There is a commonly held belief in Lynsted that Margaret Roper, the daughter of Sir Thomas More, carried the head of her father to Lynsted in a bag. Sir Thomas More was executed by King Henry VIII because he opposed the separation of England from Roman Catholicism.
This may well have happened, as it is recorded at the time that she took the head when it was removed by the executioner from a stake on London Bridge. Lynsted was the ancestral home of the Ropers and would have been a natural place for Lady Margaret to stop on her way home to Canterbury. The head was taken to St Dunstan’s church opposite the Roper home, for final burial by Margaret’s daughter. A local repetition of this story, can be found in the Kingsdown, Lynsted and Norton Newsletter (No.15) for August 1978 (pp8 and 9).
There was a contemporaneous account recorded in a fascinating book by expert historian, E.E. Reynolds.
“We also owe it to Stapleton [a historian] that the following facts were put on record while an eyewitness was still alive to give him information.
[The head] by order of the king, was placed upon a stake on London Bridge, where it remained for nearly a month, until it had to be taken down to make room for other heads ... The head would have been thrown into the river had not Margaret Roper, who had been watching carefully and waiting for the opportunity, bribed the executioner, whose office it was to remove the heads, and obtained possession of the sacred relic. There was no possibility of mistake, for she, with the help of others, had kept careful watch, and, moreover, there were signs so certain that anyone who had known him in life would have been able now to identify the head.
After the death of Margaret Roper, the head was in the keeping of her eldest daughter, Elizabeth, Lady Bray, and it was probably at her death in 1558 that it was placed in the Roper vault under the Chapel of St. Nicholas in St. Dunstan’s, Canterbury.
It was seen there in 1835 (fn1) when, by accident, the roof of the vault was broken; the head was enclosed in a leaden case with one side open; this stood in a niche protected by an iron grille. The vault was later sealed, but a tablet in the floor above bears the inscription:
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, beheaded on Tower hill 6th July 1535. Ecclesia Anglicana libera sit. (fn2).
Footnote 1:”The Gentlemen’s Magazine” for May 1837 contains an account by an anonymous eyewitness. Another reference is given in a footnote to W.J.Loftie’s “History of London” (p.264).
Footnote 2: This was quoted from Magna Carta by Sir Thomas More during his trial when he argued that the Church of England, as part of the Church Universal, was free from the control of the king.”
“Mr. URBAN, St. Dunstan's, Canterbury, March 12.
As I have observed in your excellent Magazine, that a few years ago the public had taken a deep interest in the restoration of Sir Thomas More's monument in the Church of Chelsea, the place which was destined by that excellent and amiable man for the interment of his body, but which is in fact an empty cenotaph, I trust that less will not be felt by many of your readers for the spot where his head was places; which was obtained (after its exposure on London Bridge) by his beloved daughter Margaret, and brought to her residence in St. Dunstan's, Canterbury, and deposited, by her request, in the same vault with her after her decease. Your readers are aware that she was married to one of the Roper family, who had a mansion in this parish, the gate of which - a curious piece of brick work - is still standing, and is the entrance to a brewery; but no vestige of the house is left.
In the chancel of the church is a vault belonging to that family, which, in newly paving of the chancel, in the summer of 1835, was accidentally opened; and, wishing to ascertain whether Sir T. More's scull was really there, I went down into the vault, and found it still remaining in the place where it was seen many years ago, in a niche in the wall, in a leaden box, something of the shape of a bee-hive, open in the front and with an iron grating before it. In this vault were five coffins,, some of them belonging to the Henshaw family, one much decayed, no inscription to be traced on it. The wall in the vault, which is on the south side, and in which the scull was found, seems to have been built much later than the time of Sir T. More's decapitation, and appears to be a separation between the Roper chancel and the part under the Communion Table.
In the same chancel are two venerable altar tombs, of Bethersden marble, one of them, partly within an arch in the wall, which was probably that of the founder of the chancel, and from both of which, brasses have evidently been removed; and over them is a surcoat with a helmet surmounted by the crest of the eagle and child. There were, when I first knew the church, three small banners waving over them, which were so completely in rags and decayed, that they not many years ago fell to pieces.
Opposite to these tombs is a beautiful monument, erected by a grandson of Sir T. More sacred (as he calls it) "Pietati et Parentibus;" it has been lately cleansed from the dust and cobwebs of ages, and stands forth now in all its former chaste and simple beauty.
This venerable church consists of two aisles and two chancels at the east end, and a small chapel at the north end, which is used as a vestry. There is a plain octagonal font, now placed under the belfry tower, of a very early date, with a canopy, or top, of oak, beautifully carved and highly ornamented with crockets.
In musing over these relics of days gone by, and connected as they are - both above and below ground - with that simple-minded and pious martyr, I could not but feel that I was treading on religious classic ground, and hope that a similar good feeling might induce some, who venerate the great and the good of other times, to manifest the same laudable wish to save from ruin the sacred walls which contain the head, as they have done in restoring the empty monument of that excellent man. I enter con amore into restorations of this sort, I have been planning how it might be done with best effect; and it has struck me that the eastern window of the chancel might be ornamented with a copy of that beautiful bust of Sir T. More by Holbein, and in the side lights might be placed the coats of arms of the different branches of the family; that the ceiling, divided into different compartments by handsome small oaken beams, might be restored, and shields placed at the intersections of the angles; and a Gothic open screen of the same wood might surround the chancel. As a finish to the whole, I would have a handsome small vase of Bethersden Marble, standing on a plain circular pillar, erected under the window; in which I would place, if it was not thought improper, the scull itself, with a suitable inscription. But the difficulty is, how is all this to be accomplished? I see no other possible way, than some of the descendants of Sir Thomas paying this sacred debt (may I call it?) to the memory of the great and good ancestor, or by other not connected with the family, but who take a deep interest in matters of this sort; doing, in short, as your Magazine records they have lately been doing at Chelsea, and paying the same mark of respect to the head in St. Dunstan's church, as they have there done to his empty tomb. I have known this church for nearly forty years, and feel a strong wish to see it put into complete order. There is a great capability about it for making it one of the best churches in Canterbury; and I cannot but hope and trust that such may be effected at no distant period; for evidently there seems to be a wish in the parish to improve his sacred edifice; but alas! their means are inadequate. I am glad, however, to observe, that lately they have put in a beautiful painted window over the altar screen, consisting of three lights, the figure of the Redeemer is the centre, and the emblems of the Evangelists on each side, with a radiated I.H.S. surrounded by a crown of thorns. They have also made a baptistry with a neat little lancet-shaped window, of painted lass, also consisting of a Dove descending on the Cross, under which appears the Lamb and an infant St. John; and in it is placed the venerable old Font, which I mentioned before.
As I see, from your devoting many pages to accounts of churches and everything belonging to them worthy of attention, that you interest yourself much in matters of this sort, I hope you will be able to make room, in some early number, for the notice of St. Dunstan's church; and should it be the means of calling the attention of any antiquary to this subject, it will afford much satisfaction to the writer, that he has been in some degree instrumental to the marking more particularly the place where rests the head of one who made no inconsiderable a figure in the history of the reign of the Eighth Henry, and who fell a victim to the jealousy of that tyrant, by so boldly refusing to acknowledge the supremacy of his rule over the Church of England. Yours, &c. V.S.D.
In illustration of the interesting disclosure made by this correspondent, we have made the following extracts from the several authors who have noticed the fate of the Head of Sir Thomas More. The first is from Cresacre More's Life of his illustrious ancestor (p289, Mr. Hunter's edit.):
"His head having remained about a month upon London-bridge, and being to be cast into the Thames, because room should be made for divers others, who in plentiful sort suffered martyrdom for the same Supremacy, shortly after, it was bought by his daughter Margaret, lest (as she stoutly affirmed before the Council, being called before them after for the same matter) it should be food for fishes; which she buried where she thought fittest; it was very well to be known, as well by the lively favour of his, which was not all this while in anything almost diminished; as also by reason of one tooth, which he wanted whilst he lived; herein it was to be admired, that the hairs of his beard being almost grey before his martyrdom, they seemed now as it were reddish or yellow."
The next is from Lewis's Preface to Roper's Life of Sir Thomas More (Singer's ed. p.xxi):
"With this excellent woman Mr. Roper lived about 16 years, she dying 1544, nine years after her father, when she was buried in the family burying-place at St. Dunstan's with her father's head in her arms, as she had desired."
But still more precise and doubtless more accurate, is the account given by Anthony a Wood in his Athenae Oxonienses (vol.i. p.86, Bliss's edit.):
"As for his head, it was set upon a pole, on London-bridge, where abiding about 14 days, was then privily bought by the said Margaret, and by her for a time carefully preserv'd in a leaden box, but afterwards with great devotion 'twas put into a vault (the burying-place of the Ropers) under a chapel joyning to St. Dunstan's church in Canterbury, where it doth yet remain, standing in the said box on the coffin of Margaret his daughter buried there."
And lastly, as confirming the chain of proof as to the identity of the scull lately see, the following note in the same place is very satisfactory:
"Dr. [then Mr.] Rawlinson informed Hearn, that when the vault was opened in 1715, to enter into one of the Roper's family, the box was seen enclosed in an iron gate."