by Marguerite Cook
In November 2014, I attended a Catholic Mass in the Palace of Westminster with my husband. For over four years Catholic Mass has been celebrated on Wednesdays, when Parliament is sitting, in the chapel of St. Mary Undercroft. I wanted to attend Mass as an English Catholic who enjoys looking at our complex church history. My husband has always had an interest in politics and enjoys reading about political matters; and as we walked the wonderful corridors of the Houses of Parliament he identified the MP’s, and the members of the House of Lords with great pride.
Before Mass the duty priest of the Palace of Westminster, Canon Pat, took us to see the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Both houses were busy at work debating on serious issues affecting us all. My husband was filled with awe and delight at the tour. The New Palace of Westminster, which is the correct name of the Houses of Parliament, stands on the Thames and is a truly marvellous building. After the tour Canon Pat led us down the steps to the underground chapel of St. Mary Undercroft, where he said Mass complete with beautiful hymns. The Mass was very well attended by MP’s and staff. In Parliament we have over 80 Catholic MP’s from all parties, elected by the people for the people. The chapel is magnificent and has to be seen to be appreciated. The chapel was heavily restored by Edward Barry between 1860 and 1870, and it is very ornate with columns of Purbeck marble.
After attending Mass we went back up the steps into the huge Westminster Hall dating from 1393. The hall has a medieval timber roof. It was in this great hall, Pope Benedict XVI gave an historic speech on September 17th 2010. Pope Benedict addressed a large gathering of politicians and clergy, and in his speech paid tribute to the great St. Thomas More. It was in Westminster Hall that St. Thomas More was put on trial and sentenced to death. This beloved scholar and statesman would have known Westminster Hall well as he was Speaker to the House of Commons, prior to becoming Lord Chancellor of England.
On the floor of Westminster Hall, Pope Benedict was shown the metal plaque commemorating the trial and death of St. Thomas More.
St. Thomas More was beheaded on Tower Hill on July 6th 1535. St. Thomas More was beheaded for opposing King Henry VIII’s divorce, and refusing to swear the Oath of Supremacy, which declared King Henry VIII the Head of the Church of England. St. Thomas More was beheaded for the faith, and in the faith of the Catholic Church.
St. Thomas More died “The King’s Good Servant but God’s First.”
After St. Thomas More’s death his corpse, minus his head, was buried in an unmarked mass grave within the walls of the Tower of London. St. Thomas More’s head was placed on a spike on London Bridge. St. Thomas More’s eldest daughter, Margaret, secured the possession of her father’s head before it was thrown in the Thames river. St. Thomas More’s head was kept in a casket by his daughter, and it is believed to be buried in the Roper vault in the Anglican Church of St. Dunstan’s in Canterbury. Margaret More had married William Roper whose family lived in Canterbury. St. Dunstan’s was the Roper’s parish church. Margaret Roper took her father’s head, in its lead casket, to the grave with her.
Many pilgrims from all over the world visit St. Dunstan’s Church in Canterbury, in memory of St. Thomas More. I have always found St. Dunstan’s church door open when I visit. A slab covers the steps down to the vault. The slab states, “Beneath this floor is the vault of the Roper family in which is interred the head of Sir Thomas More of illustrious memory sometime Lord Chancellor of England who was beheaded on Tower Hill 6th July 1535.” St. Thomas More’s life is depicted in beautiful stained glass windows in the church, and in July my husband and I have attended the lovely church services held in St. Thomas More’s honour when a wreath is placed on the slab and prayers are said. At times the Roper vault has been opened. The skull believed to be of St. Thomas More rests in a wall in a niche with a grill, behind which can be seen a lead container opened to show fragments of bone from a human skull.
While at the Mass at St. Mary Undercroft we had St. Thomas More, England’s brave saint in our thoughts and prayers. Many MP’s and staff attended the Holy Mass. As Canon Pat says, “That they choose to go down those steps (to the chapel) in the first place must surely be a prayer in itself”.