The Cult of Sir Thomas More - Comfort for English Catholics in Exile - Printed by John Fowler at his Antwerp Press

More, Sir Thomas (1478-1535)

A Dialogue of Cumfort against Tribulation, made by the Vertuous, Wise and Learned man, Sir Thomas More, sometime L. Chanceller of England, which he wrote in the Tower of London, An. 1534. and entituled thus: A Dialogue of Cumfort against Tribulation, made by an Hungarian in Latin, and translated out of Latin into French, & out of French into English. Now newly set foorth, with many places restored and corrected by conference of sundrie Copies.

Antwerp: apud Iohannem Foulerum [John Fowler], 1573


FIRST EDITION THUS, third edition overall (preceded by the first edition of 1553 and its appearance in the 1557 collected English works of More.)

Bound in 19th c. calf, ruled in blind, rebacked. Light dampstaining . With the woodcut portrait of More.

More wrote "A Dialogue of Comfort in Tribulation" in 1534/35, while imprisoned in the Tower of London awaiting execution. More’s imprisonment lasted a little over a year, from April 17, 1534 until his execution on July 6, 1535.

This edition was edited and published by John Fowler (1537-1579), the most important English Catholic publisher of the 1560s and 1570s. Fowler left England soon after Elizabeth I’s accession, and set up a printing press first in Louvain, then in Antwerp. In 1577, as a consequence of the Dutch revolt, Fowler moved to Douai, then to Rheims, and finally to Namur, where he died on 13 February 1579. His business was continued by his wife Alice, the daughter of John Harris, who had been secretary to Sir Thomas More, until her death.

The question of whether it was actually Fowler who printed the "Comfort", dated 1573, at Antwerp is open to debate. As Paul Arblaster writes, "From 1573 Fowler was using Antwerp printers to produce some of his publications, and in 1574 he and his family removed to Antwerp. It is quite possible, as Southern conjectures, that some of these Antwerp imprints prior to 1576 were in fact printed in Louvain with a false address." However, the fact that Fowler first used the More portrait woodcut at Louvain in 1568, in an edition of More's Latin letter against Bugenhagen, clouds the issue.

The Portrait:

The woodcut portrait of More at age 50 is derived from Hans Holbein’s famous portrait now in the Frick Collection, New York. Its oval format suggests that it may have been copied from a miniature in Fowler’s possession.

Paul Voss has argued that the portrait of More, accompanied by a poem in both Latin and English, emphasizes More's emerging role as saint-like martyr, whose life and example gave comfort and spiritual strength to the recusant community in Europe. In this respect it functioned as an icon for an English audience deprived of such images during a period of renewed iconoclasm in Elizabethan England.

"For the first time since More's death, English readers, many of whom were not alive in 1535 when More suffered and died, could see and experience More the man as he appeared to family and friends during his lifetime. More's friends and family had few opportunities to honor the deceased. As Clarke Hulse points out, Thomas More was allowed no tomb, no shrine for pilgrims to visit. As a result, 'the cult of Thomas More developed instead in the interior and exile spaces of Tudor culture. It flourished in the secret underground of a now-illegal English Roman Catholicism, and above all in the privacy of the recusant family. Deprived of a body, a public site, a shrine, and driven into hiding, the cult of Thomas More centered instead around substitute bodies, namely the portraits and written accounts of More that already existed or were soon produced.'

"Published on the continent in English for an English audience, Fowler's edition of More's 'Dialogue' served, as an important first step in rehabilitating the discredited Catholic martyr. [It] provided the beleaguered Catholic communities a means of coping with growing religious persecution, circumstances More understood, accepted, and wrote about while imprisoned for his own beliefs."(The Making of a Saint: John Fowler and Sir Thomas More in 1573, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 99, No. 4 (Oct., 2000), pp. 492-512)

The Dedication:

Fowler dedicated this edition which, “by conferring of sundry Copies together, have restored and corrected many places, and thereby made it much more plaine and easie to be understood”, to the Duchess of Feria. Jane Dormer, Duchess of Feria (1538-1612), was the daughter of Sir William Dormer, by his first wife, Mary, eldest daughter of Sir William Sidney. Her uncle, Sebastian Newdigate, a senior monk at the London Charterhouse, had been hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 19th. June 1535. She was brought up at court as a playmate of Edward VI and companion of Princess Mary. In 1558 she married Don Gomez Suarez de Figueroa, Count of Feria, who had come to England in the suite of Philip II on his marriage to Queen Mary. The Count was raised to a Dukedom in 1568 but died in 1571, immediately after his appointment as Governor of the Netherlands. The Duchess of Feria, a devout Catholic, spent her long widowhood in good works and became the chief supporter of the English exiles in Spain.

The Book:

The works that More produced during his final confinement are collectively known as "The Tower Works." In addition to the "Dialogue of Comfort", More also wrote the "De Tristitia", a meditation on Christ’s Agony in the Garden. He also completed "Treatise on the Passion", a short meditation on the Eucharist, "A Treatise to Receive the Blessed Body", some prayers and meditations, and what have become known as his "Prison Letters."

While imprisoned, More "suffered greatly from ‘his old disease of the chest... gravel, stone, and the cramp,’ yet his habitual gaiety remained and he joked with his family and friends whenever they were permitted to see him as merrily as in the old days at Chelsea. When alone his time was given up to prayer and penitential exercises; and he wrote a ‘Dialogue of Comfort’ and many letters to his family and others" (Catholic Encyclopedia) The works that More produced in this period are collectively known as "The Tower Works." In addition to the Dialogue of Comfort, More also wrote during that period, De Tristitia, a meditation, written in Latin, on Christ’s Agony in the Garden. He also completed Treatise on the Passion (partly written before More’s imprisonment), a short meditation on the Eucharist, A Treatise to Receive the Blessed Body, some prayers and meditations, and More’s ‘Prison Letters.’ These works were "an extraordinary achievement for a man in More’s circumstances, and at least in the case of the Dialogue of Comfort, he managed to produce an acknowledged literary and spiritual masterpiece, perhaps the finest of his English works."

STC 18083. Gibson, More, 52. Allison & Rogers, Contemporary Printed Literature of the English Counter-Reformation, II, 553.