The great English statesman, Sir Thomas More, is often and justly revered as the patron of conscience rights. Despite a lifetime of faithful and diligent service to King Henry VIII, More’s silent opposition to the Act of Supremacy led to his eventual and famous execution at Tower Hill on 6 July, 1535. Unknown to many who celebrate More’s fateful silence, however, is the same man’s ardent defense of free speech—a defense that first came to the fore, quite appropriately, during More’s tenure as Speaker of the House of Commons, some twelve years before his death.
It was on 15 April, 1523, that King Henry opened Parliament in the hopes of securing £800,000 for his war against France—an agenda bound to cause serious consternation among the English populace, and especially among those gathered at Blackfriars. It was on the same day that Speaker More submitted, in the words of R.W. Chambers, an “epoch-making” request to the King on the part of the Commons. While it was traditional for a Speaker to urge the King toward clemency in the event that some opinion aired should prove unpleasing to His Majesty, More went a step further. Rather than pleading merely for future pardon, he made the bold suggestion that freedom to speak one’s mind was, in fact, an essential principle of honest and profitable debate.
More’s son-in-law and chief biographer, William Roper, provides an account of the Speaker’s petition:
Most gracious Sovereign, considering that in your High Court of Parliament is nothing intreated but matter of weight and importance concerning your realm and your own royal estate, it could not fail to let and put to silence from the giving of their advice and counsel many of your discreet Commons, to the great hindrance of the common affairs, except that every of your Commons were utterly discharged of all doubt and fear how any thing that it should happen them to speak should happen of your Highness to be taken… It may therefore like your most abundant Grace, our most benign and godly King, to give to all your Commons here assembled your most gracious licence and pardon, freely, without doubt of your dreadful displeasure, every man to discharge his conscience, and boldly in everything incident among us to declare his advice.
Although More assures the King that each man’s words are intended “towards the profit of your realm and honour of your royal person,” a pressing war and £800,000 is no trifling matter. The Speaker well recognized the gravity of this particular Parliament; no doubt, his experience as Under-Treasurer in the years just prior afforded him an inside perspective on the status of the royal exchequer, and the dire need—from Henry’s perspective—for a hike in taxes. Yet astonishingly, we are told, More’s petition is swiftly and solidly vouchsafed.
The man on the throne in 1523 was another Henry than the man who ordered the deaths of More, Fisher, and so many others just a decade later. In 1523, Henry was a humanist, and he no doubt granted More’s petition because he subscribed (or at least wished to ascribe) to the values it relied upon. Speaker More, on the other hand, was precisely the same man as Lord Chancellor More, and as “the King’s good servant” who lost his head because he clung to his ideals. Although he was officially arraigned on charges of treason, it was More’s well-known belief “every man to discharge his conscience” that landed him in the Tower. And it was his commitment to freedom of speech, over anything else, that lent weight to More’s persistent and deafening silence on the matter of the King’s supremacy. Qui tacet consentire videtur, indeed—through the eyes of the law. But Cromwell was not wrong to suggest that the silence of Thomas More was rather a strong and clear statement of defiance.
For us today who admire Sir Thomas More’s courage in the face of totalitarian injustice, it would do well to recall that conscientious objection is nothing without a firm grounding in free and truthful speech. In his petition before Parliament, More understood his duty as the “Common Mouth” to be one not of lip service, but of fair estimation, judgment, and public assessment. In short, he realized his indispensible role in the well-being of the realm as one founded upon honesty and fortitude—and not, contrarily, upon relativism or passivity. Moreover, the values to which he held were evident not only in his silence—an easily romanticized feature of his character—but even to some greater degree in his voiced and public sentiments. After all, lest we forget, More’s trip to the executioner’s block was no mournful dirge, but a march peppered with accounts of his mundane pronouncements, wit, and wisdom.
If then, after all these years, we can be so bold as to glean one further lesson from the life of Thomas More, it might be this: that offering oneself up for the sake of the public good means nothing, if the life offered is not characterized by regular, ardent, and unfailing pursuit of the truth—both personally and publicly. As is well known, it was More’s unswerving commitment to his posts as lawyer, judge, Speaker, and finally Lord High Chancellor that made him “the King’s good servant.” But it was his uncompromised integrity, conviction, and assertions throughout that made him “God’s first.”
Andrew Haines is a PhD student in Philosophy at The Catholic University of America, and president of the Center for Morality in Public Life.
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