Today (July 6) in London History – A Man for All Seasons

Sir Thomas More was beheaded on July 1, 1535. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

A Man for All Seasons. That’s what Erasmus called him. And so he’ll be known forever – thanks not least to Robert Bolt using that wonderfully evocative phrase for the title of his play and then Fred Zinnemann following suit with his classic film. Paul Scofield giving the performance of his great career in both the West End stage version and then the film.

And for sure, what happened today – July 6, 1535 – well, it was the shortest season in Sir Thomas More’s fabled life. And he was the man for it. What a man. What a Londoner. 

The “season” was just a few moments and you cannot but ask yourself who else would have been equal to what Sir Thomas More did – how he comported himself – in that handful of seconds.

Those seconds – you want it in hourglass terms – those were the last few grains of sand in Sir Thomas More’s allotted time. He had minutes to live.

Ernest Hemingway, the American novelist, famously described courage as grace under pressure. What happened at Tower Hill that day in 1535 was the platonic ideal of grace under pressure.

Sir Thomas More was there to die. Henry VIII’s executioner was about to behead him.

Sir Thomas More was at the foot of the scaffold. There before him, at eye level, up on the scaffold, was the block. The block he’d kneel before, the block he’d put his head on…and wait, not long, just a few seconds.

The scaffold had been awkwardly erected and shook when Sir Thomas More placed his foot upon the ladder. More turned to the Lieutenant of the Tower, Sir William Kingston, and said, “see me safe up, and for my coming down, let me shift for myself.”

Kingston helped him up the steps. 

More tied his own blindfold. Kingston positioned him before the block, whispered to him, “kneel here.”

Putting his head on the block Sir Thomas More pushed aside his long beard, saying “it has never committed treason.” The which was a remark – a quip – not just for that season but for the ages. It was wry, it was playful, it was insouciant, it was cutting, it was wistful, it was true. 

Knowing his executioner was right there, the axe about to be raised, Sir Thomas More spoke to him. These were his last words. He said, “Pluck up thy spirits man, and be not afraid to do thine office; my neck is very short; take heed therefore thou strike not awry, for saving of thine honesty.”

It’s extraordinary. He’s assisting the executioner. Telling him what he has to look out for, be mindful of. The last word Sir Thomas More ever spoke – “honesty” – “for saving of thine honesty” – that phrase to our ears isn’t readily comprehensible. 500 years ago “honesty” had a meaning that is now obsolete. Basically, he’s using the word here to mean “reputation.” “For saving of thine honesty” means, “be careful, you’ve got your reputation to consider – do your job well because you don’t want to jeopardise your reputation.”

It’s an astonishing utterance at an astonishing moment. 

A London moment never to be forgotten. London remembers.

Seconds later the axe falls. Sir Thomas More’s head is cut off. But not his beard.

His crime. Should be plural, should be crimes. 1. King Henry VIII – the Defender of the Faith – so Pope Leo X had honoured him – and it’s what the initials F D on British coins stand for – the Defender of the Faith had decided that he, not the pope, was the supreme ruler of the church. Sir Thomas More – if I may put it this way – stuck his neck out. He said, “no you’re not, the Pope is.”

And 2. his second crime was refusing to attend Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. His absence was tantamount to saying Henry VIII was still married to Catherine of Aragon.

Those “crimes” cost Sir Thomas More his head.

His faith, his integrity, his principled opposition, his courage – grace under pressure – cost him his life. He was 57 at the time. But if there’s any truth in the old Jewish saying that only the forgotten are truly dead, Sir Thomas More lives on. The apotheosis of his afterlife coming 400 years later when he was declared a saint. 

Finally, Sir Thomas More and London. A Londoner through and through he’s all over London. Even 500 years – well nearly 500 years – after his death. He was born in Milk Street, just off Cheapside. Dead in the centre of London. He went to school in Threadneedle Street. His education continued at Lambeth Palace. After Oxford he was at Lincoln’s Inn. He had close connections with Charterhouse. He lectured at Furnivall’s Inn. When he and his wife were newlyweds they lived in the parish of St Stephen Walbrook. He was a member of Parliament. Then there was the great house he built for himself and his family in Chelsea.  He was at the Star Chamber in Westminster and at Whitehall Palace as Lord Chancellor. He was of course imprisoned in the Tower of London. 

His trial was at Westminster Hall. There’s a plaque in the floor that says Here stood Sir Thomas More when his death sentence was pronounced on July 1, 1535. 

His body was buried in – or next to St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London. His head was entrusted to Margaret Roper and buried with her in Chelsea Church in 1544. When her husband William died and was buried 34 years later Margaret’s body and More’s head were transferred to the Roper vault in St Dunstan’s Canterbury.

So, yes, the Man for All Seasons is also for all of London – Sir Thomas More is all over London. 

As for a Today in London Recommendation: well, I think it has to be our Old Chelsea Village Walk. Thomas More is a presiding spirit on that walk. There’s the statue of him looking out over the Thames. There’s the monument to him in Chelsea Old Church. There’s Ropers Gardens, the site of which was part of the marriage gift of Sir Thomas More to his daughter Margaret and William Roper. You go there – it’s a lovely sunken garden – be sure to see the ancient cherry tree. Nothing to do with More but very London, this. It was planted to celebrate the visit of Gunji Koizumi, who introduced judo to the UK.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *