In 1533, King Henry VIII of England decided to divorce Queen Catherine in order to marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. His reasons were simple: First, after years of trying, Queen Catherine had not provided him with a male heir; second, Mistress Boleyn was pregnant with his child; and third, Catherine had been his brother Arthur’s wife and queen before died. To divest himself of Catherine, Henry was required by the Catholic Church to secure permission from the pope, the same individual who had granted him special permission to marry his brother’s widow in the first place (such a marriage would otherwise have been viewed by the Church as incestuous). When it became clear that the pope would not grant his dispensation, Henry determined that he did not need the pope’s approval, declared the pope to be nothing more than the bishop of Rome, and separated himself and his state from the Catholic Church, creating instead the Anglican Church, or the Church of England, with the king as its titular head. The clergy in England capitulated to Henry’s wishes, the divorce occurred, and the marriage to Anne Boleyn followed.
This historical background forms the context for the action in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons. In order for Henry VIII to take his action, he felt compelled to secure the support of the Catholic leadership in England. This he managed as all except one swore an oath of obedience to the king. That one was Thomas More, lord chancellor of England and one of the most highly revered philosophers and lawyers of his day.
The play begins with the sociopolitical intrigues generated by a young and virile king finding satisfaction outside the realm of his castle. Thomas More is summoned to Cardinal Wolsey, the sitting lord chancellor of England, at which point More’s understanding of the tenuous nature of the situation between the king’s desires and the requirements of the church are made clear: When Wolsey asks More what he plans to do about the king’s need for a son, More replies, “I pray for it daily.” When requested to put his private conscience aside in favor of national needs, More...
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