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This edited article about Sir Thomas More originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 881 published on 2 December 1978.
The moment Sir Thomas More entered the courtroom, people could tell that he was a dying man. Even if he was found not guilty of high treason, and was not beheaded, his weak, shuffling walk, dim eyes, and stooped figure, signalled his impending death.
A murmur of sympathy sounded through London’s Westminster Hall, as the great statesman and writer moved slowly towards the dock. He used a stick to keep himself upright. But, even so, he twice almost fell as he faced the Court of the King’s Bench.
The Attorney-General, Sir Christopher Hale, was one of the few who did not feel sorry for the sick man. He eyed More coldly, as he told how the former Lord Chancellor had refused to take the Oath of Supremacy and accept King Henry VIII as supreme head of the English Church.
Looking much older than his 57 years, Sir Thomas listened attentively to him and replied: “Concerning the matters you now charge and challenge me with, the truth is so wordy and long that I fear that neither my wit nor my memory, nor yet my voice, will serve to make as full and sufficient an answer as the seriousness of the matter does demand.”
This short, but emotional, opening speech visibly took its toll of More, who had suffered a long and painful confinement in the Tower of London. He swayed as he addressed the jury, and was then allowed to sit down.
With effort, he continued his defence by stating: “For my taciturnity and silence, neither your law, nor any law in the world, is able justly and rightly to punish me.”
Immediately, the Attorney-General jumped to his feet protesting: “Though we have not one deed or word of yours to object to against you, yet we have your silence, which is an evident sign of the malice in your heart.”
“That is not so,” replied More, with a determined show of spirit. “He who keeps silence gives his consent. I have never openly criticised His Majesty for breaking with the Church of Rome. I have merely refused to sign an oath supporting his action.”
More’s conflict with King Henry started as far back as 1517 – 18 years before the summer of his trial. It was then that the monarch seized one of the Pope’s ships when it docked at Southampton.
More, a Catholic and one of the most brilliant and best-known lawyers in Britain, agreed to appear as counsel for the Pope. For the next few days, he and his family anxiously awaited the King’s reaction to this act of apparent disloyalty.
But, to his credit, Henry decided that both More and the Pope were in the right. He allowed the vessel to return unharmed to Rome, and the following year the lawyer was made a privy councillor, and so became one of Henry’s closest advisers and friends.
Three years later, More was knighted and, as a mark of his humility, he wore a hair shirt. He was appointed Lord Chancellor in 1529, and shortly afterwards Henry came to dine with Sir Thomas at his home beside the River Thames in Chelsea.
More’s wife, and his daughter, Meg, prepared the king’s favourite dishes – including boar’s head soaked in vinegar and juniper; roast beef done to a turn; calves’ feet and veal, boiled in claret and garnished with cinnamon, ginger and sugar.
The meal was a complete success, and later the King and his Lord Chancellor walked arm in arm in the garden. During their conversation, Henry asked what More’s reaction would be if he, the monarch, should assume supreme religious authority.
Sir Thomas thought long and carefully before replying. “I would do as my conscience dictates,” he said finally. “Even if it meant defying you, sire.”
Henry looked at him with astonishment and displeasure. “But surely, in your book, Utopia, you declare tolerance of all religious creeds? Surely, anything I might do would be excused because of that?”
More refused to commit himself, but his rift with Henry came to a head when he protested against the King’s wish to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn.
More resigned as Lord Chancellor and, when he refused to take the Oath of Supremacy, was imprisoned awaiting trial. During this time he wrote his “Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation”, which led Henry to have him deprived of books and writing materials.
But Sir Thomas’s mind was still active, as he showed when he told the members of the King’s Bench: “To take the oath is like a two-edged sword, for if a man answers one way it will confound his soul, and if the other way it will confound his body.”
As the trial in Westminster Hall continued in July, 1535, it became clear that the prisoner was on the point of collapse. But he still had his wits about him, as he showed when he told one of the witnesses against him, “In truth, I am more sorry for your perjury than for my peril.”
However, to save him any more embarrassment and suffering, the jury retired and quickly brought in a verdict of guilty. “It is a kindness to do so rather than keep him in the dock any longer,” said one of the jurors.
The new Lord Chancellor rose to announce the sentence of the court. But before he could do so, he was interrupted by More, who said: “My lord, when I held your office it was customary to ask the prisoner, before judgment, what reason he could give for judgment not to be given against him.”
Again the accused won a legal point, and he gave a final demonstration that the Oath of Supremacy was against the spirit and letter of the English law.
“No more might this realm of England refuse obedience to the See of Rome,” he declared, “than might the child refuse obedience to its own natural father.”
Despite the power of his reasoning, More was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Accepting the sentence without fear, he told the jury: “May God preserve you all. And especially my lord the King, and send him good counsel.”
In recognition of their past friendship, Henry commuted the severe sentence to beheading – which would take place the following morning, 6th July. That night, More sent his hair shirt to his beloved daughter with a letter starting, “I never liked your manners better, than when you kissed me last.”
A few hours later, he was helped on to the hastily-erected scaffold by the Lieutenant of the Tower of London. “Assist me up,” he said to the officer, “and, in coming down, I will shift for myself.”
His last words as he placed his head on the block were: “Wait till I put my beard aside, for that hath done no treason.” People considered that Sir Thomas More had died a saint and martyr. And this was borne out in 1935, when he was belatedly canonised by Pope Pius XI.