July 6, 1535 – Sir Thomas More Beheaded for Treason Against King Henry VIII

On this day in history, the former Lord Chancellor of England, Sir Thomas More, was beheaded after having been convicted of treason against the king.

More was a lawyer, social philosopher, author (he wrote the book Utopia), statesman, and a vigorous persecutor of followers of the Protestant Reformation. He served as councillor to King Henry VIII from 1529 to 1532.

Sir Thomas More

Sir Thomas More

More was not only vehemently opposed to the Protestant Reformation, but also to the King’s separation from the Catholic Church. Henry was reportedly a devout Catholic, but was intent on having his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled. Henry had become enamored of Anne Boleyn, and Anne refused to be just a mistress. The Pope wasn’t buying the argument for annulment, and wouldn’t recognize divorce, but Henry was undeterred, and ended up getting excommunicated from the Church of Rome.

More attempted to resign after being forced to take an oath recognizing the King as the Supreme Head of the English Church. He tried to limit the oath “as far as the law of Christ allows.” At first, Henry did not accept his resignation, but More was rapidly losing supporters in court. By 1531, Henry had purged most clergy who supported the Roman Pope from senior positions in the church. In 1532 More again asked the King again to allow him to resign, claiming that he was ill. This time Henry granted his request.

King Henry VIII

King Henry VIII

The Act of Supremacy in 1534 declared that the King was “the only Supreme Head in Earth of the Church of England” and the Treasons Act 1534 made it high treason, punishable by death, to refuse the Oath of Supremacy acknowledging the King as such.

More insisted on papal supremacy, refused to take the oath, and publicly refused to uphold Henry’s annulment from Catherine. Henry had More imprisoned in the Tower of London.

On 1 July 1535, More was tried for high treason before a panel of judges that included the new Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas Audley, as well as Anne Boleyn’s father, brother, and uncle. The jury took only fifteen minutes to find More guilty. He was sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered (the usual punishment for traitors who were not the nobility), but the King commuted this to execution by decapitation.

His last words before execution are said to have been “The King’s good servant, but God’s first.”

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