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Gifts for Lawyers
Thomas More, Patron of Lawyers
St. Thomas More
(1477/78-1535) was lord chancellor of England under Henry VIII, an
author, and a martyr. Born a commoner, his brilliance was recognized
early (one friend said he mastered Greek so quickly it was as if “by an
instinct of genius”). After Oxford, he studied law in London, was called
to the bar, and rose rapidly through the ranks, quickly becoming an
ambassador, a member of the court, and then lord chancellor. According
to all sources, More was a brilliant and efficient lawyer and judge,
able to see all sides of issues and discuss them with clarity and wit.
During this period, he wrote his most famous work, Utopia (More coined
the word, which means “no place”), a description of a communal society
in which, among other things, no one owns property. More’s career began
to turn when Henry VIII became determined to annul his marriage to
Catherine of Aragon so that he might marry Anne Boleyn. More tried to
avoid the controversy over Henry’s divorce and papal jurisdiction.
However, in 1534 an Act of Succession was proclaimed, which required all
subjects to take an oath disavowing the validity of Henry’s marriage to
Catherine and repudiating “any foreign authority, prince or potentate”
(i.e., the pope). More, like most Englishmen at the time, was Catholic
by heritage and refused to give up his beliefs and faith. He was quickly
taken to the Tower of London as a prisoner, where he remained in horrid
conditions for 15 months, all the while, his jailors recorded, retaining
his “habitual gaiety.” In 1535, More, based on perjured evidence, was
charged with perjury. He was beheaded at Tower Hill on July 6, 1535. The
story of his last days is one of the most tender and heart-rending
accounts of injustice in all of literature, especially since More was so
determinedly cheerful and forgiving: as he was attempting to move up the
scaffold, he said to his guard: “I pray you, master lieutenant, see me
safe up, and as for my coming down, let me shift for myself.” From the
scaffold, he let it be known that he bore no one ill will, giving a
blessing to the king, his torturer. More became the patron of lawyers
because he so thoroughly held to the importance of precedent and law
over the will of the powerful. It is loosely based on the famous
portrait of More by Hans Holbein the Younger.
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