11 February is Don’t Cry Over Spilled Milk Day, so what better day to celebrate Milk Street in London? Incidentally, to continue the culinary theme, in 1836 Mrs Beeton (née Isabella Mayson) was born in Milk Street. Mrs Beeton was, possibly, the original domestic goddess; she was the author of Beeton’s Book of Household Management, a bible of domestic information from Victorian times to the present. Sir Thomas More was also born in Milk Street, in 1478, and more of him later.
Milk Street was one of the Cheapside market streets, named for its speciality. Cheapside comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘ceap’, to buy or barter and it was originally known as West Cheap, as it was known, to distinguish it from Eastcheap.
Cheapside was an early shopping street: it was one of the busiest thoroughfares in London and the city’s main food market. The medieval grocery shopper would have gone there for staples such as bread, milk, honey, poultry, and fish, and the streets that lead off Cheapside were named for their specialities.
Back to Thomas More, who was canonized as a martyr in 1935. The young More originally planned to devote his life to the church, and led a highly ascetic life: he wore hair shirts, scourged himself regularly, and slept on the ground with a log as a pillow.
Although More later turned to law, he never lost those ascetic tendencies, or his religious convictions – which would eventually cost him his life. He entered Parliament in 1504, was knighted in 1521 and became Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor in 1529.
More replaced Cardinal Wolsey, who had made the mistake of disagreeing with Henry VIII, a mistake that More would later echo. Wolsey had been unable to have Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled so that Anne Boleyn could become the next queen. He was stripped of his property, accused of treason and ordered back to London. He died en route to the capital, with his last words supposedly being, “If I had served my God as diligently as I did my king, He would not have given me over in my grey hairs.”
More is, perhaps, as famous for his views on social reform and his book Utopia as for his position in Henry VIII’s government. As a judge, he specialized in heresy, which is to say, during his time as Lord Chancellor six heretics were executed – not, relatively speaking, a great number, but possibly more than one would expect from a future saint.
The problems with Henry came to a head when More not only opposed the annulment to Catherine of Aragon, but also refused to take an oath renouncing the authority of the pope over that of the king. That double whammy led to him being tried and convicted of treason, and sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. (A nasty death, as the Gunpowder Plot conspirators were to discover.)
More also made the history books for his death as much as for his life, with his famous last words. When he mounted the dilapidated and shaky scaffold, he said to the attending official, “I pray you, Mr Lieutenant, see me safe up and for my coming down, I can shift for myself.”
On a lighter note, there are two entertaining stories about marriages in the More family. Sir Thomas himself, when presented with John Colt’s three daughters, took a fancy to the middle one. However, according to More’s son-in-law, Sir William Roper, More thought that it would be “great grief and some shame to the eldest to see her younger sister in marriage preferred before her”, and so More settled for marrying the eldest daughter.
William had no such compunction; though his wife Margaret was in actual fact More’s elder daughter, the reason for his choice was not as noble as More’s own. When the time came for a marriage to be arranged between William and one of More’s daughters, the prospective groom was taken by the girls’ father into their bedroom as they slept. More flung back the sheet and the naked girls rolled over in their sleep. William was powerfully attracted to the sleeping Margaret, and patted her naked bottom, saying, “Thou art mine.”
This displaying of future brides was not an uncommon practice: it was one way of proving that they had no marks of a witch.