The Catholic Historical Review 88.4 (2002) 773-775
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The Last Letters of Thomas More. Edited and with an introduction by Alvaro De Silva. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 2000. Pp. viii, 214. $20.00.) [End Page 773]
Alvaro De Silva, who teaches theology at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire, has produced a collection of nineteen letters by Sir Thomas More and five letters to him or about him. The first five letters in this volume were written by More to Thomas Cromwell, royal adviser in ecclesiastical affairs, or to King Henry VIII before his arrest and imprisonment in the Tower of London (April, 1534). The other letters were retrieved from the Tower by William Rastell (d. 1565), a nephew of More, after the execution of his uncle.
The text of these letters is a modernized version of the definitive edition that was published by Elizabeth F. Rogers, The Correspondence of Sir Thomas More (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947). Father De Silva provides the reader with helpful and insightful footnotes, commentary, glossary, and bibliography. His introduction is exceptionally perceptive and is anchored on three key concepts: conscience, comfort, and company. The index, however, is woefully inadequate. Under "Erasmus of Rotterdam," for example, there are five references; but in point of fact there are numerous unidentified references to Erasmus in the text on pages 140, 144, 145, 148, 156, 162, 165, and 184. Moreover, there are no references to Anne of Cleves (p. 132), Elizabeth I (pp. 132 and 136), and Francis I (pp. 149 and 168), even though these figures appear in the text.
St. Thomas More was imprisoned in London for fourteen months. During this period, he wrote two "Tower Works" and many letters—only some of which have survived. Most of these surviving letters were written to or received from members of More's family. Eight of the letters were written to his beloved eldest daughter, Margaret Roper, and two letters were written by Margaret to her father. Although More was aware that everything he wrote could be censored by the government or prison officials, he believed that "the truth will set you free" (John 8:32). He acted out of concern for God's will: "I trust in the great goodness of God, that he shall never suffer it to be true. . . . But I thank our Lord that the thing I do is not for obstinacy but for the salvation of my soul ..." (More to Master Leder, January 16, 1534/5, p. 110).
In his introduction, Father De Silva points out that More used the word "conscience" more than 100 times in his final correspondence. He felt strongly that the human conscience was of divine origin—a mirror that reflected the will of God in our lives. Even the pleas of Margaret Roper could not persuade her father to take the royal oath.
Margaret Roper's letter to Lady Alice Alington, her stepsister, in August of 1534 is the centerpiece of this collection. It is a literary masterpiece. St. Thomas attempted to convince his daughters to respect his decision, which had been formed by his conscience. At the same time, he expressed both fear of his future and trust in Christ: "Mistrust him [God], Meg, will I not, though I feel me faint, yea, and though I should feel my fear even at point to overthrow me too, yet shall I remember how Saint Peter, with a blast of wind, began to sink for his faint faith, and shall do as he did, call upon Christ and pray him to help. And then I trust he shall set his holy hand unto me, and in the stormy seas, hold me up from drowning" (p. 88). St. Thomas More remained Christ-centered during his year of [End Page 774] confinement. These letters reveal More as a Christian humanist, a caring husband, a loving father, a loyal friend, and "the king's good servant but God's first."
Richard L. DeMolen
Diocese of Reno