On the 7th of May, 1534, Sir Thomas More was brought to trial for treason. The specific charge against him was that he had refused to take an oath acknowledging King Henry VIII as the supreme head of the Church of England. This oath had been required of all English subjects and Thomas More was one of the very few to refuse to take it, because it violated his religious belief that the Pope was the head of the Church.
The fix was in; the court was clearly under orders to convict More unless he caved in and took the oath. To insure a conviction, they kept him in the Tower of London for a year, under unusually harsh circumstances, which sapped his health and made him physically and mentally weak when the trial came. Then they read off a huge list of charges, but refused to allow him to see the written list; he had to respond to it from memory.
More’s defense was based on an old English law stating that a man could not be convicted for something he didn’t say; he could only be convicted for what he did say. More had very carefully refrained from saying anything pro or con about the oath, not even to his wife. His only action with reference to the oath was to refuse to speak it. His case was bulletproof; the law was well-established and could not be controverted.
The prosecution therefore resorted to perjury. First, they claimed that More had written letters to Bishop Fisher exhorting him to refuse to take the oath. The letters, it was claimed, included explicit condemnation of the oath. More demanded that the letters be produced; the prosecution explained that Bishop Fisher had burned them. In any other case, the letters would not have been admitted as evidence, but not in this case.
The most damning evidence was testimony from Richard Rich that More had spoken with him while imprisoned in the Tower and had readily condemned the oath to Mr. Rich. This was an outrageous perjury; More had refused all discussion of the oath with one and all. For Mr. Rich to claim that More had freely discussed the matter with him was ludicrous, especially because it was well-known that More and Rich despised each other. The fact that Mr. Rich had been recently given the position of Solicitor General, and was then made a Lord, was pointed out by More, but to no effect.
It was clearly a completely trumped-up case, based entirely on perjury, yet the jury convicted More after 15 minutes’ deliberation. More was executed.
The moral of this tale
English high society in 1534 was not particularly sensitive to notions of rationalism. The irrationalism of the verdict was obvious to all, but nobody thought much of it.
A second trial
On the 17th of November, 1603, nearly 70 years after More’s trial, another sensational treason trial took place. This time the defendant was Sir Walter Raleigh. The tale leading up to his trial, and the accusations against him, make a labrynthine story. It is apparent now that Raleigh was completely innocent of treason. But once again, the fix was in: King James I wanted a conviction and the court was determined to deliver one.
Once again, the law was solidly on the defendant’s side. In this case, it was a law requiring the testimony of two witnesses to procure a conviction for treason. The testimony against Raleigh came from one man, Lord Cobham, and it was obviously unreliable. Cobham was also on trial for treason. He had first claimed that Raleigh conspired to treason; then he retracted his claims. He had even provided Raleigh with a signed letter declaring Raleigh’s innocence. Yet on the day of the trial, the prosecution produced a new letter purportedly from Cobham, re-accusing Raleigh of treason. Raleigh requested the opportunity to confront and question his accuser, but the judge, in a blatant violation of the law, refused Raleigh’s request. The judge also flatly denied that the two-witness law was still in force. A few years later, the same judge, Sir Edward Coke, wrote a magisterial book on English law in which he declared that the two-witness law was, in fact, still in force.
It was the same story as with More’s trial: an innocent man railroaded by political considerations. In this case, however, there was a difference. Although Raleigh was also found guilty of treason (also after only 15 minutes), the audience watching the trial felt otherwise. Reports flew across the country that Raleigh had been wrongfully convicted. This represented a profound difference: in English society, rationalism was now powerful enough to rob the king of automatic credibility. Indeed, the public resentment of Raleigh’s conviction was so great that King James had to commute the sentences of both men to life in prison in the Tower of London.
This is not so grim a sentence as it might seem. Raleigh was lodged in a five-room suite and was able to bring whatever books and furnishings he desired. His wife lived with him and two servants were at his disposal.
Ironically, Raleigh was freed 12 years later to lead an expedition to Venezuela, which was a complete fiasco. Raleigh had been given strict orders not to harm any Spanish interests he encountered, but a lieutenant leading a secondary group attacked a Spanish town and killed a number of Spaniards. Raleigh was hundreds of miles away at the time, but when they returned to England, Raleigh was once again brought up on charges. This time the political circumstances were different: the King was trying to arrange a marriage between his son and the Spanish king’s daughter, and it was important to mollify Spanish anger with an execution. This time Raleigh was executed.
The moral of this tale
This shows how much progress rationalism had made in England in just 70 years. In 1534, a blatantly unfair conviction based on false evidence was met with unconcern; in 1603, a similarly unfair conviction based on false evidence generated so much public opprobrium that the king was forced to commute the sentence.