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Thomas More: A Case Study of Character


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Spring 2004

Thomas More: A Case Study of Character

Brittany Gross

College of DuPage

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Thomas More: A Case Study of Character”

by Brittany Gross

(Honors English 220 – Honors History 241)

The Assignment: Write a formal paper that examines the following question: Why was Thomas More executed? Have an argument (a contestable point), and consider and develop it from literary and historic perspectives.

enturies before debates raged among politicians concerning the justification for capital

punishment, one of the most common means for disposing of nuisances to the royal head of state was execution. Whether the kings of antiquity through the 17th century actually bellowed, “Off with his head!” that classic interpretation nonetheless paints a rather colorful and fairly accurate portrait of the handling of such dissenters who simply refused to keep their unpopular ideas to themselves. With these things in mind, why would the isolated case of one such political rebel make a dent in the plane of history worthy of contemporary scrutiny? For one thing, the execution of Sir Thomas More in 1535 sprang not from an inability to stifle his own tongue, as it had for so many of those early, unfortunate advocates of free speech, but rather from an inability to activate it. More died at the hands of a king so frustrated with his subject’s deafening silence as to find no other means but execution to force him to speak his mind.


This reasoning on the part of England’s King Henry VIII, the same ruler so notorious throughout books and common memory for his laziness, multiple wives, and general plundering of the English treasury, stems from the larger concept of martyrdom. Martyrdom is a willingness to die for one’s beliefs and is the ultimate test of the sanctity of those beliefs in one’s own mind. Thomas More, as the Catholic Church argues by their designation of his sainthood, could easily be construed as a martyr, or, for that matter, even as a type of Christ, perishing unjustly at the hands of a royal Pontius Pilate. The posthumous glorification of More’s integrity even extended to the 1588 sailing of the Spanish Armada, whose men “were promised the aid of the saints and martyrs of England, including Thomas More” (Guy 204).

In the midst of such glowing saintly fame, the true image of the man may be easily obscured, and imperative questions of motive may be left unanswered. For what was More actually martyred? To what consuming allegiance did he surrender his life: to his own individual conscience, to some mystical, fatalistic destiny, or to his unbending sense of conciliaristic religious duty? In reality, it was a

combination of these divisive internal forces, and More’s tragic failure to sufficiently reconcile them, that would eventually cost him his life.

Human nature’s desire for simplicity, however, leads many to dangerously minimize the cumulative effect of the above motives in favor of accentuating each force separately. Viewing the first factor, his personal conscience, as the main culprit in his death encapsulates the standpoint professed by historical playwright Richard Bolt, who includes in the preface of A Man For All Seasons his

“explanation and apology for treating Thomas More, a Christian saint, as a hero of selfhood” (Bolt xiv). Yet in the text of the play itself, during More’s trial, the Duke of Norfolk pleads with More, “(Leaning forward urgently) Your life lies in your own hand, Thomas, as it always has” (Bolt 151). This clearly indicates a penchant for the second theory of an inevitable martyrdom, further supported by More’s nonchalant declaration that “[d]eath...comes for us all, my lords” and by his melancholic rhetorical question of how any Christian could refuse a passing less horrible than that of “Our Lord Himself,” should God so appoint him to suffer such an end (Bolt 150-151). Bolt’s handling of the causes behind Thomas More’s death thus indicates an insightful understanding of them individually but fails to integrate and fully explain the complex interplay of these forces within More’s heart and mind.


the true historian. John Guy proposes that More’s devotion to his religious conciliarism ultimately destroyed him, as he believed not in the merit of individual Scriptural interpretation but in that of a counsel of mature believers (Guy 199-200). Though he was a “papal minimalist” at heart, “More’s rejection of the Act of Supremacy must have pushed him closer towards Rome” (201, 203). According to Guy, the concept of letting one’s conscience act as the internal governing authority actually aligns more with King Henry VIII’s ideals than with those of his Lord Chancellor (204), in which case Bolt is guilty of thoroughly misconstruing the historical evidence (Guy “Tudor Age” 186).

Therefore, it becomes clear that these several traditional theories regarding the underlying cause of Thomas More’s execution are incompatible with one another, at least when considered independently. This would seem to necessitate the existence of one true perspective, but in reality, things are simply never as clear-cut as one might prefer them to be. “Reality is inevitably more complex, less glamorous, and more interesting than myth” (Guy “Tudor Age” 223). Ambiguity and paradox obscure the past, leaving those who attempt to examine and decipher it with the daunting task of filling in the gaps. From this perspective, the death of Thomas More provides a wonderful case study for interpretive history. Of the half dozen staple theories often given for his execution, single account offers a complete explanation, because they each focus too narrowly on specifics. To understand the entirety of More’s life and death, one must instead dwell upon that expansive, enduring legacy that permeated them both: his character.

At first glance this might seem hardly distinct from that popular proposition of conscience, but with careful inspection, the delicate contrast becomes visible. Conscience consists of the ideal self, that zenith to which every human being aspires as his personal definition of perfection in thought, word, and deed. Character consists of the actual self, that collage of achievements and failures, as judged by the conscience, which compose the continually evolving moral tapestry of every person’s lifetime. It was More’s character, not his conscience or any other personal beliefs, that ultimately led to his death, for it is one’s lifelong self-portrait that necessarily prescribes and portrays its final state.

If indeed character killed Sir Thomas More, then where does that leave his king and

(traditionally) his murderer? As one of the “victims of the [Treasons] act, who were in reality martyrs to Henry’s royal vindictive egoism, [and] were cruelly executed in the summer of 1535,” More appears as an almost passive figure when contrasted with Henry VIII’s fiery disposition (Guy “Tudor Age” 247). The fact was that the king needed this gentle Chancellor’s approval of his proposed marriage to Anne Boleyn,

to replace the barren Queen Catherine. Recognizing the value of character such as More’s and the international respect it would garner for the proposed solution to his precarious predicament, Henry naturally wanted to capitalize on his friend’s impeccable integrity, thereby gaining the necessary public support for his daring wife exchange (Bolt 98). “The King’s a man of conscience and he wants either Sir Thomas More to bless his marriage or Sir Thomas More destroyed” (Bolt 119). With the virtuous More as his moral alibi, Henry would feel invincible (as he did not subscribe to conciliaristic views); without him, the king would face the messy task of reconstructive surgery on his national religion and worldwide reputation.

These concerns boiling up in Henry’s mind, he tells More, “Your conscience is your own affair; but you are my Chancellor!” (Bolt 56). Thomas More, as much as any person before or since, was a product of his society; he did not live in a vacuum but was obviously under a great deal of pressure to reconcile his personal beliefs with the demands of his sovereign and both of those with the duties of his conciliaristic perspective. In addition, he struggled with the concern for his family’s well-being. More had made himself an individualist by choosing for himself which institutions he would follow but a

conformist by, having once chosen, becoming a prisoner of his own convictions, refusing to change his stance for anyone.

Lost in this labyrinth of conflicting interests, More took refuge in the safe haven of silence (Bolt 945-95). Whether he was unable to make up his mind or simply unwilling to accept the world’s reaction to his declaration of loyalties, More chose to hold his tongue. This unconventional “solution,” which hardly seems fitting for the author of Utopia’s societal emphasis on persuasion (More 1),eventually


reassuring his wife that, “I’m less important than you think, Alice” (Bolt 67, 59). He thus drastically misjudged the impact of his suppressed opinions. “This ‘silence’ of his is bellowing up and down Europe!” exclaims Thomas Cromwell, the vicegerent of spirituals to King Henry (Bolt 98).

In attempting to satisfy each of his diverse interests, from conscience and royal loyalty (Bolt 68) to religion and family (90), More gradually lost his footing in the slippery political arena that was Henry VIII’s English court. As L.B. Smith writes in her examination of Henry’s motives, “[t]he man of

conscience, if he is also a ritualist set upon convincing himself of his innocence, can be far more ruthless than the lover blinded by passion or the statesman absolved of his crimes by state necessity” (111). The king attributed the deaths of his young children by Catherine to their biblically immoral union, believing divorce to be the only way to redeem his soul and his posterity wrathful curse of the Lord (Smith 109, 113). This the Pope refused, and in frantic rebellion, Henry refused the papal authority of the Church and “finally threw off England’s allegiance to Rome in an unsurpassed burst of revolutionary statute-making” (Guy “Tudor Age” 246).

As Chancellor, after Thomas More refused to sign the king’s Act of Succession presumably because of its denial of papal power, the issue became one of navigating the murky waters of legalese. As it turned out, More’s character, when put to the test, would not allow him to sign, but in not disclosing any opinion at all, his “silence was not silence at all but most eloquent denial” (Bolt 152). Revealing his

impressive intellect and legal knowledge, More countered with the ancient dictum “he who keeps silence seems to consent,” (Guy 190). “If, therefore, you wish to construe what my silence ‘betokened,’ you must construe that I consented, not that I denied” (Bolt 152). Of course, this reasoning rests on one’s

definitions of consent, assent, and dissent/denial, for which the legal terms themselves appear to have been rather blurred.

This heady jargon and More’s desperate declarations of his defensive logic are all nothing more than last-ditch attempts to shield himself with the shadowy cloaks of noncommittal silence. “Obscurity’s what I have need of now” (Bolt 91), he says. When this failed to protect him, More’s only recourse lay in accepting his fate. As he “never missed an opportunity to speak” (Guy 198), it seems highly likely that the courtroom finale described by Bolt would have been an impressive scene indeed. “I am a dead man...” More says with resolution, “What you have hunted me for is not my actions, but the thoughts of my heart” (Bolt 157). In that swirling broth of his character, seasoned with sharp conscience and the sweet and sour duties of family, church, and state, a toxic concoction had formed; yet its poison may never have claimed More’s life, if the will of King Henry had not forced it to his silent lips.

To conclude, the tragic death of Sir Thomas More may be attributed to everything from King Henry VIII’s irrational rage to More’s unyielding integrity and devotion to his own conscience. But to so narrowly focus one’s intellectual gaze on only one of the many factors involved in More’s execution serves only to present a distorted and deceptively simplistic representation of an extraordinary human being, whose complexity was matched by the treacherous times in which he lived. His indecision and lack of integration of these opposing values ultimately found More trapped, backed into a lonely corner of his mind where silence was safety and isolation was imperative (Bolt 120-121). Only a holistic approach, giving due attention to each of the violent forces at work in the maelstrom of More’s character and “the tangle of his mind” (Bolt 126), will yield a true answer to his intriguing life and enigmatic end.

Works Cited

Bolt, Robert. A Man for All Seasons. New York: Vintage International, 1990.

Bolt, Robert. Preface. A Man for All Seasons. By Bolt. New York: Vintage International, 1990. vii-xx. Guy, John. Thomas More. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.



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