The hair shirt of Sir Thomas More #catholic

I recently spent a few days at Buckfast Abbey, in the South of England, in order to conduct research and write an article about the hair shirt worn by Sir Thomas More, Chancellor of England under Henry VIII between 1529–32.

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More is believed to have worn this penitential garment for much of his adult life. According to his numerous early biographers he was unusually devout for a lay person. The hair shirt has had a long journey over the centuries from England to the Low Countries, and back to England, through several monastic and diocesan owners, before it came to Buckfast, where it is on permanent public display in the chapel of the Holy Cross.

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More is reputed not only to have worn his hair shirt secretly for much of his life, he also reportedly carried out other ascetic practices that were unusual for a lay person. When he moved his family to Chelsea outside of London, he built a chapel for his private prayer and the use of a ‘discipline’, a device utilized by some Catholics of the time to repent for sins and as an aid to devotion. When Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon and married Anne Bolyn, More resigned his office in preference for a quiet life in which he would not be expected to aid in or even comment upon these proceedings. Yet More’s silence irked the king, and within a few years of his retirement he was imprisoned, tried and executed for treason by Henry VIII, who was angry with More for refusing to attend his wedding to Anne, and refusing to acknowledge Henry’s claim to be the supreme head of the Church of England.

In the century after More’s death a few competing stories sprang up about the hair shirt, and these are what I’m trying to unpick at the moment. One tradition has it that More sent the hair shirt to his daughter, the extraordinarily learned Margaret More Roper (1505–1544), who gave it to her equally learned sister by adoption, Margaret Giggs Clement (1508–1570), who later went into exile with her family to practice her faith, reportedly taking the hair shirt and other More relic-objects with her. Other traditions hold that Thomas More sent it to Giggs rather than Roper, who kept it until her death. Still other traditions state that he sent it to Giggs, who gave it to Roper, who returned it to Giggs, while another source claims that he sent it to his wife Alice. In any case, the hair shirt ultimately passed to Giggs Clements’ youngest daughter, Prioress Margaret Clement (1539–1612), a nun of the English convent of St Monica’s, founded in Louvain during the period when it was illegal to practice Catholicism in England. The nuns of St Monica’s claim to be More’s spiritual heirs through Margaret Giggs and her daughter Margaret Clement.

The hair shirt remained in Prioress Clement’s community and the communities descended from St Monica’s up until the 1980s, by which time most of the exiled English convents had returned to England. When I first began my doctoral studies in 2010 the exact whereabouts of the hair shirt were not clear. I recently discovered that when the modern-day St Monica’s convent closed, the hair shirt went to the Diocese of Plymouth for safe keeping. In 2011 it was transferred to Buckfast at the request of Abbot David Charleswell who arranged for it to be put on public permanent display at Buckfast starting in 2016. I found this last bit out out one day whilst googling, and I simply had to go to Buckfast to see the hair shirt for myself! It was amazing to see an object up close and personal that has a link to the devotional practices of Thomas More and his descendants. This object is part of a long and complex history of Catholic identity and devotion, and it’s interesting from a historical/literary perspective to see how it continues to have meaning nearly 500 years after More’s execution.

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Those of you who have participated on Talk know I’m interested in any mention of Catholics and Catholic practice in the letters and recipes we transcribe on Shakespeare’s World. You can use the #Catholic hashtag to let me know about any material relating to Catholics, nuns, papists, recusants, priests, etc. etc.! And #womanwriter to let me know when you’ve found a woman writing in any genre. Have you found any references to penitential practices? Let me know!

-By Victoria Van Hyning (@vvh/@snakeweight)

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