15/35, Needed More Restriction

A king is, in theory, the figurehead for the kingdom he rules over. In him, outsiders can see the values the country he resides in and upholds. During times of conflict, he is a man who does not dwell in the safety of his castle, rather he fights with his knights on the front lines. In peace, he is a man of the people, always open to their suggestions and willing to negotiate, never resorting to using force or fear in order to control them. The king is righteous, justice incarnate, and a God-fearing warrior. He does not command respect; rather, he earns it.[1] These values were championed by Thomas More in his definition of a good king, though they would lead to his demise as Henry VIII reshaped those very definitions to suit his own goals.

More would outline his definition of kingship in The History of King Richard III. He compares Richard III’s character and reign with that of Edward IV and, to a lesser extent, Henry VII. Henry’s accession to the throne of England was marked with trouble, not the least of which came from Richard himself. It is when More praises the features of Edward that we get our first glimpses into what makes a good king. More states that Edward was just and merciful in times of peace and in contrast and merciless and bold in times of war.[2] What More sees most prominently in Edward as opposed to Richard were his physical attributes and the way his subjects viewed him. He calls Edward “mighty” and “imposing” due to his height. In addition, when he was able to secure his reign, the people viewed him with respect, wanting him to rule over them.[3] When More moves onto Richard, however, he takes a far different tone. Almost the complete opposite of Edward, More describes Richard as a hunched man with obvious, uneven limbs. Furthermore, he kept close to himself, almost always staying in the confines of his private chamber and not allowing a single person to meet him.[4] More would use the characteristics of Edward to defend Henry VII when outsiders challenged his rule. As he became Lord Chancellor, these values would turn against him when Henry VIII redefined them to suit his consolidation of temporal and spiritual power.

When looking at the reign of the Tudors, it becomes a wonder as to why Thomas More ever turned against Henry VIII. After all, Henry had several of the characteristics of a good king. He was of good physical condition in his youth and was noted for his love of venturing out into the countryside to participate in hunting.[5] As he acceded to the throne, Henry led his knights in France, winning several battles and earning the title of a warrior king. As a fighter, he was a perfect fit for More; however, when it came to domestic affairs, the More’s vision of kingship fell apart. Henry’s religious policies would eventually lead to More’s resignation for two reasons. One was More’s continuing support with English Catholics; the second was More’s stark opposition to the Act of Supremacy.[6] The Act ushered in the break with Rome and established Henry as the head of the English church. In More’s eyes, it enforced the king’s temporal powers over his spiritual ones.[7] The Act clearly set the king up as the most powerful man in England, confirming his fear of Henry turning into a tyrant, and thus a monarch more akin to Richard III than Edward IV.[8] His worry would lead to opposition in the hopes of preventing this transformation. And it would be his opposition to the temporal powers Henry now had that would lead to his downfall despite Henry’s shift into his supremacy.

Henry was a reluctant initiator of the English Reformation. With the Act of Supremacy, however, Henry soon began to fit into and, in fact, even enjoy his newfound position in the church.[9] His being the head of the church allowed Henry to change the definition of a king in order to suit his own needs. With his newfound spiritual powers, he was able to dissolve monasteries, destroy images he considered heretical, and fund a new Bible printed in English.[10] Among the Catholics, whose viewpoints More supported, Henry looked less of a king and more of a tyrant. With his Act of Treason in 1534, Henry attempted to stamp out any opposition against his supremacy, further distancing himself from the people as he demanded loyalty using fear.[11] In Henry’s view, these actions were necessary to establish his new meaning of a good king as an absolute monarch.[12] This redefinition is in stark contrast to More’s, who believed that the king is a subject to his people and God. More was not afraid, however, to go against Henry and defend his beliefs though his actions would end in disaster.

More’s definition of kingship would perish during the time of the Tudors. The changing of the royal family’s religious policies demanded that their temporal powers be expanded and surpass their spiritual responsibilities. With the Act of Supremacy, Henry outlined his own definitions of what made a king effective, definitions that would collide with More’s determination to keep to his beliefs would clash with Henry’s and these differences would force him to make the ultimate sacrifice in 1535 with his execution.

-Sean Park


[1] Thomas More, The History of King Richard III, ed. George Logan (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2005), 7.

[2] Ibid., 5.

[3] Ibid., 7.

[4] Ibid., 10.

[5] E.W. Ives, “Henry VIII (1491–1547),” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed., edited by Lawrence Goldman, May 2009. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/12955 (accessed November 9, 2015).

[6] William Rockett, “The Case Against Thomas More,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 39, no. 4 (2008): 1066

[7] Ibid.

[8] More, The History of King Richard III, 10-12.

[9] Christopher Haigh, English Reformations: Religion, Politics, and Society under the Tudors, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 121.

[10] G.W. Bernard, “The Making of Religious Policy, 1533-1546: Henry VIII and the Search for the Middle Way,” The Historical Journal 41, no 2 (1993): 42.

[11] Haigh, English Reformations Religion, 121.

[12] Ives, “Henry VIII (1491–1547).”

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