Seventh Annual St Thomas More Forum Lecture Public Office and Public Trust

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______________________Seventh Annual St Thomas More Forum Lecture

Public Office and Public Trust
Chief Justice Robert French AC

22 June 2011, Canberra


Thomas More was an exemplar for all holders of public office. He has been called the Christian English Cicero. A brief reflection on his extraordinary life appropriately frames this lecture. He was born in 1477 and attended St Anthony's School in London until 1489 when, at the age of 12, he became a Page for Archbishop and Chancellor Morton. He began his studies at Oxford at the age of 14 and was admitted as a pre-law student at New Inn, London at the age of 16 in 1493. He studied law at Lincoln's Inn until he turned 23. He was called to the Bar in or about 1501. His father was a judge and was keen for him to devote himself entirely to legal practice. However he studied Greek philosophy, theology, history and literature and thought about becoming a priest. His father almost disinherited him for these frivolities.

With Erasmus, who became his friend and admirer, he translated the dialogues of Lucian who, he said:
… everywhere reprimands and censures our human frailties with very honest and at the same time very entertaining wit. And this he does so cleverly and effectively that although no one pricks more deeply, nobody resents his stinging words.
He worked hard to develop his legal practice beginning, as many young lawyers do with what one writer has called 'humble and eminently practical' cases.1 In 1511, after having borne him four children, his wife, Jane, died. He married Alice Middleton within one month of her death. Although they were not kindred spirits and she was seven years his senior, she raised his four children and proved to be 'a good and loving woman'.2
More found the challenge of balancing his work and his family life a difficult one. He wrote:
I am constantly engaged in legal business, either pleading or hearing, either giving an award as arbiter or deciding a case as judge. I pay a visit of courtesy to one man and go on business to another. I devote almost the whole day in public to other men's affairs and the remainder to my own. I leave to myself, that is to learning, nothing at all.3
In 1518, More joined the service of King Henry VIII as Master of Requests. In 1521 he was knighted. He was appointed as Ambassador to Bruges and Calais. His daughter, Margaret, married William Roper who was later to write his biography. He became speaker of the House of Commons in 1523 and High Steward at Oxford in 1524. In 1525 he was appointed Chancellor of Lancaster. In 1529 he was appointed to the highest judicial office in England, that of Lord Chancellor. Henry was declared Supreme Head of the Church in England in 1531 by which time More was aged 54. He resigned his office on 16 May 1532. Henry asked for him to be indicted in 1534 but was refused three times by the House of Lords. More was questioned by a Royal Commission in March of that year and interrogated at Lambeth Palace and imprisoned for refusing to take the oath regarding the Act of Succession. He was tried on 1 July and executed on 6 July at the age of 58.
Before he joined the service of King Henry, he wrote a poem in Latin, which is relevant to the topic of this lecture. It was entitled "The Consent of the People Both Bestows and Withdraws Sovereignty". In English translation it read:
Any one man who has command of many men

owes his authority to those whom he commands;

he ought to have command not one instant longer

than his subjects wish. Why are impotent kings so proud?

Because they rule merely on sufferance?4
Also relevant to the topic is his respect for the rule of law encapsulated in the famous words of his son-in-law, Will Roper:
were it my father stood on the one side and the devil on the other side (his cause being good) the devil should have right.5
Those words, and More's life, frame the topic of this lecture, which concerns the general nature of the obligations which attach to holders of public office and the analogy that can be drawn between those obligations and the concept of a public trust.

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