“A Man For All Seasons”
© 1966 Robert Holt
“…the king wants either Sir Thomas More to bless his marriage or Sir Thomas More destroyed.”
“They seem odd alternatives, Secretary.”
The king wants a son, Sir Thomas – what are you going to do about it? King Henry, eight of that name and possibly last of the Tudors, has decided to change wives. His lawful queen, Catherine of Aragon, has so far only given him one long-lived child: a girl, utterly useless for succession purposes. Convinced that his marriage is cursed, Henry seeks to have it declared null and void by the Pope, but said pontiff is unwilling. He already made special dispensation for Henry to marry his brother’s widow in the first place; now they want to him to un-dispensate? Anxious to replace Catherine with a younger model, and in fear of dying without a proper heir, Henry decides to resolve the succession problem via secession. Assume leadership of the Church in England, appoint someone pliable as archbishop, and hey presto, instant divorce. Henry can do nearly what he wants; the Pope may object, but he is across the Channel, and even the Queen’s Hapsburg family doesn’t have the energy to invade England just for marriage counseling. Henry intimidates both Parliament and the church into giving in, but still—there is an itch of sanction. The compliance of dogs is easy to find; they can be appeased with food or cowed with beatings, and dog-men abound here, epitomized in the person of Richard Rich What Henry needs to sooth any lingering qualms that he is following the straight and narrow path is approval from a man of virtue and conscience – a man like his Chancellor, Sir Thomas More. But More cannot approve; he is a faithful husband and doting father to several daughters, and a good Catholic who finds Henry’s easy disposal of his wife and the Church’s authority to be utterly alarming. Choosing discretion as the better part of valor, More retires from the court in the wake of Henry’s break with the church, but Henry is not content. He and his minions want either More’s sanction, or his destruction. “A Man for All Seasons” follows the king’s pursuit of More, a path that ends only with the subject’s martyrdom. More never explicitly opposes the king’s behavior; never writes a tract, never denounces him from the chair of office, never even says a word to his wife. His silence, however, is forbidding, and the king will not have it. There can be no law in England save the King’s – not even More’s private reign over his conscience. The import of “A Man” is not lost centuries ever the times they portray, nor decades after the play was written. Its championing of conscience against coercion, of moral conviction against swaggering license, remain relevant so long as those in authority continue to pursue their every impulse, dressing their wrath and lust for power in the clothes of law and demanding obedience. Sophie Scholl lost her head for the same reason More lost his; they had a better one than the king’s. More’s stand for conscience was such that the Church of England – which More opposed – hails him as a saint. Truly he was as Holt describes him, a man for all seasons, including ours.