On November 13, 2015, I had the pleasure of attending a lecture on the Thomas More Trial. The main orator, Barbara J. Panza, is a staff attorney with the Fifth Circuit, who happens to be an expert on Thomas More. The presentation was truly intriguing.
Thomas More lived during the 16th century and was widely respected all across Europe. He was a writer, lawyer, judge, and served Henry VIII as Lord Chancellor. He was regarded as a genius by his peers and is still regarded as a genius today. He advocated intellectual development for all people, including women, and believed it was the only way to truly experience God.
In 1535 More was charged with high treason when he refused to take an oath, as mandated by statute, that Henry VIII was the rightful head of the church, displacing the papal authority (this was after already having been sentenced to life in prison for a much lesser offense—related to the same statute—and spending 15 months in what was essentially solitary confinement). What I find most interesting about More’s trial was the lack of Constitutional protections afforded to him throughout.
For obvious reasons, the First Amendment is the first thing that comes to mind, since the statute required More to take an oath that went against his religious beliefs, or pay dearly for failing to do so. However, a less obvious First Amendment issue becomes apparent in the text of the transcription from his trial. He states, “[b]ut believe me most assuredly on this point, that I never said or did anything maliciously against your Statute.” In other words, he was unable to even speak against the statute at all. In fact, one of the pieces of evidence against him for this trial was that he allegedly commented that the statute was a double edged sword, forcing you to lose your life if you failed to affirm the oath, or lose your soul should you choose to take it.
Other protections that came up in Thomas More’s trial: Fifth Amendment- Incrimination—he had refused to take the oath and his silence was held against him, even though at that time silence was interpreted as consent. Fifth Amendment- Due Process Clause—the transcript of the trial makes clear that More was to be found guilty even in the face of an insufficient indictment and insufficient evidence. Also, the charges were read in Latin—something that would have been a real problem for a layperson, or someone less fluent in Latin. Sixth Amendment—More did not have a right to an attorney; however, he appears to have been so gifted that it wouldn’t have made a difference.
In short, this was an egregious violation of all we hold so dear today; More’s trial is a good reminder of why we must not stray from these principles, no matter the justification.
If you would like to learn more about Thomas More, Ms. Panza has suggested two resources: Gerard B. Wegemer, Thomas More: A Portrait of Courage and James Monti, The King's Good Servant But God's First: The Life and Writings of St. Thomas More. For a more full discussion on the Ms. Panza's discussion, you can also read her article, His Word Was His Bond: The Role of the Oath in Thomas More's Trial, 46 (176) Moreana 97 (June 2009).