July 28, 2021

Thomas More collides with Henry VIII

For the cinephile, the figure of Thomas More (1478-1535) evokes the masterful A Man for Eternity, by Fred Zinnemann (1966), in which the great humanist appears with the features of Paul Scofield. The film is, at heart, a version in period costume of Alone in the face of danger (1952), also by Zinnemann: both are carried out by a hero who risks his life to be true to his conscience, while those who should help him turn their backs on him.

The original title of A Man for Eternity, A Man for all Seasons, alluded to the way Moro was known in his time. The grammarian Robert Whittington had referred to him in 1520 with these words. Few years before, Erasmus of Rotterdam In Praise of Madness (1511), he had used very similar terms: “A man for all hours.” They both meant that the English she was a person true to herself, always constant.

Thomas More was a faithful servant of the monarch Henry VIII (in the image), despite opposing the schism.


From the theory to the practice

Thomas More published, in 1516, Utopia , the work that made him famous, about an ideal society situated on an imaginary island. Even today, the word that gives the book its title designates projects that are difficult to carry out. In the following years, instead, he devoted himself to practical politics and culminated his career with the appointment of Lord Chancellor.

Thomas More was opposed to the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage, but was loyal to the monarch to the last consequences.

Before the Protestant Reformation, his attitude was that of a clear opponent. Like most Christians of his day, I saw nothing wrong with the burning of heretics, as Peter Ackroyd reminds us in a great biographical study. In any case, the question has been open to debate among scholars. Was he a moderate or did he want to exterminate the Protestants? The quantitative data tells us that, during his time as Chancellor (1529-32), six people were executed for their religious dissent.

Everything goes wrong

His situation started to get complicated when King Henry VIII wanted to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon . The monarch assumed that the pope would give his consent without major problems. Louis XII of France, for example, had disowned his first wife, Joan of Valois, to marry Anne of Brittany.

Thomas More was sentenced to death for his opposition to Henry VIII’s schism.


It was not that simple. The pope did not approve, and Enrique, eager to conceive a legitimate (male) child with his lover, Ana Bolena, decided to challenge her guidelines. From here, the way to the religious schism would have no turning back .

The disappearance of Thomas More caused a deep unease in European humanist circles.

Moro opposed the sovereign’s wishes. As a faithful subject, he abided by their authority. He was completely loyal to her. So much so that, on one occasion, he said that if his head could be used to get a castle for the monarch, he would not hesitate to cut it off himself. But he was unwilling to bless his marriage to Ana Bolena .

Still less willing was Moro to acknowledge the king as head of the Church of England. That, in his opinion, implied usurping the religious authority that only belonged to the pope. For Henry VIII, this attitude amounted to betrayal. So he had his former collaborator tried and sentenced to death.

The Valencian thinker Juan Luis Vives was a friend of Tomás Moro.


Policy pattern

The disappearance of Thomas More caused a deep malaise in humanist circles Europeans. Various authors vindicated the memory of English, among them, the Spanish thinker Juan Luis Vives (1492-1540), who had been his friend. Between them, in addition to cordiality, there was mutual admiration. The Catholic Church would canonize the author of Utopia in 1935, making him the patron saint of politicians.