I watched A Man for All Seasons a few years ago and I know that somehow St. Thomas More found a loophole that his family could remain Catholic and Faithful and in England while he had had no choice but to be beheaded to remain faithful.

What was the precise argument that he used to justify his departure from this life while his family still lived in hopes that they could remain landed and Catholic?

2 Answers 2


According to Sir Thomas More: Biography, Facts and Information and according to The last letter of Sir Thomas More, 1535 the Act of Succession was that which began the events leading to More's execution.

It was the Act of Succession, passed the following month, that sealed his fate. It stated that all who were called upon must take an oath acknowledging Anne as Henry’s wife and their future children as legitimate heirs to the throne. This More was fully prepared to do. [Facts and Information.]

More was prepared to suffer, as a subject, the demands of Royalty. But some believe that the words added to the Act, regarding 'prince or potentate' were added specifically to entrap More :

But – and of course this clause was added simply to trap More – the Act also required a repudiation of “any foreign authority, prince or potentate.” More could recognize Anne as the crowned queen of England. But he could not recognize the king’s authority as head of the new church of England. And so he was imprisoned in the Tower of London on 17 April 1534. [Facts and Information]

More had made little comment to Henry when the King claimed his previous marriage, to Catherine of Aragon, to be 'incestuous' (and therefore should be annulled) a non-existent argument since the brother involved, Arthur, died in 1501, eight years before his widow married Henry in 1509.

Wherever Henry found scriptural backing for this argument is not clear. John the Baptist's rebuke to Herod Antipas regarding his brother Philip's wife is irrelevant since both men were alive at the time. There is far greater scriptural argument that, since the brief marriage of Catherine and Arthur was childless, Henry, the brother, should marry the widow and produce progeny.

But More was not prepared to attend the King's subsequent re-marriage to Anne Boleyn in 1533. And not prepared to swear the oath in allegiance which excluded any loyalty to a foreign, earthly, power.

Nor was More prepared to accept Henry as the 'Head' of the Church in England.

Thus, to answer the question, More felt obliged, it would seem, to resist Henry and Parliament and he was not permitted to merely be silent on his own position, privately.

The Act demanded an oath to be sworn.

But More's last letter reveals nothing about either his intentions, or his own personal view, regarding his family and their rights or their future in England (or anywhere else).

The Wikipedia entry on 'hanging drawing and quartering' explains that those being so executed for treason - as was Henry's former wife Catherine Howard, although, being a woman, she was only beheaded - would, as she did, make a submissive confession on the scaffold, not for their own sakes, but for the sake of their surviving relatives, who could well suffer the same fate if the Monarch was displeased with how matters were going with the purging of treasonable rebellion.

For whatever reason, political or personal, Henry commuted More's sentence 'hanging drawing and quartering'(the usual for treason) to a simple beheading.

Therefore it is unlikely that Sir Thomas More's intentions regarding his family's status beyond his decease would be documented. If he made provision of any kind, then he probably did so secretively and if he discovered any justification for them not being treated as he was, then it would have been unwise to publicize that information widely, at the time leading up to his own execution.

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    The Scriptural objection to Henry marrying his brother's widow is Leviticus 20:21. This remained illegal in England until 1921. It can be argued whether Leviticus was referring to dead brothers, but the commonly held view reflected in the Book of Common Prayer and laws of England was that it was.
    – davidlol
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 17:58
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    @davidlol Thank you. Strange argument. Since the brief marriage of Catherine to Arthur was childless there is far greater scriptural argument that Henry, the brother, should marry his widow and produce progeny.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 18:40
  • While off topic for Christianity.SE, King Henry and Thomas More had a long and productive relationship previous to this tragic split between them. It is quite most likely that Henry's affection, albeit previous, for More still weighed on his heart as he made his final decision regarding More. (Of course, historians seem to disagree on this ...) Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 19:33

This is just to add slightly to Nigel's excellent and informative answer, specifically on the "loophole" allowing More's family to "remain Catholic" (as referred to in the question).

At that time no change had been made to the services of the English Church. Loyalty to the pope did not require an English person to stop going to his or her parish church, or make any change in their religious practice. The Pope fully expected all English people to continue to attend the one English Church. So the phrase "remain Catholic" is not very apt because, at the time, there was no choice to be made, or idea there should be a choice.

In 1535 the only issue was supremacy. It was only many years later that the C of E became Protestant, and Catholics were asked by the Pope to separate from it.

With respect to the oath of supremacy, it was required to be taken only by those in public office. It was not administered to the general population.

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