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HENRY Produce the memoranda, Cromwell. I want our first order of business to be the hearing of petitions. Our own situation will take second place.
CRANMER Thus you blessedly pave your road to heaven, thus your fame will be broadcast to every quarter. This is what ornaments a scepter, which befits a king even more than a well-maintained royal appearance, to protect the unfortunate, to give a ready hearing to suppliants, to receive the downcast into your kindly bosom.
CROMWELL “Humble petition of Thomas More.”
HENRY Cromwell, you do too much to promote your friend’s cause. This is not a private matter, you may favor your friends in private, but let your affection yield place when you are dealing with him. Where will the pauper find an ear for his complaints, if my bench is available only for the mighty? The influence of these men is huge, mutual backscratching oppresses a people already downtrodden. As long as I reign I will not permit this to exist.
CRANMER Henry, you speak things worthy of a Henry. This was your father’s custom.
CROMWELL Helpless old age weighs on More, and he petitions that he may be permitted to lay down the burden of office.
HENRY And in your opinion it should be granted, lest you be thought to deny something to a friend.
CROMWELL This is for your serenity to decide. More requests and has earned leisure for his studies. I add nothing more.
HENRY No doubt you believe enough has been said. You understand how fond I am of his studies. Enter More and the others.


HENRY But here he is, so he may suffer no rebuff. It would have to be a great thing to be denied to More. Let that elderly knee be lifted from the ground. Take a seat and tell me why noble More should want to demit these things and deprive me of the gift of his grave counsel.
MORE Your sacred majesty must forgive More for thinking of his leisure. He is wearied by the weight of grave affairs. This cannot be deemed a novel gift, I am told that this is regularly bestowed on veteran soldiers in their old age. It is time for me to fortify my soul, destined soon to leave this body. Fearfully it trembles, as it will be weighed in the final scales of justice. Let it be permitted to a moribund old man to devote his days to this final effort, you can give me no easier or better gift. A man who has passed his days excellently has earned his final ones for himself, and he who grants his servant these days confers a fine indulgence.
HENRY Private virtue lacking just honors would brand my reign with the greatest of blots.
MORE He will never be lacking in honor who has freely resigned it.
HENRY No man will say you have resigned it.
MORE Anyone who knows how welcome virtue is to you, and how much I crave leisure, will appreciate your gift.
HENRY I think it the highest good of governing that a sovereign is permitted to decorate good men.
MORE It is agreed that this is the greatest ornament for good men, that they are able to be good thanks to their kings.
HENRY Just duties never injure virtue.
MORE But public business has a way of impeding virtue’s tranquil studies. This argues I am unfit for those duties, or at least it argues my anxious zeal for abdicating my offices. Look here, great-hearted man, I again fall humbly at your feet.
HENRY You offer your entreaties to an ear that is not stubborn, that speech strikes and overcomes my mighty heart. As a friend I bestow this gift upon my friend, whatever as a sovereign I deny to a petitioning subject. But be that as it may, More gets the better of Henry, I yield. Since there is nothing better than you in my realm, I allow you the full enjoyment of yourself. But always be mindful of the giver. You only have the power to repay me if you live mindful of me and pray to our kindly God on my behalf.
MORE This responsibility remains for me, my life’s labor will continue, I shall devote myself to it wholeheartedly. Thus I should pass wakeful hours at night and complain of the days’ shortness. It is my pleasure to live and die in this. [To his servant.] First hand me the chancellor’s seal. Shining bright with its gold, this gives relief to the oppressed, with its weight it curbs the haughty, it softens the things that need to be mitigated in our laws, taking away that final degree of justice which men call unjust. Does a man groan that he has suffered too severely when the sagacity of law itself is defective? A moderate limit is imposed on the law to suit individual circumstances. Every man will bear what he is able to bear, not what the rigor of the laws, designed for powerful men, will impose upon the case. During your reign I have conducted myself so that the realm experiences what you have ordained, being just to all men and cruel to none. Twice the court has been closed for want of cases and quarrels. This long delay excluded protracted terms of lawsuits, that blemish on our judges. This seal of the law will be set down unharmed and uncorrupted, let it seek its source, the hand of Henry. Henry, you entrusted me with this seal which confirms royal edicts and acts of Parliament, which with its stamp has meted out life and death. I give it back. Never has innocent blood stained it, it has confirmed pious legislation. Only the safety of our citizens and a faith worthy of a king have set it working. Otherwise it has lain at rest, a rest harmless to the realm, our citizens, you and myself.
HENRY Whatever blot with which my household may be stained, however open its recesses may have been to plague, I have ruled as a pious man. This saintly royal servant has kept my hands clean. He is the glory of my scepter, the splendor of my palace. I want to embrace More and bit him a final farewell.
MORE God, You indulge me with this supreme gift, that I depart a trusted man, as my king bears witness.
CRANMER Come back. Let your private duties show you to be an upstanding citizen. Let him put his hand to the Bible. Does Thomas More swear that Anne occupies the royal bed rightfully, in accordance with divine law? And that the crown of England is reserved for their offspring?
MORE You command me to swear this, prelate?
CRANMER Public authority, the right of succession, the supreme majesty of the realm bid you swear these things.
MORE I appeal to your lofty majesty’s trust.
CRANMER Beware, no man guilty of violating that undamaged trust should appeal to it.
MORE How am I guilty?
CRANMER An enemy of the royal family asks this?
MORE And how am I its enemy?
CRANMER He condemns it who does not give it his approval.
MORE It is permissible to maintain one’s silence.
CRANMER He who holds his tongue when commanded to speak reveals by his silence that he desires to conceal whatever he wishes.
HENRY Cranmer, I do not wish the peace to be disturbed. You are zealously pressing the queen’s cause on More, yet I do not wish it. Go home, absolved now by my word, but in all respects an innocent man. Exit More.
Transact our other business. My presence, our affairs allow this mocker his escape.
AUDLEY And who will succeed More?
HENRY You obtain the position of Lord Chancellor, Audley. Cromwell, you may pronounce the sentence as my representative. Do everything as we have agreed. May things turn out well. Exit.
NORFOLK If these good counsels make progress, I shall dare whatever my mind’s fury suggests, whatever is said to be impious, whatever is called a crime. Now you will truly collapse, England. How much ruin will be brought by this first stone to be cast against you?


Enter Rochester.

CROMWELL Rochester’s arrival is opportune. The king’s ministers are handling grave matters and ought to have great need of this bishop’s hoary head.
NORFOLK[Aside.] Cut off from his shoulders. These newborn laws need to be baptized with holy blood.
CRANMER You preeminent glory of the English clergy, the king desires this, the tranquility of the realm demands it. These Parliamentary decrees, confirmed by you, will be indebted to our authority for whatever force they have over others. It is legislated that the king may enjoy his marriage to Anne, and that the daughter born of this union will duly reign as heir of the throne. With your customary loyalty you must swear your approval of that to which every man ought to swear.
ROCHESTER Thus has Catherine deserved, and Mary’s holy character? And she is of royal descent on both sides. She is of assured birth, in no wise unworthy of her forebears. Surely I am not to work the greatest injury on the one party so as to benefit the other? May God avert that!
CRANMER God avert that Rochester should think anything ratified by the will of the people to be unjust!
ROCHESTER Am I to think just a thing which the Pope forbids with his holy decree?
AUDLEY Are scepters wont to be disposed by papal decree?
ROCHESTER He provides that they are lawfully disposed, when he perceives a divorce and condemns this marriage.
CRANMER This entire question concerns the law. Do you support the king? Learn to renounce the Pope.
ROCHESTER Am I hearing, or is a false noise deceiving my unwilling ears? A prelate is thundering thus, yet heaven does not thunder? What sin more deserving of hellfire could be offered? Matters have come to this, that the man who presides over our sacred things, to whom the hands of the Pope have committed our sacred things, takes the lead in striving to abolish the papacy, to wipe away the authority set over the English world? Behold, You who rule the highest and the lowest according to Your will, it is Your case that is now being tried. Protect Your own sanctity, keep it intact. My prayers commend this man to You for punishment.
AUDLEY The Tower awaits you for punishment. Come, yeomen, let this old man be tamed by the dungeon. With his fury set aside, let him learn to submit to government.
ROCHESTER You wretches should learn what it is for government unworthily to detract from God. Lead this old man to the Tower, his mind cannot be taught to prefer scepters’ desires to God’s commands. [Exit.]
AUDLEY The Minorites’ convent adjacent to the palace should be pulled down immediately. This is required since the poky little palace is not large enough for the royal family.
NORFOLK Must the cloisters be demolished where Anne’s daughter was recently baptized? Does that auspice please you?
CRANMER Will Norfolk contradict us?
NORFOLK Heaven forfend! I would wish that the kings commands be carried out immediately.
CROMWELL Let a census be taken of our entire people, let the numbers of those bound by any vow and wearing a religious habit be totted up. With these things duly investigated, damages inflicted on the realm and those yet impending can better be repaired. Do you agree, my Lords?
ALL We do.
CROMWELL Let no man repair to Rome, let any man who shall have instigated the papal court be guilty of treason, and immediately suffer the consequences.
ALL This law is just, this penalty is just.
CROMWELL Let every man take his oath of loyalty.
ALL We pledge our loyalty.
CROMWELL Let everything be ratified. Henry alone rules, and at last he alone wields the scepter. Formerly the scepter was divided. I am ashamed that we have suffered divided masters. The distance between them is immense, this single island gladly acknowledges the name of a single ruler. Union is the strength of this realm, united power triumphs. [Exeunt all but Norfolk.]
NORFOLK But when in discord it suffers a collapse. By tradition, the discordant strivings of its citizenry can only be united by religion. This is a common good for other nations. The honor, fear and worship of a single God are being demolished. Go ahead, you miserable men. Equal consensus and singlemindedness are being laid low, and soon will perish.


As much good as a young heart perceives in specious things, so much it lacks in moderation. What has the world begotten more welcome to youth than a prosperous Court? How greatly Henry’s household beckons with its splendor, and how greatly it steals away their eyes and minds! With what disdains it swells! Sweet showers of the pleasures come raining down, filling every bosom, flowing from the mountain top like a torrent. But directing his gaze within, what strange things will a young man see, what shadows will his gaze perceive! Let us go inside and have a look, the rooms are open for viewing. A throng of servants, born for slavery, occupies them, which abjectly reflects its vile masters. A wretched troupe of beggars follows. The pastime of the courts with its crude bufoonery provides easy material for the sycophant. The neophyte courtier picks it is up, is thrilled with his knee-bending and hand-kissing. You’d think him to crazy, he spins in so many gyrations, assumes so many postures, earnestly resembling a monkey. His senior, friendly and affable, smiles and greets everybody with a pleasant expression. A glowering soldier comes marching in and menacingly grumbles that the dire drum is silent and his sword a-rusting, but the grandees’ harsh stare cows him. Cromwell thrives among these folk, that plague of the Court, that death, that bane, who sells his faith with impunity. He wishes to be called a prudent sort, but can fairly be called a back-stabber. But Henry reigns. Be careful that his thunderbolt remain silent with respect to yourself, you should withdraw from these dark evils. [Enter a messenger.]


MESSENGER The man who takes pleasure in virtue, religion, piety and fear, who delights in concern for the right and candor of heart, he must take his leave. Here there is no place for heavenly things, holy Faith lives in exile far, far away. Let the ancient centuries return, let Diocletian’s times be accounted pious. Harsh Nero’s fury was no match to these massacres. The degenerate soil of England! Let Greece praise whatever sin it brought forth, and call it a trifle.
JOHN Does our violated scepter allow this evil — or does it commit it?
MESSENGER Both, since it is most permissive of that which itself does, and no sense of wrong affects it.
JOHN But tell me what it is.
MESSENGER Every corner is thronged, every house stands empty, the city pours forth into the streets, agog to see the crime which in seeing it condemns. That company we must remember with mourning, the holy offspring of Bruno, was hustled to the shameful scaffold on a hurdle, and there repaid their Christ for the blood He has shed. Coming behind, but with good cheer, Fetherston was dragged along the cobblestones, his feet bound to a swift cart, with a mocking placard affixed to his reverend shoulders, so he might offer up his consecrated limbs to be purified by cruel steel, afterwards to be claimed by the savage flames. Everywhere faithful men are bearing witness to their zeal for Roman rule. For previously with its writings it had tried to repress the crime of a marriage-bed defiled by unspeakable sin. Now it pays a bitter price. The people, shaken by these woes, groaned and shuddered at the hangman’s bloodied hands. The king’s servants bawled and the common folk were amazed.
JOHN As well they might, such evils Henry commands. Oh trust, never again to be placed in rulers’ words and manners! Lately he performed a feat that came down hard on heresy, which the world cheered and Rome rewarded with a new title. Now he himself likewise challenges Rome and heaven with a heresy shameful for its sin.
MESSENGER He gave these first tokens of his gratitude as sacrifices to Boleyn, he uncontrollably burns with love of her. Ah, what future evils do these great ones portend?
JOHN Do my father and the other top-ranking men take this lying down?
MESSENGER Report has brought nothing certain, but a sad rumor concerning them fills every household. Rochester will be black death’s next harvest, More is chained in a filthy cell.
JOHN Why More? He will be present as Rochester’s single sure companion. Should I want my father to be pious, as is his wish? I shall have no father at all. Should I wish him to flourish in prosperous estate? I would have impious father, which he himself would not want. Being of a provident mind, father, come to the aid of your doubtful son. I know your counsels. You will die a pious man. Delay this. Your kinsmen beg you at least to live for their sake, wicked men live for themselves.
MESSENGER You will hear the rest.
JOHN Has impure sin ever besmirched my father’s pure heart?
MESSENGER I bring a letter, written to you. The Earl of Surrey sent it.
JOHN Or will More become impious? Sooner will Phoebus cease to travel round the year’s twelve signs, his setting will supply his light and his rising take it away. The dolphin will ply his fins amidst the stars, with his wings the eagle will plow the sea. The Thames will turn back its course and choke its fountain. Ida will lose its flowers and wooded Paphos, discarding its leaves, will set aside its foliage. Hand me the letter you brought.
MESSENGER (Takes the letter and reads.) Your father has resigned his office, Audley occupies it. Great matters are afoot. Rochester, so opposed to the king, is dead, and if they do not abandon their contumacy and comply with the king’s wishes, others will likewise fall.
JOHN Audley possesses More’s spoils? We are stripped bare. That savage gladiator possesses our arms? With them he’ll stab us in the ribs. By an unfair lot he succeeds a pious man. What hardhearted judge will overturn the lottery-urn? We are fallen, no hope can survive. Let the innocent learn to suffer when madness seizes and plies the reins. Oh fates! Friendship of the powerful, you may go flying off into the air, being lighter than light air yourselves, and may treacherous hope and vain, fragile favor likewise perish. Come hither, you avengers of crime, you fires, you torches, you comet with your long tail that heralds the deaths of kings and lords. May a sure fire, cast from heaven, come forth. The court — [Enter Thomas More.]


MORE Why are you foolishly ranting?
JOHN Father, you are still alive? And you are still free? This is enough.
MORE But it pains me to see my son bound by the fetters of his own fury. My John, is this the discipline of my morality? Having been thus educated, you ought to quench the torches of your overexcited heart. Go home, console our sad family, tell them I have come back safe. You will learn the rest. The Court left behind, I seem to have been excellently given to myself at last. I am seeking no lurking-holes, I am not going away as a helpless fugitive. On my return the signs are safe: having suffered no shipwreck of my virtue, I furl my sails. My station is neither the highest nor the lowest. The highest fears to be endangered, the lowest to be held in scorn, I stand beyond this. Let there be a limit to power, a boundary for authority. Ensure your standing by piety alone, which alone makes it secure. But it is not enough to have resigned. Outside the Court I must be what I was within. Zealously perform the duties of a private citizen. In abandoning the mountain top beware lest the deep valley harm you. I am standing on ground where many men have fallen, and many more will too. Here too the turning wheel spins, here too contrary winds do blow. Virtue is the single sure foundation; relying on it, you will stand.


Enter royal servants to arrest More.

MORE But what news do these servants bring from the king?
SERVANT That which all the city mourns is charged to our care. The king wants More to be taken. Our bitter lot enjoins us to do these bitter things, even if he himself should now see it to be unjust. Our bounden duty is to have obeyed. By our our light touch let Thomas More, knight and whatever else he is, acknowledge the dutifulness of a royal servant. Let him duly give his body into our hands, to serve the king’s pleasure.


Enter yeomen and guards with Rochester’s head affixed to a pole. They cross the stage in silence.

MORE Either my eyesight deceives me, or it sees Rochester’s blessed head atop a stake. His venerable face is shining, even in death his august brow has lost nothing of its honor. His cheeks are aglow with unwonted beauty and gleam with their light. Tell me, friend, whose is the lofty head carried on that stake?
YEOMAN Rochester’s.
MORE. I ask nothing more, it speaks the rest. Greetings, you splendor of a beloved head. Heavenly Father, you parcel out prizes with an even hand. Your servant Rochester deserved a crown and now possesses it. If one remains for More, willingly I bring my aged body to the blessed scaffold.


Happy is he who has been able to close out his life with a brave death, who, freed of this bodily weight, has dispensed with the griefs and destructions of this wretched life, and his moribund years. He has given back to his nation the life he owed it, and in dying gained the life he had lacked. Thus, Fisher, your noble death gives you back to your nation, reborn. Nor is your surviving reputation covered by a bloody tomb; rather, your star is attained by a nobler wing. And, as the lively bird of the sun, ç destroying and regaining his life, lives and dies in his final pyre, so death, which snatched you away to enjoy an eternal day, has given you back to the stars. Where golden Phaeton opens the day, dyed in the Indies, and where he takes the day away, sunk under Thetis, you live and enjoy a life reborn. Your land celebrates you as blessed, England, battered by the savage sea, England, tossed by its late troubles, because you took away its Furies, the depravities commanded by the king, nor did you allow your faithful mind to be conquered by death, fighting yet stronger in the very face of death. Thus the palm tree grows into the lofty air, rising by its very weight. Thus a flame shut in a hollow cave strives to be returned to its parent heaven, being freed.

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