On this day in 1535 Sir Thomas More went on trial–such as it was, given that the charge of treason denied him most rights and resources–and on this day in 1960 Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons premiered in London. More’s argument for refusing to swear an oath making Henry VIII head of the Church of England (and husband of whomever he pleased) was based on the principle that regal prerogatives must yield to public law and, perhaps moreover, to private conscience. “Euery true and good subject,” More argued at his trial, “is more bounde to haue respect to his saide conscience and to his soule than to any other thing in all the world beside.”
Whatever the moral and legal debate, More’s personality towers over his confinement, trial and eventual beheading. Through those days, More’s daughter, Margaret Roper, was “his anchor and confidante” (John Guy, A Daughter’s Love: Thomas More and His Dearest Meg); the following is excerpted from More’s last letter to her, written in charcoal from the Tower on the eve of his execution:
I cumber you, good Margaret, much, but I would be sorry if it should be any longer than to-morrow, for it is St. Thomas’s even, and the utas of St. Peter; and therefore, to-morrow long I to go to God. It were a day very meet and convenient for me. I never liked your manner towards me better than when you kissed me last; for I love when daughterly love and dear charity hath no leisure to look to worldly courtesy. Farewell, my dear child, and pray for me, and I shall for you and all your friends, that we may merrily meet in heaven. I thank you for your great cost.
The defiant occasion “when you kissed me last” was four days previous, as More was being transported back to the Tower after his conviction and sentencing. Margaret had pushed through the onlookers and through the pikes and halberds of the encircling guards to hug him, and then after leaving had rushed back to kiss again, before being separated. Margaret got More’s hair shirt with the letter; on her own she retrieved his head from its pole on London Bridge, and dedicated herself to his name and cause.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.