A famous play
which later became a movie.
To describe the play, we're going to have to delve into a bit of history:
The story is based on history, involving Henry VIII
and the formation of the Anglican church
. Henry VIII
was a prince, while his brother Arthur
was destined to be king
. Arthur married Catherine of Aragon
, from Spain
. Then Arthur died, leaving Henry as the unmarried heir.
The royal houses of Spain and England needed to correct this to restore tradition and diplomacy, so they felt that the best course of action was to have Henry step up and marry Catherine and become king, as he was the heir to the throne. But Spain and England were monarchies, and Christian law forbade a man to marry his brother's widow.
Now the Pope is the head of the church, and has the power of Dispensation, meaning the Pope can make an exception in church law. This is a one time thing, and is only granted in special cases. At the request of Christian Spain and Christian England the Pope granted the dispensation, deeming it a "special case," and immediately Henry and Catherine got married.
For a few years everything went fine, then Henry wanted to divorce her. Historians say there are various reasons. First, Catherine became intensely religious. Henry began to fall in love with Anne Boleyn, and the Spanish Alliance had become unpopular.
But the real reason was that Catherine failed to give Henry a son and was deemed "barren." She only had a daughter and at that time England required a king. Part of the reason Henry was desperate for an Heir was beacuse there was a very long and bloody war within England betweenthe Tudors and the Plantagenets in the War of the roses. No heir would plunge the country into another war.
Divorce is forbidden by the church. It's because of the solemn wedding vows "Till death do us part" sort of thing. That being the case, Henry once again approached the Pope again asking for an annullment, on the grounds that his marriage was sinful and against the laws of the Bible. An anullment would render the marriage void because it "never happened" and was null. Henry's reasons were because he broke the law in the Bible about marrying your brother's widow. The law clearly states that the punisment is to have only daughters.
England insisted that the marriage was null, and Spain insisted that it wasn't. The Pope was stuck in a bind because the two countries were now steeply opposed to each other. To make it tougher, Spain's troops occupied Rome, threatening the Pope if he angered the Spaniards.
By now the Pope didn't want his power turned on and off like a tap, and was stuck in a spot where either decision would be bad. So he made the marriage stand.
Henry was extremely angry with this. The Bible says never to marry your brother's widow, as in the Book of Leviticus, and the punishment is to have only daughters, exactly what befell him. He wanted to get out of this state of sin by annullment, but the Pope wouldn't let him, forcing him to remain in a state of sin.
Henry declared that the Pope was no more than a bishop, the Bishop of Rome. Therefore, he had no special powers, and was no different than a regular bishop. If he had no powers, then he could not dispense with Leviticus 18, meaning the marriage was annulled. What's more, the Pope has no power to elect other bishops if he is only a bishop himself.
If the Pope couldn't appoint bishops, then who did? Henry reasoned that the King did. Henry was the king by Divine right--chosen by God to rule. He declared himself ruler of the church, the new Anglican church, where he chooses the bishops.
The Pope was furious, and issued an Interdict, excommunicating the country, but Henry persisted. He appointed a new bishop of Canterbury who would not want to change the ruling of the Bible, but wouldn't ask Rome for assistance. Henry chose Thomas Cranmer, who divorced Catherine and married Anne Boleyn. The Church of England was on its way.
Now, back to the play. Sir Thomas More
is appointed to be Lord Chancellor
. He is a perfect man of principle and reason. Now Henry seeks the support of the aristocracy for his new church.
Sir Thomas More is thus placed in a difficult position: should he stand up for his principles, and risk the wrath of Henry and execution? Or should he bow to the seemingly unstoppable corruption of Henry VIII, who has no qualms about bending the law to suit his own needs?
The ideology of the script is one man's fight to try to guard traditions and defend an idea. Sir Thomas Moore resigns from his position once Henry creates the Church of England. He will not speak out against the king, for it would be treason, so remains silent. Many support him on his position, and the king wants to do away with him. More is clever, he can't be convicted of treason if he doesn't open his mouth.
The King makes a new law, the act of supremacy, meaning everyone in the aristocracy must sign a document stating that Anne Boelyn is the official queen (meaning they support the divorce). More reads through the law carefully, and refuses to sign it, the penalty is life imprisonment. He manages to skirt through all the charges; if you protest against the document, you can be executed for treason, but he remains silent. "Qui tacet consentire" which means "silence is consent" was his reply. With that, they can't prove he disagrees, which carries a death penalty; instead he keeps quiet which only earns a life punishment.
Ind the end, one of his former students betrays him, falsifying evidence to get cozy with the king. More, to the end, refuses to sign the document, thus getting a pardon. He follows the laws as best as he can, but can't find a way out in the end that doesn't contradict his principles and conscience.
The movie is based in history, and its no secret how it ends. Sir Thomas More wasn't one of these fanatical kind of martyrs who wanted to die on the sword. He was a lawyer and tried like mad to get out of dying but in the end found no way that didn't involve violating his faith.
Incidentally, it's Kevin Smith's favorite movie of all time.
Read his interview at http://www.viewaskew.com/press/watchingmovies/
Thanks to segnbora-t and whizkid and baritalia for the corrections.