The point is that More’s position as Chancellor was likely to be compromised right from the start. More’s problem was that as a good Catholic he deeply supported the catholic tradition and supremacy of the catholic community; and the authority of the Pope. He therefore deeply believed that the king’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was valid, and knowing that Wolsey’s attempts to secure a divorce had failed, he might have known he was travelling down difficult channels. However, I guess More would have hoped that it would not come to that.
Roper recorded a conversation with Thomas at the time, complimenting him on his great success. Here’s More’s reply:
‘I thank our lord, son. I find his grace my very good lord indeed; and I believe he doth as singularly favour me as any subject within this realm. Howbeit, son Roper, I may tell thee I have no cause to be proud thereof, for if my head could win him a castle in France … it should not fail to go’
This is very Thomas More isn’t it? Many a true word said in jest sort of thing; he loves wit and irony and that forms the stuff of his communication, but he’s also very intelligent and clear sighted about the reality of the situation. It’s a style that A Man for All Seasons does capture rather well.
More had an initial signal success by bringing a peace between England, France and Empire to fruition in 1529. But for the most part, More therefore concentrated on two areas, with the king’s apparent agreement; the fight against heresy and the core of the Chancellor’s job – the law.
Let’s deal with the law first. Here’s the story; More’s was a brilliant legal mind; but two other things made him one of England’s greatest Chancellors. Firstly, he was incorruptible, free of the endemic bribery and corruption of the English legal system. And not just that – that he didn’t use his position to further the material wealth of his family, as every other person in the country would have considered absolutely 100% standard. And secondly, he was a determined reformer, determined to see the law deliver social justice and equity.
There are numerous examples of More’s incorruptibility, that combine with the love of wit and humour and a good gag which runs through almost everything More seems to do. He has an ability always to see the slight absurdity of a situation, from the outside.
One occasion then is the present of a cup from a litigant from a chap called John Gresham. The cup was beautifully wrought; what More did was to get a cup made which cost much more, because it had higher bullion value – but which was, artistically a bit rubbish. And he sent this new cup to Gresham and retained the first one. So in a stroke, he has obtained a lovely object, retained his integrity, and obscurely insulted the taste and behaviour of John Gresham. You see what I mean? Clever, neat – and ever so slightly irritating Mr Smarty Pants. It might have been just a bit better if he’d reported Gresham and had him prosecuted for bribery wouldn’t it? He wouldn’t have felt quite so clever of course, and would have missed the opportunity for a gag.
A second one is a bit more genuinely funny. One of More’s son in laws, William Dauncey, complained that whereas Wolsey had allowed his servants to profit by arranging special access to him, More was available to everyone. In reply, More say ooh don’t worry! Special access that’s chicken feed! There are loads of great ways I can favour you instead! An then he forced Dauncey to listen to an interminable list of all the many other ways in which a man in his position might be able to help rather than just giving access – by showing favour by word or letter, by appointing biased commissioners, by referring parties to arbitration when the opposing party would have won the legal case, the list goes on. Of course More had no intention of giving any favours, but Dauncey clearly deserved the put down. But at the end of all this, whether you like the witty ironic style, More’s basic integrity is impossible to deny, and the statement he made to Dauncey is utterly believable:
“I assure thee on my faith, that if the parties will at my hands call for justice, then all were it my father stood at one side and the devil on the other. His cause being good, the devil should have the right”
As a Chancellor, the super summary is that history is right to consider More a good, honest, reforming Chancellor who fought to make the system work better for the good of all. The only caveat to all of this is that this was not More’s initial instigation – but the reviled and apparently endlessly venal Wolsey. The good cardinal had passionately believed, in the words of the Historian John Guy
‘that wrongdoing must be punished wherever it was found, irrespective of the social or political influence of those committing the offences; and secondly that justice should be equally and indifferently offered to all who sought it.’
What Wolsey and More therefore did was to emphasise the jurisdiction of the courts of equity, to get round the venality, expense and inefficiencies of the traditional courts of common law. You might well ask what on earth this complicated sentence means, and let me tell you what I have learned. The courts of equity are those we keep mentioning – the new Court of the Star Chamber and Court of Requests. These did not operate on the principles of common law and juries, bound by precedent. The judge was responsible, and he could simply decide the case on what was right. In the hands of people like Thomas More this was a powerful tool for good. In lesser hands, it was a powerful tool for tyranny by the way, but we’ll come to that under the Stuarts.
More also worked hard to improve the operation of the common law. Famously, he gathered together a bunch of the common-law judges, and presented them with a list of cases where he had recently issued injunctions removing them into his own jurisdiction despite the complaints this had caused: Roper again records:
when he had broken with them what complaints he had heard of his Injunctions, and moreover shewed them both the number and causes of every one of them, in order, so plainly that, upon full debating of those matters, they were all forced to confess that they, in like case, could have done no other wise themselves.
Here maybe More’s follow through did create an innovation. Basically. More accused the judges of ducking; of passing the responsibility for a poor legal judgment to the Juries; shrugging their shoulders when a litigant bribed the jurors, to say not my fault guv, it was them jurors what did it. More told them that they had to instruct the jurors clearly about the legal position to prevent them making decisions according to false legal precedent at least. Judges had to take responsibility.
Which brings us to heretics. It seems counter intuitive that the king who did more than anyone to bring the reformation to England should have encouraged More to take the battle to Luther and the heretics. But famously of course, it was not long ago that Henry had been named ‘defender of the faith’ by the Pope, and he still considered himself a good catholic. It was just that he believed that the king was head of the church; that was his real beef.
More wrote and argued in defense of the Catholic tradition. He was deeply, deeply traditional in his beliefs, and his detestation of the Lutheran and protestant heresies are utterly clear and irrefutable. More took up the pen against Luther and William Tyndale, the creator of the English bible, in particular.
More rejected the protestant reliance on scripture alone as the sole vehicle of revelation. He hated the idea of the clergy as transmitters and guides of the Word rather than its guardians and interpreters. He deeply believed that the laity had no role in interpreting the scriptures. He rightly identified that the key battle ground was not Papal supremacy; it was the catholic tradition. More argued the Catholic orthodoxy that the catholic tradition had prevailed since the time of the apostles; there were two types of Christian revelation – the written one in the scripture, and the unwritten handed down by the apostles and safeguarded by the church; individuals could be wrong, even Popes, but the complete community of the church was infallible, and God had granted the church infallibility. So, as a test case; More might actually agree that there were far too many stupid, ignorant, venal, corrupt and in some cases mildly overweight or even unattractive priests; and that this was not a good thing. But none the less once they had been ordained they were transformed, and the holy spirit at their ordination meant they were perfectly prepared to deliver the sacraments. Essentially, More was thoroughly conservative and traditional.
There is a darkness and hardness about the Heresy hunter More that, ooh, spookily, Doesn’t appear in A Man for all Seasons. It’s an inconvenient truth when you are trying to construct a saintly hero and model of perfection. Listen to More’s words;
I pray God that some of us, as high as we seem to sit upon the mountains treading heretics under our feet like ants, live not in the day that we gladly would wish to be at a league and composition with them, to let them have their churches quietly to themselves, so that they would be content to let us have ours quietly to ourselves.
If More is looking down from heaven, this is of course exactly what happened. Though I think he’d be much more worried about atheism. Then listen to this again. He was writing to Erasmus again, about the epitaph he wrote about himself. Writing your own epitaph is a bit of fun actually. Maybe we ought to do it. I might go for Doulas Adam’s ‘mostly harmless’; or possibly ‘a little podgy’. Or Spike Milligan’s ‘I told you I was ill’. If you feel inspired, post you own epitaph. Anyway, More refers to the point where he wrote that he had been grievous to heretics. He wrote:
“I wrote that with deep feeling. I find that breed of men absolutely loathsome, so much so that, unless they regain their senses, I want to be as hateful to them as anyone can possibly be”
More pursued heretics relentlessly and with venom. He pursued them in writing. He pursued them wherever he could find them – such as raiding the Steelyard, the home of the Hanseatic merchants in London in 1525 and requiring them to take an oath that any heretical tracts would be destroyed. He pursued them in the courts and intervened when he felt the Bishops were not being active or hard enough. He pursued heretics in the courts he controlled directly, of Star Chamber in particular. Now in a way as we’ll come onto, we might not like that, but it’s very much of his time, he’s not alone in his feelings.
But critically, he refused to allow reformists the right of silence in taking an oath. This is rather significant in the reputation of Sir Thomas More. He was himself to plead in the 1530’s with self righteous indignation that he had said nothing against the king’s supremacy of the church. He had maintained his silence. Let’s have that quote just one more time:
I do nobody harm, I say none harm, I think none harm, but wish everybody good. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive in good faith I long not to live
More is whining that how can he be prosecuted when he has tried to stay silent? Implicit is the view that it is tyrannical to insist that a man condemn himself from his own mouth and be forced to speak, or be convicted if he remained silent. And we are sympathetic are we not? But hey, what do you know?
More denied this very right to heretics. In 1531, a man called thomas Bilney was burned to death for heresy. More as Lord Chancellor, had demanded that eyewitnesses to Bilney’s burning attend in Star Chamber; he required they swear an oath and answer whatever he asked. And yet this is precisely what More’s trial defence will be – that surely he cannot be convicted if he stays silent. Thomas Cromwell himself picked More up on this himself before his trial; More’s answer was that his case and cases of the heretics were entirely different; that unlike him, they had deviated from the authority of the church. Essentially, he was saying that heretics were not allowed consciences.
Fox in his original ‘book of martyrs’ accuses Thomas of even worse crimes, if there can be – in this case of torturing heretics himself, and of illegality in the way he pursued them. Of these charges, More is probably innocent actually. The act of de heretico comburendo which you may remember we covered back in Henry IV’s reign just before I went on sabbatical, made it a civil duty to pursue heretics. At this stage Henry was right behind him. More unfortunately a bit like Sir Robin suddenly realising that the minstrels behind him have changed their tune; that opinion changed, and left him outside the pale.
Which finally brings us to the road to More’s ruin and the break with Rome that caused it. We have a special insight into More’s view and argument, because More does his absolute best to make sure we do. He wrote a letter from to Thomas Cromwell, Wolsey’s replacement as the king’s RH man, to lay out his case as clearly as he could.
According to this, at some point Henry spoke to Thomas about his feelings that his marriage to Catherine had always been against the laws of God, and asked Thomas to look at the case he was preparing. More was unconvinced, but said he’d take a peak. Eventually in 1529 More was forced to confess to Henry that he didn’t buy it and he thought the argument a pile of poo. Or words to that affect. Now yer Henry was bitterly disappointed; afterall, More’s was the finest legal mind, he would like to have had that on his side. But actually he accepted the situation with remarkably good grace. After that More said that he wrote nothing further to prejudice Henry’s case.
Now this is all very consistent with the story of More the loyal servant reserving his conscience; but really it’s a bit hopeless isn’t it? This was the most important thing for the king; More was clever enough to realise where this could lead, and the impossibility of not being dragged into it. There is a charge against More here that says look, you know jolly well that you are against the king’s policy now; why on earth did you not withdraw from the king’s service, or argue Catherine’s case? I put it to you, Thomas More, that you were a good deal less politically naïve than that; that you would have known full well that you were expecting more than the king could give when he promised to keep you out of it. Furthermore, that you did your level best to use your influence with the king. Eustace Chapuys, the emperor’s ambassador wrote this in September 1530:
The Chancellor, I hear, has spoken so much in the Queen’s favour that he has had a narrow escape of being dismissed.
This makes it pretty clear that More was following the line of doing his best to persuade the king, but not resisting him by writing anything to the detriment of his policy publicly. Actually, the Emperor wrote a letter of thanks to him – which More refused to open and returned. In 1531, More had to present the opinions on the divorce that Henry’s team had gathered positive to his case. It was of course deeply uncomfortable; it’s highly likely that the king asked More to do it, and more was scrupulously careful to keep his views out of it and not to state an opinion. The question now is why More didn’t resign right now, rather than a year later? Actually, this is a bit of mean question, given that we have made the point that resigning was simply not something you could do from the king’s service; the concept of resigning is a very modern one. Back then, you served at the king’s pleasure, and that was that. But the answer is probably that More thought he might still win Catherine of Aragon’s argument for her in council. It seems quite clear that he continued to argue her case; it also seems clear that he was eager to retain his influence over policy. The point about this is that Henry gets a bad press for apparently not keeping his promise to keep More out of things; but it’s not entirely clear that even at this stage More entirely kept his side of the bargain and kept out of the divorce either, that although he outwardly observed the forms, behind closed doors he did what he could to influence and persuade.
But the affair ground on through the stages, driven relentlessly by Thomas Cromwell in 1532, as Henry and his minister brought the English church into submission with his views that his marriage to Catherine had been illegal, and that the king of England was properly head of the English Church; this is called the Submission of the Clergy, in May 1532. This was the last straw for More; he could no longer hope to win the argument, and the idea that the king was England could deny the Pope’s authority and break the unity of the true church was intolerable to him. He therefore went straight to Whitehall, and told the king that his angina was giving him too much gip, and that he had a load of stuff inside that had to come out – and so he’d like to withdraw from public life, in his own words
To bestow the residue of my life in mine age now to come, about the provision for my soul in the service of God
Again, Henry was surprisingly nice about it. But More was on the edge; it was critical that his resignation, bad enough in itself, was in no way connected with opposition to the submission of the clergy. If it was, that would be opposition to the king’s will.
The deal essentially now was that More would keep schtumm on anything to do with the king’s divorce. The argument of More’s supporters is that More was unfairly hounded by Henry; they had a deal, More kept his side of the deal, and Henry the tyrant broke it and went for him, without provocation despite the agreement. How More held his peace resolutely until he was condemned to death anyway.
Now, I uncharitably had a go a few minutes ago and I’d like to formally apologise for being so aggressive, but let us examine this statement shall we, in the light of what happens from here. More did not keep quiet as it happens. Now More with some justice very probably felt that his numerous interventions and writings from here were within the letter of his agreement with Henry, since he didn’t speak and write about the divorce; he defended the church against attacks in parliament where parliament sought to strip the church of its immunity and independence. But really, More was kidding nobody; unless the church was subordinated to the Crown, the divorce plan was unworkable. More might claim that this was a theological debate, not political; but again, who did he think he was kidding? These brilliant tracts he wrote were so politically sensitive that the shop of his publisher was raided.
And then there’s the silence itself; legally he was right in that he did not outwardly speak out against Henry’s plans. But while his statements stay just on the right side of the line once again, no one was fooled; More’s disagreement was quite clear. And back to that resignation again; no one retired from the king’s service, and despite the attempt it was really too obvious that the previous day’s submission of the clergy had been the trigger.
Famously, More refused to attend Anne Boleyn’s coronation; and yet again couldn’t resist making a joke. His friends were desperate for him to go, he was sent £20 to buy clothes; he accepted the £20 and said that since he’d accepted one offer, he felt fine to decline the 2nd offer – i.e. to go to the coronation. Now as a good Catholic Thomas More had to make sure that he did not court Martyrdom. On this he was really walking the line. He might defend himself by saying that he had written to Henry to acknowledge Ann as queen – but he’d know very well that non attendance would be seen as a snub.
I don’t for a moment want all this to sound like a negative judgment doubting More’s integrity – it absolutely is not meant to be. There is no doubt that More was standing up for what he believed at great personal danger to himself and indeed his family. All I’m saying is that it is very disingenuous indeed of More to pretend that he wasn’t behaving politically, that he wasn’t playing with fire, and that he didn’t know this perfectly well. Basically, John Guy points out Machiavelli’s advice here; there are only two courses of action – either to avoid Princes altogether, or attach yourself very closely to one. By becoming Chancellor, hate it or loathe it, More had become a politician. More’s defence was a legalistic letter of the law thing, a technicality. We don’t like it, generally when people get off on technicalities do we? We don’t like it because we think that they are in fact guilty, they’ve just been very good at playing the system.
By January 1532 Chapuys was reporting that Henry was very angry with More; there’s little doubt that anger turned to a deep and implacable hatred, and little doubt that More would not have been surprised.
By early 1534, Henry’s attitude had changed and he and Thomas Cromwell were looking for a way to make sure that More did not stand as a beacon for resistance to the king. He was questioned closely about Elizabeth Barton; Barton had prophesised the king’s death if he broke with Rome, and visualising the king’s death was treason; but More’s answers and actions were impeccable. But on 12th April 1534, he was asked, like everyone else, to swear to the Act of Succession. Alice More had no problem doing so, Thomas would not – not because he didn’t agree to parliament’s right to decide the succession, but because of the preamble denying papal authority. Cromwell took the same approach as More had with his heretics, and made it a crime to refuse to take the oath. As a result, he was imprisoned.
Throughout his imprisonment, a stream of correspondence and writing left More’s cell in the Tower. Throughout his imprisonment, his was interviewed by his colleague Thomas Cromwell; actually, Cromwell comes out rather well from the exchanges; he is reasonable, he tries to get More to a place where he is safe while serving his less forgiving royal master, he informs More where he is legally safe and where he can and can’t plead. But More was as implacable as Cromwell was relentless.
By November, More was convicted of treason by an Act of Attainder, and his family reduced to penury; if things had stayed as they were, More would now have stayed in prison for life. But the Act of Supremacy now came out making Henry the Supreme Head of the Church – and it was under this act that on 1st July 1535 Thomas More went to trial for denying the royal supremacy.
This was More’s hood, his expertise, his stage. There was no one in the country with the command More had over his material and the relevant law; and in a way he’d been preparing for this moment for 30 years.
So let us go to the courtroom; this case was conducted under a commission of oyer et terminer, to hear and determine. We have a number of groups; there is the jury, which was very probably rigged – it would have been a disgraceful oversight of Henry’s if it had not. There are then the professional presiding Judges – including the new Lord Chancellor Audley and a bunch of common law judges. There were members of the Privy council, lead by the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, the Earl of Wiltshire, otherwise known as Anne Boleyn’s father. This group came fresh from a trial 2 weeks previously at which Bishop John Fisher had been condemned to death. The attorney General, Sir Christpher Hales, lead for the crown, assisted by Richard Rich, the Solicitor General – and the prosecutions key witness.
And then there was the best lawyer in the room – Thomas More.
It was the job of the professional lawyers to ensure fairness. Well, listen to the set up then. The defendant was allowed no legal counsel – all of this was not special to Thomas More by the way; the defendant had no copy of the indictment, and no witnesses. The indictment was enormous, and must have taken over an hour to read out. So, how fair is that then?
But Thomas was of course, more than equal to the challenge. There were essentially 4 counts. With brilliant, scintillating skill More asked the first 3 charges to be quashed by the court; he accepted the facts stated in the first 3 counts, but pleaded that even if his silence was construed as an act, the legal presumption was that silence was taken as assent. It was an electric moment. The Chancellor Audley turned to his judges; and was forced to accept that all three charges be quashed. 3 quarters of the Crown’s case had collapsed before even any evidence could be taken.
The 4th count was the most dangerous, to which More was forced to plead – and of course he entered a Not Guilty plea. This was that in a conversation with Richard Rich he was alleged to have admitted that Parliament had the power declare the king the head of the Church of England, thus treasonably denying the king his title. What had happened was that in a conversation, Richard Rich had put a case to More, which More had answered and expanded. This was a legal process, where hypothetical cases were put, to explore legal arguments; in this discussion, More had crossed the line into treason. This is borne out by the written statement submitted by Rich to the court – and in the answer More gave to the charge, at no point did he disagree with the statement Rich made, nor accuse rich of perjury. Instead More argued that this was a privileged conversation; that as such, there was no malicious intent as required by the law. His submissions were overruled. That Man for all Seasons film, again, had Rich down as a weak, knock kneed, corrupt liar and perjurer; it took its approach almost word for word from William Roper’s biography. And William Roper was not there; and there is no independent corroboration for his version of events, the one where More turns on Rich and accuses him of perjury. Now it is one possible interpretation – but there are others. It could have been that rich panicked on the stand and embellished the account he had written down; it could have been that more did indeed cross the line somewhere in his discussions with Rich, perhaps this thing about privileged legal conversations was simply too subtle for the jury – it was certainly deemed too subtle for the film. Either way, the jury was sent out, and within 15 minutes was back – and More was declared guilty.
You are now sighing with relief – hurrah I can hear you say, at last this thing is over and I can get on with the rest of my life. But no, gentle listener, no – in the words of Chemical romance, this is not the end. Because now the prisoner had the right to argue that his indictment was invalid. But the Chancellor had forgotten this – he was beginning to pass judgment when More interrupted and began his motion in arrest of judgement.
And now, at last, we come to the crux of it all. The story of Thomas More is that he died for his individual conscience; there’s a bit in Bolt’s play about in taking an oath you were holding your own soul in your hands. But Thomas More did not die for anything as tawdry and insignificant as an individual soul; Thomas More died for something he would much consider much more significant – the Catholic faith. Actually, we can go further than that – not only was More not to die for individual conscience, he was to go to his death specifically in the cause of the subjugation of the individual to the larger entity – the Catholic church.
Thomas More argued that his indictment was invalid because the Act of Supremacy was repugnant to God’s law and the beliefs of the Catholic Church. Here are his words:
Forsooth as, my lord, this indictment is grounded upon an act of parliament directly repugnant to the laws of God and his holy Church…it is therefore in law, amongst Christian men, insufficient to charge any Christian man
Now I don’t want to over egg it, but isn’t what we have hear a fundamental division between the medieval world and the modern world? Don’t we have the great Christian humanist, representative of the new light of learning and education, basically dying for the community of Christendom in the face of the modern world of nation states? Because what more was saying was that everyman belonged to one corporate entity – the Catholic Church. The law of this body had been formed by reference to the catholic tradition since the time of the apostles. This one small part of the Catholic church in England could not possibly decide something – the breakup of the Catholic church – which had never happened before and which must be agreed by the relevant body – namely, the complete catholic church. Parliament simply did not have the competence to make such a law. It’d be like the French government today, for example, declaring that in France there would be no sales tax. It can’t do that anymore – it needs the European Union to do that.
Thomas More was saying that the law of Christendom was superior to the law of any of its constituent parts, England in this case. There was a lot more, but this was the nub. Here’s Thomas More again concluding his motion:
Therefore, I am not bound, my lord, to conform my conscience to the council of one realm against the general council of Christendom
Note, incidentally, that Thomas More says nothing here about Papal supremacy – again, More doesn’t deny papal authority, but it is the council of the church and the Catholic tradition to which he appealed. This was a virtuoso performance.
Well. The court was electric. Audley did what any sane man does in a moment of crisis. He panicked. And then to cover his panic he bumbled. Never, ever forget the value of a good bumble at a critical moment. I spend many happy days bumbling. Audley, turned, and in the finest sporting tradition when you are in trouble, pass the ball to someone else, so that they look rubbish when it all goes wrong. He passed to the Lord Chief Justice, with the legal equivalent of ?Que? The Lord Chief Justice didn’t do a lot better, but at least he preserved his backside from the otherwise inevitable contact with king Henry VIII’s boot – essentially, he said that if Parliament was competent to make the king supreme head of the church, then would be the indictment sufficient. With such a circular argument was More convicted.
No one who attended the trial could have forgotten such drama. Europe was universally astounded and shocked at such an appalling decision. Emperor Charles V say that he
“would rather have lost the best city of our dominions then have lost such a worthy counsellor”
Though it has to be said he was biased.
More’s execution took place on Tower hill on 6th July 1535. The Paris Newsletter reported:
“He spoke little before his execution. Only he asked the bystanders to pray for him in this world, and he would pray for them elsewhere. He then begged them earnestly to pray for the king, that it might please God to give him good counsel, protesting that he died the king’s good servant, but God’s first”
There’s that famous last line then – I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first. It’s a good line. It echoes the line that More always said that Henry gave him when he first joined his service – enjoining him to serve God first and himself second. More was a man quite subtle enough to have thrown the statement in his king’s face.
So that is that. I hope I have not done a terrible thing and given the impression that I don’t think Thomas More to have been an exceptional and brilliant man. I am not clever enough to understand the subtleties of his writing and erudition; I’ve done my best with Utopia, but it’s a bit like a donkey reading the rubiyat of Omar Khyyam. You won’t find me arguing with the experts about the brilliance of his contribution to world culture. I suspect that I too would have found More’s wit and humor as attractive as many – though not all did. Here is an outstanding person I would love to meet. But I found it very convincing that the standard story of Thomas More is off the mark. I come back to the point that novelists, playwrights film makers – their primary responsibility is to entertain, not tell the truth. And I find the historical view of a man to be much more convincing; brilliant, subtle, witty, a hater of pride in himself as well as others, a man with an extraordinary sense of justice, enormous integrity and belief; but also capable of being patronising, irritating and a rampant self publicist. And understanding what the man really died for is surely nothing short of our responsibility to his name and sacrifice.