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April 13, 1534 – Sir Thomas More Summoned to Swear the Oath of Succession

Thomas More, by Hans Holbein (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

This was the day that Sir Thomas More knew that he did not have long to live. Well, in truth he would have guessed it a lot earlier – but this was the day all doubt was removed.

In March of 1534, Parliament passed the Act of Succession (technically the Succession to the Crown Act 1534…) recognizing Anne Boleyn as Henry VIII’s lawful wife and their children as lawful heirs to the throne.  As a lawyer, More accepted that since Parliament had the right to rule on such matters. The problem was, the Oath constructed to go along with the Act went further than that: it was not enough to merely swear to uphold the changed succession, a person had to repudiate the authority of the Pope. So More’s refusal to swear the Oath made him guilty of treason.

And yet, he might have escaped. More had been careful to never explicitly deny that Henry was Supreme Head of the Church – and since under the law silence implied consent, his guilt could not be proved. Unfortunately, at More’s trial, Solicitor General Richard Rich (known even then for being a snake) came forward to testify to (lie about) a private conversation in which More had indeed denied the King’s supremacy. More’s reply was brilliantly scathing:

Can it therefore seem likely to your Lordships, that I should, in so weighty an Affair as this, act so unadvisedly as to trust Mr. Rich, a man I had always so mean an opinion of, in reference to his truth and honesty, … that I should only impart to Mr. Rich the secrets of my conscience in respect to the King’s Supremacy, the particular secrets, and only point about which I have been so long pressed to explain myself? I never did, nor never would reveal, either to the King himself, or any of his Privy Councilors, as is well known to your Honors, who have been sent upon no other account at several times by his Majesty to me in the Tower. I refer it to your judgments, my Lords, whether this can seem credible to any of your Lordships.

Unfortunately for More, the jury convicted him anyway. But the efforts to make an example of him backfired because his certain fate released his tongue – and let him tell the world in no uncertain terms that he believed the Supremacy Act was void as contrary to the Magna Carta, to Church laws, and to the laws of England. (Mary made a similar mistake years later with Cranmer, you can read that story here).

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