The Career and Trial of Thomas More

Blaise Joseph, Dickson College, 2009

Thomas More (1478-1535)
The trial and execution of Thomas More was a clear miscarriage of justice. Thomas More, a man with many virtues and a successful career, was a faithful servant of the Catholic Church. He was also a loyal subject of King Henry VIII, and they shared a mutual respect. However, when Henry decided that the Church of England would break from the Catholic Church and that all his subjects had to acknowledge him as the head of the Church, conflict between the two men followed. More, due to his strong beliefs, would not support Henry’s changes. As More was an influential man who had earned great respect over the course of his career, Henry saw the need for him to be executed. The ensuing trial of More shows that the verdict was inevitable, and that More was unjustly tried and executed for treason. More thus died for his beliefs which conflicted with those of the highest authority in England.

Thomas More was an extraordinary man, loyal to both his king and his religion. He possessed many talents, being a lawyer, scholar, theologian, and humanist. From the very start of his career, he showed great ability. At Oxford, where he studied from 1492, he proved himself to be a scholar, mastering several languages, and excelling at mathematics (Huddleston, 1912). He then experienced success as a lawyer, before becoming a member of parliament. Further accomplishment here led to his appointment to the position of Under-Sheriff of London, a rank of substantial responsibilities. Here, he earned the reputation of an honest and valuable official. This favorable reputation led to More’s appointment as Privy Councillor in 1518. This position dealt with international relations. More’s work here not only impressed his superiors, but also representatives of other nations, whom he befriended, while showing skill as a diplomat. An example of More’s diplomatic skills can be seen in the Venetian ambassador’s description of his dealings with More:

... I contrived a conference with the Magnifico Dom. Thomas More, newly made Councillor, who is very much my friend. I adroitly turned the conversation on these negotiations concerning peace; but he did not open, and pretended not to know in what the difficulties consisted... (Chambers, 1935, p.172)

Soon after More’s experiences as a diplomat, he was knighted, and continued his rapid climb up the social ladder. He became the Speaker of the House of Commons, and eventually, in 1525, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, with judicial control of a considerable part of Northern England. Thus, he became widely regarded as an important public servant. However, he was also well known for his insightful and original writings (ibid. p.116). His History of Richard III indicates his great scholarship, while Utopia, his most well known book, illustrates that More was a humanist, committed to re-examining the Christian way of life. It was a description of his ideal society and, due to its novel ideas, attracted the attention of other humanists. More often interacted with fellow humanists, and was “a most faithful and enduring friend” (Erasmus, 1519) of Desiderius Erasmus, another well known scholar. In this way, over the course of his career, More became widely respected by people throughout England and Europe, fellow humanists, and even Henry VIII himself.

King Henry VIII (ruled 1509-1547)
The relationship between Thomas More and Henry VIII was valued and respected by both men. More offered strong loyalty and faithful service to Henry, and Henry granted honours to More in return. In 1516, More highly praised Henry in the opening of his book Utopia: “Henry VIII, the unconquered King of England, a prince adorned with all the virtues that become a great monarch...” (More, 1516). More was not just fulfilling his public duties when he said this, but rather stating his genuine high opinion of the monarch. In private conversations with his son-in-law, William Roper, More also expressed his great loyalty to the king: "... if my head could win him [Henry VIII] a castle in France it should not fail to go.” (Roper, c. 1556). Roper shows that Henry acknowledged More’s loyalty and service:

... the Duke of Norfolk... showed that he was from the King himself straightly charged... to make declaration how much all England was beholding to Sir Thomas More for his great service. (ibid.)

This gratitude eventually led to Henry, in 1529, going so far as to grant More the position of Lord Chancellor, with the very important tasks of advising the king and enforcing the laws against heretics (Huddleston, 1912). More was the first ever layman to hold this title, indicating Henry’s great admiration for him. However, this mutual regard was to be terminated when Henry declared himself the leader of the Church.

Related Article: Martin Luther and the Process of Condemnation
Henry boldly usurped the authority of the Catholic Church by breaking away from Rome and establishing himself head of the Church of England. This was indicated in the Act of Supremacy passed by Parliament in 1534: “... the king, our sovereign lord... shall be taken, accepted, and reputed the only supreme head in earth of the Church of England.” (English Parliament, 1534). This assertion of religious power had been deemed necessary by Henry to validate his marriage to Anne Boleyn (Cobbett, 1896, p.37). In securing this ecclesiastical supremacy, Henry relied on the people’s unquestioning loyalty and acceptance of his God-given sovereignty. Nevertheless, to ensure that the Act of Supremacy was truly adhered to, Parliament also passed the Act of Treason in the same year. It specified that it was illegal to deny any of the king’s titles:

If any person or persons…do maliciously wish, will or desire, by words or writing…to the king's most royal person, the queen’s…or to deprive them of their dignity, title…that then every such person and persons so offending…shall have and suffer such pains of death and other penalties, as is limited and accustomed in cases of high treason. (English Parliament, 1534)

Hence, Henry’s title of Supreme Head of the Church had to be recognised. The Oath of Supremacy was an acknowledgment of the king’s position in the Church, and to refuse to take this oath could be seen as misprision, while to “maliciously” undermine the king’s supremacy was viewed as high treason (Karlin & Oakley, 2008). Most of Henry’s prominent subjects, including members of the clergy, swore the oath with little hesitation.

Thomas More was one of the few to refuse to swear the Oath of Supremacy, due to his strong beliefs, which ultimately cost him his life. More had fought against heretics as Lord Chancellor because he was faithful to the Catholic Church (Mathew 1934, p.204). For this reason, he was committed to staying with the Catholic Church, and believed that the Act of Supremacy was wrong. He wrote to Bishop Fisher, another one of the few to refuse to take the oath, acknowledging the danger of refusing to comply, but also asserting that it would be morally wrong for him to submit to the Act:

The Act of Parliament is like a sword with two edges; for if a man answer one way it will confound his soul, and if he answer the other way it will confound his body. (Chambers, 1935, p.337)

Even with multitudes around him taking the oath, More remained firm in his decision, as he considered it the sensible course of action. Erasmus’s description of More supports the view that More was the sort of man to stand up for his beliefs, regardless of the general consensus: “No one is less led by the opinions of the crowd, yet no one departs less from common sense.” (Erasmus, 1519). More, since he disagreed with Henry, resigned his position as Lord Chancellor. This happened at a time when Henry was bringing monumental change to England’s religion. More was an esteemed figure, and his opposition to the Act of Supremacy would have caused many to be cynical of Henry’s plan. As a result, Henry would have looked on More as a potential threat to his authority. For this reason, it was inevitable that More would be persecuted as a traitor. More’s “treason” was an accusation backed by the supreme authority of England.

The sentence passed down to Thomas More was a foregone conclusion. He had upset Henry, and as a result was destined to be executed for treason. More’s refusal to take the Oath of Supremacy was enough to convict him of misprision, with various minor punishments, but not enough to condemn him for high treason, with capital punishment. His accusers, however, wanted him permanently removed, and therefore tried him for high treason. A contemporary account of the trial is given by William Roper, who, being More’s son-in-law, is obviously favorable to More. Roper admits that he did not attend the trial, but claims to have been informed by reliable eyewitnesses. Another source of information for the trial is Thomas Salmon in his book of cases of high treason published in 1719. Although he was writing nearly 200 years after the event, he uses all available contemporary sources, including Roper, Edward Hall’s Chronicle from 1542, and Edward Herbert’s Life of Henry VIII from 1648, to give a thorough account of all stages of the trial. Since both Herbert and Hall portray Henry in a positive light, Salmon’s account is well balanced. Salmon says that the vital testimony in proving More’s malice was Richard Rich:

... the word Malice was what was principally insisted on, and in the mouths of the whole court, though for proof of it no body could produce either words or actions: nevertheless, to set the best gloss that could be upon the matter, Mr. Rich was called to give evidence in open court upon oath... (Salmon, 1719)

Rich claimed that he had heard More speak high treason, a claim which More denied. After this, the case was handed over to the jury for their verdict. The jury was the most important feature of any case of high treason. Indeed, it gave the final verdict, a verdict which could be neither retracted nor appealed (Karlin & Oakley, 2008). It appears that the jury in More’s case was fraudulent. At least one of the jury members, a certain John Parnell, had a feeling of resentment towards More. Roper says that Parnell had filed charges of corruption against More:

This Parnell to the King's Highness had grievously complained that Sir Thomas More, for making the decree, had... taken a fair great gilt cup for a bribe (Roper, c.1556)

Salmon gives a list of the jury members, and John Parnell is among them. The fact that the jury “on whose verdict his [More’s] life now depended” (Salmon, 1719) contained people who had open personal dislikes for More indicates that its existence was more to fulfill a technicality rather than an attempt to obtain a fair trial. As expected, the jury gave the verdict of guilty; More was convicted of high treason, and executed accordingly. Thus, the trial, and hence the death, of Thomas More was fundamentally unjust.

Thomas More had a successful career and served England well, but due to his unwavering opposition to Henry’s seizure of religious power he died an enemy of the king. More had earned the respect of many throughout England and Europe, and was rewarded with positions of importance accordingly. It is a testament to how respected he had become that Henry saw the need for him to be eliminated when he refused to take the Oath of Supremacy. The fact that the king wanted to dispose of More meant that the trial was bound to be prejudiced. The verdict of guilty was given by a jury which contained those with personal dislikes for More, indicating that the trial was dishonest. Certainly, More deserves his favorable legacy of a Saint who died unjustly for his beliefs.

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English Parliament, 1534, The Act of Supremacy. Accessed at on 19 April, 2009.

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