The Martyrdom of St. Thomas More – Part I


By Frank Magill

The story of St. Thomas More and his ultimately fatal disagreement with King Henry VIII of England leapt from the history books into the popular imagination, at least into that of the anglophone world, in the 1960 stage play by Robert Bolt, “A Man For All Seasons.” Bolt himself later wrote the screenplay for the critically acclaimed motion picture of the same name, released in 1966, for which he won one of the six “Oscars” awarded to the film.

Bolt’s work brought to the wider world the traditional perception of the case, at least among faithful Catholics and other adherents to the Biblical notion of marriage, as an unjust persecution of More and Bishop St. John Fisher by a tyrannical monarch bent on placing his own desires and ego above the law of God. In the play and film, both More and Fisher were convicted of treason and executed on the testimony of one man: Sir Richard Rich, a political weather-vane who, at the time, was a minion of Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell served Henry, among other ways, as the “brains” behind (and possibly the instigator of) Henry’s scheme to break the English church away from communion with Rome, and after the rupture Cromwell and Rich undertook the dissolution and distribution of the English monasteries, allotting them in exchange for political favors, thus destroying the spiritual fruit of centuries of faith. Ironically, at about the same time as Bolt was writing his screenplay for the film, an English historian, J. Duncan M. Derrett, published a work contending that the trial of More was actually a fair one, conducted in accord with then-existing English law.1

The view of Derrett (an Anglican-educated legal positivist whose primary claim to fame was as a scholar of Hinduism and Indian law, and who also wrote several books on interpretation of the New Testamemt) was accepted by a general consensus of historians in the 1960’s and thereafter. Recently, however, in 2011, a comprehensive review of the available documentation of More’s trial was published,2 in which Derrett’s view of the trial was challenged. Derrett, the legal positivist, argued that More clearly broke the law (meaning the statutes, passed at the behest of Henry VIII, upon which More was indicted and tried), and yet the judges at his trial were amenable to reasonable arguments, having dismissed much of the original indictment against him. From this, Derrett concluded More was treated justly by the day’s standards.

On the contrary, the American and Catholic historian Henry Ansgar Kelly argued that Derrett’s view is unreasonable. In light of all the available records, and considering then-existing legal and procedural standards, Kelly concludes that More was actually the victim of a gross miscarriage of justice, convicted largely upon the perjured testimony of an agent of the King who desired More’s conviction out of personal animosity, before a court made up largely of men with vested personal interests in getting More out of the way permanently, and a jury comprised of employees of the king.

More’s Life Before Royal Service

More was the eldest son of Sir John More, himself a lawyer who became a judge of the King’s Bench. More received a top tier education, including in a highly regarded London school, personal tutelage from the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Morton (later a Cardinal), and two years at Oxford. After beginning study of the law back home in London, More was admitted in 1496 to Lincoln’s Inn, one of the four prestigious Inns of Court, where he completed his legal education, becoming a full member of the Bar in 1501. At about the same time, More took up residence at the Carthusian monastery that was next door to Lincoln’s Inn, where he risked the ire of his father by seriously discerning whether he was called to the priesthood. Although More eventually concluded that he did not have a vocation to Holy Orders, his time in the monastery left its mark, as he continued for life to observe the holy habits which the monks had instilled in him, of prayer, fasting and the wearing of a hair shirt.

Having discerned his vocation to be that of husband and father, More married a farmer’s daughter, Joan Colt, in 1504 or 1505, with whom he had four children before her untimely death in 1511. Left with the care of four youngsters under six years of age, More shortly thereafter married a wealthy widow, Alice Middleton, who had one daughter. In addition to practicing law, More wrote a great deal, including works of poetry, history, and fiction, many of which are available free online, though some may be difficult for today’s readers to decipher as they are in old English spelling and typeface, if not in Latin. Perhaps his best-known work from this period is Utopia, a word invented by More which has become a common usage in modern English. The book combined satire, romance and political philosophy in a unique manner, describing a fictional society governed entirely by reason.

More first entered public service in 1510 as one of two “undersheriffs” of London, a quasi-judicial post he resigned in order to enter into the King’s service, full-time, in 1518. Rising through the ranks in various titles, including under-treasurer and Speaker of the House of Commons, More became known as Henry VIII’s “intellectual courtier” as well as being “a very active citizen of London. He developed one of the largest and most lucrative law practices in the city. He took on greater responsibilities in governing Lincoln’s Inn, and he was elected to the prestigious Doctors’ Commons. He also represented the city’s business interests in foreign embassies, and still found time to write and to correspond with Europe’s leading intellectuals.”3 More further burnished his reputation as a defender of the Faith by assisting and supporting Henry in a vigorous exchange of polemics between the king and Martin Luther, capped by More’s Responsio ad Lutherum (in Latin) in 1523.

The “Great Matter” 4

Henry first informed More of his theory of invalidity of his marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon in September of 1527 at Hampton Court, which issue More thereafter referred to as the King’s “great matter.”5 Citing Leviticus, the King stated his belief that Catherine’s brief marriage to his deceased older brother Arthur meant that, by marrying Catherine, Henry had “uncover[ed] the nakedness” of his brother’s wife (cf. Lev. 18:16). Thus, claimed the king, her marriage to Henry was rendered barren, pursuant to Lev 20:21. More’s doubted that the referenced passages invalidated Henry and Catherine’s marriage, and opined as much, noting this would be true especially if, as Catherine maintained, she and Arthur had never consummated their union. Henry maintained that Leviticus ruled the issue, and suggested that More study it further.6

While, at this point, the primacy of the Holy See was not yet the central issue, as Henry did undertake to convince Rome to annul his marriage to Catherine, More did as Henry asked and made a serious study of the question of the royal marriage via Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church (such as Saints Jerome , Cyprian  and Gregory) and the records of the general Councils. In this, More’s opinion of the validity of the marriage of Henry and Catherine did not change. Moreover, the review led him to conclude that Papal primacy had been instituted or established “by the corps of Christendom”, manifested through “the general counsell of the whole body of Christendome” or the “whole catholike church lawfully gathered together in a generall counsell” governed by the spirit of God, corroborated by continual succession of popes over at least a thousand years; thus it did not matter whether the primacy had been instituted immediately by God or ordained by the Church; “it had become a matter of consensus and authoritative tradition.”7 Thus, More concluded that no secular authority had the power to overrule any papal decree. This, of course, would ultimately prove to be the cause of the fissure between More and Henry, and between England and the Catholic Church.

Lord Chancellor

In 1529, while working full time on judicial and administrative duties at Westminster and at court, and even as he began involvement as a representative of England in the lengthy peace negotiation which eventually produced the historic Treaty of Cambrai , More expanded his long-standing efforts to defend the Faith from the growing Lutheran heresy by writing A Dialogue Concerning Heresies,8 This was More’s first work published in the vernacular instead of in Latin, the purpose of which was, according to Ackroyd, “to
celebrate that common culture [ i.e., that of Catholicism] which was under threat; by employing the stories and proverbs that were in the air around him and by drawing upon the resources of the medieval tradition of caricature and speech he was implicitly appealing to his audience to consider what would be lost if Christendom fell into schism. A religion and a way of life might disappear.” 9

Also in 1529, a more ominous development occurred as Henry’s long effort to convince the pope to annul his marriage to Catherine ended in failure. The pope had dispatched an aging Cardinal Campeggio from Rome to England to preside over a legatine court that would hear Henry’s case. The court opened on the last day of May, and on June 21, Henry and Catherine both appeared and made their arguments. 10 Catherine’s emotional speech protesting the annulment, delivered kneeling at her husband’s feet, probably was responsible at least in part for the court adjourning without reaching a decision, as was her written direct appeal to Rome to deny Henry’s case. Also of no small moment was the fact that troops in the service of Catherine’s nephew, Charles V, King of Spain, had invaded and sacked Rome two years earlier, and the occupation was effectively holding the Pope, Clement VII, prisoner at Castel Sant’Angelo.

Thus, the pope was unlikely to grant Henry an annulment even had he been so inclined, at the risk of further jeopardizing his personal situation. 11

The failure of Henry’s case was decidedly bad news for Cardinal Wolsey , whom Henry had charged with the responsibility of obtaining the annulment. In October 1529, after the legatine court was adjourned without a decision, Wolsey was indicted under the Statute of Praemunire , a fourteenth-century law that prohibited appeals of English court cases to the pope, and charged with overstepping his legatine authority. Having thus been effectively deposed as Lord Chancellor, Wolsey surrendered the Great Seal of his office to Henry on October 18 or 19.12 Wolsey retired to York, and later was arrested for treason, on November 4, 1530, but died before he could return to London.

Henry met with various councillors, including More, for several days to choose a successor, and on October 25 More was notified that he was to be the next Lord Chancellor. Henry gave him the Great Seal that same day, and he was ceremoniously installed on the marble Seat of Judgment in the Chancery.

What Were They Thinking?

Henry knew More did not support his “great matter”, and More obviously knew he was opposed to the king’s fondest wish at the time, i.e., to be rid of his marriage to Catherine so that he could make his mistress, Anne Boleyn, queen in her stead. Both men must have known that a confrontation was inevitable between the monarch’s desires and the position of the Church. Why, then, would Henry appoint More to the highest office in the land short of his own, and why would More accept the appointment? Unfortunately, neither man left a clear record of his thinking on these questions, although much can be inferred from the records that do exist. For Henry’s part, his selection of More made sense from a purely practical perspective. More was, after all, well known and highly regarded throughout England. He had built a reputation as a first-rank lawyer, and had demonstrated the ability to deal with Parliament as Speaker of the Commons. The clergy had selected him as their polemicist in the fight against the Protestant heresy.13 Ackroyd then adds: “Perhaps most importantly, he had worked closely with the king for more than ten years; Henry believed that he could rely upon his loyalty and good judgment as the proceedings against his marriage continued their serpentine course. But by appointing a layman as chancellor for the first time in almost a hundred years, Henry was also reasserting his own power over that of the Church. Wolsey’s fall and More’s appointment, therefore, were directly associated with the king’s desire to separate himself from Catherine of Aragon.” 14

What, then, of More’s acceptance of the position? Did Henry discuss with him the “great matter” before offering him the Great Seal? The timing is unclear, though More later wrote that Henry asked him at some early point to ponder the question of the annulment, but declared that More should follow his conscience. Henry “…assigned the Archbishops of Canterbury and York as well as other dignitaries to persuade him of the merits of his case. But More proved obstinate, or merely impassive, and listened with great care to the various arguments without once changing his mind. He believed the original papal dispensation15 to have been valid and the marriage sound. Henry was disappointed but in More’s words, was “neuer the lesse graciouse lord.’ “16 Henry, ever the astute politician, also had personal reasons to elevate More despite their differences over the “great matter,” because Catherine was very popular with the people, especially in London, and More’s support of her was well known. Having More as Lord Chancellor thus may have struck Henry as personal protection against charges of animus against his queen.17

As for More’s own reasons, in light of his history of personal piety and vigorous defense of the Catholic faith, and although there is no evidence that he was compelled or coerced to take the job, the future Saint probably viewed the appointment as not only the culminating honor in the career of any English man of laws, but as a tremendous opportunity to serve the Church. By possibly avoiding the schism between London and Rome that he already feared from the Lutherans, if only he could turn Henry’s mind back to obedience, More also would greatly serve the interests of Catherine, whom he held to be the rightful queen. In ascending to the post of Lord Chancellor, then, More not only served his king and his queen, but he also greatly pleased his father, his wife, and likely of most importance in his mind, his God. 18



1 J. Duncan M. Derrett, The Trial of Sir Thomas More, in Sylvester, R.S. and Marc’hadour, G.P., eds., Essential Articles for the Study of Thomas More, Hamden, CT, 1977, pp. 55-78, 591-6, revised from original form in the English Historical Review 79 (1964), 449-77, cited in Kelly, et al., note ii., below.

2 Kelly, Henry Ansgar, Karlan, Louis W. & Wegemer, Gerard B., eds., 2011. Thomas More’s Trial by Jury: A Procedural and Legal Review with a Collection of Documents. Woodbridge, Suffolk, U.K.: The Boydell Press.

3 Center for Thomas More Studies, University of Dallas:

4 Ackroyd, Peter. 1998. The Life of Thomas More. New York: Doubleday.

5 Ibid., p.268

6 Ibid., 270-1.

7 The Correspondence of Sir Thomas More, 524, 498, cited in Ackroyd 1998, 271.

8 See also Center for Thomas More Studies,, The Dialogue Concerning Heresies, © CTMS, for free online version with study guides.

9 Ackroyd, 1998, 281.

10 Ibid., 272-3; See also, for June 21, 1529)

11 Ultimately, no decision was ever rendered on the legatine trial, and in 1530, Clement VII made peace with Charles V and crowned him Holy Roman Emperor.
12 Ackroyd, 1998, 287.

13 Ibid., 288-9.

14 Ibid., 289.

15 The pope had granted dispensation for Henry’s marriage to Catherine to deal with the very issue Henry now raised in attempting to attack the validity of the union, that of the Biblical injunction against marrying one’s brother’s widow. See

16 Ackroyd, 1998, 289.

17 Ibid., 290.

18 Ibid.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Frank Magill is a retired attorney and a 2005 convert to the Catholic faith.  He and his wife of 40 years reside near Dallas, Texas, USA.


CREDITS:  The Featured Image is a detail of Rowland Lockley’s copy of Hans Holbein’s, Saint Thomas More and Family.

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2 thoughts on “The Martyrdom of St. Thomas More – Part I”

  1. Great little piece! Truth and lawlesness have not changed much throughout the centuries. What would St. Thomas More say if he saw the horrors of today’s society and the plots of the church of darkness to undo the natural and sacramental institution of Marriage with AL & wacky synods?

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