With a fanfare of trumpets, we are at Chelsea and Sir Thomas More’s home. Alice, Margaret, and Norfolk are looking for More. The fanfare was announcing the approach of the King. Everyone is in distress that More will not be present to receive the King. Alice warns Norfolk that Thomas has his own way of doing things. When More enters, he explains he has been at vespers as usual. They fuss with him until he changes his clothes to be presentable. He is scolded and laughed at for not wearing his best clothes.
Henry appears with a fanfare, blowing on his pilot’s whistle. Everyone kneels. Henry boasts about piloting the boat down the river. More introduces Margaret to the King. He has heard she was a scholar. She modestly says she passes for one among women. They converse in Latin until the King realizes she is more proficient than he is. He asks if she can dance; he himself is a superb dancer and shows his leg. Then he indicates Norfolk and claims he can beat him at wrestling and threatens to throw Norfolk. Alice says she has prepared a simple supper for the King, and he is hungry from his trip. He turns to Margaret and says that he is also a scholar. Margaret says she knows of his book about the seven sacraments of the Church. Henry says that More helped him, but More denies it. Henry offers to let Margaret blow on his whistle, and then bids his musicians to play. Everyone exits but More and Henry.
Henry begins by saying he is glad he has a friend for a Chancellor. He picks up Thomas’s chain of office and puts it over his head. Henry tells him that Wolsey named him Chancellor, and More is surprised. Henry says that Wolsey was too proud; he wanted to be Pope. He is glad they have no Cardinals in England now. Then he says offhand to More, he wonders if he has thought over the divorce. More says he has but cannot take the King’s position in the matter. He says that Henry promised when he became Chancellor that he would not be pushed on the question. Henry says he wants the divorce because his soul is at peril; it is immoral to marry the widow of a brother. He does not want to remain in sin. God has punished him with no sons. More says that the King does not need his approval. He should do as he wishes. The King says he needs More’s support because everyone knows he is honest. He explains he will have no opposition. He leaves More to his conscience, and he gives his word he will leave More out of the matter. He must not write against the divorce. More says he would not do such a thing.
Henry claims he has to catch the tide and cannot stay for dinner. He leaves suddenly. Alice accuses her husband of making the King angry. He apologizes but explains to her that though he cannot rule the King, he must rule himself. Alice argues with him, saying he does not know how to flatter. More assures her he will not be a martyr.
Will Roper and Margaret enter. Roper tells More he has been offered a seat in Parliament. He claims his views on the Church have changed; he does not want to attack it, just the people who are corrupting it. More tells him to be quiet; he may not hear his accusations as the Chancellor. Roper accuses More of being corrupted himself. Alice is angry at Roper’s impudence. Rich then enters but feels suddenly suspicious when Roper says he has heard of him. Rich thinks the Mores don’t want him. Rich tells More that Cromwell is asking questions about him, and he points to Matthew as a spy. More says of course, Matthew is his servant, as though that is to be expected. Rich tries to tell him about Ambassador Chapuys, but More is unperturbed. Rich is upset, and asks More for help by employing him. More refuses. When Rich rushes out, Roper tells More to arrest Rich because he is dangerous, but More says he has done nothing wrong. Even Margaret begs her father to do it because Rich is a bad man who is obviously stirring things up to benefit himself. More says he will stick to the law. Rich has not broken the law.
Roper asks More if he thinks man’s law is above God’s law. More defends English law as a refuge for people on earth. God is too lofty to understand, but the law is a safeguard. When Margaret asks her father to be direct with them, he says that he has not disobeyed Henry, and no man in England is safer than he is. Alice asks why then is Cromwell collecting information on him. He says it is just because he is prominent. He is harsh with Roper for being able to change his principles so fast, then apologizes for being critical. He drinks a toast with his family as they go in to dinner, saying it’s best to be anchored in one’s principles.
Act One, Scene Seven: Commentary
This is the only scene where Henry appears, and though he is careful not to argue with More, whom it is obvious he respects, he makes it clear that he will not have opposition to his plans. He seems to let More off the hook, promising if he keeps quiet, all will be well. He had wanted More to come out in favor of the divorce, because he is a great thinker that all of Europe will listen to. More declines his help but says he will be quiet about his thoughts. Henry’s abrupt departure does not bode well, as Alice remarks.
The confrontation with Roper allows More to develop his philosophical position. It is not just a simple matter of being a devout Churchman and seeing things in black and white, one side good and the other evil. More merely wants to live by his own conscience and believes English law protects one so this can be done. Although Roper is a good man, his principles are announced as absolute, and yet they go up and down with his passions. In fact, no one else is steadfast in himself or in his principles except More. Even the good men, Roper and Norfolk, bend with the wind and let circumstance guide them. More knows who he is and what he stands for. He even seems willing to let King Henry go his own way and do as he wants; he does not want to proclaim the King wrong and become a martyr. He wishes to do his own legal duty as Chancellor and be let alone about his conscience. Roper accuses him of backing down and not sticking to his religious belief if he does not oppose the King, but Robert Bolt shows More as a practical man. He is not setting out to be a hero or martyr. He is a lawyer and sees the law as a way to live peacefully in the world. He thinks he has found the proper compromise with Henry here. If he is silent on the matter, he has not crossed Henry nor himself. At the moment, he believes this deal will hold.
Rich’s entry serves two purposes. First, it lets More and his family know that Cromwell is actively watching More. Danger is increasing. Secondly, Rich’s lack of integrity is apparent and contrasts with More’s complete integrity. Rich is desperate for a prestigious position and will go to the highest bidder. More does not want to employ someone like that. His dismissal of Rich is also a bad omen, though More does not know this, because Cromwell is waiting for Rich with a counter offer.
The scene between Margaret and King Henry is interesting for several reasons. Alice represents the traditional woman of the medieval or Renaissance period who did not go to school or read. Learning was for men. With the new humanist ideal of education that Sir Thomas More represents, some noble women were beginning to get educated at this time. It is significant that Sir Thomas educates his daughter, although he still tries to rule her choice of husband. He has a fair and affectionate relationship with the women in his life. Margaret is ironically a foreshadowing of King Henry’s own daughter that he will have by Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth, the future great queen of England. Elizabeth, like Margaret, was educated with the new humanist learning. Elizabeth like Margaret could speak and write in Latin and converse intelligently on topics with her courtiers. It had been firmly believed until this time that women were incapable of learning or reasoning, and so it is amusing that Margaret’s Latin is better than Henry’s. Margaret is close to her father and as an educated woman understands his ideals as her mother does not.