Medieval manuscripts blog

02 June 2015

The Trial of Sir Thomas More

What does Magna Carta have to do with the English Reformation? Answer: lots. Magna Carta’s first clause claiming that ‘the English Church is to be free and have its rights in whole and its liberties unimpaired’ became a fundamental clause for those who looked for historical precedents in their opposition to the English Reformation and Henry VIII’s religious settlement. ‘The liberties of the Church …guaranteed by Magna Charta’ were referenced by William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1532 in a speech to be delivered to the House of Lords in 1532, that also noted — in a veiled threat to Henry — that those ‘kings who violated them … came to an ill end.’ Warham, however, died before he was able to deliver this speech to Parliament. Had he survived to deliver it, it is likely that he would have come to an ‘ill end’ well before Henry VIII! Later, members of the popular uprising known as the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 similarly looked to Magna Carta to justify their opposition to Henry’s reforms, demanding in their rough minutes from the conference at Pontefract, ‘That the Church of England may enjoy the liberties granted them by Magna Carta’. It is interesting to note that such invocations of Magna Carta appeared around the same time as the first publication of the Latin and English versions of Magna Carta in 1508 and 1534 respectively. Indeed, given these ever increasing appeals to Magna Carta by opponents of the Reformation, it is little wonder that Thomas Cromwell — Henry VIII’s chief minister — made it a priority to ‘Remembre the Auncyent Cronycle of Magna Carta and how libera sit cam[e] into the statute’. 

First printed Magna Carta

The first printed edition of Magna Carta, 1508

Of all those who invoked Magna Carta against Henry VIII, perhaps the most famous of all was its use by Sir Thomas More at his trial for high treason in 1535. Unable to accept Henry’s religious settlement and unwilling to swear to the Act of Succession, More was imprisoned on 12 April 1534 and tried the following year in July 1535. Though the outcome was a forgone conclusion, More delivered a forceful statement outlining his spiritual position, and invoking the first clause of Magna Carta. Quoting it in Latin, Thomas More told the court that Henry VIII’s reforms were ‘co[n]trary both to the ancient Lawes, & Statutes of our owne Realme not the[n] repealled, as they might well see in Magna Carta; Quod Ecclesia libera sit, & habeat omnia iura integra, & libertates suas illæsas’. Although based as it was on Magna Carta, this defence did not save him and More was beheaded on 6 July 1535.

G_1580-0001    G_1580-0016
The Mirrour of Vertue in Worldly Greatnes, 1626

That we know so much about More’s trial, and his use of Magna Carta in it, is due to the publication in 1626 of a book entitled The Mirrour of Vertue in Worldly Greatnes, or the Life of Syr Thomas More More Knight. Written by More’s son-in-law, William Roper, during the reign of Queen Mary (1553–58), this is reputedly the earliest personal biography in the English language. Marked for its candour, detail and strong loyalty to More, it has influenced all subsequent writing on the former Lord Chancellor. Although it was written by Roper in the 1550s, the accession of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603) precluded the publication of this religiously sensitive biography. It was only published in 1626 by exiled English Jesuits at Saint-Omer who sought to mislead government agents by giving it the imprint ‘Paris’.


Thomas Cromwell's response to Thomas More's use of Magna Carta at his trial in 1535: ‘Item to Remembre the Auncyent Cronycle of Magna Carta and how libera sit cam[e] into the statute’

You can view the items described here in our major exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, on display at the British Library in London until 1 September 2015. You can also read more about them on our dedicated Magna Carta website and in the book that accompanies the exhibition.

Alexander Lock


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