Date of Award

Spring 5-2020

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Elaine Thompson


Two rival sets of law, canon and common, warred for supremacy in England from 1170-1535. Just as with any battle, casualties followed. Where Becket and Henry II fought the first battle in this clash of legal systems, More and Henry VIII would end it. The deaths of Thomas Becket in the twelfth century and Thomas More in the sixteenth century bear a striking resemblance, but while this superficially indicates a consistency of outcome, it also probes further into a consistency of conditions which made such an outcome likely. The difference between common and canon law, and the feud born therein, was not due to the choice characteristics of any individual canonist or common lawyer. It was, rather, born from the very nature of each set of law and the subset of rival principles each employed. This thesis coordinates both the political and principled understandings of each martyrdom as to construct a more holistic account of common law’s ascendance and dominance over canon law from 1170-1535. Frederick Maitland and Frederick Pollock’s “enemy theory,” the idea that there were lasting conflicts between the church and state in England, is relevant for this discussion, but it has fallen prey to insightful critiques by David J. Seipp. Therefore, before the “enemy theory” can be used, it must be resuscitated and altered. The Becket controversy of the twelfth century begins the process of the enemy theory’s revival through a demonstration that, despite the deep friendship Becket and Henry enjoyed, the two still quarreled as both became increasingly entrenched by their adherence to their own separating principles. Thomas More, likewise, concludes this process of revival through a demonstration of his commitment to the common law insofar as he was not yet called to choose between them. Once Henry VIII moved to consolidate the spiritual and temporal powers and place himself as the arbiter of theology of the Church of England, More recused himself to silence; he argued that he could not profess two rival principles concurrently. The revival of this theory of quarrel will therefore go into great detail of the personal characteristics of the important figures involved to demonstrate how, even in spite of the fellowship each enjoyed, the underlying tension of principles remained.

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