"Good luck then," says the Constable of the Tower of London, sliding back a bolt to unlock my cell for the night. "Rather you than me. "Nobody has slept in here since Thomas More left to be executed in 1535..." The heavy wooden door opens with a groan and there it is: a bare cell, with a pitted floor and walls made of sandstone.
The high, vaulted ceiling was built by the Normans and makes this small room feel like a chapel. Many people consider it a sacred space. Believers often fall silent when they enter the cell where Saint Thomas More was held for months, as his former friend the king attempted to break his will. Some are ambushed by tears in this cold, dark place. More was a prisoner of conscience who refused to do what he thought was wrong. Then the dawn came on July 6 1535, the door opened and he was led away to Tower Hill to have his head cut off.
"Thomas More was a very intelligent, articulate man, a scholar and a personal friend of Henry VIII," says Lord Dannatt, the former head of the Army who is now the Constable of the Tower. "However, he could not support Henry's divorce, nor the king's decision to split from Rome and make himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England. This was a man who stood up for what he believed, and who was willing to die for it."
The cell is in the basement of a tower built in the 12th century. It is not usually open to the public, as the entrance is within a historic house now occupied by Lord Dannatt, as the man in charge of the Tower of London. He is allowing me to spend the night in the cell in support of his campaign to focus attention on More and others who lost their lives "in pursuit of religious freedom" during that turbulent time.
The martyrs of both the Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions will be remembered on Tuesday morning, when the Bishop of London and the Archbishop of Westminster meet in the cell to pray. They will then walk to the nearby Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula, where the headless body of More now lies. Since 1980, he has been recognised as a saint by both Anglicans and Catholics.
"This is a major story within British history and we need to tell it better," says Lord Dannatt, who is launching a new membership organisation called the 1535 Society to help do that. He is also seeking 1.5 million pounds to restore the crypt and chapel and secure the future of the choir. The cell will be left as it is, and as it was nearly 500 years ago.
"I'm not sure how comfortable you are going to be." Not very, is the answer to that. He leaves me alone to take in the atmosphere of the room, which is chilly. The windows are arrow loops cut in the shape of the Cross, with no glass. The wind snakes in, bringing with it the sounds of London. I sit by the flickering light of a candle and read the letter that More wrote to his daughter Meg in this room on the night before he was beheaded. His pens had been taken away, so he had to scratch out the words with the burned stub of a stick. Remembering her last, desperate embrace, even in that moment he sought to reassure her.
"Our Lord bless you, good daughter... I never liked your manner towards me better than when you kissed me last; for I love when daughterly love and dear charity hath no leisure to look to worldly courtesy. Farewell, my dear child, and pray for me, and I shall for you and all your friends, that we may merrily meet in heaven."
It's hard to blow out the candle. The darkness wraps in tight. Midnight comes and goes but it is impossible to sleep. I am wide-awake, against my will. It is not just adrenalin at being in this place, I realise that I do have a very real feeling of being watched. There are lots of alarming stories about ghosts at the Tower, but this does not feel like a haunting. I am not afraid.
The presence is not frightening, even if it is not particularly friendly. It is rather as if there is someone in the shadows, saying nothing but meaning no harm. Would More say it was the presence of God? I hope so. I close my eyes, and pull the sleeping bag over my head, but my racing heart and mind will not let me sleep. There is nothing I can do about it, despite exhaustion. This lasts for many hours, until the light outside begins to change.
There is much time to think about More, who was described by Jonathan Swift as one of the great defenders of liberty. A lawyer, scholar and philosopher, his greatest written work was Utopia, published in 1516. More considered becoming a monk, and wore a hair shirt under his robes even after he became lord chancellor to his friend Henry VIII, who knighted him in 1521. He was a passionate defender of Catholic orthodoxy who regarded Martin Luther and his followers as dangerous heretics. More persecuted Protestants and was accused of torturing them, although he denied it.
Six were burnt for heresy while he was Chancellor. As Lord Dannatt concedes: "We are not talking about a man whose hands are completely clean." When Henry's attitude to faith changed, More could not change with him. He resigned rather than support the king's desire to defy the Pope and become Supreme Head of a new church that would allow him to divorce. "The general view is that Henry wanted to teach his good friend a lesson by putting him in the Tower," says Lord Dannatt.
"He was looked after well at the start, with writing materials, books and furniture." But as he refused to change his position and sign the Act of Supremacy, his privileges were withdrawn. The final challenge was this small, damp cell. "The winter he was here was one of the coldest on record. He was transformed from being an upright, fit man to a broken man, really very feeble, bent double with arthritis and unrecognisable to his friends." More was convicted of high treason and sentenced to be publicly hanged, drawn and quartered.
The king changed it to decapitation, which was quicker and less painful. Just before he was executed, More declared: "I die the king's good servant, and God's first." His foster daughter Margaret Clement was given his headless body, which was buried in the chapel where it still lies. His head was put on a pike on London Bridge but rescued after a month by his favourite daughter Margaret - or Meg - Roper. She bribed the man who was meant to throw the head in the river and kept it pickled in spices until her own death. It is buried in the family tomb in Canterbury.
It was not until 1935 that Pope Pius XI canonised More, along with Cardinal John Fisher, who had also been kept in the Tower and executed. The Church of England has since recognised More as one of the Saints and Heroes of the Christian Church. The traditions will meet in the cell on Tuesday when the Bishop of London, the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, prays with the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols. Choir members will also sing.
"This is a very special ecumenical moment," says Lord Dannatt, who will use it to begin the final phase of his appeal. So far he has raised 1.1 million pounds. The first donation came from Queen Elizabeth, who is expected to attend a service of thanksgiving in a year's time, when the refurbishment is complete. "The furniture in the Chapel Royal has been there for 50 years. A million visitors a year sit on it," says Lord Dannatt. "The whole thing needs a lift as befits its status."
Members of the 1535 Society will have the right to name some of the new furniture in the chapel and to attend the royal thanksgiving, as well as other exclusive events. The inaugural society dinner will be held in February. But all of that seems very far off as daylight begins to bleed through the arrow loops in the cell, and they resemble burning crosses. I take some time to think about the last man to spend a restless night in this room, nearly 500 years ago.
My body aches, my head is splitting and I feel half-suffocated by the dust, but it would be absurd to make any comparisons with what St Thomas More suffered here. He went to his death. I can go at my liberty, for breakfast and a shower, with thanks. It has been a great privilege to spend the night in such a place, but I am grateful that I will never have to do it again.