When Thomas More was being led to his execution on Tower Hill in 1535, a large crowd gathered to witness. Robert Bolt’s play A Man for all Seasons portrays the scene: More’s beloved daughter Meg breaks from the crowd and rushes to embrace her father, in tears. More comforts his daughter and encourages her to trust the inevitability of death, finally assuring her: ‘Margaret, you have long known the secrets of my heart.’
I was privileged to play the part of Thomas More in a student production of the play when I was a seminarian. I cherish More’s words to his daughter. Not many people know the secrets of my heart!
Robert Bolt’s image of Thomas More and his daughter Margaret embracing when he was being led to his execution is not quite accurate historically. John Guy’s detailed study, A Daughter’s Love (2009), traces Margaret’s frequent visits to her father when he was imprisoned in the Tower. Her unfailing love sustained More through his last days. In fact, he farewelled his ‘dearly beloved Meg’ on the Tower wharf when he was being led back to his cell after his so-called trial. It was at that farewell on the wharf that More said to her ‘you alone have long known the secrets of my heart.’
More is speaking of their unique intimate relationship, their bonding of hearts. Far from mere intellectual knowing, this is wholistic knowing, to know in one’s whole person. Margaret alone knew her father’s deep inner life, his ‘secrets’, his profound relationship with God. She thanked him once for a letter which she said represented to her ‘the clear shining brightness of your soul.’ She alone knew and understood how More was able to oppose the King, despite enormous pressure to do otherwise and despite his crippling fears for himself and for his family.
The primacy of his relationship with God – ‘I am the King’s good servant, but God’s first’ – was non-negotiable for More. Clearly, Thomas More knew in his heart God’s personal love for him. I don’t know that More ever recorded his experience of God’s love, but I have no doubt that he would have identified with these words of John of the Cross from his Spiritual Canticle:
You looked with love upon me and deep within, your eyes imprinted grace. This mercy set me free, held in your love’s embrace to lift my eyes adoring to your face.
For this surely is the deepest secret of his heart: like John of the Cross, Thomas More knew how blessed, gifted, forgiven, embraced, loved that he was, beyond anything he could have hoped for or imagined. More knew. Margaret knew.
Margaret did not witness her father’s execution, whether by choice or circumstance is not known. She did recover her father’s severed head from Tower Bridge some days later. The head is buried in Chelsea church. As a matter of interest, I understand that Chelsea in London is the only parish in the world where both the Catholic church and the Anglican church are named after the same saint: St Thomas More.