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Thomas J. McGovern

The recently celebrated International Year of the Family reminds us forcefully that support for the institution of the family must be a serious commitment for all who believe in the importance of Christian moral values.

An older generation can, in most cases, look back with gratitude and confidence to the values and principles inculcated by their own parents. However, precisely because of the increasing discontinuities in healthy family traditions, we need to explore what history has to offer by way of examples of outstanding Christian families. In this article I would like to draw attention to one such family the inspirational qualities of the home of the great English scholar statesman, St Thomas More.

We have detailed knowledge of St Thomas More's family from several sources. There are the writings and letters of Thomas himself to members of his family,[1] and the brilliant descriptions of Erasmus who lived in the More household for several months at different times. [2]There is, in addition, the detailed testimony of William Roper who was married to More's eldest daughter, and who lived in the More household for sixteen years.[3]

Family formation

By observing More's own character we find the key to his success in the formation of his children. His capacity for friendship was one of his most outstanding and attractive talents; it was the aspect of his personality which struck Erasmus more than anything else. More, he claims, was born for friendship; he was open to any offer of it, and consequently his friends were legion.

He made use of this gift in a special way in the formation of his children, as his letters to them illustrate so well.

To make up for his enforced absences from home on diplomatic or other business, he wrote regularly to his children and encouraged them to write frequently.

I cannot adequately express, my delightful daughters, how greatly pleased I am by your charming letters. For believe me truly there is nothing which refreshes me so much in the midst of this bothersome business as reading what comes from you. And so I long with all my heart to hasten home.

He lived at Bucklersbury in central London from 1505 when he first married, and then, from 1524, in his larger house at Chelsea. The home was full of life and warmth due to the affection and humour of More, and the good order imposed by his wife Alice. Thomas was not a disciple of corporal punishment. However, in no way did that imply a lack of authority or discipline in the More home He was carereful to nurture in them industriousness, attention to detail and other natural qualities as a solid foundation for Christian virtues.

Margaret his favourite

Yet it is clear that Margaret, the eldest daughter, was More's favourite. She shared his intellectual talents and also his charm. She it was who best understood his concerns and preoccupations and, consequently, to her, rather than to Dame Alice or the others, did he reveal the deeper recesses of his heart.

More wrote many letters to Margaret which give testimony to a mutual affection and intimacy of spirit between father and daughter which must have few parallels in literature. In one of his letters he reminded her how lenient a father he was: 'You know how often I have kissed, how rarely spanked you, and then only with a peacock's tail.'

Sir Thomas was proud of his cultured daughter and did not hide her light under a bushel. With understandable parental pride, while abroad he showed some of her letters to his colleagues who expressed surprise and amazement not only at their superior quality, but even more so at the fact that they were written by a girl!

At sixteen Margaret married William Roper, a young lawyer who for three years had formed part of More's extended family. Writing to her some time afterwards More teases her about the child she is expecting:

In your letter you speak of your imminent confinement. We pray most earnestly that all may go happily and successfully with you. May God and our Blessed Lady grant you happily and safely to increase your family by a little one like to his mother in everything except sex. Yet let it by all means be a girl, if only she will make up for the inferiority of her sex by her zeal to imitate her mother's virtue and learning. Such a girl I would prefer to three boys.

Education of children

In a culture which today seems to veer increasingly towards coarseness, banality and vulgarity, More illustrates the importance of values such as elegance, refinement, and tenderness. These are qualities which are often mistakenly considered as effeminate and foppish, and a sign of weakness, when in fact they reflect an authentic cultural achievement, primarily of a Christian provenance.

The children in his home were taught Latin, Greek, Logic, Philosophy, Theology, Mathematics and Astronomy. This was a totally original approach, as it was unheard of at the time that women should be given an education on a par with men. Margaret became a classical scholar in her own right, of sufficient standing to have an emendation by her of a faulty Greek text of St Cyprian accepted by contemporary scholars. The fame of his learned daughters became European through the praises of Erasmus, and was so great in England that they were invited by the King to have a philosophical debate in his presence.

Educational program

In a famous letter to William Gonell, one of these tutors, More did not just indicate the educational targets he would like to see achieved; he also outlined the principles of a Christian philosophy of education for his tutor's guidance. More was primarily concerned that his children should be schooled in virtue rather than mere knowledge.

More was conscious that his program of education for his daughters was a radical departure from contemporary attitudes. As he said to Gonell:

[Since] erudition in women is a new thing, and a reproach to the sloth of men, many will gladly assail it. If a woman (and this I desire and hope with you as their teacher for all my daughters) to eminent virtue of mind should add even moderate skill in learning, I think she will gain more real good than if she obtain the riches of Croesus and the beauty of Helen.

The subsequent career of his own daughters would more than confirm the validity of this expectation.

More was no representative of the feminist agenda as it is understood to­day. Erudition and culture, like everything else in life, were for him another way of expressing Christian piety, a way of developing personality for love of God and men. To exclude a women from this inheritance, just because she was a woman, appeared to More stupid and unjust.

Extended family

In a letter dated 23 March 1521 from the court of Henry VIII, he began with the salutation: 'Thomas More to his whole school, greeting.' Apart from his own childen Margaret, Elizabeth, Cecily and John the More household included several others, either adopted or fostered, who were as dear to him as his own children his step-daughter Alice Middleton, a foster child Margaret Giggs, and Anne Creseacre, a ward of court who was adopted by More.

In accordance with the custom of the time, other teenage children were entrusted to him for their education, in the same way that More himself had spent time in the household of Cardinal Morton. These included Giles Heron and William Roper, who would both marry into the More family; his niece and nephew Joan and William Rastell; and Dorothy Colley who was Margaret Roper's maid. The Holbein family portrait of 1527 includes most of More's school, as well as his father John.

Christian family

We know some of the obligations and responsibilities of More's domestic community. Card-playing, dice, and flirtation were prohibited. Music, marriage, study and gardening were encouraged. The sleeping areas for the boys and girls were in separate areas of his big house, and, in principle, one area was out of bounds to the residents of the other. Erasmus tells us that More had been careful 'to have all his children, from their earliest years, thoroughly imbued with chaste and holy morals.' In spite of, or rather because of, this reserve maintained beween the sexes, good and faithful marriages were the outcome. Roper was a young lawyer who for a time became infected with the new religious ideas of Lutheranism. More's prayers were effective because soon after he returned to the fullness of the Faith, to which he adhered loyally for the rest of ins lite, at considerable personal cost.

A loyal friend

Loyalty was one of the virtues which was most highly appreciated by More. We know from Erasmus that he was the most loyal of friends himself. It was a virtue which he inculcated in his family and, in the subsequent history of the More household, there is nothing more impressive than the loyalty to his memory of all the young people who had been brought up under his personal care in Chelsea. It is a tribute to the memory of More that, in spite of the considerable risks involved, his nephew, William Rastell, spent many years collecting and editing all the English writings of his uncle, which were published in the Louvain edition of his English Works in 1557.             

Love of God, love of neighbour

Love of God and love of neighbour was the basic philosophy of the More home. Thomas prayed in good times and bad, and taught his children to do the same. It was his custom to gather his household together at bedtime for night prayers; they would recite some of the psalms, followed by the Salve Regina and the De profundis for the dead. Morning prayer consisted of the seven penitential psalms followed by the litanies of the saints. On big feast-days the whole family celebrated the vigil and recited the midnight office. On weekdays, one of the family, usually Margaret Giggs, read passages from Scripture during morning prayer or at meals; this was normally followed by some comment on what had been read. He prayed with special fervour when any of his daughters, natural or adopted, was in labour pains, and continued to do so until he received news of the delivery.

Thomas was even more demanding on himself with regard to practices of piety. His deep interior life drew its resources from daily Mass, personal meditation, and the exercise of generous mortification. It was his custom, Roper tells us, to devote a special period every Friday to the contemplation of the Passion. We can see consequences of this devotion in his willing identification with the Cross and in his Tower writings.

Centrality of the Cross

Motivated by a generous spirit of reparation, More went beyond the temperance of the philosophers in the treatment of his body. On certain days he used to wear a rough hair shirt next to his skin, a practice he continued in the Tower right up to the end. To his beloved Margaret he entrusted the secret work of washing this hair shirt, and she alone knew that he used to punish his body with a whip of cords.

More passed on this love for the Cross to his family. He used to gently chide his wife and children, whenever they had disappointments or difficulties, that they could not 'expect to go to heaven in featherbeds'. None of his family, either his own children or his extended family, were disloyal to the faith during periods of persecution or at times of great personal danger and there were many such occasions after 1535 and during the subsequent three decades.

Christian pietas

This sense of Christian pietas, which More passed on to his children, was a strong characteristic of his spiritual life. Erasmus wrote of More that 'when he talks with his friends about the world to come, you can see that he is speaking in all sincerity and with good hope.' The Communion of Saints was a reality which was ever-present in More's thinking about the Church; he was acutely conscious that the fight is for souls. He believed firmly in the intervention of angels in our lives, and was equally convinced of the existence of the devil and his pernicious involvement in human affairs.

His strong sense of solidarity with the dead, so closely integrated with the domestic virtues of his household, caused him to be deeply offended by a contemporary attack on the custom of offering Masses for the relief of the souls in Purgatory. More defended this devotion passionately in an essay entitled A Supplication of Souls. To deprive the Holy Souls of our prayers and the benefit of the Sacrifice of the Mass was, in More's opinion, equivalent to denying food and drink to one's own family, one's own children. He cannot imagine a Christian piety forgetful of the dead.

God's fatherly providence

It is not surprising that Sir Thomas had a deep sense of the fatherly providence of God; this comes across clearly from a reading of his letters. It is perhaps also significant that in his Utopia, the denial of the providence of God was one of the two crimes deserving of capital punishment. This was part of the spiritual inheritance which he passed on to his children, an idea which cannot have been very difficult for them to grasp, having had such an incomparable model of human fatherhood constantly before their eyes. The conviction that they were in the hands of a loving Father was a truth that gave meaning to their lives in spite of persecution, exile and even the ultimate sacrifice. In the story of the More family there is no note of bitterness or desperation; there is, on the contrary, a quiet dignity and the firm expectation of a better future.


By any standards Sir Thomas was a wealthy man, but if he was, he was not so by design. In one of his better moments Wolsey wrote to the King asking for an increased remuneration for More 'because he is not the most ready to speak and solicit his own case,' something which even the avaricious cardinal noticed.

Always generous with the poor himself, he saw to it that his family were formed in the corporal works of mercy. At Chelsea he set up an alms house for the poor and sick which was entrusted to his daughter Margaret's special care; Margaret Giggs coordinated his external charitable disbursements.

Soon after More resigned the Chancellorship he gathered his family together to talk to them about the future and how they would manage financially. The event, as recounted by Roper, illustrates the cheerfulness and sense of humour with which More accepted his reduced circumstances.

Summarising his whole career, he told them:

I have been brought up at Oxford, at the Inn of Chancery, at Lincoln's Inn and also in the King's Court... from the lowest degree to the highest. Yet I have now little above £100 a year left to me. If we are to continue to­gether, all must become contributories; but, by my counsel, it shall not be best for us to fall to the lowest fare first.

He then suggests a gradual descent, first to Lincoln's Inn fare, then to New Inn fare, and so forth, remarking as he goes how one can be content at each level. Finally, if even Oxford fare fails,

then may we yet, with bags and wallets, go a begging together, and hoping that for pity some good folk will give us their charity, at every man's door to sing Salve Regina, and so still keep company and be merry together.

More's exposition is full of wry humour, yet it does not hide the fact that material prosperity is a very relative consideration for him. He will enjoy it if he has it, but the lack of it will never interfere with the spirit of family unity and cheerfulness which were of paramount importance in his life.

True humanism

The Christian atmosphere of the More home was explicit, and this was combined with true humanism. Robert Bolt, in his introduction to the play A Man for All Seasons, tells us that one of the things that attracted him

to this amazing man was his splendid social adjustment. So far from being one of society's sore teeth, he was, like the hero of Camus' La Chute, almost indecently successful.... A visitors' book at his house in Chelsea would have looked like a sixteenth century Who's Who: Holbein, Erasmus, Colet, everybody. He adored and was adored by his own large family. He parted with more than most men when he parted with his life, for he accepted and enjoyed his social context.'

Letters from prison

During his time in prison Margaret was the one who kept in closest touch with her father, writing to him several times. These letters were his 'greatest pleasure and comfort' during his fifteen months in the Tower. More also wrote a number of times to Margaret from prison; many of these letters have survived and they give a wonderful insight into his state of soul at the time of his execution, and his affectionate relationship with his beloved Meg. Their correspondence is not only a beautiful and moving testimony, but is what perhaps most clearly reveals to us the heart of More. It is of interest to note that when the Church, to compose the office for the combined feastday of John Fisher and Thomas More, looked for a suitable text for the Office of Readings, it did not, as might have been expected, choose an extract from one of John Fisher's brilliant theological treatises; it opted for an extract from one of More's prison letters to Margaret.

Loyalty to conscience

More's family was what brought him the greatest joy in his life. Yet when the time came to choose between loyalty to conscience and to the papacy on the one hand, and his love for his family on the other, he had no doubt where his duty lay. And while he realized that his refusal to take the Oath would involve intense sorrow and suffering for them in this life, in the perspective of eternity it was far the better thing. Thus, in one of his last letters, he reassured Margaret as follows:

And therefore, mine own good daughter, never trouble your mind for anything that shall happen to me in this world. Nothing can come but that which God wills. And I feel very sure that whatsoever that may be, however bad it may appear, it shall indeed be the best.

These letters have the special flavour of the lives of the early Christians.

On trial

Henry ruthlessly played out the charade of a trial and obtained the convic­tion for which he had so perfidiously laboured. After it was over, More's family were waiting at the Tower Wharf to say farewell as he was led away from Westminster Hall, walking with the aid of a staff. Not having seen him for several months, they must have been shocked at the change in appearance his feeble steps, the whitening hair and the long beard, the drawn features. Margaret Clement rushed forward, kissed and embraced him. John, after receiving his father's blessing, did the same and was kissed in return.

And what of his beloved Meg? Her reaction is best described in a contemporary account of the execution:

As they were bringing More back to the great Tower and before he entered it, one of his daughters, named Margaret, seized and overcome with great grief and sorrow for her father, forced her way right through the crowd of archers, and without any respect for the people there or the public place she was in, rushed up to her father and threw her arms around his neck, holding him tightly in her embrace without being able to say a word. And then her father, with the permission of the archers, spoke to comfort her: 'Margaret, have patience, do not torment yourself. It is the will of God. You have known the secret desire of my heart for a long time'. Then she stepped back some ten or twelve feet, but again she came forward to take him in her arms, and he, without shedding tears and without any change in his face or voice, simply told her to pray to God for his soul.[4]


Soon after dawn on Tuesday 6 July, a Tower official came to inform Sir Thomas that the King and Council had decided he should be executed before 9.00am. He asked that his daughter Margaret should be present at his burial. She came accompanied by Dorothy Colley, her maid, bringing a winding sheet with her. Helped by Margaret Clement, who had been present at the execution, they reverently buried the decapitated body in the church of St Peter ad Vincula within the Tower.

More's head was impaled on London Bridge as a brutal warning to all of what could happen to those who refused to acquiesce in the King's wishes. Margaret bribed the executioner to let her have the head before it was thrown into the Thames, as Bishop John Fisher's had been a short time previously. During her lifetime this extraordinary relic of her father remained in her care. At one stage she was brought before the Council when it was discovered that she had her father's head and some of his papers in her possession. She asked that she might be able to keep them 'for her consolation' and her request was granted. The head was eventually placed in the Roper vault at St Dunstan's in Canterbury.

Among the papers were, undoubtedly, her father's letters which she cherished out of loyalty to his memory. Subsequently they were carried into exile in the loving hands of Dorothy Colley and her husband John Harris, who inked them over to preserve them. When Stapleton recorded them for posterity, he tells us when he copied them (about 1588) they were 'almost worn to pieces'.

A protected space

Homes like More's are the cradle of a Christian civilization. Here there was work and leisure, time for learning and music, and both divine and human wisdom were passed on to the next generation. There was laughter and friendship, piety and affection. God was worshipped, detachment was inculcated, and the poor were cared for with refinement and lack of ostentation. More's home was a centre of hospitality, and not just for the great ones of this world.

The family is that protected space in the structure of society which allows the human person, adult and child, to mature and develop and feel at home, to experience affection and discipline, and to have the demands of mutual dependence respected and attended to. Here the affections of the heart are nourished and the passions of the soul are channelled and disciplined. It is here, too, that each is encouraged to break out of the orbit of the self and the ego, and discover the joy of giving. Paternal authority is balanced by maternal warmth and gentleness. The demands of children deepen the mutual self-giving of husband and wife, and evince the generosity necessary to respond wholeheartedly to God's stupendous gift of life. Such was the More family community at Chelsea.

The More household, despite the variety of comings and goings, had an essential stability, that anchorage which is necessary for the development of human maturity and healthy self-confidence. It was a haven of peace, understanding and acceptance.


While More ensured that present concerns were always seen in the context of eternity, family life in Chelsea was enriched by an authentic humanism and its participants enjoyed a truly liberal education. The remarkable success of the More household, from both a human and Christian point of view, was laid in the minutiae of family life in Bucklersbury and Chelsea, where the practice of the virtues was integrated with an authentic piety and love for the Cross. There was style about it, a clear vision of what was important and what was secondary, of what were the just claims of Caesar and what, at the same time, were the overriding claims of God. The family and the educational enterprise of today could with profit reflect on this unique experiment of the past.

Rev Thomas McGovern is a priest of the Opus Dei Prelature working in Dublin.

1. "St Thomas More: Selected Letters", ed. E.F. Rogers, London, 1976.

2. "Erasmus, Letter to Ulrich von Hutten", in The Essential Thomas More, eds. Greene and Dolan, London, 1967, pp. 286-294.

3. William Roper, Life of Sir Thomas More, London 1906.

4. The Essential Thomas More, p.297.

The above essay first appeared in
Position Paper 288/289, June/July 1995.

This version: 12th February 2003

Copyright ©; Fr Thomas McGovern 2003

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