A Man for All Seasons

There is a remarkable illustration of portraiture now hanging in a gallery of the Frick Collection in New York. It shows a determined Sir Thomas More, that valiant antagonist of Henry VIII, looking intently at something; or perhaps, his pose is simply one of inward reflection. The painting is by Hans Holbein the Younger and it’s on oak panel. Through it, one gets a sense of the character of the subject: high-minded and idealistic. He was the author of Utopia and a man who paid more attention to the calls of conscience than the dictates of a king. He was a man who would not lie even to save his own life.

Holbein’s work is based on the knowledge he acquired from personal acquaintance with More. He had journeyed from Augsburg to London in 1526 on the advice of Desiderius Erasmus and, through the latter’s recommendation, met More. They became good friends and More commissioned Holbein to work on at least two paintings. The first is the portrait of More; the second is a family study of a dozen members of the More family, including Sir Thomas himself.

More’s death culminated the life of an extraordinary man. Some dramatic events of that life are recounted, most vividly, in A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt, a summary of which follows. Arthur, the Crown Prince of England and Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella were joined in marriage because of political considerations. Arthur subsequently died and Henry, his younger brother, was betrothed to Catherine. For the marriage to go ahead, a special dispensation had to be sought from the Pope. Under the canon law principle of affinity, based on the prohibition in Leviticus, any marriage between a man and his brother’s widow was regarded as incestuous. Such a dispensation was, after much entreaty, granted by the Pope, Julius II, and the marriage was given the go ahead. But, by this time, Henry’s father, Henry VII, was having doubts about the benefits of an alliance with the Spanish throne. After Isabella’s death in 1504, the Spanish were in confusion because of the uncertainty surrounding the claims of the Castilian and Aragonese to Spanish supremacy. The papal bull granting the dispensation was signed in December 1503 but only arrived in England in 1505.

On the death of his father, Henry VII in 1509, the 18-year old king married Catherine. But although the marriage was anything but childless, all the offspring, save for the future Mary I, Queen of England, died after a few months. Henry feared he would never have a male heir. This wasn’t a question of sexism. Male primogeniture, which was the dominant principle of succession, was important since it avoided conflicting lines of inheritance. Consequently, a royal house risked setting up two lines of descent if, as often happened, a daughter preceded a son.

So Henry now appealed to the Pope to annul his marriage to Catherine. Understandably, Julius didn’t like the idea of being toggled this way and he refused to grant a second special dispensation to reverse the effects of the first special dispensation. As a consequence, Henry broke with the Church and formed the Church of England. He initiated the Act of Supremacy which declared him to be the head of the Church in England. Under this statute, the nobility were mandated to swear the Oath of Supremacy affirming Henry’s position as head of the Church in England rather than the Pope. This More refused to do. And so he was indicted on false charges and condemned to death. His famous last words were: I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.

This portrait was done in happier times when More was a member of Parliament. There is a copy in the National Portrait Gallery in London and a drawing or sketch, that may have served as a preliminary, in the Royal Collection, the art collection of the British Monarchy.

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