Monday, July 6, 2020

The Execution of Sir Thomas More

The Execution of Sir Thomas More

      Today, July 6, marks the anniversary of the execution in 1535 of Sir Thomas More.

    More, by training a lawyer, served as Lord Chancellor under Henry VIII from October 1529 (succeeding Thomas Cardinal Wolsey) until May 1532.  He was as well a leading intellect of his age, being a close friend of Erasmus of Rotterdam; Erasmus’ Praise of Folly was largely written while resident at More’s house Chelsea, and the title is a play on More’s name.  More may well have ghost written Henry’s Defense of the Seven Sacraments (Assertio Septem Sacramentorum) and More wrote The Response to Luther (Responsio ad Lutherum), it in response to Luther’s Against Henry, King of the English (Contra Henricum Regem Anglie).

      Wolsey had been struck-down for failing to acquire for Henry the desired “divorce” (actually an annulment) from his first wife Catherine of Aragon.  More accepted the position of Lord Chancellor on the condition that he would not have to participate in its prosecution.  To the end, for example, when in 1530 a letter from certain clergy and nobles was sent to the Pope in support of the annulment, More refused to sign it. Eventually, Henry’s path moved from seeking an annulment from the Pope to declaring that the desired annulment could be had in England. 

       To that end the “Submission of the Clergy” was forced upon them, in effect placing the Church under royal control and as well requiring that all clergy make an oath acknowledging Henry to be the Supreme Head of the Church of England.  In response, More resigned the Chancellorship and withdrew from public life.  Eventually Archbishop Cranmer of Canterbury would award Henry with the desired annulment of the marriage with Catherine of Aragon, paving the way for the marriage in 1533 to Anne Boleyn.  More did not attend her coronation, which Henry (and Anne) took as an insult.  By 1534, after several aborted efforts to make a charge against More stick had failed, he was called upon to acknowledge the validity of the annulment, to agree as to the line of succession to the throne and to execute the oath acknowledging that Henry was the “supreme head” of the Church in England. See 26 Henry VIII c. 1. The Act of Supremacy had been quickly followed by the Treasons Act of 1534 (26 Henry VIII c. 13), which defined as treason the rejection of the Act of Supremacy. More refused to make the oath contemplated by the Act of Supremacy (although he did agree that Parliament could determine the line of succession), and was shortly thereafter taken to the Tower of London.

      Unable to entice More into speaking against the King’s (purported) authority, he was charged with malicious silence in not making the Oath of Supremacy. The judges for the trial, held on July 1, included all of Anne Boleyn’s uncle (Duke of Norfolk), father (Earl of Wiltshire) and brother.  More’s defense was that he had never spoken against the King’s authority or anything else as he had remained silent and under the law “silence is consent.” Perjured (undoubtedly) testimony from Richard Rich to the effect that More had denied the supremacy was introduced.  Although witnesses called to corroborate Rich’s testimony were unable to do so, and notwithstanding More’s critique of Rich’s character and the unlikelihood that he would after so much time divulge his deepest thoughts to him, the panel of judges returned a verdict of guilty. The die now cast, More explained his thoughts as the supremacy, denying it outright and insisting that no temporal power could alter the structure of the Church.

      Anne Boleyn would survive More for less than a year, being herself beheaded in May, 1536.

      Thomas More, whose body (but not his head) was buried in the chapel St Peter ad Vincula on the grounds of the Tower of London, was canonized in 1935.

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