In 1935 Thomas More and John Fisher were the first Englishmen to be declared saints since the Reformation.
Thomas More as Chancellor
Thomas More’s story is well known. At the height of his career he was one of the most successful and respected statesmen at the court of King Henry VIII. He was renowned for his wisdom, his wit and his scrupulous honesty as a lawyer and judge. This engraving was made as a frontispiece for his famed book, Utopia, and shows him as Chancellor of England with the heavy gold chain of his office. He fell from favour when he was unable to support Henry in the matter of the annulment of the king’s marriage to his wife, Katherine of Aragon, so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. Perhaps of greater concern to More was the king’s actions in setting up a new English church with himself at its head, supplanting the authority of the Pope.
Initially Henry protected his close friend, choosing not to include him in the legal and canonical process of the divorce, as he respected More’s integrity and had no wish to cause him harm. But it was inconceivable that such an eminent and influential man could be left out of the controversy, which gripped all of Europe as well as England. Eventually Henry realised that he needed the weight of More’s reputation to support his case. Thomas More’s conscience would not permit him to agree with the dissolution of the marriage, or with the new Oath of Supremacy to Henry as head of the Church in England, which repudiated the pope’s authority in the realm.
The executions of Thomas More and John Fisher
Thomas More was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and to widespread shock and international disapproval, Henry signed his death warrant. Thomas More was executed on Tower Green on July 6th 1535.
Hat belonging to Thomas More which came into possession of the Gillekens family
He was famous as a great statesman, but in the early years of his public life Thomas More was by no means wealthy. He was a young lawyer and member of parliament looking to make his way in the world.
This simple, but elegant, brown hat made from Russian felt with black silk bows, dates from this early period of More’s life. Thomas More had a wide circle of acquaintances among the most learned men in Europe. Especially in his early years he often travelled abroad to share ideas with such men as the famous scholar, Erasmus of Rotterdam.
On one such visit it seems that this hat was left behind, or given as a gift, to a family of humanist lawyers and scholars, the Gillekens of Rotterdam. Exchanging hats was a common way to demonstrate close, friendly affection in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Gillekens kept the hat in the family, and over a hundred years after More’s execution, Godfried Gillekens, Chancellor of the Supreme Court of Guelderland, wore More’s hat in court every year on the anniversary of his execution as a mark of respect. In 1654 Godfried gave the hat to the Jesuit college at Roermond, whence it passed to the English Jesuits at Bruges.
Nightcap belonging to Thomas More
A second hat belonging to Thomas More also survives. It was originally dark red in colour, but the linen has now faded to a soft pink. The silver and gold thread, gold lace and gilded spangles, or sequins, have also tarnished and darkened with age.
It was, when newly made, a splendid, rich and comfortable piece of clothing. This hat was intended to be worn inside, at informal family gatherings, to keep the wearer’s head warm on chilly evenings. Hats were very personal items and were often homemade by close family members as traditional gifts at New Year.
John Morris' notes on More's hat
The quality of the embroidery on the hat marks it out as the work of an amateur, and there is a family tradition that it was made by More’s favourite daughter, Meg. As recorded by John Morris, in this drawing, it was kept in the More family, passing to Thomas’s son John, and then through the generations to More’s last direct male descendant, Fr Thomas More, a Jesuit. In 1755 Fr More presented it to his old school, the English Jesuit college of St Omers.
Hair shirt relic of Thomas More
It is well known that Thomas More wore a hair shirt. This was a rough undergarment made from horse or goat hair, designed to inflict discomfort on the wearer as an ever-present reminder of the sufferings of Christ. It was worn under the usual external clothing and would not have been visible to anyone else. After More’s death, the hair shirt is traditionally believed to have passed from More’s daughter, Meg, to her adopted sister Mercy Clement who took it to the Low Countries when she left England so as to be able to practice the Catholic faith freely. The hair shirt ultimately passed to Mercy’s youngest daughter, Prioress Margaret Clement, the founder of the English convent of St Monica’s in Louvain in 1609. The majority of the original hair shirt is now held at Buckfast Abbey, but this piece was cut from the main shirt and presented to John Morris, when he was carrying out his lengthy investigation of the martyrs’ relics in the 1870s and 1880s.
Gold and enamelled crucifix worn by Thomas More
This small gold and enamelled crucifix was worn by Sir Thomas More as an additional act of penance. It dates from the early 16th century and would have been worn underneath More’s hair shirt. On the back of the cross is a small container which would have held a relic. The cross itself has sharp spikes, which would have been designed to press into the skin and inflict pain. This, like the hair shirt, was intended to be a constant reminder of the pain suffered by Christ on the cross, and an encouragement for the wearer to avoid temptation to sin, and to maintain an active prayer life. The crucifix descended through the family of Thomas More and was presented to Stonyhurst College in 1826 by Sir John Gage.