Thank God for space in which to maneuver. Seizing upon the elasticity of the “so far as,” “the law of God,” and “allows,” More had room.
But not for long. In the interim between 1531 and 1534 Henry’s ministers continued producing legislation with ever tightening language, resulting in 1534’s Act of Supremacy, and its attendant Oath of Supremacy. In Bolt’s account (A Man for All Seasons [act 2]), More hears news of the Oath from his daughter, Margaret, and her husband, Will Roper, and is hopeful that he might be able to take it:
Roper: There’s to be a new Act through Parliament, sir!
Roper: Yes, sir — about the marriage!
Margaret: Father, by this Act, they’re going to administer an oath.
More: An oath! On what compulsion?
Roper: It’s expected to be treason!
More: What is the oath?
Roper: It’s about the marriage, sir.
More: But what is the wording?
Roper: We don’t need to know the wording — we know what it will mean!
More: It will mean what the words say! An oath is made of words! It may be possible to take it. Or avoid it. Have we a copy of the Bill?
Margaret: There’s one coming out from the City.
More: Then let’s get home and look at it… Now listen, Will. And, Meg, you listen, too, you know I know you well. God made the angels to show him splendor — as he made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man he made to serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind! If he suffers us to fall to such a case that there is no escaping, then we may stand to our tackle as best we can, and yes, Will, then we may clamor like champions…if we have the spittle for it. And no doubt it delights God to see splendor where He only looked for complexity. But it’s God’s part, not our own, to bring ourselves to that extremity! Our natural business lies in escaping, so let’s get home and study this Bill.
There was to be no escaping. The Oath of Supremacy was written in univocal, categorical language (“…the onely Supreame Governour of this Realme, and all other his Highnesse Dominions and Countries, as well in all Spirituall or Ecclesiasticall things or causes, as Temporall…”). No room, no shades of meaning. All More could do was stand silent. Having no control over the wording, he had to trust — to gamble — that the court would take his silence to mean consent. But in the face of a determined King and his ministers’ perjury, he lost the bet.
Thomas More had the entirety of the Oath handed to him, every word and phrase already given. What if he had had the opportunity to take some given words, add to them words of his own choosing, and the freedom to phrase things into a complete document? Could he not then have been able to speak for himself through language that did not slip the bonds of truth or common sense, and use his considerable skills in an effort to avoid a terrible outcome, surely for himself, in various ways for others, and even for the realm? He might have written with such persuasion that he could change the minds of those who oppose him, even those who imposed the oath-taking on him in the first place.
If only he had been in control of the wording.