior. Later that same year, however, he returned to London after receiving word that his former associates had unanimously elected him prior there. Years later one of the monks of the London Charterhouse—a man who was still alive because under threat of death he had sworn the supremacy oath—recorded his memories of Prior Houghton. He was “short, with a graceful figure and dignified appearance; his actions modest, his voice gentle, chaste in body, in heart humble, he was admired and sought after by all, and by his community was most loved and esteemed. One and all revered him, and none were ever known to speak a word against him…. He governed rather by example than precept, and his subjects were influenced as much by the fervor of his preeminent sanctity as by the burning exhortations he addressed to them in their chapter…. Once at least each month, in his exhortation to the religious, he would cast himself upon his knees before them and with tears bewail his shortcomings, and ask pardon of his brethren.”
It is hardly surprising, considering the nature of their rule, that the men of the Charterhouse did not follow the example of the Friars Observant in raising objections when King Henry cast off his first wife and took a second. The friars were a preaching order whose mission took them into the public arena and engaged them with the issues of the day. By contrast the Carthusians, modeling themselves on the desert fathers of the first Christian centuries, avoided any such engagement. They would have been content to allow the storm over the king’s great matter to blow itself out at a distance.
No such thing was possible, however, under a monarch who felt entitled to the active support of everyone in the kingdom and was determined to have it. In April 1534 two of Thomas Cromwell’s agents called at the London Charterhouse and demanded to see the prior. They told Houghton they wanted his signature on the succession oath. Houghton, in the most inoffensive way imaginable, declined to sign, saying simply that the king’s matrimonial affairs were the king’s business and had nothing to do with the Charterhouse or its monks. This was not the response the royal commissioners were looking for—their assignment was to get the agreement of everyone they visited—and so they demanded to meet with the house’s full chapter of monks. The result was a community discussion in the course of which Houghton said more than he had ventured to say earlier: that he could not see how the king’s marriage to Catherine, having been approved by the church and continued for so many years, could now be judged invalid. When the assembly expressed its agreement, Houghton and the monastery’s procurator, Humphrey Middlemore, were taken away under guard.
For a month the two were kept in the Tower under the harsh conditions that were becoming standard for clerical prisoners—neither warmth nor bedding nor sanitation, scarcely enough food to sustain life—but at length they were visited by Archbishop Lee of York and Bishop Stokesley of London and persuaded, apparently after much discussion, that if royal marriages were not a monk’s business they were also not something that a monk should sacrifice his life over. Having accepted this line of reasoning, and having indicated their willingness to encourage the other members of their community to accept the oath, Houghton and Middlemore were allowed to return home.
Back at the Charterhouse, Houghton told his fellows that he believed signing the oath would save neither him nor them for long—weeks in prison left him with no illusions about what lay ahead. Their response was to argue that in that case there was no reason for any of them to sign. Their resolve weakened, however, when the king’s commissioners not only returned but brought with them the lord mayor of London, a company of armed men, and the threat that if they did not sign they would all be taken into custody. Houghton, Middlemore, and fourteen others signed with little or no delay, and the rest signed a day later. In doing so, however, they tried to create for themselves the same kind of loophole that the bishops had earlier attempted when faced with King Henry’s demands, attesting that they accepted the Act of Succession “so far as it was lawful.”
In the months that followed, the Carthusians, like other religious communities across the kingdom, were kept under constant pressure: those men who seemed most likely to yield were sent off in pairs to be interrogated and preached at by senior churchmen who had accepted the king’s claims. The passage of the Act of Supremacy, bringing with it a new and even more demanding oath, sealed the fate of those unwilling to comply. The men of the London Charterhouse understood this from the start. When Houghton lamented that he didn’t know how to save them, they replied that all of them should prepare to die together so that “heaven and earth shall witness for us how unjustly we are cut off.”
“Would indeed that it might be so, so that dying we might live as living we die,” Houghton replied. “But they will not do to us so great a kindness, nor to themselves so great an injury. Many of you are of noble blood, and what I think they will do is this: me and the elder brethren they will kill, and they will dismiss you that are young into a world which is not for you. If therefore it will depend on me alone—if my oath will suffice for the house—I will throw myself for your sakes on the mercy of God. I will make myself anathema, and to preserve you from these dangers I will consent to the king’s will. If, however, they have determined otherwise—if they choose to have the consent of us all—the will of God be done. If one death will not suffice, we will all die.”
From Houghton’s perspective, that is, a forced return to the outside world was more to be dreaded than death. He was prepared either to take an oath he did not believe or to sacrifice his life if in either way he could save his brothers, but he did not expect any such solution to prove possible. According to the sole surviving account of what was happening inside the London Charterhouse at this time, the other monks agreed that escape was improbable and began to prepare themselves for death. There was one exception: a monk who wrote to Cromwell to acknowledge the royal supremacy and beg release from his vows, complaining that “the religion is so hard, what with fasting and with the great watch, that there is not six whole monks within this cloister but that they have one infirmity or other.” Such eager surrenders were rare. It is surely ironic, considering the accusations of laxity that in due course would be leveled against all the orders, that from the beginning of Cromwell’s campaign the harshest punishments were meted out to those houses where the strictest rules were most faithfully observed. And that the only complaint known to have been made against Houghton by one of his own monks was that discipline was too strict under his leadership.
While waiting for the next display of kingly power, Houghton was visited by two other Carthusian priors, Robert Laurence of Beauvale and Augustine Webster of Axholme. No doubt they too were expecting the worst, and it would have been natural for them to look for direction not only to London but specifically to Houghton, who since 1532 had been “visitor” of the order’s English province and therefore its senior member. For reasons unknown (possibly they thought that by taking the initiative they could demonstrate their wish to be cooperative, or perhaps Laurence and Webster had taken up Houghton’s idea of trying to sacrifice himself for the sake of the community) the three decided not to await the return of the king’s commissioners but to go and see Cromwell. There was, however, no meeting: as soon as he learned of their arrival, Cromwell had his visitors taken to the Tower and locked up. In the days that followed, they refused to take the oath and were joined in their confinement by a fourth prisoner, Richard Reynolds, a monk of Syon, the Bridgettine order’s only English establishment. Reynolds was a noted humanist scholar, said to be the only English monk conversant in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He had helped to make Syon one of England’s leading centers of Renaissance learning, and his order like the Carthusians and Friars Observant was noted not only for its high standards but for its long advocacy of church reform. Thus Syon, like the London Charterhouse, had been singled out by Cromwell for special attention, and that attention had focused on Reynolds because of his renown. Under questioning he had said that he “would spend his blood for the king” but could not deny that the pope was head of the church.
On April 28 the four priests were indicted for refusing the supremacy oath. They pleaded not guilty at the start of their trial, which did not go smoothly for the authorities. The jury declared itself unable to find the defendants guilty because, following as they did the dictates of their consciences and not seeking to persuade anyone to agree with them, they could not have been acting maliciously—“maliciously” being the word that Cromwell had had to insert into the Treason Act to get Parliament to approve it. The judges then instructed the jurymen that none of this mattered: that to refuse the oath was, ipso facto, to act maliciously. Even after this the jury continued to balk, so that finally Cromwell had to make an appearance and batter the members into submission with threats. On May 4 the four convicted men—joined now by a fifth, a parish priest named John Hale who was a friend and neighbor of Reynolds’s—were tied to hurdles (flat rectangular forms made of wood and similar to sections of fence) and dragged from the Tower to Tyburn Hill, the place of execution for traitors. There they were given a final offer of pardon in return for swearing the oath, and all refused.
Remarkably, all were dressed in clerical garb; until now it would have been unthinkable to execute a priest in the habit of his vocation—or for that matter, to execute a priest without first degrading him from his clerical status. Even more remarkably, among those in attendance were Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, the king’s illegitimate son; Queen Anne’s father Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire, and his son, George Lord Rochford; the mighty Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk; and in fact virtually the entire royal court including the council. This must have happened at the king’s instructions, and its purpose was almost certainly to discourage expressions of discontent from the large crowd that an occasion of this kind was sure to attract. It is possible that the king himself was present, though in disguise: five horsemen whose faces were covered with visors arrived on the scene, and when one of these visors fell open it revealed the face of Norfolk’s brother, an intimate of King Henry’s. As the five approached the killing ground, the members of the court deferentially stood aside.
Houghton died first, and in keeping with custom he was allowed to speak before doing so. “I call almighty God to witness, and all good people, and I beseech you all here present to bear witness for me in the day of judgment, that being here to die, I declare that it is from no obstinate rebellious spirit that I do not obey the king, but because I fear to offend the majesty of God. Our holy mother the church has decreed otherwise than the king and the Parliament have decreed, and therefore rather than disobey the church I am ready to suffer. Pray for me and have mercy on my brethren, of whom I have been the unworthy prior.” It was later reported that the king was angry with Norfolk, Wiltshire, and the other nobles because none of them had offered any response. But as he probably knew—he certainly knew if he was present—the mood of the crowd had been hostile not to the men being executed but to their being killed. It might have been dangerous to try to belittle Houghton in the moment before his death.
Perhaps because so many distinguished guests were on hand to be edified and impressed, the usual work of butchery—an interrupted hanging, followed by emasculation, evisceration, and the rubbing of a still-beating heart in the victim’s face—was carried out with exceptional energy that day. Reynolds was last to die, offering encouragement to the others as they climbed the scaffold, and before presenting himself for execution he asked the crowd to pray for the king. He like the others was quartered, his head and the sections of his body put on display around London. One of Houghton’s arms was nailed above the entry to his monastery, a warning to everyone associated with the place. In the weeks that followed, four more monks and lay brothers of the London Charterhouse would die at Tyburn, among them the procurator Humphrey Middlemore and a man named Sebastian Newdigate who before entering religious life had been a member of the royal court. In the subsequent months fifteen would be starved to death in prison; iron collars around their necks, their feet in shackles, they were chained to upright posts in such a way as to be unable either to sit or lie down and left to slowly die. A new prior, one friendly to the king’s cause, was introduced by Cromwell to replace Houghton. With armed force he imposed a new regime that made it impossible for the monks to follow their rule and transformed their monastery into a prison. They were allowed to do almost nothing except listen to sermons delivered by preachers sent by Cromwell and wait for their fate to be decided.
It had been arranged, on the morning of Houghton’s execution, that Thomas More would be visited in the Tower by his daughter Margaret, who had long been asking him to accept the oath of supremacy and so save his life. From a window, and obviously not by coincidence, the two were able to observe the condemned priests as they were taken off to be killed. It was all part of the continuing effort to use every tool at the Crown’s disposal—terror, persuasion, the promise of a swift return to royal favor—to induce More and John Fisher to submit. This latest gambit worked no better than the others. It became an occasion for More, not to lose his resolve, but to offer comfort to the young woman to whom, of all his large family and circle of friends, he was closest. “Lo, dost thou not see, Meg, that these blessed fathers be now as cheerfully going to their deaths as bridegrooms to their marriage?” he asked.
Wherefore thereby mayst thou see, mine own good daughter, what a great difference there is between such as have in effect spent all their days in a strait, hard, penitential, and painful life religiously, and such as have in the world, like worldly wretches, as thy poor father hath done, consumed all their time in pleasure and ease licentiously. For God, continuing their long-continued life in most sore and grievous penance, will no longer suffer them to remain here in this vale of misery and iniquity, but speedily hence taketh them to the fruition of his everlasting deity. Whereas thy silly father, Meg, that like a most wicked wretch, hath passed forth the whole course of his miserable life most sinfully, God thinking him not worthy so soon to come to that eternal felicity, leaveth him here yet still in the world, further to be plunged and turmoiled with misery.
He wanted his daughter to see his own death, which pretty clearly was not far off, as a deliverance, even a cause for celebration.
It is fair to say that the king did not want More’s death and did not want Fisher’s. What he wanted was their submission, their acknowledgment before the whole Christian world that from the beginning of his conflict with Rome he had been right and the two of them had been wrong. But if he could not have that he would take their lives instead, as yet another warning to anyone who had not paid sufficient attention to the fate of the Observant Franciscans and the Charterhouse priors. And by May 1535 his patience was wearing thin. A long procession of eminent churchmen had been sent to reason with his two most famous prisoners—at least half a dozen bishops are known to have called on Fisher—but all their arguments and commentaries upon ancient texts had accomplished nothing. The conditions of More’s and Fisher’s confinement, as well as the state in which More’s household had to live, had been made progressively worse until by winter the aged Fisher was literally begging for help, declaring that he had neither enough clothes nor sufficient food to keep himself alive. But harshness, too, had produced no results. The prisoners continued to refuse to submit, but continued also not to do or say anything that would allow the Crown to condemn them to death. Under repeated questioning—they were always interrogated separately, just as they were kept apart in the Tower—they refused to express any opinion of the Act of Supremacy. Fisher was straightforward in his refusal: not even the Act itself, he said again and again, required any man to reveal his innermost thoughts. More was more careful if no less consistent. Because he had been attainted, he said, he no longer enjoyed the protection of the law and so had no reason to concern himself with it. “Now I have in good faith discharged my mind of all such matters,” he said, “and neither will dispute kings’ titles nor popes’.” It was a sterile, agonizing standoff for everyone involved.
The new pope, Paul III, unwittingly broke the deadlock with an announcement that, when it reached England on May 20, astounded everyone and pleased no one: John Fisher had been named to the College of Cardinals, becoming the first Englishman since Wolsey to be so honored. Paul was a reformer, among the first pontiffs to recognize that the excesses of the Renaissance were not merely wrong but intolerable. In putting together a list of men to be made cardinals he had selected candidates known for scholarship, for exemplary personal conduct, and for upholding high standards in all areas of ecclesiastical life. Fisher was an obvious choice in every respect, a charismatic figure known across Europe for his theological writings and life of simple virtue. The pope is said to have believed that King Henry would be pleased to see the mentor of his youth, a man he himself had described as one of the ornaments of England, honored with a cardinal’s red hat. If so, he was incredibly ill informed. It seems more plausible that he hoped by singling Fisher out to give him some measure of protection against the royal wrath, but even here any such thoughts would have been badly mistaken.
Henry interpreted the news from Rome as an intentional provocation. He took the announcement as an insult to his own man Thomas Cranmer, who as England’s primate would, under ordinary circumstances, have been made a cardinal long before any mere bishop of Rochester. He warned that the pope could send Fisher a hat, “but I will take care that he have never a head to wear it on.” Fisher, for his part, was reported to have told the man who brought him news of his appointment that if the red hat were lying at his feet “he would not stoop to pick it up, so little did he set by it.” There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of those words, or that Fisher could have uttered them. He was the antithesis of Thomas Wolsey, never in the course of his long life showing the slightest interest in personal advancement or political power. Nor is it possible to doubt that the king meant what he said. The pope’s initiative settled the fates of Fisher and More alike.
Though further interrogations failed to draw anything new out of Fisher, in June, enfeebled by two years of imprisonment under conditions that almost seemed calculated to kill, he was put on trial for treason. His conviction was a foregone conclusion, the judges and jury having been handpicked by Cromwell and the king, but for purposes of propaganda it was important to make the proceedings seem as legitimate as possible. The Crown’s best weapon was its key witness, the lawyer Richard Rich. Now in his late thirties, Rich had risen to become solicitor-general by attaching himself to Thomas Audley, himself such an unfailingly dependable servant of the Crown that Henry had made him first speaker of the House of Commons and then, after More’s resignation, chancellor. Rich’s testimony was, after all the long months during which the Crown had repeatedly tried and failed to induce Fisher to express himself on the supremacy, nothing less than a bombshell. He told the court that when the king sent him to meet with Fisher, the bishop told him that he “believed in his conscience and by his learning knew that the king neither was nor by any right could be supreme head in earth of the church of England.”
What was perhaps even more surprising, Fisher did not challenge the truthfulness of Rich’s testimony. He erupted with the furious indignation that had been characteristic of him for years now, ever since the king had begun claiming that his marriage to Queen Catherine was not valid, but his anger here was aimed less at what Rich was saying than at his daring to say it in court. Rich, it turned out, had in his visit to the Tower told Fisher that he had been instructed by the king to ask for the bishop’s opinion of the Supremacy Act, and to promise that nothing he said would be used against him in court or otherwise. He had added, Fisher told the judges, that the king sincerely wanted to know what he thought “for the great affiance [trust or confidence] he had in me, more than in any other.” There had followed—again according to what Fisher told the court—an explicit suggestion that Henry, after taking Fisher’s position into account, “was very like to retract much of his former doings and make recompense for the same, in case I should so advise him.” To all this Rich had added his own promise not to repeat anything Fisher told him to anyone except the king. Fisher had responded as any honest, trusting, and even moderately courageous subject would have under such circumstances. For the first time since coming under suspicion, at the king’s request and for the king’s sake, he unburdened himself. In doing so he committed treason.
It is impossible to know anything about the characters of the two men involved in this exchange—or for that matter, of Henry VIII—and doubt Fisher’s account. This is all the more true because even Rich himself, who was building a phenomenally successful career on a willingness to do and say whatever was likely to be most pleasing to those more powerful than himself, never challenged what Fisher had said. And because Fisher, who to his dying day never lost a profound if exasperated respect for Henry as king and an equally deep affection for him personally, would certainly have responded to even an indirect appeal from him for guidance. He may have had little opportunity to get to know Richard Rich or to learn what kind of man he was. He would have been reluctant to think any man capable of making the kinds of pledges that Rich made not only on his own behalf but on the king’s and then breaking his word in the most destructive way imaginable.
“What a monstrous matter is this!” Fisher cried.
To lay now to my charge as treason the thing which I spake not until besides this man’s oath, I had as full and sure a promise from the king, by this his trusty and sure messenger, as the king could make me by word of mouth, that I should never be impeached nor hurt by mine answer that I should send unto him by this his messenger, which I would never have spoken, had it not been in trust of my prince’s promise, and of my true and loving heart towards him, my natural liege lord, in satisfying him with declaration of mine opinion and conscience in this matter, as he earnestly required me by this messenger to signify plainly unto him.
Rich, accused not only of disgracing himself but of suggesting disgraceful behavior on the part of the king, might well have responded by calling Fisher a liar. Instead he accepted Fisher’s version of what had transpired between them, probably in order to keep the Crown’s case intact. Rich and Fisher were together in testifying that the bishop had—regardless of his reasons, whether or not he had been deceived—denied the supremacy. That was enough; it gave the king’s judges all they needed. Tacitly accepting that Henry had, in effect, promised Fisher immunity, they set aside Rich’s assurances to the bishop as making no difference. Every other argument that Fisher offered in his defense was likewise swept aside. Inevitably (the jurors understood that they had no choice if they valued their own liberty and livelihoods) he was convicted, sentenced to death, and returned to the Tower. Perhaps because of his wretched physical condition, perhaps because the king still felt some of his old affection, Fisher was told that he would merely be beheaded, not subjected to the horrors that had been visited upon the Carthusians.
June 22, the day of his execution, found him prepared and at peace. He was awakened at five A.M. and told that this was the day he had been expecting—that he was to be killed at ten. His response was to ask to be left to sleep longer. When he arrived at Tower Hill, the scaffold on which he was to die was still under construction, so that he had to spend an hour on muleback, waiting for the preparations to be completed. The assembled crowd was large and, being sympathetic to the old man, markedly subdued. Before putting his head on the block Fisher asked for the prayers of the crowd, telling them that though up to this point he had remained unafraid, he feared that his faith might fail him at the last moment. He asked the people to pray for their king, too, and to love and obey him, “for he was good by nature.”
When it was all over, Fisher’s head was set atop London Bridge. A story was circulated—an expression of the esteem in which he had been held—that every day that head grew pinker and healthier and more lifelike. He was the first English bishop ever to be condemned in a judicial proceeding and put to death by authority of the Crown. There had been no death remotely like his since Thomas Becket’s murder more than three centuries before. England was shocked by it. Europe was shocked. Henry and Cromwell were now at liberty to turn their attention to Thomas More, who was still in the Tower and still refusing to share his thoughts with anyone.
THE EXECUTION OF JOHN FISHER AND THE IMPRISONMENT of Thomas More electrified not only England but all of Western Christendom, and for a reason that was entirely novel. The two men were phenomena of a type that had only recently appeared on the world stage: famous living authors, and therefore international celebrities. The books they had written, and the books written about them and sometimes against them, had spread through Europe’s fast-growing reading public with a speed that would have been impossible just a few generations earlier. They had created the kind of sensation that only the news of the day can generate.
It was all part of the revolution sparked by the invention of the printing press—of movable and reusable type, one of the most world-altering technological breakthroughs in history. By the time Henry decided to discard Catherine of Aragon, printing was Europe’s leading growth industry. The new ability to mass-produce long texts at low cost was transforming everything: education, religion, the economy, the very character of civilization. It was affecting everyday life more dramatically and profoundly than the automobile would in the twentieth century, or the Internet in the twenty-first. It had so accelerated the movement of new ideas, and so magnified the impact of those ideas, that all Europe was left almost literally dizzy. At a time when being educated meant reading Latin, a controversialist like Martin Luther—or like Fisher or More—could become famous from Vienna to Lisbon in a matter of months.
Difficult though it is to measure something as amorphous as fame at a distance of four and a half centuries, Fisher at the time of his death was probably better known than More. He had been early to involve himself in the religious disputes that evolved into the Reformation, and his deep learning and the firmness of his opinions made him a formidable advocate. His book Assertionis Lutheranae confutatio appeared in 1523, just six years after Luther first raised his voice against Rome, and was so widely reprinted and held up so well under rebuttal that it came to be regarded as the standard statement of orthodoxy. Within the next two years Fisher produced two additional responses to Luther—both were published in Cologne rather than England, an indication of Fisher’s international reach—and they were followed in 1527 with a treatise on the Eucharist that would have a formative effect on Catholic thinking for many years. All this work had the enthusiastic approval of Henry VIII, but the attention it received explains why Fisher’s subsequent objections to the king’s divorce and claim to supremacy brought such wrath down upon him. His researches had placed him among the leading authorities on the history of church doctrine, and his flagrant refusal to accept the king’s interpretation of that history was genuinely dangerous. There was no way that the man Henry had become by the 1530s could have found Fisher’s resistance anything other than intolerable.
More’s fame was of a different character than Fisher’s, if no less likely to cause trouble when he declined to approve Henry’s innovations. Outside England it was based mainly on his “novel” (as it is sometimes anachronistically described) Utopia, which he began writing in 1516 while on a diplomatic mission to Flanders and spending much time with his friend Erasmus. Written in Latin, the description of a visit to an imaginary island, the book appears to function on two levels: as a satirical commentary on contemporary life, and also as More’s vision of how society (even a non-Christian society, one lacking revelation and therefore obliged to depend upon natural law for guidance) might best be organized. However, it is so complex, containing so many intentional ambiguities and possible red herrings (the name of the character who brings news of Utopia translates as “dispenser of nonsense”) that critics and scholars still disagree about where More was being serious, where he was joking, and what the whole thing actually means. It definitely expresses a yearning for a simpler, less materialistic society than Tudor-era Europe—much the same kind of yearning, interestingly, that would be characteristic of the kinds of evangelical reformers whose rejection of the Roman church later horrified More. There is no private property in Utopia, the laws are so straightforward that the legal profession does not exist, and all people do manual work and wear the same plain clothing. The book also expresses the reverence for tradition and order, the almost obsessive fear of disunity and disruption, that later would turn its author into a determined persecutor of those people whose beliefs and practices he regarded as heretical: premarital sex is punished with enforced lifelong celibacy in Utopia, adultery with enslavement.
Surely More must have been joking in making it a capital crime to discuss politics anywhere except in Utopia’s government buildings (one way to eliminate tedious conversations!). And it is curious, in light of his later history, that although belief in the immortality of the soul is mandatory (because essential to mortality) on the island, unbelievers are not punished but converted through instruction. More appears to have written the book for his amusement and that of his friends rather than for publication, and when Erasmus published it in Louvain in 1516 he did so without the author’s knowledge or consent. It was a huge success from the start, establishing the thirty-eight-year-old More among the best-known writers of the day. Some of the book’s most sensitive elements—its discussion of why kings are so inclined to start pointless wars, the suggestion that republics are the best-governed states—may explain why More, though he revised Utopia before republishing it in Switzerland in 1518, never translated it into English or allowed its publication in England. The elusiveness of its meaning foreshadows his later behavior when, under attack by the king, he refused to explain himself to anyone. In any case it was nothing that Utopia said but simply the fame it had brought to its author that drove Henry VIII to the belief that he had to make an example of More one way or another.
Printing’s effects on the lives and careers of Fisher and More were nothing compared to what they did to and for Martin Luther. Without the magnifying power of the press, the disputes that Luther triggered might never have become anything more than what Clement VII called them: a dreary argument among monks. It can almost seem that printing arrived just in time to serve Luther’s purposes; the last of the ingredients that made it possible fell into place only shortly before his birth. Astonishingly, paper (which originated in China and long remained the secret of Arab producers) was never seen in Europe until the twelfth century and was not produced there until the thirteenth. And although movable type first appeared in China by the eleventh century and in Europe three centuries later, no one knew how to produce raised letters that were hard or durable enough to make mass production possible. Only in the fifteenth century did the goldsmiths, silversmiths, and jewelers of Germany and the Rhineland take up the challenge, slowly developing the alloys and production methods with which Johannes Gutenberg was able to produce his magnificent two-volume Bible in 1455. That was only twenty-eight years before Luther’s birth, and, as great an achievement as the Gutenberg Bible was, it was just the beginning. (For one thing, a single copy cost as much as a common laborer could earn in three years.) But from that point the refinements came one after another at a quickening pace. By 1517, when Friar Martin posted his complaints about papal indulgences on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, the technology of printing was very nearly as advanced as it would remain for the next several centuries. Luther the writer proved to be as prolific as he was powerful, churning out books with almost unbelievable frequency, shifting from Latin to the vernacular and shaping the German language at least as much as Thomas Cranmer with his Prayer Book would soon be shaping English. Much of Europe was hungry for his words, and now it was possible to deliver them quickly wherever they were wanted.