A Saint on Trial: Analyzing the Condemnation of Sir Thomas More
(Hat tip: Dave Hartline at Catholic Report)
At First Things, Baylor University's Professor Michael P. Foley writes about last month's 2008 Thomas More Conference on “The Trial and Last Letters of Thomas More”:
St. Thomas More’s star has risen and fallen in unusual ways over the years. Hailed in his lifetime as one of the great humanists of the age, he died with almost all of his friends and family accusing him of pointless pertinacity. Though his books were widely read and his integrity respected by even his enemies, it would take another four centuries before a critical edition of his works would appear and for the Church to add his name to the roster of the canonized. Since then, More’s legacy has grown steadily: He was declared the patron saint of statesmen by John Paul II at the start of the new millennium, and he was even added to the liturgical calendar of the Church of England—the legitimacy of which, of course, More lost his life denying.
Thomas More, we now know, was a sage and a saint, but was he guilty of the formal charges that led to his execution on July 6, 1535? Blamelessness before God and before the bench are often two different issues: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for instance, was a courageous Christian witness, but he was also accused, not incorrectly, of conspiring to assassinate the leader of the Third Reich.
Questions about the justice or injustice of More’s trial propelled a fascinating conference held last month at the University of Dallas. “Thomas More on Trial,” the fourth annual conference of the Center for Thomas More Studies, drew a rare mix of humanities scholars and legal experts approaching the last days of Thomas More from their respective disciplines. The result was a lively and unpredictable discussion on More’s writings, thought, legal skills, probity, and, of course, trial, which took place on July 1, 1535.
Every aspect of the trial was scrutinized. What did it mean to take an oath in the sixteenth century? What were More’s legal rights, and were they respected? Was due process observed during the trial? Did Richard Rich perjure himself, or did he merely misremember his conversation with More that became the most damning piece of evidence submitted? How much pressure were the judges and the jury under from Henry VIII? Which, if any, of the four extant accounts of the trial is the most accurate? And how did More ensure that his side of the story would be heard through his writings without incurring further suspicion of treason?
The conference was filled with surprises. For instance, did you know that we have no copy of the oath which More famously refused to take? That no official transcript of the trial was made? That we are not certain whether there were one, three, or four formal charges? That, contrary to current legal practice, the more grave the case, the fewer the rights of the accused? That More’s civil rights, as defined by English law at the time, may have been more or less respected? In other words, there was nothing procedurally unusual about More spending years imprisoned in the Tower of London, undergoing several interrogations, being suddenly brought to court for trial, and hearing the charges against him (read in Latin) for the first and only time. And there was considered nothing untoward in having judges sitting on the bench with a vested interest (to put it mildly) in seeing More condemned, such as an uncle, a brother, and the father of Anne Boleyn.
Perhaps the greatest surprise regarding this trial is not its outcome but its relative neglect. In an era that likes to talk about this or that “trial of the century,” it is astonishing that a capital case involving a first-rate legal mind, philosophical thinker, literary humanist, and, oh yes, canonized saint should have been on the backburner of our collective attention for so long. That, at least, is one injustice which the Center for Thomas More Studies has done much to correct.
Previous Pro Ecclesia posts on this subject:
2008 Thomas More Conference: “The Trial and Last Letters of Thomas More”