Thomas More: Life Story

Chapter 15 : Resignation

In 1530, More was deeply distressed by the death of his father. John More had lived to a ripe old age even by modern standards – he was around 79. Nevertheless, More, who had been devoted to his father, took the loss hard. He was also increasingly under pressure to conform to Henry’s view of the invalidity of his marriage. Throughout all of the to-ing and fro-ing, the arguing and counter-arguing about it, More had never yet made any public pronouncement on the issue. As a side-note, it was not just religious traditionalists who favoured Henry’s annulment. Stokesley was a firm supporter, whilst Luther was against it.

In 1530 many of Henry’s clergy, council and nobles were asked to sign a petition to Pope Clement VII, requesting him to make a declaration on the marriage. More did not sign – either because he was not asked, in view of his suspected opinion, or because he actually refused, although there is no record of that. Later the same year he did object to Henry’s proclamation against permitting Papal Bulls into the country, but, although it was thought that he might resign, he did not and nor was he dismissed.

That year, the clergy were accused of Praemunire, and asked to accept Henry as ‘Supreme Head’ of the Church, but they would not completely bow to pressure, and, prompted by Fisher of Rochester, the title was amended with the words ‘so far as the law of Christ allows’. Archbishop Warham was pleased to take the silence of the bishops when the matter was put to the vote as consent. 

In March 1531, More read to the assembled House of Lords the King’s statement about the invalidity of his marriage, including Henry’s declaration that his scruples were not predicated on the love of another lady, and that many scholars agreed with him. To read the King’s statement was part of More’s role, and he did not refuse to do what was required. However, on being asked his opinion, he declined to declare it, saying only that he had already informed the King of it on numerous occasions. The performance was repeated in the Commons, but no vote was taken on any matter pertaining to it.

By early 1532, Henry, now with Thomas Cromwell as his chief advisor, meant business. Parliament resumed and the Bill in Restraint of Annates was brought in. This, if it were passed, would allow the King, at a time of his discretion, to prevent the usual payment of the first year’s income of a bishopric, to the papacy.  This was followed up by a Parliamentary petition entitled ‘The Supplication of the Commons against the Ordinaries’.

This was a petition that purported to reflect public disquiet against the heresy investigations and trials instituted by the Church. In particular, concerns were raised about the nature of evidence permitted in heresy trials and the rights of the accused. Unlike in secular courts, the accused did not know who the witnesses were, witnesses who would not have been received in civic courts because they were of bad character were permitted to testify, and, worst of all, the accused was not permitted to remain silent. He might be faced with a list of accusations and then his opinion on theological matters might be demanded during which he could easily become confused and condemn himself, thus opening himself up to a frightful punishment.

It has been fairly convincingly argued in biographies of Cromwell that he was a prime mover in the Supplication, presumably because of his sympathies with the reformers. It is fair to say  that More’s view that heresy was so terrible a crime that it was justifiable that the rights of the accused should be limited was not unusual.

Additional actions were taken to curb the power of the Church – or, rather, to use the power of the Church in the service of the King. By May, the pressure on More was too much. He openly opposed a bill transferring ecclesiastical supremacy to the King and Parliament, and resigned his position as Lord Chancellor.

The tone of More’s correspondence directly after the resignation suggests that he was depressed. He had failed in his desire to prevent heresy spreading; he had failed to protect the Church, and he was no longer in a position to uphold the rule of law, by which his whole life was governed.

He was also much worse off financially, although he had never been an extravagant man. He could no longer afford to keep all his extended family under one roof. As a token of their gratitude for his efforts to support the Church, the bishops agreed to give him a huge gift of several thousand pounds. This, however, was not consistent with More’s ideas of honesty, and he refused it.

Even in retirement, More continued to battle against heresy with polemics, particularly as the growing influence of Cromwell, seen as a supporter of the new ideas, encouraged more men espousing Lutheran ideas to visit England. Henry, however, was, and remained, a devout Catholic in his doctrine and heretics continued to be prosecuted and burnt, even without More as Chancellor.

Whilst he had left his high office, More still remained, officially, one of the King’s Council.