God's Servant First: Sir Thomas More Was Beheaded for Treason, Which He Was Not Guilty of. He Remains a Prototype of One Who Lost His Life Rather Than Overrule His Conscience and Risk His Soul

By Kenny, Jack | The New American, August 16, 2010 | Go to article overview

God's Servant First: Sir Thomas More Was Beheaded for Treason, Which He Was Not Guilty of. He Remains a Prototype of One Who Lost His Life Rather Than Overrule His Conscience and Risk His Soul


Kenny, Jack, The New American


There is, if you will, an arresting scene in A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt's magnificent play about Sir Thomas More. The scene concerns an arrest that does not take place at the home of More, the Lord Chancellor of England. An acquaintance named Richard Rich is acting suspiciously and members of the More household, and no doubt More himself, suspect he is spying on the Lord Chancellor and is prepared to betray him to his enemies--a suspicion borne out all too well by later events. Rich has no sooner left than More's wife, daughter, and son-in-law all clamor for his arrest, a request More might grant but for the inconvenient fact that the man had broken no law.

"Father, that man's bad," his daughter protests.

"There is no law against that," More points out. Whereupon his son-in-law, the volatile William Roper, accuses More of a willingness to give the devil himself the benefit of the law.

"Yes," More agrees. "And what would you do, cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ... And when the last law was down and the Devil turned round on you--where would you hide. Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast--man's laws, not God's--and if you cut them down--and you're just the man to do it--d' you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

It is a marvelous bit of oratory, whether actually spoken by More or a product of the playwright's imagination. The lessons of Thomas More's life and death, in drama as in history, resonate across one ocean and five centuries, from More's 16th-century England to our 21st-century America, where both citizen and foreigner may be imprisoned, indefinitely without trial, on suspicion of being an "unlawful enemy combatant." More's high regard for the law "for my own safety's sake" was mocked by those who bent the law to their own devices to destroy More and thereby serve the insatiable appetite and ambition of their King.

A statement often attributed to George Washington holds that government is like fire, "a dangerous servant and a fearful master." Law is the fireplace. Rulers, as much as or even more than subjects, must themselves be ruled by law if liberty is to survive. Mankind is not disposed, our Declaration told the world, to break laws and defy kings for light and transient causes. But More, in common parlance, lost his head to save his soul, because he could not obey an unjust law that put a secular ruler above God's law and set him over God's church. All power, temporal and spiritual, had been placed in the hands of a mortal monarch. Such consolidation of power, Madison wrote on the American continent more than 200 years later, is the very definition of tyranny.

The Iron Rule of Law

Yet More was not what we might call today a "card-carrying member" of anybody's civil liberties union. He lived, as the Common Man in the play tells us, in "an age less fastidious than our own. Imprisonment without trial, and even examination under torture were common." Sir Thomas insisted he never resorted to physical torments in his own examination of prisoners, but due process in Renaissance times was emphatically pre-Miranda. In composing his own epitaph. More described himself as "relentless towards thieves murderers and heretics." He prosecuted heretics, who were regarded as a threat to the peace and safety of the kingdom, as well as to the Catholic Church and the souls of the faithful. Their books were banned and they were forbidden by law to publicly preach their doctrines. Those who persisted after warnings might leave the world in a blaze of infamy. Six heretics were burned at the stake during More's 31 months as Lord Chancellor. Of one who was reported to have recanted before the flames reached his body, More declared that God "of his endless mercy brought his body to death" but in the process saved the condemned man's soul.

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God's Servant First: Sir Thomas More Was Beheaded for Treason, Which He Was Not Guilty of. He Remains a Prototype of One Who Lost His Life Rather Than Overrule His Conscience and Risk His Soul
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