Much was written about the historic significance of Pope Benedict’s address to Members of Parliament in Westminster Hall – during the Pope’s visit last year. It was here, in July 1535 that the former Speaker and Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More, was tried for high treason for denying the validity of the Act of Succession.
St.Thomas’ judges included the new Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas Audley, along with Anne Boleyn’s father, brother and uncle. The odds were stacked to make acquittal an impossibility.
Brilliant lawyer that he was, More believed he had to do all that was humanly possible to avoid prosecution and in the memorable words from Robert Bolt’s brilliant 1966 script of “A Man For All Seasons” he shrewdly says “Tell me the words” when asked to swear the King’s oath. He wants to assess whether they are words he can say while remaining true to his Faith. If there is any way to avoid direct confrontation and to live easily with his conscience then More will take it.
In the end Thomas More reluctantly concludes that the law is offering no way out and that no room is going to be given to accommodate his conscience. In the film’s exchange with his beloved daughter Meg, he explains the situation:
“If he suffers us to come to such a case
that there is no escaping…
…then we may stand to our tackle
as best we can.
And yes, Meg, then we can clamour
like champions, if we have the spittle for it.
But it’s God’s part, not our own,
to bring ourselves to such a pass.
Our natural business lies in escaping.”
After the corrupted legal process had run its course in Westminster Hall – and his betrayer, Richard Rich had received his reward of a Government post, as Attorney General for Wales – all escape routes were closed for More, and on June 22nd he was beheaded on Tower Hill.
More’s final testimony in Westminster Hall is contained in a still extant transcript. He told the Court that he was being tried for opposing Henry’s marriage to Ann Boleyn which he considered to be adulterous – not because of the Act of Supremacy: “you seek my blood as for that I would not condescend to the marriage”.
Pope Benedict reflected on these themes of religious liberty, the right to conscience and the place of marriage in contemporary Britain.
It was also a moment to dwell on courage and heroism – for Westminster Hall was the place of trial for many other notable Catholics.
In 1581, forty six years after the trial of More, Edmund Campion was brought to the Hall to face similar charges.
Having spent a year clandestinely celebrating Mass and bringing the sacraments to England’s Catholics, Campion had been arrested and brought before Queen Elizabeth – who asked him if he acknowledged her as the true Queen of England. After he replied in the affirmative she offered him wealth and preferment on the condition that he renounced his faith. His refusal led to incarceration in the Tower of London. He later pointed out that the Queen’s offer of a rich and comfortable life made nonsense of the charge that he was a traitor.
After being tortured on the rack, on September 1st, 18th, 23rd and 27th 1581, he faced public interrogation at the Tower and subsequent torture.
On November 14th Campion, along with his companions Frs. Sherwin, Kirby, Cottam, Johnson, Rishton and a layman, Orton, were arraigned at the Bar of Westminster Hall.
Campion responded “I protest before God and His holy angels, before Heaven and earth, before the world and this Bar whereat I stand, which is but a small resemblance of the terrible judgment of the next life, that I am not guilty of any part of the treason contained in the indictment, or of any other treason whatever.”
Ralph Sherwin added: “The plain reason of our standing here is religion and not treason.”
The following day a further seven Catholic priests were similarly arraigned at the Bar of the Hall. The trial took place on November 20th when his accusers described him as an agent of the Pope and the Holy See. He replied that his sole aim was to preach the Gospel.
In addressing the jury he told them “how dear the innocent is to God, and to what price he holdeth man’s blood.” He reminded them who his accusers were: “one hath confessed himself a murderer (Eliot), the other (Munday) a detestable atheist, a profane heathen, a destroyer of two men already. On your consciences would you believe them – they that have betrayed both God and man, nay, that have nothing left to swear by, neither religion nor honesty?”
Campion was convicted and sentenced to death as a traitor. With words that still resonate in 2010 he rebuked those who condemned him: “ The only thing that we now have to say is, that if our religion do make us traitors, we are worthy to be condemned; but otherwise are and have been, as good subjects as ever the Queen had. In condemning us, you condemn all your own ancestors, all our ancient bishops and kings, all that was once the glory of England — the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter.
“God lives; posterity will live; their judgment is not so liable to corruption as that of those who are now going to sentence us to death.”
As they were taken from Westminster Hall the condemned men broke into the words of the Te Deum. Campion spent the next eleven days in prayer, and then, on December 1st, with Fr.Sherwin and Fr.Briant he was taken to Tyburn – today’s Marble Arch – where he was hanged, drawn and quartered. He was aged 41.
No one has ever told Campion’s courageous story better than Evelyn Waugh. His 1935 book has been republished by Sophia Institute Press under the title “St.Edmund Campion –Priest and Martyr”, and includes the full text of “Campion’s Brag.”
The sham trials and trumped up charges of treason leveled against Campion and More; the State’s determination to force men to choose between their conscience and submission; and the systematic abuse of power and falsified evidence are all a part of the story of Westminster Hall.
In their final agonies I doubt that either Campion or More would have foreseen a day when the successor of Peter would be respectfully welcomed at Westminster. But both would surely rejoice. As Campion hopefully wrote in the final words of his “Brag”: “we may at last be friends in Heaven, when all injuries shall be forgiven.”