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Death and Dying in the
Writings of Sir Thomas More

ISS Reports


Seminar delivered by Fr Craig D'Alton on June 5, 2007

Craig pointed out scholars have written much about Sir Thomas More's life, but less about his literary, philosophical and theological output. In fact, he said that the manner of More's death has for many people defined his life. He asked if he was to us a hero, a saint, a humanist, a tragic figure, or what?

More's most famous book is Utopia printed in 1515, but as a thinker, writer and commentator he wrote much else. Craig noted that More treated death as a major theme. His comments were wide-ranging as a humanist and pietist, and he wrote extensively on purgatory, heaven and hell, the passion of Christ, and his own death.

Firstly, More wrote on the human act of dying in Four Last Things. This was a treatise written in 1522, but never finished. In it, one commentator says that he was moving from being a humanist to a polemicist. Craig says not. Rather, it is part of More's search for a new genre, a devotional piece of writing in which the writer has a dialogue with himself.

It is interesting in The Four Last Things that More, as a man of the Renaissance, quotes Plato and other ancient writers as well as scripture. He refers to the mural in old St Paul's Cathedral, London of the Dance Macabre. In an extraordinary series of quotes, More is shown as communing with his audience, his own soul and his own fears with vivid descriptions at the scene of a person at the time of the death rattle. Here death is shown to be a frightening theme, both for the dying and the comforters. More observes that only at the point of death did Jesus cry out. Craig said none of this may be comforting, but it certainly "draws in the reader."

In The Four Last Things, More the lawyer criticises grasping executors of deceased estates. For More, as with many other religious writers, the devil is the ultimate tempter. He scoffs at people who spend too much time planning the details of their own funerals, with instructions on "torches, tapers, black gowns and hearse," and claims that for the "truly bad" they begin their hell in this world. More quotes many Christian and pre-Christian writers to support his arguments.

Craig revealed how More uses didactic and argumentative devices, using a conversational form of writing. More poses questions and problems, discusses people's experiences and offers them choices, rather than lecturing them.

In the second book under consideration, The Supplication of Souls, More asks what happens next to the dead person. Often, for More, it is purgatory. The writer supports the idea of praying for those souls. For him, the prayers of the members of the church militant are needed, so that the works of the living help the departed get through. If the ideal is repentance, then few at the time of death have adequately atoned for their sins. So they must work these off in purgatory because there is a relationship between sin and death. People should not spend money on finery or memorials but rather time in prayer. This book does not quote Classical authors from pre-Christian times. For Sir Thomas, the danger is that dead people may not be pleaded for and will become "out of sight and out of mind." Or, as Craig put it, "If you don't pray for Grandma, no-one will pray for you."

The third set of texts Craig used concerned More's mortality. In 1534, in the months before his execution, More wrote a series of letters. Unlike most people, who do not know the likely date and manner of their demise, More did. In the Tower, awaiting execution by Henry VIII's officers for failing to sign the Oaths of Supremacy and Succession, how did More approach his own impending death? In letters to his daughter Margaret he wrote much about death in general. But of himself he admitted, at first, that he was in fear of the hereafter. He asserts however, that to sign the Oath of Succession to save his earthly life would be to perjure himself and be damned. He says he is not on a suicide mission, does not want to be a martyr, and wants to avoid death. But his death, More says, will be at the hands of others to keep a right relationship with God. He may talk of the freedom of death, but at other moments he "longs to die." On the one hand More asks Margaret to pray for him, yet on the other he does not mention purgatory. Craig concludes that it would seem here that More is assuming that he will go straight to heaven.

Overall, Sir Thomas More, the lawyer, the politician, the writer, the diplomat, the executor of heretics, the man of religion, is concerned with humanity, the law, children, humility, and the business of life. Along with Tyndale he introduced many new words and phrases into the English language, perhaps as many as Shakespeare. But, like so many who left behind a volume of work, soundbytes of his words can be made to say anything to fit in with what your argument is about, in any literary or historical context.

Craig displayed a very wide-ranging and lively use of sources in his study of this Renaissance and Reformation figure. While More was canonized in the twentieth century by the Roman Catholic Church, Craig admitted that he may not have been a likeable person, for example in his use of violent language in his polemics, but that he was a remarkably generous host at table.

In answer to a question, Craig noted that belief in purgatory declined somewhat, after it had been linked with the increased sale of indulgences, particularly in Germany, by Roman Catholic church leaders at the time of the building of St Peter's, Rome. If the doctrine involved the prayers for the release of the souls of the departed from purgatory, people were encouraged instead to pay money to reduce time spent in that place. Craig also raised the question of just how many people really believed in this doctrine after the Elizabethan Church had separated.

A report from Chris Martin

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