A Celebration of Women Writers

"Sir Thomas More's Daughter." by Charlotte M. Yonge (1823-1901)
From: A Book of Golden Deeds. (1864) by Charlotte M. Yonge. London: Blackie & Son, Ltd., n.d.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom



We have seen how dim and doubtful was the belief that upbore the grave and beautiful Antigone in her self-sacrifice; but there have been women who have been as brave and devoted in their care of the mortal remains of their friends–not from the heathen fancy that the weal of the dead depended on such rites, but from their earnest love, and with a fuller trust beyond.

Such was the spirit of Beatrix, a noble maiden of Rome, who shared the Christian faith of her two brothers, Simplicius and Faustinus, at the end of the third century. For many years there had been no persecution, and the Christians were living at peace, worshipping freely, and venturing even to raise churches. Young people had grown up to whom the being thrown to the lions, beheaded, or burnt for the faith's sake, was but a story of the times gone by. But under the Emperor Diocletian all was changed. The old heathen gods must be worshipped, incense must be burnt to the statue of the Emperor, or torture and death were the punishment. The two brothers Simplicius and Faustinus were thus asked to deny their faith, and resolutely refused. They were cruelly tortured, and at length beheaded, and their bodies thrown into the tawny waters of the Tiber. Their sister Beatrix had taken refuge with a poor devout Christian woman, named Lucina. But she did not desert her brothers in death; she made her way in secret to the bank of the river, watching to see whether the stream might bear down the corpses so dear to her. Driven along, so as to rest upon the bank, she found them at last, and, by the help of Lucina, she laid them in the grave in the cemetery called Ad Ursum Pileatum. For seven months she remained in her shelter, but she was at last denounced, and was brought before the tribunal, where she made answer that nothing should induce her to adore gods made of wood and stone. She was strangled in her prison, and her corpse being cast out, was taken home by Lucina, and buried beside her brothers. It was, indeed, a favourite charitable work of the Christian widows at Rome to provide for the burial of the martyrs; and as for the most part they were poor old obscure women, they could perform this good work with far less notice than could persons of more mark.

But nearer home, our own country shows a truly Christian Antigone, resembling the Greek lady, both in her dutifulness to the living, and in her tender care for the dead. This was Margaret, the favourite daughter of sir Thomas More, the true-hearted, faithful statesman of King Henry VIII.

Margaret's home had been an exceedingly happy one. Her father, Sir Thomas More, was a man of the utmost worth, and was both earnestly religious and conscientious, and of a sweetness of manner and playfulness of fancy that endeared him to everyone. He was one of the most affectionate and dutiful of sons to his aged father, Sir John More; and when the son was Lord Chancellor, while the father was only a judge, Sir Thomas, on his way to his court, never failed to kneel down before his father in public, and ask his blessing. Never was the old saying, that a dutiful child had dutiful children, better exemplified than in the More family. In the times when it was usual for parents to be very stern with children, and keep them at a great distance, sometimes making them stand in their presence, and striking them for any slight offence, Sir Thomas More thought it his duty to be friendly and affectionate with them, to talk to them, and to enter into their confidence; and he was rewarded with their full love and duty.

He had four children–Margaret, Elizabeth, Cicely, and John. His much-loved wife died when they were all very young, and he thought it for their good to marry a widow, Mrs. Alice Middleton, with one daughter named Margaret, and he likewise adopted an orphan called Margaret Giggs. With this household he lived in a beautiful large house at Chelsea, with well-trimmed gardens sloping down to the Thames; and this was the resort of the most learned and able men, both English and visitors from abroad, who delighted in pacing the shady walks, listening to the wit and wisdom of Sir Thomas, or conversing with the daughters, who had been highly educated, and had much of their father's humour and sprightliness. Even Henry VIII himself, then one of the most brilliant and graceful gentlemen of his time, would sometimes arrive in his royal barge, and talk theology or astronomy with Sir Thomas; or, it might be, crack jests with him and his daughters, or listen to the music in which all were skilled, even Lady More having been persuaded in her old age to learn to play on various instruments, including the flute. The daughters were early given in marriage, and with their husbands, continued to live under their father's roof. Margaret's husband was William Roper, a young lawyer, of whom Sir Thomas was very fond, and his household at Chelsea was thus a large and joyous family home of children and grandchildren, delighting in the kind, bright smiles of the open face under the square cap, that the great painter Holbein has sent down to us as a familiar sight.

But these glad days were not to last for ever. The trying times of the reign of Henry VIII were beginning, and the question had been stirred whether the King's marriage with Katherine of Aragon had been a lawful one. When Sir Thomas More found that the King was determined to take his own course, and to divorce himself without permission from the Pope, it was against his conscience to remain in office when acts were being done which he could not think right or lawful. He therefore resigned his office as Lord Chancellor, and, feeling himself free from the load and temptation, his gay spirits rose higher than ever. His manner of communicating the change to his wife, who had been very proud of his state and dignity, was thus. At church, when the service was over, it had always been the custom for one of his attendants to summon Lady More by coming to her closet door, and saying, "Madam, my lord is gone." On the day after his resignation, he himself stepped up, and with a low bow said, "Madam, my lord is gone," for in good soothe he was no longer Chancellor, but only plain Sir Thomas.

He thoroughly enjoyed his leisure, but he was not long left in tranquillity. When Anne Boleyn was crowned, he was invited to be present, and twenty pounds were offered him to buy a suitably splendid dress for the occasion; but his conscience would not allow him to accept the invitation, though he well knew the terrible peril he ran by offending the King and Queen. Thenceforth there was a determination to ruin him. First, he was accused of taking bribes when administering justice. It was said that a gilt cup had been given to him as a New Year's gift, by one lady, and a pair of gloves filled with gold coins by another; but it turned out, on examination, that he had drunk the wine out of the cup, and accepted the gloves, because it was ill manners to refuse a lady's gift, yet he had in both cases given back the gold.

Next, a charge was brought that he had been leaguing with a half-crazy woman called the Nun of Kent, who had said violent things about the King. He was sent for to be examined by Henry and his Council, and this he well knew was the interview on which his safety would turn, since the accusation was a mere pretext, and the real purpose of the King was to see whether he would go along with him in breaking away from Rome–a proceeding that Sir Thomas, both as churchman and as lawyer, could not think legal. Whether we agree or not in his views, it must always be remembered that he ran into danger by speaking the truth, and doing what he thought right. He really loved his master, and he knew the humour of Henry VIII, and the temptation was sore; but when he came down from his conference with the King in the Tower, and was rowed down the river to Chelsea, he was so merry that William Roper, who had been waiting for him in the boat, thought he must be safe, and said, as they landed and walked up the garden–

"I trust, sir, all is well, since you are so merry?"

"It is so, indeed, son, thank God!"

"Are you then, sir, put out of the bill?"

"Wouldest thou know, son why I am so joyful? In good faith I rejoice that I have given the devil a foul fall; because I have with those lords gone so far that without great shame I can never go back," he answered, meaning that he had been enabled to hold so firmly to his opinions, and speak them out so boldly, that henceforth the temptation to dissemble them and please the King would be much lessened. That he had held his purpose in spite of the weakness of mortal nature, was true joy to him, though he was so well aware of the consequences that when his daughter Margaret came to him the next day with the glad tidings that the charge against him had been given up, he calmly answered her, "In faith, Meg, what is put off is not given up."

One day, when he had asked Margaret how the world went with the new Queen, and she replied, "In faith, father, never better; there is nothing else in the court but dancing and sporting," he replied, with sad foresight, "Never better. Alas, Meg! it pitieth me to remember unto what misery, poor soul, she will shortly come. These dances of hers will prove such dances that she will spurn off our heads like footballs, but it will not be long ere her head will take the same dance."

So entirely did he expect to be summoned by a pursuivant that he thought it would lessen the fright of his family if a sham summons were brought. So he caused a great knocking to be made while all were at dinner, and the sham pursuivant went through all the forms of citing him, and the whole household were in much alarm, till he explained the jest; but the earnest came only a few days afterwards. On the 13th of April of 1534, arrived the real pursuivant to summon him to Lambeth, there to take the oath of supremacy, declaring that the King was the head of the Church of England, and that the Pope had no authority there. He knew what the refusal would bring on him. He went first to church, and then, not trusting himself to be unmanned by his love for his children and grandchildren, instead of letting them, as usual, come down to the water side, with tender kisses and merry farewells, he shut the wicket gate of the garden upon them all, and only allowed his son-in-law Roper to accompany him, whispering into his ear, "I thank our Lord, the field is won."

Conscience had triumphed over affection, and he was thankful, though for the last time he looked on the trees he had planted, and the happy home he had loved. Before the council, he undertook to swear to some clauses in the oath which were connected with the safety of the realm; but he refused to take that part of the oath which related to the King's power over the Church. It is said that the King would thus have been satisfied, but that the Queen urged him further. At any rate, after being four days under the charge of the Abbot of Westminister, Sir Thomas was sent to the Tower of London. There his wife–a plain, dull woman, utterly unable to understand the point of conscience–came and scolded him for being so foolish as to lie there in a close, filthy prison, and be shut up with rats and mice, instead of enjoying the favour of the King. He heard all she had to say, and answered, "I pray thee, good Mrs. Alice, tell me one thing–is not this house as near heaven as my own?" To which she had no better answer than "Tilly vally, tilly vally." But, in spite of her folly, she loved him faithfully; and when all his property was seized, she sold even her clothes to obtain necessaries for him in prison.

His chief comfort was, however, in visits and letters from his daughter Margaret, who was fully able to enter into the spirit that preferred death to transgression. He was tried in Westminster Hall, on the 1st of July, and, as he had fully expected, sentenced to death. He was taken back along the river to the Tower. On the wharf his loving Margaret was waiting for her last look. She broke through the guard of soldiers with bills and halberds, threw her arms round his neck, and kissed him, unable to say any word but "Oh, my father!–oh, my father!" He blessed her, and told her that whatsoever she might suffer, it was not without the will of God, and she must therefore be patient. After having once parted with him, she suddenly turned back again, ran to him, and, clinging round his neck, kissed him over and over again–a sight at which the guards themselves wept. She never saw him again; but the night before his execution he wrote to her a letter with a piece of charcoal, with tender remembrances to all the family, and saying to her, "I never liked your manner better than when you kissed me last; for I am most pleased when daughterly love and dear charity have no leisure to look to worldly courtesy." He likewise made it his especial request that she might be permitted to be present at his burial.

His hope was sure and steadfast, and his heart so firm that he did not even cease from humorous sayings. When he mounted the crazy ladder of the scaffold he said, "Master Lieutenant, I pray you see me safe up; and for my coming down let me shift for myself." And he desired the executioner to give him time to put his beard out of the way of the stroke, "since that had never offended his Highness".

His body was given to his family, and laid in the tomb he had already prepared in Chelsea Church; but the head was set up on a pole on London Bridge. The calm, sweet features were little changed, and the loving daughter gathered courage as she looked up at them. How she contrived the deed, is not known; but before many days had passed, the head was no longer there, and Mrs. Roper was said to have taken it away. She was sent for to the Council, and accused of the stealing of her father's head. She shrank not from avowing that thus it had been, and that the head was in her own possession. One story says that, as she was passing under the bridge in a boat, she looked up, and said, "That head has often lain in my lap; I would that it would now fall into it." And at that moment it actually fell, and she received it. It is far more likely that she went by design, at the same time as some faithful friend on the bridge, who detached the precious head, and dropped it down to her in her boat beneath. Be this as it may, she owned before the cruel-hearted Council that she had taken away and cherished the head of the man whom they had slain as a traitor. However, Henry VIII. was not a Creon, and our Christian Antigone was dismissed unhurt by the Council, and allowed to retain possession of her treasure. She caused it to be embalmed, kept it with her wherever she went, and when, nine years afterwards, she died (in the year 1544), it was laid in her coffin in the "Roper aisle" of St. Dunstan's Church, at Canterbury.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Sally Drake and Ann and Neil Piche.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom