This essay exploring the physical utopia of Sir Thomas More is included in my most recent book The Modern Salonnière. The 34 other essays in the book feature similar literary adventures and essays about traveling with intention.
The Utopia of Sir Thomas More
I have made my way to a bench in Roper’s Garden, a lovely little park off Cheyne Walk enveloped by property that was once owned by the Medieval humanist Saint Thomas More. I’m not a religious person so my friends would likely find this stop on my walking tour of London a surprise, a jaunt I wouldn’t have been tempted to make had it not been for an anecdote about a stroll More took with Henry VIII yards away from where I was sitting. I planned this as my last stop of the day thinking the park would be quieter in the late afternoon on a weekday. My view of Chelsea Old Church, which contains a chapel More commissioned to serve as his private place of worship in 1528, proved my calculations right: the scene was unoccupied by another human being.
It was Edward Walford who shared the anecdote in his series of books Old & New London that had inspired me to choose this spot: “One day the king came unexpectedly to Chelsea, and dined with him, and after dinner walked in his garden for the space of an hour, holding his arm about his neck. As soon as his Majesty was gone, Sir Thomas’s son-in-law observed to him how happy he was, since the king had treated him with that familiarity he had never used to any person before, except Cardinal Wolsey, with whom he once saw his Majesty walk arm-in-arm. ‘I thank our Lord,’ answered Sir Thomas, ‘I find his grace my very good lord indeed; and I believe he doth as singularly love me as any subject within this realm; however, son Roper, I may tell thee I have no cause to be proud thereof, for if my head would win him a castle in France, it should not fail to go off.’”
The last sentence reverberated as I watched the flag atop the church billow below drifts of wispy clouds. It felt oddly appropriate that just as I was imagining More striding into the finished chapel for service, a stiffening wind buffeted the park, causing the flag to snap loudly. A statue memorializing the venerated man hunched near the bricked façade of the Church where his gardens used to be. Roughly speaking, his property fanned out for acres from the edge of the river towards what is now King’s Road, and from Milman’s Street to Old Church Street. During his time, the land was dotted with meadows, orchards and gardens, and there was a wharf jutting into the river where he kept his barge at the ready to take him to Westminster or Hampton Court to meet with Henry VIII when the whims of the King demanded it.
The residence was demolished when Sir Hans Sloane purchased it in 1737, so all that remains of it are fragmentary walls shoring up the cellars of a row of homes on Beaufort Street. The garden I was surveying was named during a dedication in 1964 to commemorate the fact that More had given this slice of his property to his daughter Margaret as a wedding gift when she married William Roper in 1521, but anything that would have been built within it then was destroyed during the Blitz of World War II. The Church sustained heavy damage and had to be rebuilt, the structure and the More chapel tucked inside it restored under the guidance of the topographical historian and architect Walter Godfrey.
Describing More’s involvement with the congregation, Walford wrote, “He and his family worshipped there regularly. Sir Thomas usually attended Divine service on Sundays at Chelsea Church, and very often assisted at the celebration of mass.” Though he has always been lauded as devout and his friends considered him kind and just, More has also been described as a “nasty sadomasochistic pervert who enjoyed being flogged by his favorite daughter as much as he relished flogging heretics, beggars and lunatics in his garden.” This statement by Jasper Ridley, who wrote a biography of More, is not far-fetched. More left proof of his hatred of heretics in a narrative he wrote that is emblazoned on a black marble tablet memorializing him on the south wall of the chancel inside Chelsea Old Church. Parish records show that More erected the shrine in 1532, just three years before his death, and that it was at some point during the restoration that “heretics” was replaced with a blank space. This seemed odd to me given how the word would have been stripped of its power by the time the Church was rebuilt.
There is proof that he tortured men on this property fanning out around me; James Baynham is a well-known case. More accused him of heretical behavior and sent him to the Tower to be racked, the torture causing Baynham to recant; but in the end, Baynham relapsed and became a martyr after being burned at the stake because he couldn’t forego a desire for religious freedom. When you contrast Ridley’s description of More with how the saint’s friend Erasmus described him, the contradictory divide widens: “There is not any man living so affectionate as he, and he loveth his old wife as well as if she was a young maid…there is no quarrelling or intemperate words heard; none seen idle; that worthy gentleman doth not govern with proud and lofty words, but with well-timed and courteous benevolence; everybody performeth his duty, yet is there always alacrity; neither is sober mirth anything wanting.”
No quarrelling amongst the members of his clan, I am supposing Erasmus meant, because More himself was not shy about publicizing his intent to eradicate those who didn’t share his religious beliefs. Surrounded by land that he had loved dearly by all accounts, I wondered which view of him was closer to the truth. The mood of the garden surrounding me shifted as I contemplated such a bygone frame of mind, whether this was due to the tone of my reverie or because the clouds were thickening on the horizon, I wasn’t sure. Suddenly, a raw breeze pricked at my skin, the weather signaling it was time to leave. I traversed the concrete path that led me out of the park toward the church. Stopping at the cloaked statue of More, I drew close to his weary gaze and shivered: his presence was palpable. It felt as if he was about to unclasp his hands at any moment and step down from the frozen stance.
The sheen of his gold face did little to uplift his expression, his beleaguered eyes that floated above the prominent nose and crimped lips filled with defeat. The only other visual I’d seen of the man is the Hans Holbein portrait of him hanging beside the fireplace in the Living Hall at The Frick Collection in New York City. The painting makes it clear that More, as the counselor to Henry VIII and Lord High Chancellor of England during the Tudor king’s reign, was a man upon whom great honor had been bestowed. The portrait of More’s arch enemy Sir Thomas Cromwell, also by Holbein, hangs on the opposite side of the fireplace, the depiction of the man who would be More’s undoing just as filled with symbology.
It’s a brilliant installation because the former enemies are sentenced to facing each other day-in and day-out, and the distance created by the monumental fireplace surround seems a necessary separation still. When I first saw them in that room, I wondered if Holbein had consciously painted them so that they would face-off when hung on the same wall. Their rivalry would have been renowned when he was painting them so it’s not a stretch that he could have. The outcome of the animosity between them proves that few humans could remain unscathed by the complex roles they held under a notoriously cruel King. I don’t imagine any but the bravest of modern men could have retained as steady a tack as each of them did with such a tremendous force—religious reformation—pushing against them.
I looked around at the graceful neighborhood surrounding the church and marveled that so many echoes of Tudor history reverberated on the slip of land at the river’s edge. In 1557, Anne of Cleves died in a manor house owned by Henry VIII about five blocks east of More’s property; and Katharine Parr occupied the same dwelling when she was charged with the care of a young princess named Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and the future Queen Elizabeth I. All that is left of the building is a plaque mounted on a wall down Cheyne Walk from the Church. The More house hosted its fair share of celebrities, as well, including Holbein, who was a guest there during several stints in London as he cemented his popularity as a sought-after portraitist in England.
Erasmus, who had stayed with the Mores a number of times, called the home “a modest yet commodious mansion.” More’s last days spent within this stately home would have been unsettling to say the least: “With the King’s consent he laid down his office and went into retirement,” wrote George William Hudson Shaw. “He had entered Henry’s service a rich man: he left it without rewards of any kind, with an income of £100 a year.” When the clergy offered him a stipend of £5,000, he declined it, saying he would rather see it all cast into the Thames. Shaw noted, “He wanted neither riches nor honours, only rest and peace.”
This slide toward defeat is echoed in More’s writing. In A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, which he wrote in prison awaiting execution, his discourse includes this question, “Is it not then more than shame that Christ shall see his Catholics forsake his faith…?” Eighteen years earlier, he is much more upbeat as he speaks to the fictitious Raphael in this snippet of dialogue from Utopia: “You must not, therefore, abandon the commonwealth, for the same reasons as you should not forsake the ship in a storm because you cannot command the winds.” He would have known plenty about the difficulty in trying to command the winds given the King he served and the jockeying for positions of power taking place during his time in office.
I circled the statue and noticed how the thin typeface proclaiming More a saint seemed so much slighter given the density of the black figure looming above it. There’s a rumor that More’s daughter brought his body to the church to be buried in the tomb he designed for his remains, but most reports place his body in the Church of St. Peter ad Vincula. Were his bones inside the chapel I saw beyond the man’s gleaming mask? I wondered before turning to make my way to my hotel. The day’s exercise of channeling the mood of a ghost could be seen as a waste of time since it is impossible to understand such a controversial figure given I can only view him out of context. His were trying times, for sure, but it is impossible for me to sanction his torturous ways from a contemporary perspective. The issue of context is one of the things that fascinates me about history because it presents the ultimate challenge when looking so far back in time.
The Utopia of Sir Thomas More © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, journalist, poet, and content strategist whose books include The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise, and Four Florida Moderns.