On the 6th of July 1535, the former Lord Chancellor of England, Thomas More, was executed for high treason within the Tower of London. More specifically, Thomas More had refused to swear the Oath of Supremacy, recognising King Henry VIII as the Head of the English Church, holding steadfast to his beliefs in papal supremacy. It was not the first time More’s enemies within the English court had attempted to bring about such a trial, although the prior ones had all been dismissed due to lack of evidence. Even the final trial was prosecuted on rather suspicious grounds, but the jury had managed to find Thomas More guilty within a quarter hour of discussion. The traditional punishment of being hung, drawn and quartered was commuted to a mere beheading by the King, a final act of mercy in light of Thomas More’s long service to the Crown.
His death was hailed by the Roman Catholic Church as the act of a martyr, which led to his eventual canonization by Pope Pius XII in 1935 along with John Fisher, another English Catholic martyred by King Henry VIII for refusing the oath. Even the Anglican Church would commemorate More and Fisher as martyrs of the Reformation in 1980, despite their staunch opposition to it.
Various relics attributed to St Thomas More would be gathered in the years following his execution. His head, after being displayed on a pike outside Traitors’ Gate, was rescued by his daughter Margaret Roper before it could be lobbed into the Thames. It was said to have subsequently been preserved in St Dunstan’s Church in Canterbury, although some believe its final resting place to actually have been Chelsea Old Church. One other relic, however, has recently come into public sight.
While contemplating his final reward within the Tower, St Thomas More was said to have worn a hair shirt made from goat’s hair as an act of penance. Hair shirts, also called a cilice, have a long association with saintly behaviour in the Catholic tradition — St Thomas Becket, another Lord Chancellor who fell foul of an earlier King Henry’s wrath, was said to have worn one when he was martyred in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. The hair shirt was rescued after More’s execution and held by the Augustinian abbesses of Abbotskerswell Priory in Devon until it came to the care of the Diocese of Plymouth. It has now been encased in Buckfast Abbey for public veneration, erected above the altar of the Chapel.
It has particular significance due to its direct links to St Thomas More’s beliefs, convictions, and lifestyle as a saint.
The Bishop of Plymouth, Mark O’Toole, hopes that the new location and public access to the shrine will transform the Abbey into an international pilgrimage site. St Thomas More has a global influence upon the Christian world, with churches dedicated to him as far afield as Georgia and South Korea. He even holds the affections of the international communist movement, due to the perceived proto-socialist vision of his book Utopia. According to the Bishop, More “gives us a pattern of what individuals can do through personal integrity and through the living out of their faith in very concrete and practical ways”.
The Abbot of Buckfast Abbey, Abbot Charlesworth, also commented on the powerful figure that St Thomas More had become since his martyrdom, describing him as a man of conscience who stood up against the tyranny of his age.