A Man for All Seasons: The Martyrdom of Sir Thomas More

By Colin Hoch

Whether or not one agrees with the reasoning with which Sir Thomas More went to his death in 1535, one must agree without a doubt that he exemplified a man of principle. This is the very reason those around him, including King Henry VIII, yearned for his support and respect. This is also the reason that he came to be such a thorn in the side of the new establishment and its aims. Within the film A Man For All Seasons, based on the play of the same title by Robert Bolt, we are presented an image of More, played by Paul Scofield, as a Saint surrounded by unscrupulous figures of government such as Cardinal Wolsey and later Master Secretary Thomas Cromwell. These men, among others, are presented as the very antithesis to More’s justice and reason in the turbulent era of the “King’s Great Matter.” To understand why, when all submitted to the will of the King, More stood alone on his conscience we must take a closer look at the film and its treatment of the famous judge, theologian, and briefly statesman as well as at the personalities and events that led him to his fate.

The film opens on the heraldic statues of Hampton Court, the lavish palace of Cardinal Wolsey that largely set the scene for the drama of the Reformation. Wolsey had the income as both Archbishop of York and Lord Chancellor of England to create an immense estate in the new “redbrick” style characteristic of the age. It is from here a messenger is sent via riverboat to the home of Sir Thomas More with a summons. We are introduced to More as a man wholly just and loyal to the King and his authority, even as the others of his household, including his friend the Duke of Norfolk, chide him for rushing off to heed the call “of a butcher’s son.” We are also introduced to More’s eldest daughter, Lady Margaret, who is both beautiful and scholarly. She tells her father that it is the office that must be respected and not the man, an idea More will uphold as the film progresses. There is also critical talk of Mistress Anne Boleyn, all of which More brushes aside on his way out the door. He is interrupted by a devious little man, Richard Rich, who some historians say wasn’t given a fair treatment in the film. His villainy and spinelessness manifest themselves later, but for now he simply begs More for a position. Without the time to oblige, More rushes down the river to see the most powerful man in England save Henry himself.

A tired, obese and withered Cardinal Wolsey, played by an older Orson Welles, attempts to enlist More’s aid in securing a divorce for Henry from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. The Spanish Habsburg daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella had repeatedly borne him stillborn and mortally sick children, save for one healthy girl, Mary Tudor. Wolsey was pressured by the King to secure for him a means to produce a male heir, meaning, of course, a new wife in spite of the refusal of Pope Clement VII to sanction a divorce or annulment. The Pope was being pressured by Catherine’s nephew, both King of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V to deny Henry that which he needed to marry his love, Anne Boleyn. A weary and troubled olsey was running out of time, yet he made a fatal mistake in revealing to More how he planned to secure the support of the Church, that of pressure. Pressure of course meaning a breach of the immunity the Church was granted by law from temporal powers, a point on which More bluntly refuses his help to the beleaguered Cardinal.

More also refuses to see the logic in asking the Pope to nullify Henry’s marriage when it was required for Pope Julius II to specifically sanction it in the first place, as Catherine of Aragon had for a brief and unconsummated time been married to the eldest son of Henry VII, Arthur Tudor. Yet Arthur had taken ill and died shortly after the wedding, leaving Henry to marry her with special permission from Julius II. More then asked Wolsey how he could perform such acts for his government and prince while still an official for the Church. Wolsey responded with what amounted to the later Cardinal Richelieu’s “Raison d’ Etat.” That is, that actions taken by statesmen in the name of effective government are more important than the consciences of men. More, still respectful of Cardinal Wolsey’s office, defended his own outlook. “I think when statesmen forsake their private conscience for public duties, they lead their country down the short route to chaos.”

Working directly under Cardinal Wolsey was the man who later provided the procedure and legality to push Henry’s Reformation through Parliament, becoming Master Secretary of England. Thomas Cromwell at this time however, was merely an aid to the ailing Cardinal, who had risen into the ranks of government from a variety of odd jobs for his shrewd practices and keen eye for advantageous situations. He gives a farewell to Sir Thomas, leading him into the exit hall where a crowd rushes to him with bribes for his court. A woman gives what appears to be a gift, a silver cup worth a good deal of money, from the “grateful poor folk of Leicester”. Yet, when More realizes the inscription on the base denotes a bribe, he at first tosses it away into the river, but later retrieves it and gives it to the patiently waiting Richard Rich. More also offers Rich a position as a teacher, with a house and 50 pounds a year, but even this does not satisfy him. Rich wants to get into government, but More sees Richard’s weaknesses citing that the temptations for bribery are too great. With the death of Wolsey and accession of More to the office of Lord Chancellor in 1529, Richard begins to spy on his onetime friend for Cromwell. More discovers this with the help of his family and new son in law, a Lutheran named Will Roper, and promptly sends Rich away from his household.

Will Roper is depicted as devout Lutheran and “heretic” according to More, who during his time as Lord Chancellor campaigned against the reformed faith and the collaborators of William Tyndale. Tyndale had published a Protestant English version of the Bible in 1525 before being exiled. More, in a fit of fanaticism that branded him in some eyes as a villain, burned six Lutherans at the stake and imprisoned dozens more. Will Roper continually asks for Margaret’s hand in marriage and is denied by More until a scene in the film in which he recants some of his Lutheran views. Sir Thomas’s son in law ironically went on to write his first biography, written in 1555 and published 1626. The cruelest intolerances however, are cleverly omitted from the film, to further imprint More in a positive light to the viewer.

The last we see of Cardinal Wolsey is as he lies dying in a monastery while the Duke of Norfolk, Earl Marshal of England, collects his chain of office for More. Norfolk tells Wolsey he is lucky to die so peacefully, for the King would have it otherwise. The film does not reveal why Wolsey has so quickly fallen out of favor with the tempestuous Henry VIII. In reality, the failure of Wolsey to secure an annulment of the marriage with Catherine sealed his fate and branded him a traitor in the eyes of his Lord. With a man of Sir Thomas’s caliber and respectability now serving him, Henry feels more confident about the matter and at once pays his new Chancellor a visit at his home, creating one of the most pivotal scenes in the film.

As the rock star of his day, King Henry VIII was every bit as boisterous, flashy and glamorous as could be. His portrayal by Robert Shaw stands as the most attractive and realistic I have seen. Highly educated, witty, unsympathetic, yet magnetic, he and his court arrive at More’s home in Chelsea to both congratulate the new statesman and to talk of serious business. Henry wants More’s opinion of the Great Matter, tearing Sir Thomas between his loyalty to the King and to his papist sympathies. The trouble begins when More compliments Wolsey’s statecraft, at which Henry’s famous temper erupts, calling the late Cardinal a prideful failure. He is at one moment on fire, and then the next full of reason, citing Leviticus 20:21, which states that a marriage between a brother and his brother’s widow is unclean. Henry seems genuinely troubled that God is punishing him for his trespass, to which More replies with Deuteronomy which takes an exact opposite position to the earlier law. Henry becomes vexed, and promises to leave More out of the matter, seeing how distressed his new Chancellor had become at displeasing him. Henry departs, unsatisfied with the decisions of More whose own family questions why he is so obstinate. Cromwell, seeing his opportunity, begins to form an inquiry into the true disposition of More with the aid of Richard Rich.

Presented as the turning point in Sir Thomas More’s resistance is the Convocation of Canterbury. Here the major churchmen of the land, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, were extorted for the sum of 100,000 pounds for a trumped up charge of treason relating to knowledge of Cardinal Wolsey’s correspondence with the Pope and Francis I, King of France and Henry’s rival. Henry himself earlier had sanctioned Wolsey’s Legatine duties, one of which was diplomatic relations with the Papacy yet due to the ancient Statute of Praemunire, this action was clearly illegal. The assembled clergymen were forced to sign the act establishing the King as Supreme Head of the Church of England “as far as the law of Christ allowed.” This proved far too much to stomach for Sir Thomas, who resigned his office with Henry’s approval, citing poor health as the cause. Truly now More was an outcast, his household severely reduced, his reputation tarnished, and his own wife questioning his reason. More’s only defense lay in his silence on all matters relating to the Reformation, which he also extended to his family. With his background and full knowledge of the Law, he hoped that his silence and seclusion from the high matters of state would save him.

Thomas Cromwell and his new lackey Richard Rich however, were dead set on forcing More out of his self imposed condition and taking a stance. His silence had worked against his interest, as the courts of Europe construed it not as submission but eloquent protest, causing Henry to become even more cross at the famous and respected More. Cromwell finally brings charges against More, even forcing More’s friend the Duke of Norfolk to join in the persecution by order of the King. Henry’s view of More had been further enflamed when More refused to attend the 1533 coronation of Anne Boleyn. The charges stemmed from More’s correspondence with the anti-Reformation figure Elizabeth Barton, the “Holy Maid of Kent.” Yet More disputed this charge when he revealed that the letter to the radical had been negative, warning her to stay out of affairs of state. His knowledge of the law aided him, as he kept meticulous records and witnesses of his activities so that no doubt could be had about their intention.

The other charge related to the 1521 publication of the Defence of the Seven Sacraments, written by Henry VIII early in his reign as a defense of Papal authority and Roman Catholicism against Martin Luther. It is for this work that Henry had been awarded the title “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope. Cromwell accused More of writing the now illegal work, yet More had only contributed some scholarly and legal aid to Henry upon request and had by no means authored the text. Cromwell’s arguments shot full of holes, Sir Thomas was allowed to leave. Yet most now saw him as a dangerous and seditious figure, and his friends, including the Duke of Norfolk, dwindled to naught.

The beginning of the end came in 1534, when More was arrested for refusing the Oath that accompanied the Act of Succession. Although More had repeatedly unopposed Parliament’s right to declare Anne as legitimate Queen as expressed in the document, he silently opposed the clause relating to Parliament’s authority in spiritual matters and the denial of authority to the Pope. In a scene in the film, he ordered his eldest daughter Margaret to take the Oath and go on with life, and that if the wording of the Oath allowed it, so would he. However the wording was such that More would have to turn his back on his beliefs, and for these he would rather risk imprisonment and death than the destination of his immortal soul by defying his conscience.

After a year in the Tower, and repeated attempts by Cromwell, Norfolk, and the new Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, to persuade him to sign and take the Oath, Sir Thomas More stood firm in his silence. Richard Rich, who had risen to the office of revenue collector for Wales, even went so far as to suggest putting his former friend and benefactor on the rack. Cromwell knew it would displease the King to use such a measure, but he also knew not to test the patience of the volatile Henry. He sent Sir Thomas’s own family to the Tower to try to persuade him to relent, yet even the pleading of his closest loved ones did not sway him. It visibly pained him, and he broke down into tears with his wife, daughter and son-in-law. He ordered them to flee the country, and to understand why he was standing up when everyone, including the nobility, had submitted. More asked this of his wife, for personal strength as he soon faced his trial.

On the 1st of July, 1535, Sir Thomas More was tried and found guilty of violating the Treason Act. Pushed through Parliament by Thomas Cromwell, it had expanded the parameters of treason to include not only speech against the person of the King and his government, but also denying the King’s right to his new spiritual powers as head of the Church. Throughout the trial More kept to his defense that silence, by the maxim of the law, gave consent, rather than Cromwell’s argument that it was a rebellion. In a final act of betrayal of his former friend, Solicitor General Richard Rich testified that More had in confidence revealed to him his opinion that Parliament had not the competence or authority to enact its Reformation legislation. In history, Richard even goes as far as to say that Sir Thomas had privately revealed to him his denial of Henry as Supreme Head of the Church. In both the film and historical sources, More rightly denies this perjury saying that after all his silence, why would he reveal himself to a treacherous man such as Rich. Richard’s testimony, although false, was enough to convince the jury that they should condemn Sir Thomas More to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Henry later changed the manner of execution to a more dignified beheading. Before he was sentenced, however, More finally spoke his mind in defiance of Henry, the court, and the government.

His speech was forceful and clearly in favor of the Petrine Doctrine, in which Christ gave the Apostle Peter, the first Pope, supreme authority over the Christian Church. “No temporal power can touch this, the immunity of the Church spelled out in Magna Carta and in the King’s own Coronation Oath.” His final words to the three justices, Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas Audley, Cromwell, and even the assembled father and brother of Anne Boleyn were “It is not for the Supremacy that you have sought my blood, but because I would not bend to the marriage!” More went to his execution on July 6th with considerable bravery and as a Martyr for Roman Catholicism. As his time on earth drew to a close on the scaffold, he declared, “I die his majesty’s good servant, but God’s first.”

The film does an excellent job of placing Sir Thomas More in the most positive light possible, while degrading the other statesmen of the age as cowards for complying with the wishes of the King. Also I feel that some of the legislation, such as the Act of Succession and Act of Treason, should have been more clearly explained, as it had enough of an impact to destroy centuries of tradition as well as good men such as More. I have no doubt that the writer of the original play and screenplay had good reason to idealize him as a man of conviction and as such I find he was correct in doing so. However, despite the film’s excellent portrayal of Henry VIII, Wolsey and Cromwell, I can not forgive it for painting More as a man without flaw. The man was just as human as any who signed the acts and swore the Oath, but that perhaps this is the reason he was eventually canonized by both the Catholic and Anglican Church. His humility, displayed in its highest form in A Man for All Seasons, allows even those who do not agree with his views to hold him in high esteem as a man who followed his heart.

“More is 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.” Robert Whittington, 1520.

(All images taken from 1966 film A Man for All Seasons; http://www.tudorplace.com.ar/Pelicula/ManSeasons02.JPG; http://www.americanrhetoric.com/MovieSpeeches/moviespeechamanforallseasons.html; http://en.wikivisual.com/images/0/07/A_Man_for_All_Seasons.jpg; http://robie2008.wordpress.com/2009/05/12/a-man-for-all-seasons-1966-fred-zinnemann/)