The Trial of Thomas More

A large poster print of this famous portrait of St. Thomas More, done by Hans Holbein the Younger during More’s lifetime, hangs on the back wall of my classroom, where I teach morality day in and day out to high school juniors.  I make explicit reference to it at least once a year, when we do our unit on conscience. 

I make a big effort throughout the year to include compelling real-life examples of our various topics into the morality course.  My two primary illustrations, during the conscience unit, of what conscience is all about are More and Blessed Franz Jagerstatter.

So I was very interested to read this new post over the the First Things blog.  Written by Michael P. Foley, a professor of patristics at Baylor University, it offers an overview of a fascinating conference held last month at the University of Dallas called “Thomas More on Trial.” 

Lest you think the conference was merely a re-presenation of the historical facts of the event, something we might just as well learn by sticking A Man for All Seasons in the VCR, note the questions that were considered by the gathering of scholars from a variety of relevant disciplines:

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?

And Dr. Foley only teases us by noting a few of the surprises that came during the course of the Dallas proceedings:

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.

Read the entire post from Dr. Foley, even though other details he offers (about, for example, the varying assessments of the trial by a 4-judge panel at the Dallas conference or the fascinating comments by More himself to the judges who ruled to have him executed) will only make you wish you could read through an unabridged set of conference proceedings. 

Any possibility of their publication?  Let’s hope so.  I’ll keep an eye out, but if anyone happens to come across them in the meantime, I’d be very interested in hearing about it.

St. Thomas More, pray for us.

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