Thomas More

From Academic Kids

Portrait of Sir Thomas More by
Portrait of Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger

Sir Thomas More (7 February, 14786 July, 1535), posthumously known also as Saint Thomas More, was an English lawyer, writer, and politician. During his lifetime he earned a reputation as a leading humanist scholar and occupied many public offices, including that of Lord Chancellor from 1529 to 1532. More coined the word "utopia", a name he gave to an ideal, imaginary island nation whose political system he described in a book published in 1516. He is chiefly remembered for his principled refusal to accept King Henry VIII's claim to be the supreme head of the Church of England, a decision which ended his political career and led to his execution as a traitor. More was canonized in 1935 by the Roman Catholic Church, in which he became the patron saint of statesmen, lawyers, and politicians.


Early life

Born in Milk Street, London, Thomas More was the eldest son of Sir John More, a successful lawyer who served as a judge in the King's Bench court. Thomas was educated at St Anthony's School and was later a page in the service of John Morton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who declared that young Thomas would become a "marvellous man". Thomas attended the University of Oxford for two years, where he studied Latin and logic. He then returned to London, where he studied law with his father and was admitted to Lincoln's Inn in 1496. In 1501 More became a barrister.

To his father's great displeasure, More seriously contemplated abandoning his legal career in order to become a monk. For about four years he lodged at a Carthusian monastery next to Lincoln's Inn while he considered joining the Franciscan order. Perhaps because he judged himself incapable of celibacy, More finally decided to marry in 1505, but for the rest of his life he continued to observe many monastic practices, including self-punishment in the form of wearing a hair shirt and occasional flagellation.

More had four children by his first wife, Jane Colt, who died in 1511. He remarried almost immediately, to a rich widow named Alice Middleton who was several years his senior. His new wife bore him no children, but More raised as his own her daughter by her previous husband. More provided his daughters with an excellent classical education at a time when such learning was usually reserved for men.

Early political career

From 1510 to 1518, More served as one of the two undersheriffs of the city of London, a position of considerable responsibility in which he earned a reputation as an honest and effective public servant. In 1517 More entered the king's service as councilor and "master of requests". After undertaking a diplomatic mission to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, More was knighted and made undertreasurer in 1521. As secretary and personal advisor to King Henry VIII, More became increasingly influential in the government, welcoming foreign diplomats, drafting official documents, and serving as a liaison between the king and his Lord Chancellor: Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop of York.

In 1523 More became the Speaker of the House of Commons. He later served as high steward for the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. In 1525 he became chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a position that entailed administrative and judicial control of much of northern England.

Scholarly and literary work

Missing image
Woodcut by Ambrosius Holbein for a 1518 edition of Utopia. The traveler Raphael Hythloday is depicted in the lower left-hand corner describing to a listener the island of Utopia, whose layout is schematically shown above him.

More combined his busy political career with a rich scholarly and literary production. His writing and scholarship earned him a considerable reputation as Christian humanist in continental Europe, and his friend Erasmus of Rotterdam dedicated his masterpiece, In Praise of Folly, to him. (Indeed, the title of Erasmus's book is partly a play on More's name, the word folly being moria in Greek.) Erasmus also described More as a model man of letters in his communications with other European humanists. The humanistic project embraced by Erasmus and Thomas More sought to reexamine and revitalize Christian theology by studying the Bible and the writings of the Church Fathers in the light of classical Greek tradition in literature and philosophy. More and Erasmus collaborated on a Latin translation of the works of Lucian, which was published in Paris in 1506.

History of King Richard III

Between 1513 and 1518, More worked on a History of King Richard III, an unfinished piece of historiography which heavily influenced William Shakespeare's play Richard III. Both More's and Shakespeare's works are controversial among modern historians for their exceedingly unflattering portrayal of King Richard, a bias due at least in part to the authors' allegiance to the reigning Tudor dynasty, which had wrested the throne from Richard at the end of the Wars of the Roses.


In 1515 More wrote his most famous and controversial work, Utopia, a book in which a fictional traveler, Raphael Hythloday, describes the political arrangements of an imaginary island nation named Utopia (a play on the Greek ou-topos, meaning "no place", and eu-topos, meaning "good place"). In the book, More contrasts the contentious social life of Christian European states with the perfectly orderly and reasonable social arrangements of the non-Christian Utopia, where private property does not exist and an almost complete religious toleration in practiced. Many commentators have pointed out that Karl Marx's later vision of the ideal communist state strongly resembles More's Utopia. More's own attitude towards the arrangements he describes in the book is the subject of much debate. More might have chosen the literary device of describing an imaginary nation primarily as a vehicle for discussing controversial political matters freely. It is unlikely that More, a devout and conservative Christian, intended to offer the communist, non-Christian Utopia as a concrete model for political reform.

Religious polemics

As Henry VIII's advisor and secretary, More helped to write the Defense of the Seven Sacraments, a polemic against Protestant doctrine that earned Henry the title of "Defender of the Faith" from the Pope in 1521. After Martin Luther responded, More published a Reply to Luther which was much criticized for its slanderous ad hominem attacks.

Henry VIII's divorce

On the death in 1502 of Henry's elder brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales, Henry became heir apparent to the English throne and was compelled to marry his brother's widow, Catherine of Aragon, daughter of the Spanish king, as a means of preserving the English alliance with Spain. At the time, Pope Julius II had issued a formal dispensation from the biblical injunction against a man marrying his brother's widow. This dispensation was based partly on Catherine's testimony that the marriage between her and Arthur had not been consummated.

Henry was at first happy in his marriage, but Catherine failed to provide him with a male heir and Henry eventually became enamored of Anne Boleyn, a lady of the court. In 1527, Henry instructed Cardinal Wolsey to petition Pope Clement VII for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, on the grounds that the pope had no authority to override a biblical injunction, and that therefore Julius's dispensation had been invalid, rendering his marriage to Catherine void. After the pope steadfastly refused such an annulment, Henry forced Wolsey to resign as Lord Chancellor and appointed Thomas More in his place in 1529. Henry then began to embrace the Protestant teaching that the Pope was only the Bishop of Rome and therefore had no authority over the Christian church as a whole.


More, until then fully devoted to Henry and to the cause of royal prerogative, initially cooperated with the king's new policy, denouncing Wolsey in parliament and proclaiming the opinion of the theologians at Oxford and Cambridge that the marriage of Henry to Catherine had been unlawful. But as Henry began to deny the authority of the Pope, More's qualms grew.

During his time as chancellor, More wrote several books in which he attacked Protestantism and defended the existing anti-heresy laws, which he vigorously enforced. In 1530 he refused to sign a letter by the leading English churchmen and aristocrats asking the Pope to annul Henry's marriage to Catherine. In 1531 he attempted to resign after being forced to take an oath declaring the king the supreme head of the English church "as far the law of Christ allows". In 1532 he asked the king again to relieve him of his office, claiming that he was ill and suffering from sharp chest pains. This time Henry granted his request.

Trial and execution

The last straw for Henry came in 1533, when More refused to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn as the queen of England. Shortly thereafter More was charged with accepting bribes, but the charges had to be dismissed for lack of any evidence. In 1534 he was accused of conspiring with Elizabeth Barton, a nun who had prophesized against the king's divorce, but More was able to produce a letter in which he had instructed Barton not to interfere with state matters.

On 13 April of that year More was asked to appear before a commission and swear his allegiance to the parliamentary Act of Succession. More accepted Parliament's right to declare Anne the legitimate queen of England, but he refused to take the oath because it would have required him to recognize Parliament's authority to legislate in matters of religion by denying the authority of the Pope. Four days later he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. There he wrote his devotional Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation.

On 1 July 1535, More was tried before a panel of judges that included the new Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas Audley, as well as Anne Boleyn's father, brother, and uncle. He was charged with high treason for denying the validity of the Act of Succession. More believed he could not be convicted as long as he did not explicitly deny that the king was the head of the church, and he therefore refused to answer all questions regarding his opinions on the subject. Thomas Cromwell, at the time the most powerful of the king's advisors, brought forth the Solicitor General, Richard Rich, to testify that More had, in his presence, denied that the king was the legitimate head of the church. This testimony was almost certainly false, but on the strength of it the jury voted for More's conviction.

After his conviction, More spoke freely of his belief that "no temporal man may be head of the spirituality". He was sentenced to be drawn and quartered, but the king commuted this to execution by beheading. On the scaffold he declared that he died "the king's good servant and God's first." The execution took place on 6 July. More's body was buried at the Tower of London, in the Church of St. Peter ad Vincula. His head was placed over London Bridge for a month and was rescued by his daughter, Margaret Roper, before it was to be thrown in the River Thames. The skull is believed to reside in the Roper Vault of St. Dunstan's Church, in Canterbury.


The steadfastness with which More held on to his religious convictions in the face of ruin and death, and the dignity with which he conducted himself during his imprisonment, trial, and execution, contributed much to More's posthumous reputation, particularly among Catholics. More was beatified by the Pope in 1886 and canonized in 1935. His feast day is 22 June. In 2000, Saint Thomas More was declared "heavenly patron of statesmen and politicians" by Pope John Paul II.

More's conviction for treason was widely seen as unfair, even among Protestants. His friend Erasmus, who was broadly sympathetic to reform movements within the Christian church, declared after his execution that More had been "more pure than any snow" and that his genius was "such as England never had and never again will have." More was portrayed as a wise and honest statesman in the 1592 play Sir Thomas More, which was probably written in collaboration by Henry Chettle, Anthony Munday, William Shakespeare, and others, and which survives only in fragmentary form after being censored by Edmund Tylney, Master of the Revels in the government of Queen Elizabeth I.

Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton declared that More was the "greatest historical character in English history." The 20th-century agnostic playwright Robert Bolt portrayed More as the ultimate man of conscience in his play A Man for All Seasons (whose title is borrowed from Erasmus's description of More's character). In 1966, Bolt's play was made into a successful film directed by Fred Zinnemann. Karl Zuchardt wrote a novel, Stirb Du Narr! ("Die you fool!"), about More's struggle with King Henry, portraying More as an idealist bound to fail in the power struggle with a ruthless ruler and an unjust world.

On the other hand, a number of modern writers, such as Richard Marius, have attacked More for his religious fanaticism and intolerance (manifested, for instance, in his enthusiastic persecution of heretics). Biographer Jasper Ridley goes much further, describing More as "a particularly nasty sadomasochistic pervert" in his book The Statesman and the Fanatic. In her biography of Anne Boleyn, Joanna Denny declares that

His zeal for public order verged on the fanatical. His early desire to become a priest exacerbated a repressed nature that led him secretly to wear a hair shirt and practise self-flagellation. He even imprisoned evangelicals in his own house at Chelsea and had them whipped on a tree in the garden.

Other biographers, such as Peter Ackroyd, have offered a more complicated picture of More as both a sophisticated humanist and man of letters, as well as a zealous Catholic who believed in the necessity of religious and political authority.


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