Chapter published in:Legal Pragmatics
Edited by Dennis Kurzon and Barbara Kryk-Kastovsky
[Pragmatics & Beyond New Series 288] 2018
► pp. 81–98
Literal interpretation and political expediency
The case of Thomas More
In July 1535, the trial of Sir Thomas More took place, in which the ex-Lord Chancellor was accused, and found guilty, of high treason for not expressing support for two statutes passed in 1534, which formed the basis of Henry VIII’s constitutional and religious changes: the Act of Succession and the Act of Supremacy. One of the stipulations was the requirement for people to take an oath in support of these changes. More refused to take the oath, arguing that according to the literal interpretation of the statutes he could be found guilty of misprision [concealment] of treason only, and not of treason itself.However, it will be argued, More misunderstood – or refused to understand – the ultimate purpose of the statutes, which may stem from his being a lawyer: he gave the statute a literal interpretation and ignored extralinguistic information, since such information does not play a role in interpretation, unless a literal interpretation would not make sense in the context (a possible precursor of Heydon’s Case of 1584).
Published online: 26 April 2018
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