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Early one morning in August 1535, during the wettest year that anyone could remember, a twenty-nine-year-old gentlewoman and her maid boarded a wherry from a wharf outside their riverside home at Butts Close, Chelsea, and were rowed three miles along the River Thames to London Bridge. It was the most convenient, if expensive, way to travel: the fare was two shillings, three if the oarsmen had to row against the tide, the equivalent of a week’s wages for a bricklayer or the price of six whole salmon or a dozen hens. This summer, it took courage to leave the sweet fresh air of the countryside for the foul smells and contagion of the city, since flooding and overflowing drains had triggered recurrent outbreaks of plague. Hundreds of Londoners were to die, encouraging the wealthier citizens to shut up their houses and evacuate their families to the countryside until the epidemic abated. Henry VIII, now forty-four, beginning to put on weight and ever fearful of death and disease, had already left with his queen, Anne Boleyn, for a summer of hawking and hunting in the Severn Valley in Gloucestershire. His chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, accompanied them with his greyhound, but had no time for sport. His priority was paperwork, not pleasure.
London Bridge was one of the city’s major landmarks. Spanning twenty stone piers, each sixty feet high and thirty feet thick, it stood on the site of an ancient timber river-crossing first established during the Roman occupation of Britain and rebuilt by the Anglo-Saxons, when it was supported by piles and broad enough for two wagons to pass each other. The later stone bridge, begun in 1176, had taken thirty-three years to complete. Continuous structural repairs were needed because of storms and fires and the excessive weight of more than a hundred shops and houses crowding in over the carriageway. In 1481 a house toppled over the side, drowning five men. Since the bridge doubled as a fortress protecting the city from rebels or invaders, it boasted a tower on each side of its disused central drawbridge with a portcullis and fortified gatehouse at its more vulnerable southern end.
When the wherry reached its destination, the women paid the oarsmen and climbed the thirty or so wooden steps up from the river towards the fish market. They attracted no attention; so hazardous was it for boats to pass under the arches of the bridge given the rapid currents and the narrowness of the gaps between the piers, passengers routinely disembarked here, if necessary continuing their journey from the other side.
The gentlewoman was dressed in a black gown more suitable for winter than summer. She had large brown eyes, a haunting sorrow and looked ten years older than she really was. Everyone would have guessed she was in mourning. Her wedding ring, clearly visible, was set with a ruby, and she may have worn her favourite pectoral or medallion, in which case passers-by would have made out the image of St Michael, the keeper of paradise, fighting with Lucifer in the shape of a dragon. The maid carried her mistress’s purse and a basket, not surprisingly since they seemed to be about to purchase fish.
Except that the women turned onto the bridge and kept walking until they reached the north tower before the drawbridge. Looking up, they would have noticed four stones with ‘Jhesus’ carved on them in large antique lettering. However, their gaze was fixed to the dozen or more skulls on poles protruding from a ledge of the parapet, parboiled and coated with tar to protect them from scavenging by the circling, screaming gulls. (Traitors’ heads were displayed from the north tower until 1577, after which they were moved to the tower above the gatehouse at the Southwark end.)
This wasn’t the gentlewoman’s first visit; she’d been here perhaps as many as a dozen times recently. When she’d first come, she’d recognized several of the skulls. One belonged to John Houghton, Prior of the London Carthusians, another to Bishop John Fisher of Rochester. Both had been executed for treason after refusing to swear an oath to the legitimacy of Anne Boleyn’s marriage to Henry and after denying the king’s revolutionary new claim to be the Supreme Head of the Church in England. For his loyalty to Rome, Pope Paul III had created Fisher a cardinal a month before his trial. His red hat had arrived at Calais, awaiting delivery across the Channel. Henry, spiteful, vengeful, indignant at the news, placed an embargo on the hat. Then, laughing uproariously, he promised Anne Boleyn that he’d teach Fisher a lesson once and for all. ‘Let the Pope send him a hat when he will,’ he exclaimed, ‘but I will so provide that whensoever it commeth, he shall wear it on his shoulders; for head shall he have none to set it on.’
The maid knocked at the bridge-master’s door, which opened to admit the women. After a brief conversation, the maid unclasped the purse and handed over some coins. In return, she received a skull, gently wrapping it in a linen cloth before placing it in the basket. The women immediately left and returned to Chelsea.
The gentlewoman was Margaret Roper, her maid Dorothy Colley, and the head they had surreptitiously recovered that of Sir Thomas More, Margaret’s father, executed just over four weeks earlier. More, famous for his wit and charm, had won a European reputation as the author of Utopia. Henry had invited him to Court to serve as his secretary and intimate adviser before turning vindictively against him. Like Houghton and Fisher, he’d been interrogated by Cromwell and tried and convicted of high treason by a special court commissioned by Henry to destroy men he’d come to regard as enemies of the state. The difference was that, whereas Houghton and Fisher had contradicted the royal supremacy and Fisher had campaigned openly against Henry’s divorce from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, Thomas More had kept silent. He’d neither defended the papal supremacy nor denied the king’s. He’d even offered to acknowledge Anne Boleyn as the lawful queen (but not Henry’s lawful wife) and her children as heirs to the throne. He’d been a conscientious objector, holding fast to his opinions, but as far as the official record went, always keeping them to himself, staunchly professing his loyalty to the king as head of state. The closest he came to the abyss before his trial was to say: ‘in my conscience this was one of the cases in which I was bounden that I should not obey my Prince, sith [i.e. since] that whatsoever other folk thought in the matter . . . yet in my conscience the truth seemed on the other side.’
After More’s execution, his head too had been boiled and tarred and set up on London Bridge. The custom was that it would remain there for between a fortnight and six weeks, when it would be taken down to make room for other heads. The bridge-master, as for everything else he did, had a system. As new heads arrived, he moved the old ones along the row until, when they reached the end of the line, he threw them into the river. Margaret had been carefully watching their progression. She tracked her father’s skull along the row, identifying it by a missing tooth. As she stared up at these heart-rendingly gruesome relics of people she had known, she couldn’t but have realized the bitter irony of the lines in the Latin grammar book she’d been reading with her children. The book by Robert Whittinton, a friend of one of her father’s early mentors, set the following translation exercise:More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. He is a man of many excellent virtues . . . I know not his fellow. For where is the man . . . of that gentleness, lowliness and affability. And as time requireth, a man of marvellous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of sad gravity, as who say ‘A Man for All Seasons’. And yet, just two pages later, the students were asked to translate: Upon London Bridge I saw three or four men’s heads stand upon poles . . . it is a strange sight to see the hair of the heads disappear away, and the gristle of the nose consumed away. When Margaret arrived back in Chelsea, she lovingly unwrapped the skull and packed it with spices to preserve it, intending to take it with her to the grave.
Cromwell returned to London in October. Hearing of her visit to the bridge-master, he summoned Margaret before the Privy Council, where she was accused of attempting to propagate a cult and of concealing her father’s papers. She ably defended herself, replying: ‘I have saved my father’s head from being devoured by the fishes with the intention of burying it, and I have hardly any books and papers, except a very few personal letters, which I humbly beseech you to allow me to keep.’ She was permitted to leave unharmed.
Her husband William Roper had been frantically writing to his younger brother, Christopher, a lawyer and building-surveyor in Cromwell’s household. Not content with letters, William sent a messenger every other day to see if his brother could be traced. He couldn’t understand why Christopher wouldn’t use his influence to mitigate the forfeiture of the More family’s estates, for William wasn’t of the stuff that martyrs are made, swearing Henry’s oath and sitting on the jury for the trial of two Middlesex priests accused alongside Prior Houghton, a fact he strove for ever afterwards to conceal.
Margaret Roper never cared much for possessions. Always her father’s favourite child whom he educated to become one of Europe’s leading women intellectuals, she dedicated her life and talents after his arrest to helping him conquer his physical and mental fears and emerge morally victorious over a tyrant. But along the way there would be casualties. Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn would result in cataclysmic political changes splitting families asunder, and the Mores would be no exception. For as long as she could remember, Margaret’s aunt and uncle, Elizabeth and John Rastell, had been as close as anyone to her father other than his own wife and children, and ever since they’d known each other her father and uncle had yearned to reshape society and their world. Both had utopian visions of the future, but their friendship was to collapse in tatters when Rastell introduced draft legislation into Parliament seeking to overthrow some of his brother-in-law’s most cherished beliefs. And even the internationally renowned Erasmus of Rotterdam, the most illustrious and charismatic of her father’s friends whom Margaret had known since he’d stayed at her home when she was four, would all but abandon him, lacking his inner steel. ‘Mine,’ said Erasmus in a rare bout of candour, ‘was never the spirit to risk my life for the truth. Not everyone has the strength needed for martyrdom.’
Deserted by his sons-in-law, and especially by William Roper, and visited in the Tower only once in fifteen months by his wife Lady Alice, Thomas More was too gregarious, too emotionally dependent on those dearest to him, to face Henry’s wrath alone, because, for all his outward assurance, he was prone to fear and doubt. Margaret, at first tentatively and unconsciously, and then with increasing confidence and ingenuity, would step into the breach. And when at last her father became a victim of Henry’s tyranny, she came again to his rescue. One of the main underlying themes of this book will be her role in achieving her father’s fame. Without her, a dossier of letters compiled while he was a prisoner in the Tower could not have been created and preserved. Without it, we could never have heard his own voice not just whispering across a prison courtyard to his ‘dearly beloved Meg’, but speaking openly to us across the centuries, telling us why he felt he had to die in a moral cause and why he felt so strongly and passionately about it.
While her father’s place in history is secure, Margaret’s has generally been less so. Although a character in Robert Bolt’s feature-film version of A Man for All Seasons, she was largely confined to the domestic scenes at Chelsea and omitted from the public ones, for she had long before been airbrushed out of the political events by her father’s official Catholic biographer Nicholas Harpsfield, for whom a woman’s independent role was anathema. A truly heroic figure did not need a woman’s support. A martyr was supposed to go to his death confidently, not reluctantly. He wasn’t meant to have had his own inner demons as Thomas More did, and even if doubts were expressed, they were not meant to be shared with a woman.
Bolt saw Thomas as a man with an adamantine sense of his own self. He knew where he began and where he left off, what area of himself he could safely yield to his enemies, and which to his friends and those he loved. While this is partly true, it is not wholly so, for in the Tower he almost collapsed under the weight of his fears and without Margaret talking and praying with him as often as she could in that cold, bleak cell, it is far from certain that he would have been able to do what he did. ‘You alone,’ he said as they kissed and embraced for the very last time, ‘have long known the secrets of my heart.’
Margaret lived in a patriarchal society, where gender stereotypes required women to be ‘chaste, silent and obedient’. Besides shockingly contravening that stereotype shortly after marrying William by writing and publishing a book, a step by itself as dramatic and inflammatory in its own day as anything said by her father in Utopia, her later interventions in her father’s cause were rightly seen as a threat by men like Cromwell, fully aware of the danger to Henry if she were ever allowed to tell the whole truth. In spite of prudently dissembling, saying that she had hardly any of her father’s books and papers, her enduring achievement would be to make sure that these very same materials, and a great deal more, would one day be published, so that everyone could know the story of the man who’d kept silent. Without hearing his and her voices so vividly, so distinctly, so authentically as we do in his wonderful letters to ‘Meg’ and her own soul-rending letter to her stepsister Alice Alington, which even more than Utopia would be Thomas More’s political testament, the story would have been impoverished and her father become just another footnote in history.