3 June 1535 – Sir Thomas More is interrogated

Thomas MoreOn 3rd June 1535, Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII’s former Lord Chancellor, was interrogated in the Tower of London by Thomas Boleyn, Thomas Audley, Thomas Cromwell and the Duke of Suffolk regarding the royal supremacy. He had been arrested and taken to the Tower on 17th April 1534 after refusing to swear the Oath of Succession. Suffolk, Cromwell, Audley and Boleyn questioned More and tried to make him give them an answer as to whether the statute of supremacy was lawful. More recorded the men’s visit and what was said in a letter to his daughter, Margaret Roper:

“Writes, as it is likely she has heard that he was before the Council this day. Perceives little difference between this time and the last. As far as he can see, the whole purpose is to drive him to say precisely one way or the other. My lord of Canterbury, my Lord Chancellor, lords Suffolk and Wiltshire, and Mr. Secretary, were here. Mr. Secretary said he had told the King about More’s answer, and he was not content, but thought More had been the occasion of much grudge in the realm, and had an obstinate mind and an evil towards him, and he had sent them to command him to make a determinate answer whether he thought the statute lawful or no, and that he should either confess it lawful that the King should be Supreme Head of the Church of England, or else utter plainly his malignity. Answered that he had no malignity, and therefore could none utter, and could make no answer but what he had made before. Is sorry that the King had such an opinion of him, but comforts himself, knowing that the time shall come when God shall declare his truth towards the King. His case is such that he can have no harm, though he may have pain, “for a man may in such a case lose his head, and have no harm.”

“Has always truly used himself, looking first upon God and next upon the King, according to the lesson his Highness taught him at first coming to his service. Can go no further and make no other answer. To this the Lord Chancellor and Secretary said that the King might by his laws compel him to give an answer. Said this seemed hard, if his conscience were against it, to compel him to speak either to the loss of his soul or the destruction of his body. Mr. Secretary referred to More’s having compelled heretics to answer whether they believed the Pope to be Head of the Church or not, and asked why the King should not similarly compel him? Replied that there was a difference between what was taken for an undoubted thing throughout Christendom, and a thing that was merely agreed in this realm, and the contrary taken for truth elsewhere. Mr. Secretary answered that they were as well burned for denying that, as they were beheaded for denying this, and therefore as good reason to compel men to answer one as the other. Answered that a man is not so bound in conscience by a law of one realm as by a law of Christendom; the reasonableness or unreasonableness of binding a man to answer stands not in the difference between heading and burning, but in the difference between heading and hell.

“In conclusion they offered him an oath to answer truly what was asked him on the King’s behalf concerning his person. Said he never purposed to swear any book oath while he lived. They said he was very obstinate to refuse that, for every man does it in the Star Chamber and elsewhere. Replied that he could well conjecture what would be part of his interrogatories, and it was as well to refuse them at first as afterward. The interrogatories were then shown him, and they were two;—whether he had seen the statute, and whether he thought it a lawful made statute or not. Refused the oath, and said he had already confessed the first and would not answer the second. Was thereupon sent away. In the communication before, it was said that it was marvel that the stuck so much in his conscience while he was not sure therein. Said he was sure that his own conscience might very well stand with his own salvation. It was also said to him that if he had as soon be out of the world as in it, why did he not speak plain out against the statute; it was clear that he was not content to die, though he said so. Answered that he has not been a man of such holy living that he might be bold to offer himself for death, lest God, for his presumption, might suffer him to fall. In conclusion, Mr. Secretary said he liked him worse than the last time, for them he pitied him, but now he thought he meant not well. God knows he means well. Wishes his friends to be of good cheer and pray for him.”1

More refused to give the men “an answer” but stated that he looked first to God and then to the King, just as the King taught him to do when he started working for him. He refused to swear an oath, saying “he never purposed to swear any book oath while he lived” and when pushed to give an answer on “whether he had seen the statute, and whether he thought it a lawful made statute or not” More “said he had already confessed the first and would not answer the second.”. However, when he was charged with treason and tried on 1st July 1535, very different words were put into More’s mouth:

“The said Sir Thomas likewise, when examined at the Tower, 3 June 27 Hen. VIII., maliciously persevered in refusing to give a direct answer, and, imagining to move sedition and hatred against the King, said to the King’s councillors, ‘The law and statute whereby the King is made Supreme Head as is aforesaid be like a sword with two edges; for if a man say that the same laws be good then it is dangerous to the soul, and if he say contrary to the said statute then it is death to the body. Wherefore I will make thereunto none other answer, because I will not be occasion of the shorting of my life.'”2

More was tried for high treason on 1st July 1535 and even though More believed that he could not be convicted, because he had never spoken out against the King or denied his headship of the Church, Richard Rich (the Solicitor General) testified that More had, in his presence, denied that the King was head of the Church. It was also decided that More’s silence was evidence of “a corrupt and perverse nature”.3 He was found guilty under the Treason Act of 1534. Between the jury verdict and sentencing, Sir Thomas More took the opportunity to speak out and declared that “no temporal man may be the head of spirituality”. More was then sentenced to be hanged until “half dead”, then disemboweled and burned. A few days later, King Henry VIII commuted More’s sentence to death by beheading. He was executed on 6th July 1535.

You can read more about Sir Thomas More in The Real Wolf Hall – Who was Thomas More?.

Notes and Sources

  1. Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 8: 815.
  2. Ibid., 974.
  3. Wordsworth, Christopher (1839) Ecclesiastical biography: or, Lives of eminent men, connected with the history of religion in England: from the commencement of the Reformation to the Revolution, p. 203.

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4 thoughts on “3 June 1535 – Sir Thomas More is interrogated”
  1. The Holbein portrait of More is amazing, what detail. I read the article, then looked at the portrait, it was quite moving.

    1. this was written before I saw the racist and insulting personal attack made upon me for stating that England at the time was not a superpower like Spain or France, a fact any school child (at least in my country) knows.

      PLEASE DELETE MY POSTS made after the racist attack.

  2. A recent series on the history of the law in England stated that Thomas More attempted to use Magna Carta in order to show that he had the right to be critical of the King’s title as Henry was not qualified to have such a law passed in the first place. As it is after midnight I am afraid I cannot recall the exact details, but others also argued this in order to attempt being arrested as the King was going too far against their rights as citizans of the realm and free men. Henry and Cromwell could not argue against what More stated: his silence did in fact indicate consent to the law, but he had been trapped by a hyperthetical question on the competance of Parliament to make judgements contrary to the rest of the world on matters of faith and the Church. More, according to this programme, was right, Parliament did not have the power to unilaterally divide Christendom and no law could force people to accept anything that the rest of Christendom did not believe. Parliament was being coersed into passing laws that took away guaranteed powers and the independance of the church under Magna Carta and according to More’s interpretation of the law, he could not be forced to state his reasons for challenging the King who acted against the common weal. Even when Rich perjured himself and it appeared that More did indeed speak against the Supremacy, the conversation was a theoretical one and according to ancient precepts should not have been used in evidence against More, no matter what he had said. More was probably one of, it not the cleverest lawyer in England, and yet he could not argue this one point, because of a trap. Up to that point in the trial it is commonly thought that he may well have been found not guilty as nothing had been proven against him and the jury were restless. Cromwell/Henry had needed to get an answer; by fraud they had done just that and even then they had to lie about it. Was a battered, defeated and retired Thomas More really that much of a threat, when all he wanted to do at this stage was go home and be with his family? Did the King seriously believe that by showing More up and his execution that others would be so awed into compliance that they would sign anything? Did he fear that Thomas More would be able to talk his way out of the verdict by his clever nature, his whit and his excellent speech, or did he believe others would resist if he allowed More to walk free? In fact, many questioned their own motives for signing the oaths after More’s execution and others may have been bolder in their resistance. If More could not take the oath; there must be something wrong with it; if More took the oath, others would be inspired to do so without question. This is how well respected and admired More was; his influence was felt even at his lowest moment; Henry feared him, even after his execution.

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