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Thomas More’s Quarrel with Reform

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In letters to family and friends while he was confined in the Tower of London in 1534 and the first few months of 1535, Thomas More explained his refusal to comply with the first Act of Succession with the argument that his allegiance was to a council higher than the parliament of England. The “higher council” to which More referred was the General Council of Christendom, whose determinations embodied Christianity’s canonically enjoined consensus fidelium and therefore held precedence over laws enacted by lesser assemblies such as England’s parliaments. Ecclesiastical consensus was the foundation of all More believed. It was the test that screened Catholic from heretical doctrine, and it was infallible. But More could not lawfully adhere to the principle of consensus and at the same time swear to uphold the royal supremacy enacted in 1534 because the king’s supremacy in the English church implicitly asserted England’s separateness and therefore broke up Christianity’s consensual uniformity. Thus the oath of allegiance to the first Act of Succession was one of several pieces of legislation that More could not in conscience obey.


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