Sir Thomas More Prayer Roll, July 1535. Copy ca.1550.
Folger Shelf Mark: X.d. 532
Sir Thomas More was willing to swear fidelity to the new Act of Succession passed at the end of March 1534. To have taken the oath incorporated in the Act, however, would have impugned the authority of the Pope and the Catholic Church and have assumed the justice of Henry VIII's divorce from Queen Catharine, and so More refused. His recalcitrance soon led to his imprisonment in the Tower of London in April 1534, his indictment on charges of high treason and trial on 1 July 1535, and his execution by beheading on 6 July 1535.
In the last private devotion he wrote before his execution, as Garry E. Haupt notes, More's characteristic stress on "the real presence and Christ's mystical body is here fused with his devotion to the Passion—fused through a vision of Christ as both the great exemplar and as one who is really present in the eucharist and the church." That prayer appears in More's collected works, first published in 1557, just at the end of Queen Mary's reign. A version very close to it takes up three quarters of the contemporary prayer roll reproduced here. Prayer rolls like this one are most commonly associated with pre-Reformation England. Written on narrow strips of parchment, usually under fifteen centimeters wide, they were easily rolled up and slipped into a purse hanging from a belt or into a fold of a sleeve. It is even thought that to some they served as mascots, protecting their wearers from evil. At a time when Catholic beliefs could be dangerous, this format could well have recommended itself to the writer of this roll as an inconspicuous way of owning a copy of a prayer composed by a traitor and a stubborn adherent of the Old Religion.
The image on the left depicts the upper two-thirds of the roll. The roll, which is made from two membranes sewn together end to end, measures 64 centimeters by 11.5 centimeters. The writer wrote quite rapidly and was probably not a professional scribe. More's prayer is followed by 1) "a spirituall glasse dayly to loke on," (not reproduced here), which is a shortened form of a precept possibly written by Richard Whitford (ca. 1476. 1542), and is published at the end of some editions of Thomas à Kempis's Imitatio Christi , beginning about 1531 and 2) a prayer with a pen and ink sketch of Christ rising from the tomb (partially reproduced on the right).
For more information on Thomas More and his Tower works, including this prayer, consult Dictionary of National Biography, and the "Introduction" to The Tower Works: Devotional Writings , edited by Garry E. Haupt (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980). For a complete transcription of the prayer, consult volume 13 of The Complete Works of St. Thomas More (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1963. c97).
Click here to view and print a PDF transcription and more detailed image of
this item. You must have Adobe's free Acrobat Reader in
order to access the PDF file.