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A Man for All Seasons | Study Guide

Robert Bolt

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A Man for All Seasons | Act 2, Section 5 : More meets with Cromwell at Hampton Court | Summary



Sir Thomas More arrives at Hampton Court where Thomas Cromwell greets him and says Richard Rich will record their conversation. More asks to hear the charges. There aren't any charges, Cromwell says, he'd just like More to explain some of his behaviors. More asks Rich to note there are no charges, and Cromwell laughs. He can't understand why More is now so stubbornly against "the whole movement of the times" and tells More he's upset the king. Cromwell adds if More changed his mind the king would give him any honor he desires. More is unimpressed.

Cromwell then brings up More's correspondence with the Holy Maid of Kent, a woman killed for "prophesying against the King." Does More sympathize with her? More says he found her "ignorant and misguided" and he has sympathy for the price she paid. Why, Cromwell asks, didn't More warn the king of her treason if he knew about it? More says they didn't talk about treason. His letter warned her against getting involved in political affairs. More has brought a witnessed copy of the letter to back him up.

But Cromwell has another issue to discuss, which he calls a charge "for want of a better word." King Henry VIII published a book in 1526 called A Defence of the Seven Sacraments. Cromwell alleges More actually wrote the book and knows the details of the pope's authority—or the Bishop of Rome, as Cromwell calls the pope. More insists the king wrote the book himself. All More did was answer some of the king's questions about church law. The king won't tell Cromwell any differently, More says. He doesn't think the king will "perjure himself" after taking an oath.

Then Cromwell asks More if he has anything to say about the Henry VIII's remarriage. More says he understood he wouldn't be asked about the marriage, but Cromwell persists. More accuses Cromwell of delivering empty threats to scare him, like "an empty cupboard" used to scare children. There's nothing in the cupboard, More says. In response Cromwell reads More a statement made by the king. The statement charges More with "great ingratitude," calling him a villain and a traitor. More says "So I am brought here at last." Cromwell gives him permission to leave—for now. More leaves, clearly concerned.

Rich, uncomfortable with how the situation is escalating, asks Cromwell if he still thinks he can scare More. Cromwell has a plan and explains to Rich that "the King's a man of conscience." If More won't bless his marriage, the king has to justify More's execution in order to feel he's done the right thing. Cromwell and Rich's job is to keep the king's conscience happy.


So far Sir Thomas More can see right through Thomas Cromwell. Through friendliness, flattery, and insistence the charges aren't really "charges," Cromwell tries to get More to let down his guard. He reminds More the king would reward his submission, but More doesn't fall for it.

More has come prepared in case Cromwell tries to use his letter to the Holy Maid of Kent against him. By bringing up the Henry VIII's book, Cromwell tries to prove More has already made a statement of his views on the pope's authority in the book. But More anticipates Cromwell there, too, insisting the king won't lie under oath. Cromwell, used to respect and fear, is taken aback. Like Richard Rich in Act 1 he believes "every man has his price." More can't be tempted with honor or frightened with legal repercussions.

More doesn't consider himself a rebel or a martyr, and he rejects both labels. Until Cromwell reveals the king's message, More's anxiety doesn't escalate into real fear. But he knows how King Henry VIII treats his enemies. All along More has been afraid the king will doubt his loyalty. Now his fears are coming true.

Did More bring himself to this place, or was he brought? Should he have gone with the current of the times, or at least assessed the risk? Or did he have no choice? The play doesn't answer these questions, but it poses the questions to the audience.

Cromwell says More "raises the gale and won't come out of the harbor." He implies More has caused trouble for everyone else and sought shelter for himself. Rich, speaking "shakily" and acting "subdued," still wants to believe More can win. Rich fears Cromwell, but he admires More. To clarify the situation for Rich, Cromwell introduces him to the king's version of "conscience"—Henry VIII will morally justify whatever he's done or whatever he wants to do. The audience recalls the way Henry VIII used guilt to justify his divorce in Act 1. This explanation shows how the king interprets conscience and morality: He wants to think of himself as good.

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