7 January 2010 | classicalsteve
A Man Stands Up for His Beliefs Even in the Face of Execution at the Hands of His Sovereign
Voltaire would probably not have agreed with Thomas Moore's beliefs. But he would have defended Moore's right to have them. For centuries, the Medieval Church had propagated any belief contrary to those disseminated by the Holy See was heresy. People not only faced eternal damnation but could also be tortured and executed for holding contrary religious ideas since the time of Charlegmagne, sometimes even for very slight doctrinal disagreements. Part of these sets of beliefs included unquestioned allegiance to and even worship of the Bishop of Rome, aka the Pope. The film, "A Man for All Seasons" is about a man who stood up for the traditional beliefs propagated by the church and his refusal to recant, somewhat in the same vein as Martin Luther but in the opposite direction.
In the early 1500's, seven hundred years after Charlemagne used military might to secure the supremacy of the Pope in Western Europe, King Henry VIII of England decided to break with religious and political tradition. Almost over night, the king rebuked the political-religious power of the Pope in Rome and declared himself to be head of the church in England mainly as a mechanism to secure a divorce and re-marry. Fearing the awesome power of the king, all of the nobility and legates which surrounded the royal court signed a declaration not only recognizing the king as head of the church but that God had granted him this power directly from above. Except one did not sign. Sir Thomas Moore.
Thomas Moore was the only member of the class of litigators and lawyers who would not sign the document. Openly, he kept silent on his exact opinion. The King decided to regard this act of defiance as treasonous, although Moore never openly admitted his point of view until the trial. He simply refused to sign the document. The case against Moore was certainly on shaky legal grounds as Moore had not actually done anything treasonous. He simply refused to sign and refused to give his reasons.
Thomas Moore was a devout Roman Catholic. And although, from a modern perspective, his reasons for refusing to sign the document may seem like blind loyalty to a medieval church and its dogma, Moore's point was that by signing, he would lose all religious integrity and ultimately condemn himself to damnation. His signature meant a recognition of something he did not believe in his heart. He ultimately believed the divorce between Catherine and King Henry was an act of heresy. Simultaneously, he did not deny Henry as head of the English church and Anne Boleyn as the new queen. The document he was asked to sign contained religious wording that placed the powers of local monarchs over that of the church, "inviolable grants of jurisdictions given by God". The wording was far too religiously charged for Moore to consent to signing it. It is speculated that if the wording had been altered slightly and words pertaining to God and the Roman Church had been removed, Moore might have signed it. But of course, King Henry, who was as stubborn as Moore, would not revise the document.
The film in question is a tour-de-force period piece that well-reflects the religious and monarchical fanaticism of the age. Paul Scofield offers an Acamemy-Award-Winning performance as a man who could not recant even with the threat of the headsman's ax being wielded above his head. Robert Shaw is more than convincing as King Henry VIII who after having broken with Rome could not abide any nobleman or subject to disagree with his position as head of his reformed church. I would not have thought that Shaw would be the ideal actor for this role, but Shaw brings a hot-headed sensibility to Henry that may be relatively historically accurate. Honorable mention goes to John Hurt as Richard Rich, considered by some English historians to be the worst Brit of the 1500's, partly because of the perjury he committed against Moore at his trial, and Wendy Hiller as Alice Moore. Both Shaw and Hiller were nominated for their supporting roles. A great film, not to be missed especially for viewers who enjoy Renaissance and English history.