“I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” -St. Thomas More
Hey Friends! How is everyone doing? Today I am finally putting out a blog I teased about months ago. We wanted to share the reasoning on why we are choosing to name our son the way we are. It is definitely one of our most-asked questions. So I asked my amazing husband to guest-blog on this topic and he was happy to do so. The person we are naming our son after has had a major influence on Phillip’s life so I thought it was only fitting. I hope you all enjoy!
One of the most common questions we’ve gotten since we have found out we’re having a boy is about the name we’re going to give him – Thomas More Townsend. People either think it’s a misspelling (More vs Moore), a joke (as in, we want some more Townsend), or a family name. It’s none of the above. Thomas More was a Catholic martyr and saint who played a large part in my own conversion.
It may help to explain who Thomas More was and why he is significant enough for us to want to name our first born son after him. Thomas More was born in 1476 in London and was beheaded in 1535 in the same city. He was a lawyer, a statesman, and a prolific writer, and he was knighted by Henry VIII so he can also be referred to as Sir Thomas More. From a young age More was known as a devout Christian and a man of great integrity. After living with Carthusian monks for a few years he reluctantly decided he had the vocation for marriage, family, and a career instead, but he maintained many of the devotions of the monks for much of his life. These devotions included praying the Liturgy of the Hours (seven prayers prayed at specific times during the day by many religious and laity), fasting frequently, and wearing a hairshirt (a rough shirt worn in secret under one’s garments that provides a mild discomfort, to remind us of Christ’s Passion and death). A man of great intelligence and work ethic, More’s reputation as a lawyer grew and he rose quickly through the ranks of the civil service, serving as a judge and as a member of delegations to foreign countries. He also kept up written correspondence with many of the intellectual greats of his era, including most notably the Dutch writer Erasmus. Eventually, his friend Henry VIII made Thomas his chancellor, which was basically like the head of government at the time. Thomas’s responsibilities included hearing judicial cases and running the day-to-day aspects of Henry’s kingdom, kind of a combination of Supreme Court and secretary of state.
Henry’s desire to have a male heir, along with his love for the sister of one of his mistresses (Anne Boleyn), led him to attempt to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled so that he could be free to re-marry. Thomas was uncomfortable with this since it was an underhanded attempt to divorce, which was and is forbidden by the Catholic Church, and eventually resigned as Henry’s chancellor. Not wishing to embarrass his monarch, Thomas did not state that his resignation was due to Henry’s “great matter,” but truthfully to his desire to retire to write and pray. Henry’s efforts for his annulment were unsuccessful, which led him to embrace the new strains of Protestantism that he had previously strenuously objected to (even writing a book in defense of the Catholic sacraments). Henry rejected the Pope’s authority over the Church in England and successfully sought to have Parliament declare himself the head of the Church of England. He then insisted on the entire country swearing oaths agreeing that Henry was the head of the Church in England and that his children by Anne Boleyn were his rightful heirs. Most of the nobility and clergy, not wishing to anger their monarch, agreed and swore these oaths. A select few refused. The most notable of those who refused were Thomas More and the Bishop of Rochester, John Fisher. Fisher was arrested, and Thomas More was repeatedly hauled before tribunals to explain his refusal to sign the oaths. He refused to speak the reasons why he refused, because he knew that denying Henry’s claims would lead to charges of treason, and instead simply stated that his conscious would not allow him to sign, although he did not fault other men for signing. Eventually false evidence was presented against More, and he was sent to prison at the Tower of London. Fisher was executed June 22, 1535, and More followed him on July 6. In his last court appearance, when the sentence of death was already pronounced, More took the opportunity to explain his objections to Henry’s oaths and ended with the famous line “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”
Now we know the man, but it still leaves unanswered the question of why we’d name our son after him. I had encountered Thomas More’s writings in high school, but only briefly and never really had any opinion of him. In college, three things happened that led me to discover this man and see him as a man worthy of the highest honor. The first is that as a history major I took a class on England to 1800 where we spent quite a bit of time on the early modern period (from around 1500-1700), which was the professor’s specialty. While learning about the Tudor era I grew to admire and respect the integrity and genuineness of the historical character of More. The second is I watched the Showtime miniseries The Tudors, where Jeremy Northam plays More. The dramatic portrayal of that era and the dichotomy between the devout, honest, family-centered More and the other men in power at the time – almost all of whom were power hungry, cynical, devious, backstabbing, and willing to betray their own family to maintain their position – was striking. The third is that through my studies in the history and literature of the Middle Ages – my specialty in college – I came into contact with the Catholic faith. More struck me as the exemplar of how a virtuous, sincere, honest man should live. More was not a simple citizen who was free to live his faith in privacy, he was one of the great politicians and public figures of his era. His character and faith must have been astounding for him to remain not just good, but saintly, in those circumstances.
I have probably read half a dozen biographies of More, written by writers from different perspectives, and read several of his books and essays. For instance, I try to read his The Sadness of Christ (de tristitia Christi) every Lenten season. When I think about the kind of man I want my son to be, several descriptors come to mind: faithful to God and Church, genuine, incorruptible, honest, kind, funny, humble, intelligent, intrepid in defending what is good and true, patriotic, and devoted to his family as a father, son, and husband. St. Thomas More lived all of these words to their fullest. He has inspired me to try to live the same way (although in most of them I fall far short), and I ask God that he give my son the spiritual gifts to live as his namesake lived.
St. Thomas More, pray for us!