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Great Englishwomen by  M. B. Synge

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MARGARET ROPER (1501-1544)

[46]

M
ARGARET ROPER, daughter of Sir Thomas More, was born on July 10th, in London. She was the eldest of four children, and she was her father's favourite. She was like him in face and figure; her memory was very good, her sense of humour keen, her love for her father intense and brave.

When Margaret, or Meg, as her father loved to call her, was only six, her mother died, and very soon after her father married a widow, not for the sake of her youth or beauty, but to look after his four little children and manage his household. Such a household, too. Before he went to his work every morning Thomas More set each their appointed task, his wife included; no one was ever idle, no wrangling went on, no angry words were ever heard about the house; the most menial offices were regarded as honourable work, the humblest duties were labours of love. This was the atmosphere in which Margaret's childhood was spent; no wonder she was loved for her gentle ways and sweet disposition; with the long quiet mornings and fixed studies, no wonder she became a learned and clever woman.

Each member of the family had a pet, and Thomas More said:

No child or servant of mine hath [47] liberty to adopt a pet, which he is too lazy to attend to himself. To neglect giving them food at proper times entails a disgrace, of which every one of them would be ashamed."

There is a story told about Margaret Roper, which will show what rigid discipline she was taught as a child, though the story rests on very slight foundation.

One night her stepmother had been churning for a long time, but the butter would not come; so she sent for Meg and her two sisters, and told them to churn till the butter came, even if they sat up all night, as she had no more time, and she could not have so much good cream wasted. They churned, but the butter would not come; they said "Chevy Chase" from beginning to end to pass the time; they chanted the 119th Psalm through. At last they began to repeat Latin; then they heard the buttermilk separating and splashing in earnest, and at midnight, when poor little Daisy, one of the sisters, had fallen asleep on the dresser, Meg succeeded in making the butter come.

Meg's father—now raised to the rank of Sir Thomas More for his valued services to the king, Henry VIII.—was often away from home for many months together, and Meg used to miss him dreadfully. He had risen to be Speaker in the House of Commons, and his wit and learning were most popular at court. The king would often come to Chelsea and walk round the garden, his arm round the neck of Sir Thomas More, discussing some important matter, to which he wished his favourite's consent. But Sir Thomas did not agree with the king in many things, [48] and he refused to act against his conscience even to win the royal favour. Thus a coolness sprang up between them, which afterwards led to the execution of Sir Thomas More.

At the age of twenty-four Margaret married Will Roper, more to please her father than herself. He was a good fellow, and had studied hard to please Margaret, and helped her father in much of his work. Margaret would have preferred to study and write, rather than marry, but her father convinced her that "one may spend a life in dreaming over Plato, and yet go out of it without leaving the world a whit better for having made part of it," and her father's word was law with Margaret. Her father's departure to Woodstock, the king's court, was a source of grief to Margaret. Two nights after he left, the household was aroused by shouts of "Fire! fire!" Everybody got up, and it was found that part of the Chelsea house was burnt, though all its inmates escaped uninjured.

In 1530 Sir Thomas More was made Lord Chancellor, but this high post he only held for two years; he refused to sanction Henry's marriage with Ann Boleyn, together with several other things, and resigned the Great Seal in August, 1532.

A great load was taken off his mind, and his spirits returned, but not for long. The storm was about to burst. Threatening visits and letters alarmed the family, and at last the blow came.

Sir Thomas More had refused to take the oath of Supremacy, that is to say, he refused to acknowledge Henry VIII. as Head of the Church, and he was sum- [49] moned to Lambeth to give his reasons. It was with a heavy heart that he took the boat to Lambeth, for he was leaving home for the last time, and he seemed to know it. The days when he was gone seemed long and lonely to his daughter Margaret. He refused to take the oath against his conscience, and was sent to the Tower. There Meg used to visit him, and he told her not to fret for him at home; he explained to her his innocence, his reasons for refusing to take the oath, and told her he was happy.

In 1535 he was called to trial at Westminster, and crowds collected to see him pass from the Tower; even his children found it difficult to catch a glimpse of him. Margaret, we hear, climbed on a bench, and gazed her "very heart away," as he went by, so thin and worn, wrapt in a coarse woollen gown, and leaning on a staff, for he was weak from long confinement; his face was calm and grave.

The trial lasted many hours, and Margaret waited on through that long day by the Tower wharf till he passed back. The moment she saw him, she knew the terrible sentence was "Guilty!" She pressed her way through the dense crowd, and, regardless of the men who surrounded him with axes and halberds, she flung her arms round his neck, crying, "My father! Oh, my father "

"My Meg! "sobbed More.

He could bear the outward disgrace of the king and nation, he could stand without shrinking to hear the sentence of death passed upon him, but this passionate, tender love utterly broke his brave spirit and shook his firm courage.

[50] "Enough, enough, my child! what, mean ye to weep and break my heart?"

Even the guards were touched by this overwhelming scene, and many turned away to hide a falling tear. She tore herself away, but only to go a few steps; she could  not lose sight of that dear face for ever; she must hear him speak once more to her. Again, with choking sobs and blinding tears, she laid her head on his shoulder. This time tears were standing in her father's eyes as he whispered:—"Meg, for Christ's sake! don't unman me." Then he kissed her, and with a last bitter cry of "Oh, father! father!" she parted from him for ever, and the crowd moved on.

With a piece of coal Sir Thomas More wrote a few loving words to his daughter, and on July 5 he was executed, and his head put upon a pole on London Bridge as an example to others who disobeyed the king's orders. Then Margaret's love showed itself in all its most courageous strength.

Soon after midnight she arose, dressed herself, and walked quickly down to the river, where she found boatmen to row her to London Bridge.

"The faithful daughter cannot brook the summer sun should rise

Upon the poor defenceless head, grey hair, and lifeless eyes.

A boat shoots up beneath the bridge at dead of night, and there,

When all the world arose next day, the useless pole was bare."

The head of Sir Thomas More was gone, no longer open to the ridicule of crowds, to the triumph of the king's party, to bear witness to his friends a monarch's infidelity—but safe in the keeping of Margaret Roper.

[51] After the death of Sir Thomas More, his family were driven from their Chelsea home, and Margaret was for a time imprisoned. She died nine years after her father, and the dear and honoured head that the faithful daughter had dared her life to save was buried with her in the Roper vault at Canterbury.


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