Feast day: 22 June
St Thomas More was born on 7 February 1478 in Milk Street, in the City of London. His father was a successful lawyer and later a judge and his mother was Agnes née Graunger. He was educated at St Anthony’s, regarded as one of the best schools in London. From 1490 until 1492 he served John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England, as a page. Morton supported the new learning of humanism (1). He thought highly of More and nominated him for a place at the University of Oxford. There More studied the classics and became fluent in Latin and Greek, but remained only two years at Oxford. In accordance with his father’s wishes, he began his studies at Lincoln’s Inn, where he remained till he was called to the Bar in 1502.
According to his friend Erasmus, a fellow humanist, More contemplated becoming a monk. He lived at the Carthusian monastery outside London from 1503-1504 and joined in the life of the monks. Although he deeply admired their way of life, More decided to remain a layman. He continued to do penance however, wearing a hair shirt and occasionally engaging in self-flagellation. He married Jane Colt in 1505. He leased part of a house known as the Old Barge and eventually took over the rest of the house. He remained there with his family for twenty years before he moved to Chelsea. He taught his young wife music and literature. The couple had four children, Margaret (Roper) being the closest to him. Jane died in 1511 and thirty days later he married a widow, Alice Middleton, probably so that she could run his household and look after his young children. She had a daughter of her own who joined the family and More also became guardian to two young girls, one of whom Margaret Giggs (Clement) would be the only family witness to More’s execution. There were no children from the second marriage. More firmly believed in giving his daughters the same classical education as his son, which was unusual for the time. Margaret (Roper) was fluent in Greek and Latin.
In 1504 More was elected to parliament to represent Great Yarmouth. He became an under-sheriff for the City of London, which was a position of great responsibility, and he showed himself to be an honest and effective public servant. He then became Master of Requests and was appointed as a Privy Counsellor. He accompanied Thomas Wolsey, Cardinal Archbishop of York, on a diplomatic mission to the Emperor Charles V. More was then knighted and became under Treasurer of the Exchequer in 1521. He was now secretary and personal adviser to Henry VIII and worked in many capacities including liaising between the King and Chancellor Wolsey. In 1523 he was elected as knight of the shire for Middlesex and on Wolsey’s recommendation was elected as Speaker to the House of Commons. His appointment as Chancellor for the Duchy of Lancaster gave him responsibilities for the north of England. In 1529 his supporter Cardinal Wolsey was disgraced, having failed to obtain an annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. More took his place as Lord Chancellor.
The Protestant Reformation was spreading in Europe after Luther had challenged church teaching. More was totally against the Reformation and prevented Lutheran books from coming to England, including bibles. He vigorously suppressed Tyndale’s English translation of the Bible. This used certain words - such as “elder” instead of “priest” - which More considered to be heretical. There is controversy surrounding More’s treatment of protestant reformers. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs accused More of using torture for interrogating those he considered heretics. More denied many of the charges and The Book of Martyrs is generally seen as historically unreliable and certainly not objective. Nevertheless when More was Chancellor, six people were burned at the stake for heresy and More actually said of Richard Bayfield, who was burned for distributing Tyndale bibles: “He was well and worthily burnt.” Opinions vary on More’s actions. Richard Marius for example feels that his persecution of protestants was at variance with his liberal, humanist thinking, some of which would be way in advance of his time. He deplored the execution of people for petty offences.
More became increasingly vulnerable as King Henry was determined to end his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn whom he hoped would give him that son he wanted. The fourteenth century law of Praemunire had been reinstated in 1529, making it a crime to support in public or in office the claim of any other authority outside the realm (including the papacy) to have legal jurisdiction superior to the King’s. In 1530 More refused to sign a letter by the leading churchmen and aristocrats asking Pope Clement VII to annul the King’s marriage. In 1531 a royal decreee required the clergy to take an oath acknowledging the King as Supreme Head of the Church of England. The bishops at the Convocation of Canterbury agreed to sign the oath after the words “as far as Christ’s laws allow” were added. Bishop John Fisher of Rochester and some others refused to sign. More also refused to sign but for the moment kept his opinions to himself. However he resigned as Lord Chancellor.
In 1533 he refused to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn, although he wrote to congratulate Henry. Thomas Cromwell, who became Henry’s chief minister, accused More of treason for his association with Elizabeth Barton, ”The Holy Maid of Kent,” who said that the king had ruined his soul. More had associated with her but had advised her to refrain from interfering in state matters. More was called before a committee of the Privy Council but the charges were dropped.
!n 1534 More was asked to appear before a commission and swear his allegiance to the Act of Succession. This affirmed the claim of Henry and Anne’s children to the succession. He accepted parliament’s right to declare Anne Queen of England but he would not acknowledge “the spiritual validity” of the king’s marriage and continued to uphold papal supremacy. He also refused to recognise the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. John Fisher joined him in refusing to take the oath.
By this time there was enough evidence to have More arrested on a charge of High Treason. The indictment related to the 1534 Treason Act, which declared it treason to speak against the King’s Supremacy. The trial was held in 1535 before a panel of judges that included the new Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas Audley, as well as Anne Boleyn’s uncle the Duke of Norfolk, her father Thomas Boleyn and her brother George Boleyn. More was relying on legal precedent and the maxim “qui tacet consentire videtur” (“one who keeps silent seems to consent”). Thomas Cromwell produced a witness to say he had heard More deny the king’s supremacy but this was contradicted by others. More was offered the king’s “gracious pardon” by Norfolk should he “reform his obstinate opinion.” This More could not do and he refused to answer any more questions on the subject.
The jury took only fifteen minutes to find More guilty. More spoke freely of his belief that no temporal man may be head of the spirituality (take over the role of the Pope). He quoted the Act of Supremacy being contrary to Magna Carta, the laws of England and Church laws. More was sentenced to being hanged, drawn and quartered but the king commuted this to execution by beheading.
More was beheaded on Tower Hill on 6 July 1535. The scaffold was shaky and More with his usual sense of humour said to one of the officials: “I pray you Master Lieutenant, see me safe up and for my coming down, let me shift for myself.” On the scaffold he declared that “He died the king’s good servant and God’s first.” More recited the Misere and the executioner begged his forgiveness, which More gave with a kiss. More asked to have his headless corpse given to Margeret Clement (nee Greggs). He was buried in the Church of St Peter ad Vincula in an unmarked grave. His head was placed on a pike on London Bridge for a month and then reclaimed by Margaret. It was thought to have been buried in the family vault at St Dunstan’s Church Canterbury, while others say it rests in the tomb built for More in Chelsea Old Church. His hair shirt is now probably in Buckfast Abbey.
More was a great scholar and thinker with ideas far ahead of his time and yet very rigid in his Catholic orthodoxy. He had a close friendship with Desiderius Erasmus, the Dutch humanist of whom it was said: “Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched.” He wrote a history of Richard III which was lauded for its literary skill rather than its historical accuracy. He depicted Richard as a tyrant and some consider the work an attack on tyranny rather than on the Yorkist king himself. It had a great influence on the later play of William Shakespeare. The writing for which More is best known is Utopia, meaning “no place”. It is an attack on the Europe of his time which was plagued with wars and where greed and self interest predominated. Utopia was a society where goods were shared in common, where gold had no value except in dealing with foreign nations and where modern developments like state education, divorce, religious pluralism and euthanasia were the norm.
More was popularised by the film A Man for all Seasons (1966) but he remains a controversial figure. However he was steadfast in his determination to stick to his principles and he died a martyr. These words perhaps sum up his attitude: ”It is the last thing man can do for his salvation: to be at one with himself.”
He was canonised by Pope Pius XI in 1935 along with John Fisher who was martyred about a fortnight later. They share the same feast day of 22 June.
St Thomas More, pray for us.
(1) Humanism was an intellectual movement embraced by scholars, civic leaders and writers in 14th- and 15th-century Italy. It aimed to revive the culture and particularly the literary legacy and moral philosophy of classical antiquity. The movement spread to Northern Europe where it became more concerned with biblical scholarship and its implications for Christian living.