Many may know that Sir Thomas More is the patron saint of lawyers and statesmen, but if those considering these noble professions knew the full reasons why, they might tremble to consider him their patron.
“I die His Majesty’s good servant but God’s first.”
A Man for all Seasons (1966 film) tells the story of Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield) in the last years of his life as lawyer, Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII, and ultimately a martyr of conscience in England, the first half of the 16th century. The film is adapted from a play under the same name. This name comes from the following quote, said by Robert Whittington, a contemporary of More’s, in 1520:
More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.
The film takes place in England around 1530. The Protestant Reformation has just swept across Europe, and More is confronted with the king’s decision to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. Both More and Henry are devout Catholics, and the king’s desire for a divorce directly contradicts Catholic teachings on the indissolubility of marriage. Henry VIII’s determination to produce a male heir and the pope’s continued denial of his request for an annulment leads to Henry denouncing papal authority and declaring himself head of the English Church, thus launching the English Reformation. Sir Thomas More is loathe to denounce his king, yet he refuses to sign an oath which would condone Henry’s actions. For this he is beheaded after a stirring courtroom appeal to true justice in this matter of conscience.
What is so striking in this masterful drama is not only More’s deep integrity, which makes everyone around him, including the king, feel the shame of “selling one’s soul,” but almost more startling is More’s lack of condemnation of his adversaries. He simply refuses to go against his own conscience and gives others the benefit of the doubt that they too are following their conscience. He truly does not want to be a martyr, and employs every legal tactic to try and remain within the law while staying true to his conscience. Ultimately, More is shown on the executioner’s block forgiving his executioner and stating simply “I die His Majesty’s good servant but God’s first.”
It is rare (and deeply convicting) to witness someone so devoted to the state that he will not speak ill of the king and yet so devoted to the Church that he would rather die than go against her teachings. The fine but uncompromising line that More walks, particularly in the intimate moments with his family and close friends and then finally in the passionate appeal to justice before court that leads to his death, leaves the audience stunned and silent. This film is a must see.