Friday, February 15, 2013

What happened to Sir Thomas More's head?


Sir Thomas More, who coined the word "utopia," was a noted Renaissance statesman and humanist beheaded at the orders of Henry VIII. Here's the story of what happened to his head, according to Historic U.K.:


"Sir Thomas was beheaded in 1535. He had enraged Henry VIII by refusing to acknowledge that the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn was legal. More’s head was taken from the scaffold and parboiled, stuck on a pole and exhibited on London Bridge. His devoted daughter, Margaret Roper, bribed the bridge-keeper to knock it down and she smuggled it home. She preserved the head in spices but was betrayed by spies and imprisoned, but was soon released. Margaret died in 1544 and Sir Thomas’ head was buried with her. In 1824 her vault was opened and More’s head was put on public view in St. Dunstan’s Church in Canterbury for many years."
Read more stories of errant body parts, including who ate Louis XIV's heart at Bits and Pieces / Historic UK 
Paintings: "Portrait of Sir Thomas More" by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1527 (top); "Margaret Roper Rescuing the Head of Her Father," by Lucy Madox Brown, 1873.
Wikipedia on Sir Thomas More

10 comments:

Tami Traylor said...

Very interesting post. I did a research paper on Sir Thomas Moore as a senior in high school. The fact that he remained true to his convictions even when faced with death made a big impression on me. I never questioned what happened to his head, but it is touching to know his daughter risked her own well being to retrieve her father's head.

Thanks for sharing. I've loved and followed your blog for years. It is always an education!

Casey Sattler said...

I found this a fascinating post. The idea that people would take bits and pieces and keep them for years... some from family members and some just as a ghoulish fascination. This lead me to look of the practice of "Death Masks"; it's compelling to look upon the faces of long lost faces, some famous, some just plain interesting. check it out:
http://library.princeton.edu/libraries/firestone/rbsc/aids/C0770/

Industrial Serendipity said...

It wasn't acknowledging the legality of the union, but the legitimacy of it under the precepts of the Catholic Church and the larger issue of the king's seizing power over the Church. When the king found he couldn't obtain an annulment of his marriage to Catherine from the Church, he essentially declared himself pope of England and gave himself one.

St. Thomas More had purposely refrained from discussing the king's marriage for the entire process, and only spoke about it when the king finally required everyone in England over the age of 21 to sign an oath stating that the Pope was not the head of the Church in England and that the king's first marriage had not been valid. Naturally St. Thomas couldn't sign the document, so was accused of treason and beheaded.

Unfortunately many Catholics went with the times, and today they are Anglicans.

Russell Dickerson said...

There's an incredible tomb sculpture that I've loved for a long time, and it originally held the real heart of the person inside. Here's Atlas Obscura's link about it: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/transi-de-ren-de-chalon

John B Conroy said...

Fascinating tidbit of history... and the associated comments... thank you all, especially JG...

Jean At Home said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jean At Home said...

Great post and painting of Moore.

I had recently learned that his daughter had rescued his head, but didn't know what happened to it after that. The story is told in part in Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel which is where I learned of it. Great novel, by the way, once you get used to her use of 'he'. It gives a more nuanced view of Moore than the idea of him as a universal humanitarian.

Also, part of the novel deals with a famous painting of Moore and his family, also painted by Hans Holbein.

Benjamin. said...

Just a clarification, I'm quite certain that Thomas More was a Roman Catholic, not a humanist... humanitarian?

James Gurney said...

Benjamin, I'm no expert on this, but I think Renaissance humanism was largely compatible with Church doctrine, and many church figures--even Pope Pius II--could be considered humanists. Maybe someone who knows more about this area can shed light on it for us.

Benjamin. said...

I suppose it is largely a definition-based issue. As for whether they are compatible, I suppose to an extent. It depends. Roman Catholicism, for one thing, traditionally places God above man. Humanism seems to claim that man is it, and that this life is it. I think that is a significant difference. I suppose it depends on definitions. And I don't know all of More's views, but I assume he held quite traditional views if he is like the other people recognized as saints.