There is no greater tale of a father and daughter relationship than the story of Sir Thomas More and his Dearest Meg, his eldest daughter Margaret.
Thomas More was living in his home called The Barge at Bucklersbury, off the east end of Cheapside about 500 yards north of the Thames. His first wife was named Joanna Colt and their first child Margaret was born at home sometime between August and October of 1505. She was baptized and turned over to a close neighbor, Mistress Giggs who was her wet nurse and had just had a child of her own, another Margaret. Mistress Giggs died shortly after giving Margaret back to her parents and Margaret Giggs was adopted by Thomas and Joanna and became Margaret More’s closest friend.
Joanna Colt was to have three more children, Elizabeth, Cecily and John before she died in 1511. Thomas married a wealthy widow, Alice Harper within a month of Joanna’s death. In the early days before he went to work for King Henry VIII, More was to teach his own children. Thomas believed strongly in education for everyone, including women. This education consisted of languages, history, philosophy and rhetoric. Margaret was taught reading at the age of three, studying Aesop’s Fables as her father had when he was a child. When Thomas couldn’t teach his children due to his duties, he hired William Gonnell to tutor his children full time. The school of children tutored by Gonnell included the two older Margarets, Margaret’s siblings and Alice Harper’s daughter Alice.
Margaret progressed well in her studies and soon became her father’s favorite. She was fascinated by geography and astronomy and became proficient in Latin. More relied on her to keep him updated about family news when he was abroad working for the King. Despite all of Margaret’s studies and learning, she was still expected to marry. By 1521, talks were initiated between the More family and the Roper family to marry Margaret to the eldest Roper son, William.
Margaret’s expected dowry would be about 200 pounds. Her father didn’t have the money so a contract was worked out where Margaret and William would receive free room and board for five years and the dowry would be paid at a later date. They were married in 1521. They did not have any children until 1523. Margaret was to have five children, the last one being born in 1544. In 1524, Thomas More decided to move his family from Bucklersbury to a new manor house in Chelsea, just down the river. Margaret and William moved with him. Margaret refused to leave her father’s house and always lived in his home or very nearby until his death.
Also in 1524, Margaret had finished one of her grandest projects as a scholar and an intellectual. She translated the soliloquy on the Lords Prayer called “Precatio dominica”, by the Dutch humanist and great friend of her father’s, Erasmus of Rotterdam. Her aim was to write vivid and readable English prose. The work isn’t an exact word-for –word translation but an attempt to represent Erasmus’s “sense and meaning”. Her book is called “A Devout Treatise upon the Pater Noster, made first in Latin by the most famous doctor Master Erasmus Roterodamus, and turned into English by a young, virtuous and well-learned gentlewoman of xix years of age”. It was published in October 1524. Margaret became the first non-royal woman to publish a book she had translated into English.
In the spring of 1528, there was an outbreak of the dreaded sweating sickness and Margaret fell ill. Her fever was so severe, she fell into a coma. Her father despaired for her life and went to pray. He remembered Galen’s recommendation of a clyster made of oil of violets, leaves of red roses dried in an oven and the yokes of two eggs blended in a thick astringent syrup. The clyster was administered and Margaret recovered.
In 1529, Thomas More was asked by Henry VIII to take the place of the disgraced Cardinal Wolsey and became Lord Chancellor of England. He reluctantly accepted the position. He took his job seriously and had heretics burned at the stake. Margaret supported her father in this. More was also drawn into “The King’s Great Matter” regarding his divorce from Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. More knew this matter was fraught with peril. In 1531, after years of working behind the scenes to persuade Henry to not divorce Katherine and break with the Catholic Church, he decided he needed to resign. Henry was asking everyone to swear an oath, giving the succession to his children by Anne Boleyn and acknowledging him as Supreme Head of the Church in England. Thomas More agreed to the succession part of the oath but not the part making Henry head of the Church.
In 1534, after years of refusal to take the oath and attempts by officials high and low to prevail in making him swear, Thomas More was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Margaret became his main channel of communication with the outside world. She tricked Thomas Cromwell, the King’s new secretary, into thinking she would persuade him to swear the oath and was given open access to her father. His cell door was unlocked except at night, Margaret could come and go as she pleased and More was allowed to walk in the precincts of the Tower and have books, paper and pens. Margaret smuggled her father’s letters out of the Tower unmolested.
In November of 1534, Parliament was convened to put through the final enactment of the break with the Catholic Church. At this time, Margaret’s privilege of visiting her father was taken away and More was put in solitary confinement. In early 1535, More and Margaret couldn’t meet but did resume their clandestine correspondence. As death loomed for More, he became afraid. Margaret did her best to lift his spirits and reassure him. She wrote a special prayer, which pleased her father greatly. Margaret was granted one last visit with her father on May 4.
On July 1, 1535, Thomas More was tried before eight judges and eleven courtiers for not taking the oath. He argued valiantly and brilliantly but to no avail. He was condemned to death and escorted back to the Tower. He was rowed downstream to about a half mile from his destination and finished his journey on foot. He walked to Tower Wharf and turned right, going towards a small drawbridge to cross and there he spotted Margaret. She forced her way through the soldiers and threw her arms around her father’s neck, kissing him over and over. She couldn’t even speak. He told her to have patience, it was God’s will. The soldier’s ordered her to step aside. More took a step toward the drawbridge and Margaret ran back and kissed him one more time. He released her and walked on, not looking back. It was the last time Margaret saw her father alive.
More was executed on Tower Hill by decapitation on July 6, 1535. More’s head was hoisted on a pike and displayed on London Bridge for one month. Margaret bribed the man who was to throw the head into the river and surreptitiously took the head down and preserved it.
Margaret’s grand plan was to publish all her father’s works but she ran into many obstacles. She was to die unexpectedly in 1544 of unknown causes and was buried in the Roper family tomb with her father’s skull beside her. Margaret’s daughter Mary managed, with the help of others, to have the collected works of Sir Thomas More printed in April of 1557. Margaret’s husband was to write a biography of his father-in-law twenty years after his execution but it wasn’t printed until 1626. It serves as the principle source of information we have on More’s life. Thomas More was canonized on May 19, 1935.
Further reading: “A Daughter’s Love” by John Guy