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A Man Caught Between His Religion and His Sovereign: The Trial of Sir Thomas More


Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1527

“I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first.”

These words were uttered by Sir Thomas More on July 1, 1535, before his sentencing for treason. It had taken the jury only 15 minutes of deliberation to bring a verdict of “guilty”. More was sentenced to be drawn and quartered at Tyburn, but his sentence was commuted by King Henry VIII to beheading. More died on July 6, 1535 on Tower Hill. His head was displayed on a pike atop London Bridge.


Such was the end for a convicted traitor in Tudor England. More was Lord Chancellor – the highest appointed office in England – from 1529-32. More succeeded Cardinal Wolsey, who had failed to procure an annulment for Henry VIII from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. More was the king’s key counselor.


In 1509, we can see More as confidant. King Henry spoke of his desire to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and we can infer that Henry trusted More as both an advisor and a friend.

“His highness walkying in the gallery, brake with me of his great matter.”

Unable to secure an annulment, King Henry VIII proclaimed himself Supreme Ruler of the Church of England in 1531. On January 25, 1533, he secretly married an already pregnant Anne Boleyn and broke with the Catholic Church. He was excommunicated by Pope Paul III on December 17, 1538 for divorcing Catherine. Thus began the English Protestant Reformation.


More had problems from the start. He interpreted scripture in a way that did not support Henry’s desire for divorce, and they differed on the matter of Papal supremacy – More was a traditional defender of the Church who actively pursued heretics.

In April 1534, More was arraigned for not taking the oath of Henry’s “Act of Supremacy” over the Church of England. More had, up until this time, kept his opinions quiet on the matters of the King’s break with the church and his marriage to Anne Boleyn. He could not, however, agree to Henry’s supremacy or take the Oath of Succession recognizing Anne as Queen and their children as heirs to the throne.

More was given a cell in the Tower of London for 14 months (*There is some debate about this timeline). He spent his time praying and writing to his family – usually through his daughter Margared, who urged him to take the oath. He was eventually allowed visitors, including his wife Alice, but by October his health was deteriorating.

A view of the Thomas More cell in the Bell Tower, Tower of London

Photo courtesy of https://ordinaryphilosophy.com/

There was evidence of written communication between Bishop John Fisher of Rochester and More, with More urging Fisher to reject Henry’s Act of Supremacy. On June 22, 1535, Bishop John Fisher was beheaded for treason.

On June 26, 1535, approximately a year after his arraignment, a commission of Oyer and Terminer was called to decide if there was enough evidence to send More to trial.


More was indicted on four counts of treason: 1. opposing Henry’s marriage by keeping quiet his opinion; 2. refusing to swear the oath of the Act of Supremacy; 3. writing letters to Bishop John Fisher while in prison inciting him to treason; and 4. a supposed conversation with Solicitor General Richard Ryche denying the power of Parliament to enact the Act of Supremacy. Master Secretary Thomas Cromwell, a member of the King’s Council, was More’s chief nemesis.


More’s trial opened in Westminster Hall before a 12-man jury on July 1, 1535. The verdict was inevitable.

The tomb of St. Thomas More

is seen in the crypt of the St. Peter ad Vincula chapel in the Tower of London.

Photo courtesy of https://www.ncronline.org

Sir Thomas More was canonized in 1935 by Pope Pius XI.

Why do you think a verdict of “guilty” was inevitable against Sir Thomas More?

Sources:

Linder, Douglas O. The Trial of Sir Thomas More. http://www.famous-trials.com.

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