One of the most underrated performances ever to grace the small screen is the role of Thomas More in the Showtime series, The Tudors. It is an iconic characterization, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to portray one of the most controversial men in history, an individual who strongly opposed the Reformation, defied a monarch, and ultimately sacrificed his life as a martyr for his faith.
Sir Thomas was one of King Henry’s closest friends and advisors until the Act of Succession divided them. Henry had decided to abandon his wife, Katharine of Aragon, and marry a commoner, Anne Boleyn. He appealed to Rome for an annulment, but the Church sided with Katharine, believing their marriage was valid. Because they refused to grant him a divorce, Henry dissolved Rome’s authority in England and made himself the head of the Church of England. All his nobles and officials of the court were asked to sign a legal document swearing an oath of aliegance that also denounced Katharine as the queen and removed her daughter from the line of succession. Sir Thomas hoped for a time that he might be able to sign it in good conscience, but as it would have forced him to deny his central belief in the Roman Catholic Church, he could not. Because he could not sign it, and because Henry could not permit him to engage in civil disobedience, he was sentenced to death and executed.
His story and the political motivations behind his trial and execution first came to public interest with the theatrical production of A Man For All Seasons, which depicts him as a man of immense compassion and understanding caught up in a situation he cannot avoid. And while it is indeed that depiction of him that is the most accurate, I personally am fond of his role in The Tudors, which allows us to explore much more fully his involvement in the intrigues of court, his role in delaying the Reformation, and his relationship not only with Henry but also Katharine and his family. We are permitted to peer into his personal life and witness his religious convictions, which are vital to comprehending the convictions that led to his death. It is the smaller but meaningful scenes we remember the most: wearing a hair shirt for penance as he prays; his gracious support of and reassurances to the downtrodden Katharine; his desperate, tearful prayers after the execution of a “heretic,” as he guiltily questions his own involvement in bringing about a man’s death.
It is a testament to his immense talent that Northam can act through such a dramatic and at times extremist personality (after all, Sir Thomas does partake in interrogating and burning a heretic, and supports an underground uprising against Anne Boleyn) and still tug on the heartstrings of even the most antagonistic audiences. One young woman I know held his character in nothing but contempt at the end of the first season, but by his death was in tears, having succumbed to the power of a gut-wrenching performance. My mother quit watching after his last episode, for having seen him die she could not bear to go on. And although I continued out of fondness for the remaining characters and a love for historical epics, I admit that after his departure, the spark left the series. Having been a fan for a number of years, when I first heard he was to join the cast in that particular, iconic role, I was delighted, for I knew he would do a magnificent job. He did not disappoint me, filling his character with rich emotion, unquestionable depth, and maturity. It is Sir Thomas that our eye is drawn to, quiet in his thoughts and unmoving in his convictions, while the fiery monarch is center stage, throwing tantrums and ordering executions, in part due to his mysteriousness but mostly because of Northam’s unquestionable presence.
There are many marvelous scenes, most of them conspiring with Bishop Fisher or confronting an enraged Henry, but one of my favorites is when Sir Thomas risks the king’s wrath by visiting the banished and demoralized Katharine of Aragon. He reassures the heartbroken former queen that she is not forgotten, she is admired, and she is in all their prayers. I love how he is shown as her supporter and champion, even if he cannot publicly defend her. It is more than his belief in fairness that accompanies his respect for Katharine, but his appreciation of her strong faith, matched only by his own. It is also no coincidence that out of all the characters in the series, they are the most continually empathetic, two pillars of moral conviction and virtue in a sea of political ambition and debauchery. One of his most powerful moments, however, is coming to the realization at his trial that all is lost and he may as well speak his mind. Filthy and bedraggled, surrounded by his enemies, Sir Thomas stands proud before the court and proclaims at long last his true opinion.
It is not a happy story, in fact it is one full of sadness and ultimate tragedy, but I am not sorry for having seen it, for it permitted to me to come to know, respect, and admire Sir Thomas More as he was depicted, faults and all. It is true, Paul Scofield first defined the impassioned Sir Thomas More, but Jeremy Northam transformed him into a living, breathing man of tremendous faith and unwavering resolve, a man flawed but ultimately worth remembering if for nothing more than clinging to his convictions.
by Charity Bishop
Charity Bishop runs her own website, Charity’s Place, which houses an amazing array of reviews of movies and tv productions. I highly recommend setting some time aside for a good old browse; there is much to be enjoyed.