Was Thomas More a Carthusian Aspirant?

Some saints have had a special relationship with the Carthusian Order. St. John of the Cross considered the possibility of becoming a Carthusian monk before St. Teresa convinced him to help her in the Carmelite reform. And before founding the Society of Jesus, St. Ignatius of Loyola considered entering the Seville Charterhouse . As we celebrate today, 22nd June, the memorial of the English martyr St. Thomas More (1478-1535), we would like to focus on his relationship with the Carthusian Order.

In 1499 Thomas More, then a brilliant young law student hardly come of age, went to live at the Carthusian monastery of London. In words of William Roper, his-son-in-law and first biographer, «he gave himself to devotion and prayer in the Charterhouse of London, religiously living there, without vow, for about four years». Did he occupy a monk’s cell? Probably not. Most likely he lived in the guesthouse, or somewhere near the monastery. It is hard to believe that he would have been allowed, without any vows, to live for four years in the cloister. The current Statutes of the Carthusian Order establish that «those who neither are, nor aspire to becoming, members of our Order are not to be allowed to stay in our cells» (Book 1, chapter 4.9). Rules must have not been so different in More’s times.

Also, we must remember that at this time More was a diligent student of law at Lincoln’s Inn. Possibly St. Thomas had his lodging near Lincoln’s Inn, hardly a quarter of an hour distant across the gardens and meadows, from where he could, while still pursuing his profession, keep in touch with the monks and be in daily attendance at Divine Office.

His intentions, if he ever seriously had any, of joining that or some other order underwent a change at the end of four years. The philosopher Erasmus, Thomas More’s friend, says that «there was no obstacle to his adopting this kind of life, except the fact that he could not shake off his wish to marry. Accordingly he resolved to be a chaste husband rather than a licentious priest.» However, fate was once more to bring his line of life into close touch with that of the Carthusians when, in 1535, awaiting his own fate in the Tower of London, he saw from his window the Carthusians led away to their cruel end. «Meg,» he said to his favourite daughter, Margaret Roper, «seest thou that these blessed fathers be now as cheerful in going to their deaths as bridegrooms to their marriages.»

Notable, too, is it that, after More’s execution, when ten Carthusians stood chained upright in filth and misery in Newgate, awaiting Death the Deliverer, it was More’s adopted daughter, Margaret Clement, who played the part of a good angel to the unhappy men. Nine out of these ten monks died from starvation in 1537. Blessed Willliam Horn survived until 4th August 1540, when he was executed at Tyburn Tree. His martyrdom closed the list of the eighteen English Carthusians who died for being Roman Catholics. One of William’s fellow martyrs on that day was Giles Heron, Thomas More’s son-in-law.

Some autors say that the statement made by Erasmus that More «resolved to be a chaste husband rather than a licentious priest» was an implicit reference to the Carthusian monks. We should notice, however, that the Carthusians were held in high esteem by St. Thomas since he called them «blesssed fathers». Besides, no reference to immoral sexual behavior has ever been brought by any writer against the London Charterhouse. Even at the Suppression, when the ill-famed commissioners Roland Lee, Richard Layton and their fellows would have ransacked the very sewers of the monastery to find some charge against the community, they brought forth no single word against the purity of life in that cloister.

Four years living close to the Charterhouse of London must have been a turning point in Saint Thomas’ life. The habits of prayer, fasting, and penance stayed with him for the rest of his life. The Carthusian spirituality play a similar role in many people today. Even when these people do not become a Carthusian monk or nun, the Charterhouse is an orienting star in their lives. Like in the life of Saint Thomas, the Carthusian spirituality is the compass that points to what is essential: God’s first.

Sources (with links to complete texts):

Charterhouse in London: Monastery, Mansion, Hospital, School (Gerals Davies 1921)

Erasmus to Ulrich von Hutten (1519)

The Life of Sir Thomas More (William Roper 1556)

The London Charterhouse: Its Monks and Martyrs (Lawrence Hendricks 1889)