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Seventeenth Century

Eighteenth Century



Execution of Sir Thomas More. Detail from 1591 painting by Antoine Caron

The Execution of Sir Thomas More
By James Froude

At daybreak he was awakened by the entrance of Sir Thomas Pope, who had come to confirm his anticipations, and to tell him it was the King's pleasure that he should suffer at nine o'clock that morning. He received the news with utter composure. 'I am much bounden to the King,' he said, 'for the benefits and honours he has bestowed upon me; and so help me God, most of all am I bounden to him that it pleaseth his Majesty to rid me so shortly out of the miseries of this present world.'

Pope told him the King desired that he would not 'use many words on the scaffold.' 'Mr Pope,' he answered, 'you do well to give me warning, for otherwise I had purposed somewhat to have spoken; but no matter wherewith his Grace should have cause to be offended. Howbeit, whatever I intended, I shall obey his Highness's command.'

He afterwards diseussed the arrangements for his funeral, at which he begged that his family might be present; and when all was settled, Pope rose to leave him. He was an old friend. He took More's hand and wrung it, and, quite overcome, burst into tears.

'Quiet yourself, Mr Pope,' More said, 'and be not discomfited, for I trust we shall once see each other full merrily, when we shall live and love together in eternal bliss.'

As soon as he was alone, he dressed in his most elaborate costume. It was for the benefit, he said, of the executioner who was to do him so great a service. Sir William Kingston remonstrated, and with some difficulty induced him to put on a plainer suit; but that his intended liberality should not fail, he sent the man a gold angel in compensation, 'as a token that he maliced him nothing, but rather loved him extremely.'

'So about nine of the clock he was brought by the lieutenant out of the Tower, his beard being long, which fashion he had never before used, his face pale and lean, carrying in his hands a red cross, casting his eyes often towards heaven.' He had been unpopular as a judge, and one or two persona in the crowd were insolent to him; but the distance was short and soon over, as all else was nearly over now.

The scaffold had been awkwardly erected, and shook as he placed his foot upon the ladder. 'See me safe up,' he said to Kingston. 'For my coming down I can shift for myself.' He began to speak to the people, but the sheriff begged him not to proceed, and he contented himself with asking for their prayers, and desiring them to bear witness for him that he died in the faith of the holy Catholic Church, and a faithful servant of God and the King.

He then repeated the Miserere psalm on his knees; and when he had ended and had risen, the executioner, with an emotion which promised ill for the manner in which his part in the tragedy would be accomplished, begged his forgiveness. More kissed him. 'Thou art to do me the greatest benefit that I can receive,' he said. 'Pluck up thy spirit, man, and be not afraid to do thine office. My neck is very short. Take heed therefore that thou strike not awry for saving of thine honesty.' The executioner offered to tie his eyes. 'I will cover them myself,' he said; and binding them in a cloth which he had brought with him, he knelt and laid his head upon the block.

The fatal stroke was about to fall, when he signed for a moment's delay while he moved aside his beard. 'Pity that should be cut,' he murmured; 'that has not committed treason.' With which strange words, the strangest perhaps ever uttered at such a time, the lips most famous through Europe for eloquence and wisdom closed for ever.

'So,' concludes his biographer, 'with alacrity and spiritual joy he received the fatal axe, which no sooner had severed the head from the body, but his soul was carried by angels into everlasting glory, where a crown of martyrdom was placed upon him which can never fade nor decay; and then he found those words true which he had often spoken, that a man may lose his head and have no harm.'

This was the execution of Sir Thomas More, an act which was sounded out into the far corners of the earth, and was the world's wonder as well for the circumstances under which it was perpetrated, as for the preternatural composure with which it was borne.


Froude, James A. History of England. Vol II.
London: Longmans, Green, and Co. 1872. 274-277.

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Pico della Mirandola
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Images of London:
London in the time of Henry VII. MS. Roy. 16 F. ii.
London, 1510, earliest view in print
Map of England from Saxton's Descriptio Angliae, 1579
Location Map of Elizabethan London
Plan of the Bankside, Southwark, in Shakespeare's time
Detail of Norden's Map of the Bankside, 1593
Bull and Bear Baiting Rings from the Agas Map (1569-1590, pub. 1631)
Sketch of the Swan Theatre, c. 1596
Westminster in the Seventeenth Century, by Hollar
Visscher's Panoramic View of London, 1616. COLOR

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