Sir. Thomas More: A Man for All Seasons

When I was in High School a Robert Bolt play, “A Man for All Seasons” was made into a movie. [1] At the time, I was a High School debater and sometimes helped with the drama team competition. The play was one of my favorites, and the character of Sir Thomas More was important in my intellectual development. In my first semester of college, I took an English course entitled, “Utopias and Anti-Utopias,” and More’s book, “Utopia” was on the reading list. [2] This experience only accelerated my admiration for the man and his legacy.

I am including More in this series of blogs for a number of reasons. First, he is both a Renaissance and Reformation writer. Second, he was close friends with Erasmus, who has already been the subject of a blog. Third, because of his character and the fact that he, like Marcus Aurelius, was a practical man of action as well as philosophically minded, he represents a way of reflecting on some of the more abstract thinkers. Fourth, he is a counterpoint to Machiavelli, who will be reviewed next week. Finally, because of his martyrdom by Henry VIII due his refusal to recognize the validity of Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, he is widely recognized as a martyr for religious freedom and in opposition to the nascent immorality of the secular state.

Brief Biography

Thomas More was born on February 7, 1478, the son of a successful lawyer. [3] He studied at Oxford and qualified as a lawyer. In 1517, More entered the king’s service and became an influential confidant and advisor to Henry VIII. From 1510 until 1518, he was an Under Sherriff of London. He was knighted in 1521. In 1523, he was elected Speaker of the House of Commons, and in 1529 was made Lord Chancellor of England.

Despite a busy professional and legal career, More was a lay-scholar. He became friends with Erasmus and was a figure of importance in the English Renaissance. He wrote a history of Richard III, and in 1516 published his most famous work, “Utopia”. More also published a series of polemics against Martin Luther and the German reformation, while backing the more moderate reformation stance of his king and his friend, Erasmus.

More was opposed to the plan of Henry VII to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. In 1534, Henry declared himself Head of the Church in England, which allowed him to end his marriage to Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn. Unable to compromise further, More resigned his office. More was subsequently arrested after refusing to swear Act of Succession and Oath of Supremacy, which acknowledged Henry’s position as head of the English Church and recognized the annulment of Henry’s marriage and the legitimacy of Mary, his daughter by Anne Boleyn. Because of his refusal, More was tried for treason at Westminster, and on July 6, 1535 was executed at the age of 57. He was made a saint by the Roman Catholic Church in 1935.

At his trial, More made a speech that is widely regarded as one of the greatest of human history related to the relationship of church and state. It reads in part:

Forasmuch, my lord, as this indictment is grounded upon an act of Parliament directly repugnant to the laws of God and his holy church, the supreme government of which, or of any part thereof, may no temporal prince presume by any law to take upon him, as rightfully belonging to the See of Rome, a spiritual preeminence by the mouth of our Savior himself, personally present upon the earth, to Saint Peter and his successors, bishops of the same see, by special prerogative granted; it is therefore in law amongst Christian men, insufficient to charge any Christian man…. More have I not to say, my lords, but that like as the blessed apostle Saint Paul, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, was present and consented to the death of Saint Stephen, and kept their clothes that stoned him to death, and yet be they now twain holy saints in heaven, and shall continue there friends forever: so I verily trust and shall therefore right heartily pray, that though your lordships have now in earth been judges to my condemnation, we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together to our everlasting salvation. [4]

This defense illustrates More’s character, and especially his refusal to place temporal law above the laws of God and his refusal to acknowledge the power of the king to ignore the spiritual authority of the church. While his position may seem anachronistic to the modern mind, it represents an early expression of the importance of religious freedom and limitations on the secular power of the prince. His willingness to die as a martyr was based upon his firm belief in eternal life and the reward in heaven of the saints.

More and Utopia

More’s most famous writings is Utopia, which literally means “Nowhere.” The book was written in 1516 and remains of interest to readers even today. As with many such works, it is not easy to discern More’s precise relationship to the work. The work clearly suggests Plato’s Republic. Remembering that one characteristic of Renaissance figures is to rediscover and reembrace Greco Roman civilization, it is not surprising that More chose Plato and his Republic as a way of making social commentary upon his own day and time. In the Renaissance, one sees the emergence of a willingness to critique and suggest changes, even radical changes, in society and social institutions, and one sees this as a part of More’s project. More alludes to Plato in thinking about possible changes in his own society.

On the other hand, More as a protagonist in the Utopia, often expresses doubt upon the wisdom and practicability of some of the utopian suggestions made in the dialogue. In other words, it is not clear exactly what More’s position is concerning many of the comments made by his protagonist on the benefits of the way of life recommended. In fact, it is fairly clear that More is dubious about many of the suggestions taken from the Republic.

One example is More’s response in Utopia Book 1 to Plato’s idea of abolishing private property:

“I believe just the opposite,” I said “For men cannot live in harmony where everything is held in common. How can there be an abundance of everything when there is no incentive to work? [5]

In my view, what we see in Utopia is two sides of More’s character: One the one hand, he is a scholar, romantic, and Renaissance figure, willing to consider alternatives to the current social order. On the other hand, he is a lawyer and a man of practical experience, unwilling to embrace the elimination of private property and other suggestions that have not proved workable in human experience. In the end, however, it is the pragmatic orientation of a person of affairs with vast institutional experience that prevails in his thinking.

More and the Reformation

More, like Erasmus, was a devout Catholic, sympathetic with the reformist desire of the Protestant Reformation, but not willing to either leave the Catholic Church nor to abandon its beliefs and practices. He was willing to dispute with Luther and to address weaknesses in his position on Scripture, on the Sacraments, and other areas in which the Reformation was taking positions at odds with the church. On the other hand, his intent was to purify the existing church, not to split the church of his day.

It is this aspect of More’s thought that is most interesting because it is here that he eventually took a stand that cost him his life. It is to be remembered that Henry VIII himself wrote a defense of the Catholic faith and was during More’s lifetime made “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope. More, in fact, read and commented upon Henry’s project as a lawyer, even recommending he tone down passages where he might (and in fact did) eventually end up in opposition to the Pope and to the implications of his own argument. More’s disputations against Luther were not at all at odds with the desires or proclivities of Henry. More, like Erasmus, and Henry were loyal Catholics and held to the historic doctrines and morals of the church. [6]

More’s Arrest, Martyrdom and Death

To modern Americans, where “no fault divorce” is the norm and previously divorced leaders are often elected, the events that resulted in More’s death are hard to understand. It is easy for us to minimize More’s predicament and to make Henry VIII into a complete villain. To understand the reasons for the eventual martyrdom of Thomas More, one needs to give a sympathetic ear to Henry’s predicament. Henry Tudor was not the first son of Henry VII of England. His elder brother was to be king. Catherine of Aragon had first been engaged to Henry’s brother and only became Henry’s wife after his brother’s untimely death. She was older than Henry, and for whatever reason had multiple miscarriages and a son who died shortly after his birth. Thus. she was unable to provide a male heir. [7]

In Henry’s day and time, there were no elections, and if a king died without a male heir there was likely to be conflict until a new clamant to the throne emerged victorious. The Tudor dynasty emerged after just such a period of English history. There was every reason to believe that if Henry failed to provide a male heir, there would be conflict upon his death, a conflict he desired to avoid at all costs.

As a result, Henry was determined to have an heir to his throne. When it became obvious that Catherine was unable to provide such and heir, Henry sought an alternative, which he found in his mistress Anne Boleyn. In order to have an heir by Anne, however, Henry needed to divorce Catherine and marry Anne, having her children declared to be legitimate, which would allow their child to succeed Henry. [8]

Unfortunately, there were obstacles to his plan, not the least of which is that Catherine’s relative, Charles V, was the king of Spain, and the Pope was unwilling to grant Henry’s petition to annul their marriage. [9] In response, Henry declared himself to be the head of the English Church (hence Anglicanism was born) and passed a law through parliament declaring that the child of his marriage to Anne Boleyn, the future Elizabeth I of England, was his legitimate heir. [10]More, as a devout Catholic refused to publicly support Henry.

It is also hard for a contemporary American to fully understand and appreciate the subtlety with which More attempted to avoid martyrdom as a result of his unwillingness to recognize the validity of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and the resulting legislation. Fundamentally, his tactic was to remain silent, refusing to give his reasons for resigning is position and refusing to swear a required oath regarding the matters at hand. While refusing to swear and support Henry’s marriage and status has head of the British church, he continually expressed his loyalty to Henry as king. It is difficult in a short blog to express the complexity and subtlety with which he attempted to walk a fine line that would allow Henry to avoid putting him to death for treason. His correspondence and statements reflect a subtle lawyer’s mind attempting to both save his own life, avoid making an oath against his conscience, and continue his loyalty and friendship with the king. In the end, his prominence made it impossible for Henry not to act against him, and he was made a martyr in the cause of religious freedom.

Conclusion

I end this blog with a quote from “A Man for All Seasons” that summarizes the reason why More was made a saint and is a martyr for religious freedom in the political arena:

Since the court has determined to condemn me – God knoweth how – I will now discharge my mind concerning the indictment and the King’s title. The indictment is grounded in an act of Parliament, which is directly repugnant to the law of God and His Holy Church, the supreme government of which no temporal person may, by any law, presume to take upon him. This was granted by the mouth of our Savior, Christ Himself, to St. Peter and the bishops of Rome whilst He lived and was personally present here on earth. It is, therefore, insufficient in law to charge any Christian to obey it. And more than this, the immunity of the Church is promised both in Magna Carta and in the King’s own coronation oath. [11]

More attempted to remain loyal to his faith, to uphold the laws of England from Magna Carta to his own day, and to remain loyal to his king. He succeeded, but it cost him his life. There are some men who cannot be fully understood, only admired. Sir Thomas More is one.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Zinnemann, Fred. A Man for All Seasons (Columbia Pictures, 1966).

[2] Thomas More, “Utopia” in The Essential Thomas More ed. James J. Greene and John Dolan (New York, NY: Mentor Books, 1967). All quotations in this blog are from this volume of More’s work.

[3] The biographical information herein can be found on the internet in a number of sources, including “Sir Thomas More” in The Ancient History Encyclopedia at https://www.ancient.eu/Sir_Thomas_More/ (downloaded December 3, 2020).

[4] Safire, William, ed. Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History Rev. Ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1997), 328-330, found at http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/moredefense.htm (downloaded December 3, 2020).

[5] The Essential Thomas More, 51.

[6] Henry himself remained a devout, if not very moral, Roman believer for his entire life. His quarrel with the Pope, unlike Luther, was not about the content of doctrine, but about the relative powers of the church and monarchy.

[7] Henry and Catherine of Aragon had one child, Mary, who became Queen for a short time. Her Catholicism made her a poor choice and she was eventually deposed.

[8] Eventually, their child Elizabeth, would be become Queen of England.

[9] Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon were Roman Catholic, and the Church forbade divorce. The Pope at the time, Pope Clement, denied Henry’s request for an annulment for several reasons, one being that Catherine’s nephew, Catherine was the daughter of devout Catholics, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. Catherine’s nephew was the current Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (also the current King of Spain). At one point, Charles had laid siege to Rome and essentially held Clement prisoner. Henry’s claim that his marriage to Catherine was contrary to God’s will and law because he had been married briefly to his dead brother was seen as fatuous. In any case, perhaps primarily for political reasons, Clement could not or would not grant Henry’s request.

[10] I have neither the time nor the desire to fully set out Henry’s marriages and potential heirs. Eventually, Anne Boleyn was beheaded for infidelity, but she also could not provide Henry with a male heir. Henry eventually married another mistress, Jane Seymour who give him an heir in Edward VI, (born October 12, 1537, London, England died July 6, 1553, London), king 1547 to 1553. He was succeeded first by Edward, then by Mary and finally by Elizabeth. Thus, Catherine’s child became second in line to the throne and Elizabeth third.

[11] A Man for All Seasons, Sentencing Scene. I recommend that all my readers rent this film and watch it.

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