Interrogating Thomas More: The Conundrums of Conscience

48 Pages Posted: 25 Sep 2003

Date Written: 2003


The martyrdom of Thomas More for refusing to take an oath affirming Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn and his supremacy over the church has fascinated historians, playwrights, and their readers. Why did More refuse, at such sacrifice to take an oath that nearly everyone in the realm (including More's family and friends) had taken - and that they regarded him as obstinate and absurd for not taking? Why did More refuse to explain the reasons for his refusal, even to close family and friends, beyond saying that they were reasons of "conscience"? And how can More's eloquent affirmation that he would "leave every man to own conscience" and that "every man should leave me to mine" be reconciled with his active persecution and execution of Protestants whose consciences impelled them to embrace what More regarded as heresy? This essay investigates these questions and reflects on their significance for modern commitments to (and difficulties with) the idea of "freedom of conscience."

Keywords: legal ethics, conscience

JEL Classification: K19, K42, K49

Suggested Citation

Smith, Steven Douglas, Interrogating Thomas More: The Conundrums of Conscience (2003). U San Diego Public Law Research Paper No. 62. Available at SSRN: or

Steven Douglas Smith (Contact Author)

University of San Diego School of Law ( email )

5998 Alcala Park
San Diego, CA 92110-2492
United States
619-260-7969 (Phone)
619-260-2492 (Fax)

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