St. Thomas More's hair shirt now enshrined for public veneration

IMAGE: CNS photo/Luke Michael Davies, courtesy Buckfast Abbey Media Studios

By Simon Caldwell

BUCKFAST, England (CNS) — The hair
shirt worn by St. Thomas More as he contemplated a martyr’s death in the Tower
of London has been enshrined for public veneration.

The folded garment made from
goat’s hair was encased above an altar in Buckfast Abbey, a Benedictine
monastery in southwest England.

St. Thomas, a former lord chancellor
of England, wore the shirt while he was incarcerated in the Bell Tower of the Tower
of London while awaiting execution for opposing the Protestant reforms of King
Henry VIII.

He was beheaded July 6, 1535,
after telling a crowd gathered on London’s Tower Hill that he was “always
the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”

Benedictine Abbot David
Charlesworth told Catholic News Service Nov. 21 that the shirt had not been
shown in public before.

He said that although the shirt
was a secondary relic, he believed it was of greater significance than a body
part, or primary relic, because it was directly linked to the religious
convictions of the saint.

“What this relic represents
is St. Thomas More’s faith,” Abbot Charlesworth said. “This relic
says something about who Thomas More was as a Christian … it is a major
relic. It is linked to his life of conversion and his identification with the
sufferings of Christ.”

Abbot Charlesworth said St. Thomas was a man of
conscience who was “standing up for freedom”
against a tyranny that was trying to dictate to people what they could or could
not think.

Bishop Mark O’Toole of Plymouth,
the diocese in which Buckfast is situated, said he hoped the shrine would
become an international pilgrimage destination. He said there was a huge cult
dedicated to St. Thomas in countries as diverse as Germany and South Korea.

The bishop noted that St. Thomas
also had global significance as the patron of statesmen and politicians, a
title bestowed on him by St. John Paul II in 2000, as well as patron saint of

St. Thomas was a man who
manifested “huge integrity” and faith at a time of crisis, Bishop O’Toole
told CNS. He “gives us a pattern of what individuals can
do through personal integrity and through the living out of their faith in very
concrete and practical ways.”

St. Thomas is recorded as
wearing a hair shirt when he was testing a possible vocation to the monastic
life at the London Charterhouse, a Carthusian monastery, when he was in his
early 20s.

The rough uncomfortable cloth is
meant to encourage self-control, to serve as a penance for past sins and to
unite the wearer with the passion of Christ.

Although St. Thomas went on to
marry and father four children, he continued to wear the shirt in private,
sometimes beneath his robes of high office.

He gave up public office when King
Henry asserted supremacy over the church in England so he could annul his
marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon and wed Anne Boleyn, his mistress.

St. Thomas was condemned for
high treason after he refused to take an oath attached to the Act of Succession,
which recognized any children of the marriage of Henry and Anne to be rightful
heirs to the throne.

The day before his execution,
the saint gave his hair shirt to Margaret Giggs, his adopted daughter, and it
remained in her family until 1626, when it was bequeathed to a community of
exiled English Augustinian nuns in Louvain, Belgium.

The nuns later relocated to
Devon and, when their priory closed in 1983, they handed the shirt to the
Diocese of Plymouth.

In 2011, now-retired Bishop
Christopher Budd of Plymouth asked the monks of Buckfast to put the shirt on
display so it could be venerated by the public. In October, the shirt was
placed in a sealed case in a side chapel in the abbey church.

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