Conscience versus the might of the state: the lesson of Sir Thomas More

Are human beings to be ruled by God’s law or by the whims of a despotic monarch? Are men and women like chattels, the property of the State, or are they free souls, responsible to their Maker? Do the claims of a religious conscience sometime take precedence over a citizen’s duty to obey the ruler? The example of Sir Thomas More is a guide to answering these tremendous moral questions.

On the 6th of July 1535 Thomas More, former Lord Chancellor of England, was beheaded on Tower Hill, opposite that grim medieval prison, the Tower of London. On the scaffold, before being executed, he told the crowd of spectators: ‘I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first!’ Someone called them ‘the most weighty words ever spoken by a man about to die’. Indeed. Especially considering that the victim could have saved his life, if only he had been willing to compromise his Christian conscience. But he did not…

Born in 1478, Thomas More started public life as a lawyer. He quickly became a favourite of King Henry VIII, who knighted him and sent him on several European embassies. The King, a vain character who liked to posture as a humanist, admired More’s vast learning and scholarship. He treated Thomas as a personal friend. Many times Henry invited him at court but the wise man had no desire to be a sycophant and declined, until the King himself came uninvited to stay at More’s house at Chelsea. Eventually Henry made Thomas his Lord Chancellor – the rough equivalent of a Prime Minister today. At a time of widespread legal corruption and contrary to usual practice More would accept no bribes from litigants. ‘God has given us another Solomon’, declared a bishop awed by the Chancellor’s incorruptibility.

While the tumults engendered by the Reformation spread around Europe, King Henry had initially assured the Pope of his Catholic orthodoxy. His Chancellor, also a fine theologian, was commissioned to ghost anti-Protestant tracts on behalf of his royal master. Fatally, however, as the King became infatuated with Anne Boleyn and craved a divorce from his wife Catherine of Aragon, More fell from grace. He could not accept the dubious scriptural arguments the King advanced for declaring his marriage null and void. Nonetheless, Henry so admired More’s righteousness and standing with the people that he invited him to his wedding with Anne Boleyn. Thomas, true to his conscience, refused the invitation. He regarded his monarch’s second marriage as adulterous. It would have been sinful for him to approve.

In 1534 King Henry grew increasingly dictatorial. He ordered Parliament to pass the Act of Supremacy. That law granted him and all subsequent monarchs absolute authority and jurisdiction over the English Church. The King was therefore made the supreme Head of the Church of England. (It is, still today, the legal power of the Sovereign in England.) Of course, it was an absurdity. The Bible states clearly that the only Head of the Church is Jesus Christ. Later, under Queen Elizabeth I, the title was changed to that, more modest, of ‘Supreme Governor’.

Thomas More’s conscience prevented him from swearing the oath of assent to the Act of Supremacy. That the King had supreme authority in matters of secular power was not in dispute. But in matters spiritual? Concerning the Word of God and its interpretation? The prerogatives of the Church? The Sacrament of Marriage? More declared that he knew ‘of no Teacher of the Faith who ever approved that a merely temporal ruler could be a Spiritual Head’. For that opinion he was treated as a traitor and incarcerated in the Tower of London, a long captivity deliberately made harsh in order to break his resolve. His own wife and daughter pleaded with him to take the oath, maybe using the subterfuge of adding mentally ‘as far as lawful’. However the illustrious prisoner’s integrity would not be soiled despitecruel Henry depriving More’s family of their property, so that Lady More had to sell even her personal jewels to pay the exorbitant prison fees.

The King and his servile ministers, including the hideous Thomas Cromwell, Norfolk and Richard Rich, sought to frighten the helpless prisoner with threats of torture but to no avail. At last they fell back on downright lies. Richard Rich visited More in his cell, pretending to seek his release. Rich later swore that Sir Thomas had told him that Parliament could never make the King supreme over the English Church. In reality, More’s true words had been that ‘Parliament could not make a law so that God should not be God’. Quite a different matter! His sentence to death as traitor in Westminster Hall was therefore tantamount to judicial murder.

Thomas as a young man had felt drawn to the religious life. He had lived with the Carthusians, a monastic community. But God had other plans for him and he became a statesman. All that makes me think of him as a true ‘contemplative in action’. A type of God-shaped human being, both practical and spiritual, a figure much needed in all epochs.

Robert Bolt’s sensitive political play, ‘A Man for All Seasons’, later made into a film, well conveyed the saintliness of Sir Thomas. It is sad to observe that, by contrast, writer Hilary Mantel’s recent novel, ‘Wolf Hall’, offers a perverse and disturbing inversion. Sir Thomas More is portrayed unsympathetically as somewhat narrow and fanatical whilst Cromwell, Henry’s chief henchman and vile persecutor, is whitewashed and viewed as a commendable character. The TV rendering of the novel also has stressed that distorted take. Perhaps that is just as well. A decadent and unbelieving age would more naturally be drawn to darkness than to light, wouldn’t it?

In 1935 Pope Pius XI declared Thomas More a saint and martyr. The Church of England’s Lectionary remembers him on July the 6th. Quite appropriate. Although Henry VIII’s messy divorce provided the occasional pretext for the original separation between Catholicism and Anglicanism, the latter today is ecumenical and far-sighted enough to honour the memory of Sir Thomas More, martyr to his conscience.

The Tudor tyranny has long gone. Monarchs no longer wield effective powers but novel and more insidious forms of state abuse continue to abound in our time as dictatorships but often also under the guise of democratic regimes. It’s a strong reason to treasure the value of the shining example given by that stupendous man of God nearly 500 years ago. Hurrah for Sir Thomas!


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