Martyr or traitor?

Posted by Tory Historian Friday, July 06, 2007 ,

Sir Thomas More, former Chancellor of England and particular friend of Henry VIII’s was executed on July 6, though it is not clear from the accounts whether this is according to the Julian or the Gregorian calendar.

More was, as mentioned in a previous posting, one of the people who had helped to create the malign image of Richard III, undoubtedly because of his loyalty to the Tudor dynasty or, at least, Henry VIII.

Tory Historian recalls teaching history of political thought to some students many years ago, in the course of which Thomas More’s “Utopia” was discussed and being somewhat astounded to read an essay in which the student in question maintained that it was that rather turgid novel that brought about the author’s fall from favour and eventual demise. That would have been an interesting theory to propagate.

It is worth remembering that More remained loyal to the King for a very long time, even accepting that Parliament had the right to proclaim Anne Boleyn as Queen. It was the need to swear to the Act of Succession and, above all, the Act of Supremacy that put the King at the head of the English church that he found impossible to square with his conscience.

More was, in many ways, a much more interesting character than the one in Robert Bolt’s play, “A Man for All Seasons”, even as portrayed by the great Paul Scofield. A learned man, an enlightened man, a humanist, he was, nevertheless, ferocious in his hunt of all “heretics” and determined that they should suffer torment on earth as a foretaste of eternal torment in hell.


  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. He is thought to have had some of the heretics tortured in his own house so that he could enjoy witnessing their pain. Then he would have them burnt alive. Sadist, certainly.

  3. The concept of torturing a heretic's body for the good of his soul is very hard for us to understand but we do need to do so if we are to begin to understand Thomas More and many of his contemporaries rather than label them anachronistically.

  4. Anonymous Says:
  5. Thomas More: Hero and saint.

    Also a very great lawyer.

    Read Peter Ackroyd's biography, which is very sound stuff.

    The last chapter on More's final court appearance is brilliant. More had all the disadvantages a lawyer could have -- no time to prepare, a hostile panel of judges, no ability to call his own witnesses, exhausted and sick. He kicked their asses. They executed him anyway, but the record is clear that he was not even guilty of anything. He had maintained his silence, not spoken against the King. Technically, not out of compliance. Very much the atute lawyer to the end.

    Any torture or incineration of heretics was a matter of legally imposed punishment. No basis to assume sadism. That was the law of the land in those days. People were locked up in More's basement because that was typical of officers of state at that time. They had to run a lot of the operations of government on what we would not consider a very informal basis. The formality of a government run prison was not so well established then. The Lord Chancellor's basement served as a jail on an as-needed basis.

    The notion that the state should not only allow but impose religious tolerance was not on anyone's mind in More's day. It was literally an unheard of idea. It took a few more centuries to develop into a principle that was widely accepted. The book to read on that topic is Studies of Political Thought: From Gerson to Grotius, 1414-1625 by John Neville Figgis. The Figgis book is full text online at the Online Books Page, here.

  6. Your last sentence reminds me, Lex, that I must re-read Figgis on the divine right of kings. One of the most useful and informative books around on the period.

  7. Anonymous Says:
  8. I need to read that one.

    Also, I meant to say "... what we would now consider a very informal basis."

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