Sunday, December 07, 2008

Revisiting the Trial of the Ages

Michael Foley has a nice recap and evaluation of a conference held last month at the University of Dallas on the trial of St. Thomas More. Man, I wish I could have attended.
Every aspect of the trial was scrutinized. What did it mean to take an oath in the sixteenth century? What were More’s legal rights, and were they respected? Was due process observed during the trial? Did Richard Rich perjure himself, or did he merely misremember his conversation with More that became the most damning piece of evidence submitted? How much pressure were the judges and the jury under from Henry VIII? Which, if any, of the four extant accounts of the trial is the most accurate? And how did More ensure that his side of the story would be heard through his writings without incurring further suspicion of treason?

The conference was filled with surprises. For instance, did you know that we have no copy of the oath which More famously refused to take? That no official transcript of the trial was made? That we are not certain whether there were one, three, or four formal charges? That, contrary to current legal practice, the more grave the case, the fewer the rights of the accused? That More’s civil rights, as defined by English law at the time, may have been more or less respected? In other words, there was nothing procedurally unusual about More spending years imprisoned in the Tower of London, undergoing several interrogations, being suddenly brought to court for trial, and hearing the charges against him (read in Latin) for the first and only time. And there was considered nothing untoward in having judges sitting on the bench with a vested interest (to put it mildly) in seeing More condemned, such as an uncle, a brother, and the father of Anne Boleyn.

As for those charges, there were at most four in number: that Thomas More maliciously refused to acknowledge the king’s supremacy over the Church in England; that he had conspired against the king with Bishop John Fisher; that he had instigated sedition by calling the Act of Supremacy a two-edged sword; and that he had, according to the testimony of Richard Rich, “maliciously, traitorously, and diabolically” denied Parliament’s power to declare the king head of the English Church.

No comments: