The Trial of St. Thomas More: 480 Years ago today.
St. Thomas More was brought to Westminster Hall for trial on July 1, 1535. Those set to try him were: Sir Thomas Audley, Lord Chancellor, Sir Richard Leicester, Thomas Duke of Norfolk, Sir John Port, Sir John Fitz-James, Sir John Spelman, Lord Chief Justice, Sir John Baldwin Sir Walter Luke, and Sir Anthony Fitz-Herbert. Like St. John Fisher, he was very weak after his long imprisonment in the Tower of London and was allowed to sit at his trial. Those set to judge him as his jury were: Sir Thomas Palmer, KNT., Falper Leake, Gent., Sir Thomas Peirt, Knt. William Browne, Gent., George Lovell, Esq; Thomas Billington, Gent.,Thomas Burbage, Esq; John Parnel, Gent., Geoffry Chamber, Gent. Richard Bellame, Gent., Edward Stockmore, Gent. George Stoakes, Gent.–and after hearing the evidence against More, which was mostly Sir Richard Rich’s perjury, they found him guilty within 15 minutes!
Perhaps the most interesting part of the trial–and certainly one of most amazingly convoluted sentences ever spoken–came when Audley started to pronounce sentence and More had to remind him of proper procedure, that he should have an opportunity to state why Judgement should not be declared against him. Audley wanted to get this trial over, I’m sure, because the former Chancellor had already presented an excellent defense against Richard Rich’s perjury (and Rich’s other witnesses would not back him up), but More presented another dilemma to the justice of this court:
For as much as, my Lords, this Indictment is grounded upon an Act of Parliament, directly repugnant ,to the Laws of God and his Holy Church, the Supreme Government of which, or of any part thereof, no Temporal Person may by any Law presume to take upon him, being what right belongs to the See of Rome, which by special Prerogative was granted by the Mouth of our Savior Christ himself to St. Peter, and the Bishops of Rome his Successors only, whilst he lived, and was personally present here on Earth: it is therefore, amongst Catholic Christians, insufficient in Law, to charge any Christian to obey it. And in order to the proof of his Assertion, he declared among other things, that whereas this Kingdom alone being but one Member, and a small part of the Church, was not to make a particular Law disagreeing with the general Law of Christ’s universal Catholic Church, no more than the City of London, being but one Member in respect to the whole Kingdom, might enact a Law against an Act of Parliament, to be binding to the whole Realm: so he shewed farther, That Law was, even contrary to the Laws and Statutes of the Kingdom yet unrepealed, as might evidently be seen by Magna Charta, wherein are these Words; Ecclesia Anglicana libera sit, & habet omnia jura integra, & libertates suas illcesas: And it is contrary also to that sacred Oath which the King’s Majesty himself, and every other Christian Prince, always take with great Solemnity, at their Coronations. So great was Sir Thomas’s Zeal, that he further alleged, that it was worse in the Kingdom of England to rest1se Obedience to the See of Rome, than for any Child to do to his natural Parent: for, as St. Paul said to the Corinthians, I have regenerated you, my Children, in Christ; so might that worthy Pope of Rome, St. Gregory the Great, say of us Englishmen, Ye are my Children, because I have given you everlasting Salvation: for by St. Augustine and his followers, his immediate Messengers, England first received the Christian faith, which is a far higher and better Inheritance than any carnal Sather can leave to his Children; for a. Son is only by generation, we are by Regeneration made the spiritual Children of Christ and the Pope.
Here the Lord Chancellor took him up and said; that seeing all the Bishops, Universities, and the most learned Men in the Kingdom had agreed to that Act, it was much wondered that he alone should so stiffly stickle, and so vehemently argue there against it.
HIS Answer was, That If the Number of Bishops and Universities were so material as his Lordship seemed to make it; then, my Lord, I see no reason why that thing should make any Change in my Conscience: for I doubt not, but of the learned and virtuous Men now alive, I do not speak only of this Realm, but of all Christendom, there are ten to one of my mind in this matter; if I should take notice of those learned Doctors and virtuous Fathers that are already dead, many of whom are Saints in Heaven, I am sure there are far more, who all the while they lived thought in this Café as I do now. And therefore, my Lord, I do not think my self bound to conform my Conscience to the Counsel of one Kingdom, against the general Consent of all Christendom.
Here it seems the Lord Chancellor, not willing to take the whole Load of this Condemnation upon himself, asked In open Court the Advice of Sir John Fitz-James, the Lord Chief Justice of England, Whether the Indictment was valid, or no? Who wisely answered thus: My Lords all, By St. Gillian (for that was always his Oath) I must needs confess, that if the Act of Parliament be not unlawful, then the indictment is not in my Conscience invalid. Some have wrote, That the Lord Chancellor should hereupon say, Quid adhuc desideramus testimonium, reus est mortis, and then presently proceeded to give Sentence to this effect: That he should be carried back to the Tower of London, by the Help of William Kingston, Sheriff, and from thence drawn on a Hurdle through the City of London to Tyburn, there to be hanged till he should be half dead; that then he should be cut down alive, his Privy Parts cut off, his Belly ripped, his Bowels burnt, his four Quarters sit up over four Gates of the City: and his Head upon London-Bridge.
“I must needs confess, that if the Act of Parliament be not unlawful, then the indictment is not in my Conscience invalid.” — the grammatical convolutions of this sentence, with the double negatives, all center on that word “if” which Audley dared not investigate further. Thomas More left Westminster Hall to return to the Tower of London: his son John and daughter Margaret were there to see his progress. Margaret pushed past the guards twice to embrace her father, actions he would later commend her for with great affection.