Robert Bolt’s book is a timeless classic with profound lessons for the present. Since I first stumbled on it as a schoolboy, I have derived much pleasure from reading and re-reading this book.
Robert Bolt bases his play on the story of the English king, Henry VIII. In 1509, Henry VIII married his brother’s widow, Catherine of Spain, thereby strengthening England’s political alliance with Spain. The pope granted Henry an exemption from Catholic law, thus allowing the marriage between him and Catherine.
However, the couple failed to produce an heir and a male offspring. Henry then sought to have his marriage to Catherine, who ‘was as barren as a brick’, annulled by the Catholic Church to allow him to marry Anne Boleyn with whom he was now in love. Citing, Leviticus 18, he thundered that his marriage was wrong in the eyes God, and the failure to produce a male heir was punishment for this transgression of the church’s scriptures.
‘Son after so she’s borne me, Thomas, all dead at birth, or dead within the month; I never saw the hand of God so clear in anything… I have a daughter, she a good child, a well-set child -But I have no son.’
When Pope Clement VII refused to ‘dispense with his dispensation’ and allow the divorce, Henry replaced the pope’s adviser, Cardinal Wolsey, with Sir Thomas More as Lord Chancellor of England. The king tried to get his Chancellor’s support for his divorce, but More, despite Henry’s incessant and even desperate exhortations, was violently opposed to it.
Cromwell’s, Henry’s hatchet man, solution to More’s obstinacy was pressure. He believed that More was just a man, and that every man had a price. So he started gathering whatever information he could find on him. He is the primary plotter against More. He stalks and torments More throughout with glee. One can almost see his smirk as he railed at him:
‘I charge you with great ingratitude. I remind you of many benefits graciously given and ill received. I tell that no King of England ever had nor could have so villainous a servant nor so traitorous a subject as yourself.’
Through guile and coercion Cromwell managed to make even members of More’s own household his co-conspirators. Meanwhile, Henry passed through legislation to undermine the authority of the Catholic Church in England. When Crammer authorized Henry’s divorce and remarriage, Henry was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. Then in 1534, Parliament enacted the Act of Supremacy, which established Henry as the head of the Church in England, and severed the authority of the pope.
On hearing this, More resigned as the Lord Chancellor. Parliament passed another law, this time requiring subjects to swear an oath to King Henry’s supremacy in England over the Church and to the validity of his divorce and remarriage. More was imprisoned for refusing to take the oath.
Cromwell has been courting Rich, a Machiavellian character who was blinded by ambition. By giving him the office of attorney general for Wales in Rich gives false testimony at More’s trial. In the end, More was found guilty of High Treason and sent to the scaffold.
Thomas More is the tragic hero of the story. He was a lawyer of high repute, a staunch Christian and a devout catholic. He was erudite, eloquent and with a fund of wit. He was a great family with friends in both low and very high places: including the king. His fame is mainly due to the rightness of the principles he pursued, and the sincerity with which he expressed them. It is as if he was aware of his role in English life, and what his actions meant to human history.
Due to his saintliness, his consent for the divorce was necessary for the king. It was as if Henry was tortured by More’s unswerving devotion to principle and virtue: his vice revealed by More’s virtue. While the king believed that his word was law, More not only respected the country’s laws but he also believed that there was a part of himself that he would not allow the king to rule over. This was a sin to Henry, and as was wretchedly commonplace at the time, the wages of defiance was the tower with its blood-stained scaffold.
There are great similarities between Thomas More and Sophocles’ Antigone. Both their characters are symbols of rebellion against a tyrant. Henry V111 and Kreon are embodiments of absolute power that brooked no opposition. We are repelled and even disgusted by their dark designs. If anything, we encourage them as they smash themselves against the rock of justice, and on their walk to annihilation.
More’s and Antigone’s eloquence reveals their rulers’ evil. The threat of death does not sway them from their principles and in obeying God’s laws above man’s malleable laws. They were both not warriors, but the battle they chose to fight was to resist failing the self and their conscience. It is this sublime feature of both their characters that prevents us from pitying them.
From the beginning of the play, the reader can almost smell the terrible fate awaiting More. Yet we accompany him in his doomed journey, not with sadness but awe. We never ask: why does he forsake his life when there is so much in it. We are inspired by his fortitude and marvel at his wisdom. There are other minor characters in the play, weak and wicked men like Rich, Cranmer, and Norfolk. But all their roles are there to enhance that of More.
After More has been found guilty of treason, Cromwell asks him if he had anything to say. ‘To what purpose?’ answers, More.
‘What you have hunted me for is not my actions, but the thoughts of my heart. It is a long road you have opened. For first men will disclaim their hearts and presently they will have no hearts. God help the people whose Statesmen walk your road.’
A Man For All Seasons remains a singular work of literature and scholarship, with a magnificent story and characters.