The Common Man watches Cardinal Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor of England, the King’s chief advisor, writing at his desk and then exits. More enters and Wolsey asks him what took him so long. It’s 1:00 a.m. Wolsey puts a paper under More’s nose to examine. He wants him to look at a dispatch to Rome, since he is opposed to it.
More looks at it and compliments the style. Wolsey asks what he thinks of the content. It is addressed to Cardinal Campeggio in Rome. More wonders why it is not sent to the English Ambassador in Rome. Wolsey says the ambassador is a “ninny” (18) that he was purposely appointed so he could write directly to Campeggio. More remarks on the deviousness of Wolsey’s move. Wolsey expresses disappointment in More for his morality. He needs common sense to be a statesman. Scholarship and morality are of no help in politics. Wolsey challenges More that the king wants a son, and he wonders what More is going to do about it. Wolsey paints a picture for More about what will happen to England if there is no male heir. The Tudors will be replaced by another dynasty; there could be upheaval and war. He reminds More of the Yorkist wars. Henry needs a divorce from Catherine of Aragon who has only given the king a daughter.
More reminds Wolsey that the Pope has already given a dispensation so King Henry could marry Catherine in the first place. Wolsey says that the Church needs to be reformed, so why not use that fact to get Henry a proper heir? He does not think More should consider his private conscience when it is a national issue at stake. More answers that when statesmen do not use their private conscience, the country is led towards chaos. He will pray for Henry to get an heir.
Wolsey asks if More would govern the country through prayer. He wonders who will govern after him as Chancellor. More? Tunstall? Suffolk? More says he prefers Tunstall. Wolsey proposes Cromwell. More says that he would take office rather than let Cromwell. Wolsey tells him if he would do it then he had better come back to earth. He thinks More should have been a cleric. More leaves him with a joke: A cleric? Like Wolsey?
Act One, Scene Two: Commentary
More’s last joke to Wolsey implies he does not think Cardinal Wolsey is much of a churchman. He is too political. Actually, Wolsey has a foot in both camps, the church and the state. More hints that he juggles his acts as Cardinal and Chancellor, and that the Church loses.
The argument of whether to be guided by ideals or practicality is now extended to the kingdom of England itself. The discussion of what is at stake between Wolsey, the outgoing Chancellor and More, the future Chancellor, is understood even though they do not speak directly about what is contained in the letter to Rome. Wolsey is asking the Pope for a divorce for King Henry. Wolsey reminds More of the difficult political situation they are in. Henry VIII was pressured into marrying Catherine, the Spanish princess after his brother, then heir to the English throne, died. Though scripture prohibits a brother from marrying his brother’s widow, the Pope gave a special dispensation for the sake of the alliance of Spain and England. Henry and Catherine were married and had a daughter, Mary. Henry now finds himself in trouble as Catherine cannot produce a male heir. Henry decides to marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn, and to divorce Catherine. He needs the Pope’s consent.
More has objected to the divorce on moral grounds. Wolsey reminds him what happens when the royal succession is in doubt. The Yorkist Wars between the houses of Lancaster and York for the throne of England (The War of the Roses, 1455-1487) spilled a lot of blood and eventually ended with the Tudor Dynasty to whom Henry VIII is heir. That dynasty will end unless Henry has a strong male heir; there could be more wars.
Wolsey also hints at the reform of the English Church, which is the way that Henry VIII will eventually get his divorce. When the Pope refuses the divorce, Henry will sever ties with the Roman Church and proclaim himself head of the English Church. This is blatantly immoral to Sir Thomas More, a devout Catholic. Wolsey makes it clear that he and More are enemies, and that he, Wolsey, is trying to please the king and keep his own head. They discuss possible successors to Wolsey (who will be arrested when he does not get Henry the divorce from Rome), and Wolsey threatens that it could be Cromwell, whom we have already heard is completely unscrupulous. More says in that case he would prefer to be Chancellor himself. More’s motivation is strictly patriotic. He frequently points out he would prefer a private life so he could write.