Sir Thomas More and Bishop Fisher, 17th-c.
Unknown artist. ©Philip Mould, Ltd.
The History of the Reformation of the Church of England
by Gilbert Burnet
[More and Fisher Refuse the Oath of Succession]
When the session of parliament was at an end, commissioners were sent everywhere to offer the oath of succession to the crown to all, according to the act of parliament; which was universally taken by all sorts of persons. Gardiner wrote from Winchester the 6th of May to Cromwell, that, in the presence of the Lord Chamberlain, the Lord Audley, and many other gentlemen, all abbots, priors, wardens, with the curates of all parishes and chapels within the shire had appeared and taken the oath very obediently; and had given in a list of all the religious persons in their houses of fourteen years of age and above, for taking whose oaths some commissioners were appointed [see Gardiner to Cromwell, May 1534].
The forms in which they took the oath are not known; and it is no wonder, for though they were enrolled, yet in Queen Mary's time there was a commission given to Bonner and others to examine the records, and raze out of them all things that were done either in contempt of the see of Rome or to the defamation of religious houses; pursuant to which, there are many things taken out of the Rolls, which I shall sometimes have occasion afterwards to take notice of, yet some writings have escaped their diligence; so there remains but two of the subscriptions of religious orders, both bearing date the 4th of May, 1534. One is by the prior and convent of Langley Regis, that were Dominicans, the Franciscans of Ailesbury, the Dominicans of Dunstable, the Franciscans of Bedford, the Carmelites of Kecking, and the Franciscans de Mare. The other is by the Prioress and Convent of the Dominican nuns at Deptford.
"In these,* besides the renewing their allegiance to the king, they swear the lawfulness of his marriage with Queen Anne, and that they shall be true to the issue begotten in it; that they shall always acknowledge the king head of the church of England: and that the Bishop of Rome has no more power than any other bishop has in his own diocese, and that they should submit to all the king's laws, notwithstanding the pope's censures to the contrary. That in their sermons they should not pervert the Scriptures, but preach Christ and his gospel sincerely, according to the Scriptures, and the tradition of orthodox and catholic doctors; and in their prayers, that they should pray first for the King, as supreme head of the church of England, then for the Queen and her issue, and then for the Archbishop of Canterbury and the other ranks of the clergy." To this these six priors set their hands with the seals of their convents, and in their subscriptions declared, that they did it freely and uncompelled, and in the name of all the brethren in the convent.
But Sir Thomas More and the Bishop of Rochester refused to take the oath as it was conceived: whose fall being so remarkable, I shall show the steps of it. There was a meeting of the privy council at Lambeth, to which many were cited to appeal, and take the oath. Sir Thomas More was first called, and the oath was tendered to him under the great seal; then he called for the act of succession, to which it related, which was also shewed him: having considered of them, he said, he would neither blame these that made the act, nor those that swore the oath; but, for his part, though he was willing to swear to the succession, if he might be suffered to draw an oath concerning it, yet for the oath that was offered him, his conscience so moved him, that he could not without hazarding his soul take it. Upon this, the Lord Chancellor told him, that he was the first who had refused to swear it, and the King would be highly offended with him for denying it, and so he was desired to withdraw and consider better of it. Several others were called upon, and did all take the oath, except the Bishop of Rochester, who answered upon the matter as More had done. When the lords had dispatched all the rest, More was again brought before them; they shewed him how many had taken it, he answered, he judged no man for doing it, only he could not do it himself. Then they asked the reasons why he refused it? He answered, he feared it might provoke the King more against him, if he should offer reasons which would be called a disputing against law: but when he was further pressed to give his reasons, he said, if the King would command him to do it, he would put them in writing.
The Archbishop of Canterbury urged him with this argument, that since he said he blamed no other person for taking it, it seemed he was not persuaded it was a sin, but was doubtful in the matter; but he did certainly know, he ought to obey the King, and the law, so there was a certainty on the one hand, and only a doubt on the other; therefore he was obliged to do that about which he was certain, notwithstanding these his doublings. This did shake him a little, especially (as himself writes) "coming out of so noble a prelate's mouth;" but he answered, that though he had examined the matter very carefully, yet his conscience leaned positively to the other side; and he offered to purge himself by his oath, that it was purely out of a principle of conscience, and out of no light phantasy or obstinacy that he thus refused it. The Abbot of Westminster pressed him, that however the matter appeared to him, he might see his conscience was erroneous, since the great council of the realm was of another mind, and therefore he ought to change his conscience. (A reasoning very fit for so rich an abbot, which discovers of what temper his conscience was.) But to this More answered, that if he were alone against the whole parliament, he had reason to suspect his own understanding; but he thought he had the whole council of Christendom on his side, as well as the great council of England was against him.
Secretary Cromwell, who (as More writes) "tenderly favoured him," seeing his ruin was now inevitable, was much affected at it; and protested with an oath, he had rather his own only son had lost his head, than that he should have refused the oath. Thus both he and the Bishop of Rochester refused it, but offered to swear another oath for the succession of the crown to the issue of the King's present marriage, because that was in the power of the parliament to determine it. Cranmer, who was a moderate and wise man, and foresaw well the ill effects that would follow on contending so much with persons so highly esteemed over the world, and of such a temper, that severity would bend them to nothing, did by an earnest letter to Cromwell, dated the 27th of April, move, that what they offered might be accepted; for if they once swore to the succession, it would quiet the kingdom; for they acknowledging it, all other persons would acquiesce and submit to their judgments. But this sage advice was not accepted.
The King was much irritated against them, and resolved to proceed with them according to law, and therefore they were both indicted upon the statute, and committed prisoners to the Tower. And it being apprehended, that if they had books and papers given them, they would write against the King's marriage or his supremacy; these were denied them. The old Bishop was hardly used, his bishoprick was seized on, and all his goods taken from him, only some old rags were left to cover him; and he was neither supplied well in diet, nor other necessaries, of which he made sad complaints to Cromwell.
* Collect. No. 50. Rot. Claus. Vol I. Part I.
Burnet, Gilbert. The History of the Reformation of the Church of England. Vol I.
London: W. Baynes & Son, 1825. 204-207.
||to Sir Thomas More
||to Bishop John Fisher
||to the Act of Succession, 1534
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