Per-ju-ry: noun, plural. The willful giving of false testimony under oath or affirmation, before a competent tribunal, upon a point material to a legal inquiry.
The Dictionary, 2013 A.D.
When regard for truth has been broken down or even slightly weakened, all things will remain doubtful.
Aurelius Augustinus, 354-430 A.D.
In so many ways, those twin thoughts make up the thrust of the argument put forth by Robert Bolt in his classic play A Man For All Seasons. And while this work would not hold up as an entirely accurate historical document, the concept behind this major turning point of our world is still valid. The names and the dates have been truncated to project the meaning. And project it does so well.
A Man For All Seasons is the first major work by writer Robert Bolt, who parlayed its success upon release in 1960 into further plays and some film work. With this story, he openly admits in the preface his desire to get to the emotional core of what this entire drama was, all those many centuries ago. Every student in Britain would have been acquainted with the hard bare facts of this case, and how it related to our planet today, but with this concise and to the point dramatization they would fully comprehend the significant of this event.
The time is the reign of King Henry the VIII of Britain around 1529 or so. His Royal Highness is unhappily wed, in a political marriage, to Catherine of Aragon, a lady incapable of providing him with a male heir. The solution is a divorce, granted by the Pope, and based on some quibblings over Biblical law, but that the Church is unwilling to give. The workaround is for Henry to enter more quibblings over Biblical law, break off Britain from the Pope and create his own Christian faith. This allows him to marry his mistress, and also paves the way for several more divorces in his future. Much turmoil and chaos have resulted over the ensuing centuries from this decision. Some may say it was inevitable, while others may feel it was shortsighted and purely based on Henry’s ego.
Amidst this fray we have Thomas More, a lawyer and public official who has worked his way up to a position of power and influence, largely gained by his intelligence, quick wits, and integrity of moral character. In the play, he is portrayed as almost saint like compared to his fellows in public service, who are corrupt and far too political. The good of the people, society, and the very souls of the subjects are easily dismissed by others in government. But these are of paramount concern to More. And the bending and twisting of law, whether religious or governmental or monarchist, is an affront to his very character.
In the play, and I am assuming in real life, More makes it clear to Henry his problems with the wanton disregard of the rules. The faith and hope of More, an ardent Catholic, that God will somehow, someway, solve this dilemma is never spoken but whispered between the lines. With this made clear, Henry, whom history and this play records as of slight intelligence and a bit of a blowhard, lacks the religious fortitude to await those results. So his Majesty does what he wants anyway, damn the eternal problems he will encounter in the afterlife.
More resigns from his positions and refuses to speak publicly, or make statements privately, about this matter. When questioned by various panels and inquiries, he will not comment of the religious aspects of what Henry has done. Acts of Parliament are passed requiring an oath be sworn to the King, but More demurs and is swiftly jailed for over a year. With the embarrassment of someone as prominent as More incarcerated, the dirty skills of Henry’s crony Thomas Cromwell is utilized and a rigged trial with a witness filled with perjury occurs.
More then dies because of a lie.
So many times friends and relatives tell and plead with More to simply take the oath and rid himself of all these troubles. More foolishly believes that simply retiring and refusing to speak of the matter will guarantee safety. His influence, his leadership, his inspiration, is so palpable to one and all throughout the Kingdom and beyond, that even a short burst of words from him could possibly topple a Monarch. More does not view his power that way, because in his mind it does not exist. Everyone has there own souls and morals and reasoning’s to live and account by. He cannot and will not lead them since that is not his course. He is him, Thomas More, and you are you, The Common Man.
More attains this moral center, that which prevents him speaking the oath and leading the people, from his undying religious being. His conservative and very strict interpretation of not only the scriptures, but of philosophy, is that any oath or statement proclaimed with any ounce of deceit in your soul of it’s wholehearted support, is a lie before God. Which henceforth means you will go to Hell. It is a concept he speaks very openly and eloquently about throughout the play, and some parts of his speeches are taken by Bolt from ancient notes, transcripts and letters. Very unvarnished truths directly from More’s thoughts.
When his friend and colleague commits perjury at the trail, his first thought is not to worry about the execution now awaiting, it is for the eternal soul of the person bearing false witness.
More: “In good faith, Rich, I am sorrier for your perjury than my peril.”
In so many ways, the Thomas More of this play, who is still most likely very close in thoughts, feelings and demeanor to the real one, would have been an excellent King or leader. While his slow ways regarding Church Reformation would cause some hindrance, his absolute moral center and justified concern for his fellow humans souls would undoubtedly bring about a renaissance of some intensity throughout the Kingdom.
I am sure the true Thomas More had faults and theological difficulties that history might judge harshly. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, a book I have not read, is a much more longer and exhaustive examination of these events, albeit also in a fictional way.
History, both real and imagined, have remembered More as a great thinker and a great moralist.
He simply considered himself a man.
A man with a soul.
…is currently reading Father Goose by William Lishman.
P.S. In high school, one of my history teachers was a man whom I considered a jerk and an ass. He did a lesson on Sir Thomas More, which became my first real exposure to this man and everything surrounding him. While doing research on this historical event, after reading A Man For All Seasons, I quickly realized virtually all the facts and arguments the teacher presented in class were completely wrong. Massively wrong. Beyond belief wrong. So this teacher was not only a jerk and an ass, but also incompetent. He was definitely not a man for all seasons.
P.P.S. My copy, as you can tell from the cover scan above, is rather old and worn. And now it has finally been read.