"For him, as for Sir Thomas More and Mary herself, heresy was the worst of offences"
Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger. 1527
Public DomainSir Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger. 1527 - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sir Thomas More (7 February 1478-6 July 1535), one of Henry VIII's chief advisors and his Lord Chancellor from 1529 until 1532, opposed the Protestant Reformation and, ultimately, Henry himself.  He disagreed strongly with Henry's break from papal authority and becoming Head of the Church in England.  For refusing to take the oath of obedience under the terms of the First Succession Act in 1534, which denied both the supremacy of the Pope and the legitimacy of Henry's first marriage to Catherine of Aragon, he was imprisoned in the Tower.  Found guilty of treason at his trial in 1535 he was beheaded, and as a martyr he was beatified by the Catholic Church in 1888 and canonised in 1935, along with John Fisher.  His name was added to the Church of England's calendar of saints in 1980.   


Video: Paul Scofield as Thomas More at his trial, and Robert Shaw as Henry VIII in the 1966 film A Man For All Seasons, adapted from the play of the same name by Robert Bolt.

It is difficult, today, to understand, never mind to sympathise with, the belief shared by More, and many of his contemporaries, that heresy was such an awful sin it endangered the immortal soul.  But More did believe this and he paid for that belief with his own life.  Although historians have been divided as to the full extent of his involvement with the burnings, as Peter Ackroyd says of the condemned heretics, (The Life of Thomas More. Vintage 1999 p. 296) 'These men anticipated the Antichrist who, as far as More was concerned, might soon be born among the wreckage of the world.  Their words might tempt poor souls into eternal damnation.  They had to be prevented by all and any means'.  If this belief appears to be contrasted with More's reputation as a humanist, it was nevertheless consistent with the times.