St. Peter-ad-Vincula, Roydon

  • St Peter's Church,
  • High Street,
  • Roydon, Harlow
  • Essex
  • CM19 5LW

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Thomas More comes to Nether Hall

In the early 1500s the Colte family was to attract to Roydon a young man who was to become a most famous Englishman. That young man was a London lad named Thomas More, who came to Nether Hall soon after the beginning of the new century, wooing one of the Colte daughters. Born on 6th February 1478, the son of John and Agnes More of Cripplegate just outside the London Wall, he was christened in the Parish Church of St. Giles. His father was Steward and Butler of Lincoln's Inn, a lawyer who became a judge. After studying at Oxford, Thomas followed in his father's footsteps continuing his law studies at New Inn before being admitted to Lincoln's Inn.

According to his first biographer, his son-in-law William Roper, "He resorted to the house of one Master Colte, a gentleman of Essex, that had oft invited him thither, having three daughters, whose honest conversation and virtuous education provoked him there specially to set his affection. And albeit his mind most served him to the second daughter, for that he thought her the fairest and most favoured, yet when he considered that it would be both grief and some shame also to the eldest to see her younger sister in marriage preferred before her, he then of a certain pity framed his fancy towards her, and soon after married her.

The ruins of the great Gate House of Nether Hall can still be seen today, with the remains of the moat and fragments of dark red brick walls with their blue patterns and stone facings. It was restored with a grant from English Heritage in 1994. It was from here that the young couple would have ridden out in 1505 up Low Hill Road and down the High Street to the parish church to be married. Jane was 17 years old and Thomas ten years older.

The wedding took place in St Peter's Church, except that the normal procedure then was rather different. The actual wedding ceremony would have taken place, not in the church itself, but outside with the priest by the church door. Then, being a ceremony according to Roman Catholic rites, all would have entered the church for a Mass, celebrated in the chancel, (the chancel was later named the Colte Chapel in 1990, in recognition of its connection with the Colte family). In spite of early difficulties in the marriage, they were very happy together following the birth of their children, and when Thomas More wrote his own epitaph, she was his 'cara uxorcula' - his "dear little wife". Unhappily, Jane was to die young after an illness in 1511, following the birth of her fourth child.

A Carthusian, Father John Bourge, wrote later of Sir Thomas More "He was my parishioner at London. I christened two of his goodly children. I buried his first wife. And within a month after, he came to me on a Sunday, at night, late, and there he brought me a dispensation to be married the next Monday, without any banns asking." (i.e. without any banns being called in church). This marriage was to Dame Alice Middleton, the widow of John Middleton, a citizen and mercer of London who had died two years previously. More's friend Erasmus remarked that Thomas remarried to provide a mother for his children. Much has been written about his second wife, and she was portrayed by Holbein in a family portrait with Jane's children - she had no children by Thomas. No picture exists of Thomas' first wife, Jane.

Sir Thomas More became Chancellor of England. He was later beheaded by Henry VIII on the 6th July 1535, for refusing to take the oath acknowledging the right of succession of Princess Elizabeth (the child of the King and Anne Boleyn) over Princess Mary (the older daughter of Henry and Queen Catherine). On the scaffold Sir Thomas spoke little, asking the bystanders to pray for him in this world, and declaring that he would pray for them elsewhere. He then begged them earnestly to pray for the King, that it might please God to give him good counsel, and he died protesting that he was the King's good servant but God's first. He became Saint Thomas More under the Roman Catholic Church, after Henry VIII broke away and formed the Church of England with himself as its head.

Sir Thomas More was said to be the last great Englishman who lived the whole of his life with the England of the Middle Ages undestroyed around him. There was to follow the destruction of the monasteries, including the great Abbey of Waltham of which only a fraction remains today.