“I die the King’s Good Servant, but God‘s first.” – Thomas More, July 6, 1535
It all came down to one decision. It was simple, really. Would the right honorable gentleman assent to a question posed to all Englishmen by their Sovereign? Would he avow that the King of England is the “Only Head of the Church of England on Earth” and consequently could rightfully annul his own marriage to marry another? It was a kingly right granted by Parliament and seemingly agreed upon by “respectable” members of court and high society. Surely, this man too, could be reasonable? It was to this question that a sixteenth century English society breathlessly awaited an answer. And why the anxious anticipation? Because it was Sir Thomas More on whom they waited.
It is around this one question – this one decision – that Robert Bolt magnificently guides his readers in his play, A Man For All Seasons. The play’s title itself is emblematic of the intricate portrait Bolt seeks to paint of Thomas More. He borrows from one of More’s contemporaries, Robert Whittinton, who describes More as:
“A man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness, and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.”
And while Thomas More is a captivating figure of history outside of Bolt’s poetic play, it is the words of Notre Dame history professor Fr. Marvin O’Connell that impress deeply the value of Bolt’s contribution:
“After all, the play’s the thing, and there may be more to be learned in one poetic experience than in the study of a thousand worn documents.”
And so it is. The story of Thomas More entrances chiefly because it is a story of conscience. In truth, the Acts of Supremacy and Succession (confirming the religious supremacy of King Henry VIII and the legitimacy of an heir produced with his new wife, Anne Boleyn), and the punishing Treason Act (for an individual failing to affirm the ‘Acts’) were far from simple and reasonable in the eyes of King Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor Thomas More. A friend of the King’s, a beloved husband and father, a man of letters, and a devout Catholic – Thomas found himself without conflict. That is not to mean that his journey would be without angst, pain, sacrifice, and, ultimately, death. But to Thomas, it was clear: The Supremacy of the Church on Earth rested inviolably with the Pope. The attempt to annul King Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was fatuous. The behavior of the King was selfish, immature, and heretical. And conscience – that is, the well-informed judgment (within each of us) hewed to the Natural Law of God – would not brook with it. As conscience would dictate, Thomas would follow.
“I believe when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties… they lead their country by a short route to chaos.”
But the story of Thomas More grows ever more complex. With a brilliant legal mind, a devoted Catholic faith, commitment to his family, and loyalty to his King, Thomas sought to preserve his conscience and his life. Yet Thomas would find himself drawn inexorably down a path dictated more by the terms of his enemies than his conscience anticipated. In spite of his deft, ethical calculations, the road he walked felt increasingly encroached upon and progressively airless as he found himself resigned from his Chancellorship, mercilessly interrogated, and ultimately imprisoned in the notorious Tower of London.
Thomas would rely on the notion that the true law conformed itself to God’s Will, and God’s Will is always just. If only the law were rightly observed in the matter of Thomas More’s refusal to take the oath (deemed so simple by so many) affirming the Acts, then that law would justly preserve Thomas’ conscience, dignity, and life. And yet Thomas More seemed to forget that where the passions of men are at play, God’s Law is dispensable. It was reasoned that by remaining mute on the Acts of Supremacy and Succession, except in giving nuanced assent to the obvious and uncontroversial, Thomas would be safe. His family would be anguished, his enemies would be irate, but Thomas was confident. Justice would be served. God’s Will would prevail. Thomas assured his wife, Alice:
“Set your mind at rest – this (tapping himself) is not the stuff of which martyrs are made.”
But, in spite of Thomas’ faith that all would be well, his King admonished him against even implied opposition, his wife warned of the ferocious tenacity of his enemies, and the King’s Chief Minister Cromwell grew singularly determined to destroy Thomas More. As Cromwell would plot with the perfidious Richard Rich:
“Sir Thomas is going to be a slippery fish, Richard; we need a net with a finer mesh.”
“It’s just a matter of finding the right law. Or making one.”
These words best characterize the conflict in which Thomas More found himself. In a circumstance where the law was jettisoned in the name of men’s caprice, the only entity intact to the bitter end was Thomas’ conscience. And while the law and fair judgment were crumbling around him, the debates Thomas had with his persecutors and family were what best represented the overwhelming power of conscience in a system disdainful of it. Thomas More famously exchanged with his friend-turned-persecutor, the Duke of Norfolk:
Duke: “Oh, confound all of this… (with real dignity) I’m not a scholar, as Master Cromwell never tires of pointing out, and frankly I don’t know whether the marriage was lawful or not. But, damn it, Thomas, look at those names [who signed and approved the Acts of Supremacy and Succession]… You know those men! Can’t you do what I did, and come with us, for fellowship?”
Thomas More: (moved) “And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?”
And Thomas More, pleadingly to his uncomprehending daughter, Meg, while he languished in the Tower of London:
“When a man takes an oath, Meg, he is holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. (He cups his hands). And if he opens his fingers then – he needn’t hope to find himself again.”
As Thomas realized that abiding by the law could not protect him from irrational passions, demagoguery, and outright perjury, a peace settles about him. Thomas no longer found satisfaction in the scales of law, but in the arms of God.
“In manners of conscience, the loyal subject is more bounden to be loyal to his conscience than by any other thing.”
And in a Christ-like fashion, while unjustly tried by the authorities of the day, Thomas imparted consolation to those around him as he was about to be decapitated. Thomas found himself becoming a figure of grace. To the headsman about to undertake his gruesome duty, Thomas reassured:
“Friend, be not afraid of your office. You send me to God.”
And to King Henry VIII, his Sovereign, friend, and true executioner, Thomas famously and sweetly reiterated:
“I die the King’s Good Servant, but God’s First.”
Indeed. Thomas More’s life ended abruptly on July 6, 1535. One question would dictate his fate. And Thomas chose aright. He followed his conscience. He followed his God.