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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Richard Rich, eager to find employment at court, arrives at the manor of his acquaintance, Thomas More, to request aid. When Sir Thomas warns Rich of the bribes and other temptations of court, and offers to help Rich find a position as a teacher, Rich is deeply disappointed. More gives Rich a silver cup that had been sent to More as an attempted bribe. As they are talking, the duke of Norfolk enters with Lady Alice and Lady Margaret More, and the duke surprises the gathering by announcing that Thomas Cromwell has become secretary to Cardinal Wolsey. At that moment, a message arrives from the cardinal, summoning More to him, although it is late at night.
When More arrives at the cardinal’s chambers, Wolsey rebukes him for having opposed him in council that day. The two men then discuss the dynastic situation. King Henry desperately desires a son to continue the Tudor line, but his wife, Catherine, cannot get pregnant, and the pope refuses to grant a dispensation so that Henry can divorce Catherine to marry again. More is dismissed by the cardinal to return home by boat after they take opposing views about what Henry VIII should do.
When More returns, he finds William Roper has arrived early in the morning to visit Margaret and ask Sir Thomas for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Sir Thomas replies that the answer will be no so long as Roper remains a heretic—that is, a Lutheran. After Roper leaves, Sir Thomas refuses to discuss the political situation with his wife and daughter, except to warn them that times are dangerous and that they should be careful.
The Common Man informs the audience that, upon Wolsey’s death, Thomas More had been appointed Lord Chancellor. The Spanish ambassador and Cromwell try to obtain information from Sir Thomas’s steward; the man takes their bribes, but he evades giving them any real information.
The king visits Sir Thomas’s house and, drawing Thomas aside, asks for his help in securing the divorce from Catherine. The king is reproachful when Thomas says that he cannot renounce his obligations to the Church. Although Henry expresses his respect for Sir Thomas’s conscience, he is clearly disappointed. After the king’s departure, William Roper and Richard Rich enter; Roper has returned to belief in the Catholic Church and expresses some potentially dangerous opinions regarding the divorce. Rich informs More that Cromwell and...
(The entire section is 986 words.)