Summary of the Play “A Man for All Seasons” by Robert Bolt

The politician and scholar Sir Thomas More opposes King Henry VIII’s intention to get a divorce and be married again in order to have a male heir.

However, More, ever the diplomat, chooses not to express his emotions in the hopes that Henry won’t bring it up with him. During a meeting with England’s Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, More goes over the letter to Rome asking the pope to grant Henry’s divorce. More notes that because Henry’s wife, Catherine, was his brother’s widow, the pope granted a dispensation, or exemption, allowing Henry to marry in the first place. There are other reasons to distrust the pope’s willingness to revoke his first pontificate. Wolsey criticizes More for being overly moralistic and suggests that he be more practical. 

Following their conversation with Wolsey, More meets the king’s confidant, Thomas Cromwell. Recently elevated to the post of cardinal’s secretary, Cromwell falsely claims to be one of More’s biggest fans. Additionally, More meets the Spanish ambassador to England, Signor Chapuys. Chapuys interprets More’s evasive answers to inquiries concerning his conversation with Wolsey as an indication that More concurs that the divorce ought not go proceed. Chapuys emphasizes Catholic religion and Christian virtues. He is particularly worried that Henry not offend Catherine, Henry’s wife and the aunt of the Spanish monarch. Chapuys believes he has More on his side. 

Even though it is late, Roper, Margaret’s Lutheran lover, has paid Margaret a visit back at More’s house. When Roper begs for Margaret’s hand in marriage, More says no, considering a Lutheran to be a heretic.

Wolsey passes away in the meantime, creating a vacancy in the office of Lord Chancellor. Wolsey died in shame because the king was not happy that he had not been able to get a papal dispensation to dissolve his marriage to Catherine. Wolsey’s successor is named as More.

Richard Rich, a low-level employee that More helped create and to whom More offered a silver cup that had been provided to him as a bribe, is met by Cromwell. (More was given the cup without realizing it was a bribe.) Rich is lured by Cromwell with the promise of career growth, and the cowardly Rich appears too ready to take the position in return for knowledge he possesses about More. When Rich and Chapuys, who have just arrived, ask Cromwell about his new role, he replies simply that he carries out the king’s orders. He says that the king is going to see More by boat down the Thames.

Cromwell, Rich, and Chapuys are keen to buy off Matthew, More’s manservant, who is portrayed by the Common Man, in exchange for information. Even though Matthew limits his information on his master to what is well known, the three nevertheless pays him off. 

The king is supposed to return to More’s house in the Chelsea neighborhood of London, but More is nowhere to be found. The family worries about his being gone for a while until they discover him attending vespers, or nighttime prayers. All of them behave well for the arrival of the king, and More is the most charming of them all. Recalling that the king had pledged not to trouble More about the divorce, More does notify the king that More cannot consent to the divorce. The monarch rushes out, promising to leave More alone if More stays silent about the divorce.

The wife of More, Alice, is upset with his actions and believes her husband ought to follow Henry’s wishes. When Rich gets there, he informs More that Cromwell and Chapuys are gathering data about him. When he requests a job, More refuses to hire him.

Cromwell meets Rich at the Loyal Subject, a neighborhood bar, to plot against More. Even though Rich is hesitant and overcome with remorse, he finally consents to inform Cromwell about the bribe that More accepted and gave to him. Cromwell gives Rich a job in return.

The Act of Supremacy, passed by Parliament, creates the English Church and names King Henry as its head. More resolves to step down as Lord Chancellor in the event that the English bishops approve of the legislation. Though More, who is adamantly opposed to the act, views it as a practical necessity, Chapuys and Roper both refer to it as a notable “gesture.” All he wills to defend himself alone to the monarch. He does not want his wife or daughter to be forced to testify against him in the future, so even they are kept in the dark about his motivations.

At their meeting, Cromwell informs the Duke of Norfolk of his intention to question More about bribes. As soon as More discovered the cup was a bribe, Norfolk demonstrates that More delivered it to Rich, and Cromwell is compelled to think of another means to capture More. But he informs Norfolk that the king anticipates him taking part in More’s persecution. 

The now-poverished More declines the bishops’ earnest offer of assistance as well as a letter of gratitude from the Spanish monarch. Calling More into his office, Cromwell tries to discredit him by saying that he had sympathy for the Holy Maid of Kent, who was hanged for treason. He is also charged by Cromwell of writing a book that King Henry is said to have penned. More refutes both of these accusations, but More is truly shocked when Cromwell comes upon a letter from King Henry labeling More a villain.

 When More and Norfolk meet outdoors, More demands that Norfolk break up their friendship since, at this time, More is too risky to be friends with if he wants to stay in the king’s good graces. Another act is passed by Parliament, this time mandating that subjects take an oath acknowledging King Henry’s authority over the Church in England, as well as the legality of his divorce and subsequent marriages. When we meet More again, he’s been imprisoned for refusing to take the oath.

More is questioned in jail by Cromwell, Norfolk, and Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, but they are unable to persuade him to take an oath or reveal his thoughts on the king’s actions. More can remain in prison for as long as he refuses to sign the oath or speak, and Cromwell is not allowed to have him put to death. In the hopes that they might be able to reason with him, he takes away More’s books but allows his family to visit. Margaret, More’s daughter, attempts to persuade her father that he has done everything in his power, but More is unyielding. At last, Alice understands More’s plight completely, and they show each other their undying love and reconciliation right before the jailer (the Common Man) demands that the visit end. 

In return for Rich’s false evidence at More’s trial, Cromwell grants Rich the position of attorney general for Wales. Rich says he heard More oppose the king’s power over the Church, even though More never spoke. Before More receives his death sentence, he speaks out against the Supremacy Act and expresses his dissatisfaction with a system that would murder a man for being silent. More is beheaded at the play’s conclusion, but he passes away with grace and dignity.

Characters List

Sir Thomas More

the play’s main character. The play’s central theme is More’s historical refusal to pledge allegiance to Parliament’s Act of Supremacy, although Bolt purposefully avoids portraying More as the mythical martyr or saint. Bolt does not believe that More is a person who stands up and gives his life in support of a cause. Instead, Bolt’s More is the story of a man who commits suicide because he is unable to compromise his conscience, which forbids him from abandoning God or what he feels is right. According to More, a man’s conscience is an extension of himself, and he will not betray it, not even under threat of death.

Remarkably, More does not take any action to publicly express his disapproval of King Henry’s divorce or to voice his own opinions. Thomas does not disclose his own beliefs until after Cromwell has condemned him.

The Common Man

The drama is narrated by The Common Man, who also portrays a number of lower-class characters, including Matthew, More’s steward, the boatman, the publican (innkeeper), the jailer, the jury foreman, and the headsman (executioner). In his introduction, Bolt clarifies that he wants the Common Man to represent universally shared beliefs and behaviors, but in the end, the Common Man demonstrates that Bolt means base when he uses the term “common.” The Common Man typically portrays people who go about their daily lives without considering the repercussions of their decisions or the interests of anybody except themselves.

As a result, the majority of these characters ultimately violate their own moral principles. The individuals that the Common Man portrays get increasingly guilty as the play progresses. Ultimately, the Common Man finds comfort in his survival, which helps him to calm his guilty conscience. He suggests at the play’s conclusion that most individuals act in the same way.

Richard Rich

a low-level official that More assisted in setting up. When Rich applies for jobs, More turns him down for a senior role and advises him to become a teacher instead. However, Rich chooses to work for Norfolk instead, and in exchange for lying under oath during More’s trial, he finally gets a position as the attorney general for Wales from Cromwell. Similar to the Common Man, Rich acts as a character contrast or counterpoint for Sir Thomas. Specifically, Rich’s ascent to prominence and fortune coincides with More’s decline in popularity. Rich, in contrast to More, does not submit to his conscience; instead, he subdues it. The term “rich” appears twice in Rich’s name, indicating his Machiavellian readiness to compromise his moral principles in favor of riches and position.

Duke of Norfolk

More’s close companion. In the end, More himself even encourages Norfolk to betray his friendship with him, after being urged to do so by Cromwell. He is a big, simple-minded man who is innocent of Cromwell and sometimes too naive to understand what is happening.

 Alice More

Alice, a troubled character, wonders why her husband won’t comply with the king’s orders for the most of the play. Her expression changes from fury to perplexity. At some point, More demonstrates to her that he cannot pass away until he is certain she accepts his choice. Alice ultimately demonstrates her complete love for her husband when she pays him a visit in jail, telling him that she is content that “God knows why” More must perish.

Thomas Cromwell

The main operative in the conspiracy to harm More is a cunning attorney. Cromwell is more driven by evil than Rich and the Common Man, who are occasionally rather grudgingly propelled to their immoral acts (conspiracy, execution, and so on). He bears little responsibility for helping to bring More down.

Cardinal Wolsey

The untimely death of the Lord Chancellor of England, who was trying to get the pope to grant King Henry a dispensation so he could divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. Despite being described by Bolt as clever and ambitious, Wolsey’s character is underdeveloped, and his only purpose is to forward the story. The play’s remaining scenes are shadowed by Wolsey’s abrupt demise, serving as a warning to anybody who would tempt the king’s displeasure.


The ambassador of Spain to the United Kingdom. Chapuys is devoted to his nation and determined to prevent King Henry and Catherine from divorcing, as this would bring disgrace upon Catherine. Chapuys demonstrates his skill at disguising his political goal as religious enthusiasm when interrogating More.

William Roper

a fervent young guy who, at the start of the play, is a devout Lutheran and subsequently becomes a Catholic. In addition, Roper is Margaret’s partner and spouse once he becomes a Catholic. Roper is another counterbalance to More because of his lofty aspirations and his calm morals. In every scene, Roper publicly expresses his view on a novel subject, in contrast to More, who would rather keep his ideas to himself. In an interview with Roper, More makes the case that human law serves as a superior moral code and that lofty goals, which he refers to as “seagoing principles,” are, at most, contradictory.

Margaret Roper

The intelligent and curious daughter of More. Margaret, sometimes known as Meg, falls in love with William Roper and eventually weds him. She demonstrates that, apart from More himself, she may know her father the best of all the characters in the play. Margaret, like her mother, doubts her father’s behavior, though.

King Henry VIII

The monarch of England, who makes a fleeting appearance on stage, is always present in the other characters’ dialogue and thoughts. Henry takes great pride in his moral character, therefore he is extremely interested in what More, another man of high moral standing, has to say about him. Henry seeks to assuage his guilt by making More approve of the king’s divorce from Catherine. Henry thinks he can coerce everyone, even the pope, into complying with his wishes.


Types of Moral Guides

Robert Bolt discusses the seeming conflict between Thomas More’s moral rectitude and his sporadic searches for ethical and legal fallacies in his introduction. He vehemently disagrees with Henry’s divorce, but he prefers to stay silent about the Oath of Supremacy than to challenge it. When he remarks to Will Roper, “God’s my god, but I find him rather too… subtle,” More provides an explanation for his conduct. More does not claim to comprehend God’s law, but he does revere it beyond everything else. Because of this, he believes that human law is the greatest available guidance for behavior, even if it occasionally deviates from God’s word or absolves certain evildoers.

More is quite practical when it comes to moral behavior, but not to the detriment of his convictions, unlike Cromwell or Rich. If More comes across as hypocritical at times, it’s because he’s attempting to strike a balance between his strong sense of self and his respect for the law and society. In the end, the prosecution must invent bogus accusations against him since he complies with the law to the fullest extent.

In contrast to Roper’s “seagoing” ideals, More navigates society with pragmatism. More contends that trying to manage high-minded principles is like trying to sail the seas, that Roper pursues beliefs rather than his conscience or the law. Without any discernment, Roper veers wildly between Catholicism and Lutheranism, always being fully certain of his own salvation. Bolt suggests that we should concentrate our efforts on bettering ourselves and our community because we are unable to understand the moral alignment of the world, much less put it into a neat theory.


Just as closely as it tracks Sir Thomas More’s downfall, A Man for All Seasons centers on the ascent of Richard Rich. As More’s unwavering selflessness secures him a position on the cutting table, Rich gains increasing riches and prestige by betraying both his buddy and his own moral convictions. Rich laments his loss of innocence at first, but at the play’s conclusion, he doesn’t hesitate to lie to get a high-ranking position.

In exchange for a job, Rich provides Cromwell with information on the silver cup in Act I, scene eight. The moment implies that Rich has sold his soul to the devil, as he regrets having lost his purity. As he deftly manipulates Rich into selling out and then thrusts Rich’s fingers into a candle flame, Cromwell himself invokes the devil.

Act One, Scene Eight reminds us of numerous religious stories that warn against the devil’s persuasive abilities, but Bolt does not show Rich’s corruption to tell us that individuals like Rich go to hell. Instead, Rich’s corruption exposes the harm Rich has caused to his own life when juxtaposed against More’s unwavering sense of self. Rich has given up his inherent kindness, which the play argues is the only thing for which life is worth living.

The Self and Friendship

The play explores the boundaries between being a loyal friend to others and staying true to oneself by showing More’s personal connections. More searches within over everything else for comfort and strength. Rather from being a buddy or lover, he seems to be more of a teacher. He follows his own conscience as his guidance, and he tries to instill this belief in others by means of testing and modeling behavior. But More’s natural tendency to impart knowledge leads to partnerships that lack obvious emotion.

It might also be argued that by instructing others, More demonstrates his love and friendship. The play demonstrates that friendship and love are not wholly incompatible with More’s independent spirit. More demonstrates his genuine concern for Norfolk as his buddy and Alice as his wife in his talks with them. Norfolk is told by More to “cease knowing him,” but More counters that he is giving Norfolk this advice because the two men are friends. He informs his wife that if he knew she was still perplexed as to why he does not yield to King Henry, he could not pass away calmly. Additionally, More informs Matthew that he will miss him.


Water and Dry Land

Bolt states in his prelude that a lot of water and maritime imagery appears in his play, signifying the ambiguous moral space of the vast beyond, the unknown domain of God and the devil. Characters that base their acts on such unstable moral foundation are Roper, who adheres to what More refers to as “seagoing” morals, and King Henry, whose shaky moral footing is illustrated by the manner he cruises down the Thames to see More.

In contrast to Henry and Roper, More believes that God’s will is unattainable, thus he would rather base his decisions on the law and his own conscience. Speaking with Roper, More likens the domain of human law to a forest full of sturdy trees that are deeply ingrained in the ground. More informs Roper that abolishing all rules in the name of chasing the devil would be like chopping down every tree on the planet, allowing the devil to run wild like a strong wind, emphasizing his conviction that the law should serve as a guide for behavior. Put differently, More sees society as a defense against the moral enigmas of the universe.

The Gilded Cup

Act One opens with More offering Rich a cup that More was given as a bribe. More informs Rich that he wants to get rid of the cup after admitting that it is poisoned. By discarding the cup, More tries to lead by example, but Rich soon makes it clear that he does not share More’s goals. Rich pawns the cup that More gave him in exchange for cash and a brand-new outfit. In addition to representing corruption, the cup also represents More’s desire to put Rich to the test and lead by example. The play ends with More being found guilty, a conviction that Rich helps to get by lying. More’s effort to test Rich with the cup really starts the sequence of events that led to More’s conviction.

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