Sir Thomas More: Ethics, Duty, and the Law

by Heather R. Darsie

On 6 July 1535, Sir Thomas More lost his head for sticking with his legal principles. He was 57 years old. Often lauded as an important religious figure during the English Reformation, More was canonized 19 May 1935. Ironically to some, that was the 399th anniversary of the death of another famous victim from the English Reformation: Anne Boleyn. Turning back to More, today he is recognized as the patron saint of lawyers, civil servants, and court clerks, amongst others. More was educated at the University of Oxford for two years before beginning his legal training at the New Inn in London. More was later called to the Bar in 1502, meaning that in 1502 More was determined sufficiently educated and erudite in the law to present cases at court of law.

Sir Thomas More, after Hans Holbein the Younger, via Wikimedia Commons.

Being a lawyer in 16th century England involved having familiarity with two different bodies of law: canon law, being the ecclesiastical laws of the church, and common law, being the laws of the realm of England. More was trained in common law, but as a lawyer, he and his contemporaries had a duty not to run afoul of either common or canon law. More had a brush with papal dispensations in 1511, after his first wife Jane Colt died. More wanted to marry Alice Harpur Middleton less than a month after Jane’s death. Under the canon law of banns of marriage, no one could marry unless their intent was announced in church three consecutive Sundays in a row (this is a simplification). Because More wanted to marry Alice so quickly, he had to receive a papal dispensation. More did, and subsequently wed Alice. More probably recalled how the young king, Henry VIII, received a papal dispensation himself to marry Katharine of Aragon in 1509. The legal power of the papal dispensation and More’s own experience with it may have weighed on his mind years later.

Life as a trained common law lawyer with an eye to canon law was a fine way to live until Henry VIII wished to annul his marriage to Katharine of Aragon in the late 1520s. Leading from Henry’s wish for an annulment, the English Reformation came calling. The English Reformation was, of course, religious in nature, but there was a heavy reform of the English common law system. Once England broke away from the church in Rome, England had to evolve its own laws to replace the canon laws which were no longer being observed. This is an overly simplified explanation of what was happening, legally speaking, in 1530s England.

More was appointed as Henry’s Lord Chancellor in 1529, after the fall of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. More was the first secular Lord Chancellor of England. Another term used for Lord Chancellor was, “Keeper of the King’s Conscience,” which was easily applicable to the Lords Chancellor before More, as the various members of clergy who held the position of Lord Chancellor doubled as the monarch’s confessor.

As Lord Chancellor, it was More’s duty to oversee the functioning of England’s courts and legal system. More’s strong faith and his being the first lay person appointed as Lord Chancellor could have muddied the waters for More’s duties to Henry VIII and England.  As Lord Chancellor, part of More’s responsibilities included assisting Henry in administering the common law so long as it, in the Lord Chancellor’s legal opinion, did not contradict or violate the canon law.

This duty became dangerous in 1529 due to the assertion of the 1392 Statute Of Praemunire, which basically stated that English courts and the English monarch held jurisdiction over matters arising within England, and should not be heard by any other court outside the realm. The original purpose of the Statute of Praemunire was to limit the powers of the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor in matters involving England. Two acts were passed in 1530, An Act concerning a Pardon granted to the King’s Spiritual Subjects of the Province of Canterbury for the Premunire (Pardon to the Clergy) and An Act concerning the Pardon granted to the King’s Temporal Subjects for the Premunire (Pardon to the Laity). Any assertion of papal legal authority after the passing of the Pardon to the Clergy and Pardon to the Laity violate the Statute of Praemunire.

More was in a difficult position as Lord Chancellor under Henry VIII during the run-up to the English Reformation. More was in office from October 1529 to May 1532, abandoning the post after several of Thomas Cromwell’s petitions and pieces of legislation were introduced. These included the Supplication Against the Ordinaries and the Submission of the Clergy. From 1532 through 1535, a tremendous amount of legislation was passed, completely overhauling the legal systems of both the common law and canon law, effectively removing all jurisdiction from the Pope and placing it squarely within Henry VIII’s purview.

The Statute in Restraint of Appeals was a monumental document, creating Henry VIII the sole judge for matters religious or otherwise, making any notion of papal authority illegal in England. It was passed in April 1533, and gave Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, the ability to declare Henry VIII’s marriage to Katharine of Aragon void, annulling the marriage despite the couple’s papal dispensation from 1509. Once his marriage to Katharine of Aragon was annulled, Henry could legally proceed with a marriage to Anne Boleyn. No one could appeal the Archbishop of Canterbury’s ecclesiastical legal decision to the Pope.

In effect, the former highest appeals court of the land was completely cut out. It would be like, in terms of the United States, an individual state making it a felony to appeal anything beyond a State Supreme Court to the United States Supreme Court. This was a colossal change to the English legal system, to say the least.

The first Act of Supremacy was passed on 3 November 1534. It further tore away the English legal system from papal authority by declaring that the King of England was the “supreme head on earth of the Church of England,” granting the English crown, amongst other things, “jurisdictions, …authorities,… [and] immunities…to the said dignity.” All legal issues, whether at common or ecclesiastical law, were now under the authority of Henry VIII and could not be heard outside of the courts of England. This was the beginning of the English Reformation.

Sir Thomas More, seeing the writing on the wall in 1532, was likely horrified by the destruction of the centuries-old legal system. As the Lord Chancellor, he was forced into the position of either adhering to the will of the king, or adhering to his ethical duties of the established laws. Combined with More’s piety, it was an absolute recipe for disaster. The Treasons Act passed in 1534 shortly after the Act of Supremacy made it high treason to,

“maliciously wish, will or desire by words or writing, or by craft imagine, invent, practise, or attempt any bodily harm to be done or committed to the king’s most royal person, the queen‘s or the heirs apparent [Elizabeth], or to deprive them of any of their dignity, title or name of their royal estates, or slanderously and maliciously publish and pronounce, by express writing or words, that the king should be heretic, schismatic, tyrant, infidel or usurper of the crown…”

The Treasons Act, and More’s inability to violate his conscience and duties to the law as he understood them, led to his execution.

On 13 April 1534, More was called before Parliament to swear his assent to the Act of Succession. More refused to swear an oath to the portion of the Act of Supremacy which gave the English crown full jurisdiction over all matters temporal and spiritual, to the exclusion of papal jurisdiction. More’s legal mind likely interpreted this portion of the Act of Supremacy for what it was: a complete circumventing of established law for Henry VIII to do what he wanted, without any other authority to temper his actions. More was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London on charges of high treason on 17 April 1534. More never openly denied Henry’s supremacy over all legal matters within England. At his trial on 1 July 1535, More argued that through is overt inaction and silence on the matter, he could not be accused of having the intent to dispute or disaffirm Henry’s supremacy. More argued the converse, that his silence was his assent to Henry’s supremacy. During his trial, More argued,

“by all which I know, I would not transgress any Law, or become guilty of any treasonable Crime: for this Statute, nor no other Law in the World can punish any Man for his Si­lence, seeing they can do no more than punish Words or Deeds… [and] my Silence is no sign of any Malice in my Heart, which the King him­self must Own by my Conduct upon divers Occasions; neither doth it convince any Man of the Breach of the Law: for It is a Maxim amongst the Civilians and Canonists, Qui tacet consentire videtur, he that holds his peace; seems to give his Consent.”

A lawyer to the end, bound by his ethical duties to observe, maintain and uphold the laws of England as his legal mind understood them to be, More was found guilty of high treason within fifteen minutes of the case adjourning. More’s execution took place on 6 July 1535.

Please note that this was originally posted on

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Sources & Suggested Reading

Primary Sources

  • Statute of Praemunire, 16 Ric. 2, c. 5
  • An Act concerning a Pardon granted to the King’s Spiritual Subjects of the Province of Canterbury for the Premunire, 22 Hen. 8 c. 15
  • An Act concerning the Pardon granted to the King’s Temporal Subjects for the Premunire, 22 Hen. 8 c. 16
  • The Act of Restraint of Appeals, 24 Hen. 8 c. 12
  • Act of Supremacy, 26 Hen. 8 c. 1
  • Treasons Act, 26 Hen. 8 c. 13
  • The Act of Supremacy, 26 Hen. 8 c. 1

Secondary Sources

  1. Darsie, Heather R. “Thomas Cromwell’s Influence on the Laws of England: A Basic Review of the English Legal System and Reforms in the Early 16th Century and the Rise of the Act of Attainder.” Northern Illinois University Law Review. Vol. 39, No. 2. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Law Review (Spring 2019).
  2. “The Trial of Sir Thomas More Knight, Lord Chancellor of England, for High Treason in denying; the King’s Supremacy, May 7, 1535. the 26th of Henry VIII.” Accessed 1 July 2019.
  3. “Thomas More.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. First published 19 March 2014. Accessed 29 June 2019.
  4. Marc’hadour, Germain P. “Thomas More.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. First published 2 July 2019. Accessed 4 July 2019.

3 thoughts on “Sir Thomas More: Ethics, Duty, and the Law

  1. Wonderful article as always. Poor Thomas More, having to be Keeper of the Kings Conscience especially when he had such a battle over his own and had to go against a man and King whom he had been a father figure to and mentor for his whole life.

    I see your reference to the Famous Trials Thomas More and I was just about to recommend it as a resource, having spent much time there. Really valuable. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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