Relic of St. Thomas More Faces Destruction Unless Anglican Church Opens Vault
ANALYSIS: The relic of the saint’s head has rested in St. Dunstan’s Church for almost 500 years.
CANTERBURY, England — The need to properly preserve the remains of St. Thomas More’s head and to be able to properly venerate the first-class relic has taken on an added urgency as it continues to deteriorate in an underground vault in an Anglican church in Canterbury.
Ever since St. Thomas’ devoted daughter Margaret Roper daringly rescued her martyred father’s head from London Bridge in 1535 and had it buried with her in their family vault, the relic has rested under a side chapel of St. Dunstan’s Church, which was once Catholic but has belonged to the Anglican church since the Reformation.
The relic has always been hidden from view, covered and sealed by a memorial floor plaque.
Two openings of the vault, in 1978 and in 1997, revealed that the condition of St. Thomas’ head had considerably deteriorated, first due to suspected vandalism in the 19th century, but also by being exposed to damp air and not being hermetically sealed.
A forensic report published in 1980 suggested that, although much had already decayed, precious remnants of the relic remain: part of the hard palette, a piece of the maxilla showing one tooth socket and a fragment of skull, and dust.
St. Thomas More was famously beheaded for treason by King Henry VIII on July 6, 1535, owing to his refusal to take the Oath of Supremacy and swear allegiance to the monarch as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. The oath formalized Henry’s break with Rome.
Four hundred years later, in 1935, St. Thomas was canonized by Pope Pius XI, having been beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886.
Pope Pius described him and fellow martyr St. John Fisher, who shares his memorial day, as “bright champions and the glory of their nation,” and recalled how, when St. Thomas saw how “the doctrines of the Church were gravely endangered,” he renounced high office and other temptations and sacrificed his life “in witness to the unity of the Church.”
Made patron saint of statesmen and politicians, adopted children, lawyers, civil servants and difficult marriages, St. Thomas’ witness remains highly relevant today. When Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect emeritus of the Apostolic Signatura, the Church’s highest court, visited St. Dunstan’s in 2017, he recalled St. Thomas’ profound witness at a time when truth is being relativized and disregarded, in the Catholic Church as well as in politics.
St. Thomas More is a “sign to us” that the “Truth never changes,” Cardinal Burke told the Register during his visit. “It doesn’t matter how many people are in favor of a lie, it doesn’t make it the Truth. That is a tremendous witness for us.”
G.K. Chesterton remarked on his importance in the face of modernism, noting in 1929, six years before his canonization, that Thomas More “is important today, but he is not as important now as he will be in 100 years from today.” In a column for the Register in 2015, Stephanie Mann wrote that “we haven’t reached the centennial of Chesterton’s prediction, but it has already come true.”
History of the Relic
Following his execution on Tower Hill, at which he famously uttered the words “I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first,” St. Thomas’ decapitated body was buried in the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London, in an unmarked grave while what happened to his head is well documented.
According to historian E. E. Reynolds, and drawing on an eyewitness account, it was placed on a spike on London Bridge where it remained for nearly a month and would have been thrown into the River Thames had Margaret Roper not intervened.
“Watching carefully and waiting for the opportunity, she bribed the executioner, whose office it was to remove the heads, and obtained possession of the sacred relic,” recounted Reynolds. “There was no possibility of mistake, for she, with the help of others, had kept careful watch, and, moreover, there were signs so certain that anyone who had known him in life would have been able now to identify the head.”
Once the head was safely in Canterbury where Margaret lived with her husband William Roper, it was preserved in a leaden casket, after which it became the possession of her eldest daughter, Elizabeth, Lady Bray.
“It was probably at her death in 1558 that it was placed in the Roper vault under the Chapel of St. Nicholas in St. Dunstan’s Canterbury,” Reynolds said.
It was seen “by accident” in 1835 when the roof of the Roper vault was broken, Reynolds wrote, and the skull was seen “enclosed in a leaden case with one side open” that stood in a “niche protected by an iron grille.”
American Catholic lawyer Steven Brizek, who has studied the relic in detail and campaigned for several years for it to be properly preserved and exposed for veneration, has noted that when St. Thomas’ head was placed in the vault in St. Dunstan’s, he was described as “Sir Thomas More, Knyght, Sometyme Chancellor of Englande” — that is, he had not then been declared a saint. His remains, he stressed, “only barely survived their intended destruction” but were kept “relatively safe for the next 300 years, at least up to 1835 when they appeared to be intact.”
When a 1978 excavation revealed the remains “had suffered greatly and were likely vandalized, nothing was done about it,” Brizek said. In 1997 they were viewed again in the same condition, but “still nothing was done about it,” he added.
The present state of the relic, therefore, “takes on a new character and dimension,” Brizek said. “All must understand that we are not met with the challenge to preserve and properly respect the remains of a mere Knyght, sometyme Chancellor of Englande, just a meritorious lawyer and Statesman or just another man of great courage. No. We are confronted now with the challenge of preserving and properly respecting the remains of a man who was raised to the Altar in 1935. A man of heroic virtue. A saint.”
Brizek added, “Simply put, what might have been expedient in the 1500s or necessary, useful or deemed acceptable to preserve the remains for the next 400 years is clearly no longer an adequate, appropriate or conscionable means for ensuring their preservation now.”
Every year, hundreds of pilgrims with a devotion to St. Thomas More, especially from the United States, visit the church, but they are unable to view the relic. Cardinal Burke said during his visit he “sincerely” hoped that it could be displayed “so that it could be a source of inspiration and also a grace for people to be able to see the relic, and to pray before it and venerate it.”
St. Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, would regularly make trips to St. Dunstan’s whenever he was in England to pray to St. Thomas More, but he always had to make his act of veneration above the floor memorial with the relic hidden underneath.
Preservation Efforts Stonewalled
Despite the lack of adequate visibility, frequent attempts in recent years to have the Anglican parish of St. Dunstan’s agree to properly preserve and expose the relic for veneration have been blocked, in spite of Brizek drawing up a detailed proposal that he offered to finance.
His plan, fleshed out in an eight-page prospectus, would involve removing the contents of the lead casket, documenting the remains, and properly preserving them in an air-tight casket made of gold, bronze, marble or stone. They would then be stored in the niche and could be viewed through a glass slab where the stone memorial used to be.
A St. Dunstan’s parish council meeting last June unanimously turned down Brizek’s proposal or any possibility of preserving or exposing the relic, preferring that the remains stay “undisturbed.” They chose instead to embark on a “Big Plan” project in order to “raise the profile” of the church’s rich history.
As well as St. Thomas’ head relic, this includes King Henry II choosing the church as the place to embark on his public act of penance following the murder of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, and having the oldest functioning church bell in England, which dates from pre-Reformation times.
“Our focus is on God’s mission through heritage, pilgrimage and tourism for a sustainable and flourishing future,” said the parish rector, the Reverend Jo Richards.
Church warden Susan Palmer told the Register that “the overriding feeling” at their meeting “was that we should be concentrating our efforts and finances in caring for our community and upgrading our building with better lighting, sound etc. that would enrich the experience of all our visitors, whether pilgrims, casual visitors or congregation.”
She said that although having St. Thomas’ remains in St. Dunstan’s “is a great honor, and something which resonates with many pilgrims who visit,” she believed that “for most of the worshipping congregation at St. Dunstan’s, Thomas More is an historical, rather than spiritual, consideration, if indeed they consider him at all. There is never a ‘buzz’ when he’s mentioned.”
Palmer also said in the visitor’s book, only “one or two at the most express regret that the head isn’t either on display, or in a Catholic church, where they feel he belongs.”
Parishes have considerable influence in the Church of England as the ecclesial communion is structured like an “inverted pyramid” with senior members of the hierarchy dependent on the democratic vote of a parish council. For this reason, even though King Charles III, when he was asked if he’d back the project in 2021 when he was Prince of Wales, said he was unable to “because it does not come from an official request for support.”
Some opposition also comes from within the Catholic Church. Australian Columban Missionary Father Robert McCulloch, who has been closely involved in ecumenical relations between Rome and Canterbury, told the Register he “would not be in favor of digging up or dislodging it.”
Father McCulloch, who in 2016 was behind the Vatican lending the Church of England the head of the crozier thought to have belonged to St. Gregory the Great, was also opposed to a glass covering so the relic could be seen.
“That might be very Roman Catholic, but I see Becket and our great martyrs as the way back for many Anglicans through the Catholic faith,” he said. He also thought the need to preserve the relic was “insufficient reason to interfere with the place which is the context for devotion and pilgrimage.”
But for Brizek and others, the urgency to take action is of real and immense significance or the relic will likely face “accelerated deterioration” and possible “total loss forever.” St. Thomas More, Brizek told the Register, “belongs not to the people of a single place, but to people everywhere” and “all people everywhere are responsible for its safety and for giving it the respect it is due.”
The respected British Catholic historian Professor Jack Scarisbrick agreed, telling the Register that he “really cannot see any good reason for not exposing Thomas More’s skull to public view.
“Surely such a rare and precious relic would make him yet more ‘real’ to us,” he said.
Palmer pointed out that the parish wishes to give more prominence to Margaret Roper “who scarce gets a mention but is a vital part of our history.” And yet, for Brizek, it was Margaret who “courageously salvaged” the head of her beloved father from London Bridge “and she did all that she could to preserve it during her lifetime and beyond.”
“It is not enough for us to recognize and admire what she did, and leave it at that,” he said. “Instead, we who now, 500 years later, are at last witnessing the potential and irretrievable loss and destruction of what she struggled to preserve, have a duty to ensure that her efforts were not in vain.”