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Thomas More

Thomas More

About Sir Thomas More

Thomas More rose from humble origins to achieve the highest political

and judicial office of England, second only to that of the king. He was

recognized throughout early sixteenth-century Europe as one of the great

lawyers, Christian humanists, and classical scholars of his day. ,Even at a

very early age, More gave clear evidence of his uncommon gifts. Because of

this, a family friend successfully persuaded his father to allow him to

attend Oxford University. More so enjoyed his studies there that his father

became alarmed. Two years into the program, he decided that his son should

learn something useful. Under what seems to have been considerable

coercion, Thomas returned to London to study law at New Inn. Although this

law program was among the best and most demanding in London, More found

time to continue his study of Greek, philosophy, literature, and theology

with such world-renowned teachers as Linacre, Grocyn, and Colet, as well as

with the pious and learned Carthusians.

Meanwhile, More excelled at his legal studies at the New Inn. Once

finished, he read through the law again at Lincoln's Inn for two more

years, after which he was chosen as reader at Furnivall's Inn and

reappointed for three successive years - a considerable honor for such a

young man. During these years of studying and teaching, More continued an

intense life of prayer, during which time he sought to discern his vocation

in life. By the age of 25, More was convinced that his place was with city

and family, not monastery and cell. At 26 he was elected to Parliament; at

27 he married Jane Colt and fathered four children in the next five years.

Jane died when More was 33, leaving him with four young children during the

height of his career as a lawyer. Despite his deep sorrow, he married again

within one month for the sake of his children. He married the best woman he

knew, Alice Middleton, who had neither his interests nor his playful

temperament and who was six or seven years his senior. As Erasmus recounts,

she was "neither a pearl nor a girl ... but a shrewd and careful

housewife."He marvels that More's" life with her is as pleasant and

agreeable as if she had all the charm of youth, and with his buoyant gaiety

he wins her to more compliance than he could by severity."

With his gifts of intellectual genius and endearing wit plus his

reputation for virtue, More was much sought after as a lawyer and diplomat.

He was chosen, for example, by the London merchants to represent them on

three major embassies to foreign countries. At the age of 32, he began his

work as a judge, a position that made him well-known and loved among the

general London citizenry.

Throughout these years, More was also active in the areas of

literature and philosophy. The Utopia, a work considered by some to be one

of the finest Socratic dialogues of all time, has long been recognized as

his masterpiece. After fifteen years of prosperous civic life, More was

called to serve the King at court, a position he did not and would not seek

out. Early on, he was well aware of the dangers of political life; he

valued his freedom for family and writing, and he knew that giving up his

lucrative law practice to enter public service would cost him a

considerable portion of his income. Yet as a loyal citizen, More considered

it the "duty of every good man" to contribute to the service of his

country. Once in the King's service, More commanded Henry VIII's

friendship and trust, serving primarily as his personal secretary, but with

some administrative and diplomatic responsibilities. He rose steadily over

the next ten years, finally becoming Chancellor in 1529, at the age of

fifty- one. As Chancellor, More concentrated on two major tasks: (1)

streamlining and improving the judicial system; (2) addressing and

personally refuting errors which he considered seditious and destructive of

both state and church. In fulfilling this latter task, he collected

evidence which resulted in the execution of three persons. Although these

executions have captured the imagination of many scholars today, More spent

most of his working hours trying to fulfill his function as chief justice

of the land. In the assessment of Tudor historian John Guy, More made

substantial contributions in this area, reforming the legal system far more

effectively than Cromwell would later, in his far reaching legislative

reforms of the 1530s. More was Chancellor for only thirty-one months. He

resigned on May 16, 1532, the day after Henry VIII and Cromwell manipulated

the Parliament to take away the traditional freedom of the Church, a

freedom that had been written into English law since the Magna Carta. At

issue was the survival of the Church as well as the nature of law and the

scope of the state's legitimate authority. Imprisoned in the Tower of

London for fifteen months before his execution, More was heavily pressured

by his family and friends to sign the oath accepting Henry VIII as the

Supreme Head of the Church in England. More steadfastly refused but never

expressed animosity towards those who complied. During this time, he wrote

a number of devotional and exegetical works, including A Dialogue of

Comfort Against Tribulation, A Treatise on the Passion, and The Sadness of

Christ. That More was God's servant first and foremost was readily seen

in his life of prayer and penance. From the time he was a young man, More

started each day with private prayer, spiritual reading, and Mass,

regardless of his many duties. He lived demanding mortifications in his

characteristically discreet and merry manner. He generously cared for the

poor and needy, and involved his own children in this same work. He had

special devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, to frequent meditation on the

Passion, and to the rosary. More was executed on July 6, 1535, and

canonized on May 19, 1935. He has become a symbol of professional

integrity, famous for the balanced judgment, ever-present humor, and

undaunted courage that led him to be known, even in his own lifetime, as

the "man for all seasons.

The Trial of Sir Thomas More, 1535

The following, sadly, is a true story. It is the story of Sir Thomas More,

beheaded in London in 1535.

Thomas More was born in London on February 7, 1478. He was educated

at St. Anthony's School in London, then the best in the city. More managed

to get a placement with the family of the Archbishop of Canterbury through

his father's influence. Sir Thomas More, Senior, was a prominent local

barrister. Thomas Junior went on to study at Oxford where he wanted to

learn Greek. But Greek was frowned upon by the elite because it was thought

that it would give young people access to "novel and dangerous ways of

thinking." Couldn't have that. More's father removed him from Oxford and

sent him to tutor in law. More soon became a lawyer (barrister) like his

father but he did not lose his interest in Greek studies and he read all

the Greek books that he could. When he was about twenty, he toyed with the

idea of becoming a monk, fasting every Friday, sleeping on the ground with

only a log as pillow. But he soon bored of that and then befriended

Erasmus, then an "prince of learning" and More renewed his learning of

Greek. He began to translate Greek publications in English. He also

continued his career as a barrister and was elected to Parliament in 1504.

In 1515, Thomas More published Utopia, in which he theorized about the

perfect world. In Utopia, More foresaw cities of 100,000 inhabitants as

being ideal. In his Utopia, there was no money, just a monthly market where

citizens bartered for what they needed. Persons engaged to each other were

allowed to see each other naked before marriage so that they would know if

the other was "deformed". Six years before Utopia was published, Henry the

7th died and he was replaced by son, Henry the 8th. King Henry took a

liking to Thomas More although More did not reciprocate. The King was known

to put his arm around More. "This growing favour, by which many men would

have been carried away," writes the Encyclopedia Britannica "did not impose

upon More. He discouraged the king's advances, showed reluctance to go to

the palace and seemed constrained when he was there. Then the King began to

come to More's house and would dine with him without previous notice."

Privately, More did not like Henry the 8th and told his oldest son-in-law

that "if my head would win him a castle in France, it should not fail to

go." More was right. Henry the 8th failed miserably as King. He divorced

his first wife (and his brother's widow), Catherine of Aragon, the daughter

of the King of Spain and married Anne Boleyn, without the blessing of the

Pope. More was a devout Catholic and believed deeply in the supremacy of

the Pope and the impropriety of this marriage. It would be his downfall.

Henry promoted More until More became Lord Chancellor. As such he was

master of equity law and of the Court of Chancery, the most powerful

judicial office in the land. But, in 1532, when he saw that King Henry was

determined to marry Anne Boleyn and that divorce was in the air, rather

than stay in the King's cabinet, he claimed ill health and was allowed to

retire from the bench.

That's when things started to deteriorate for him. The King invited

him to the marriage with Boleyn and More declined to attend. His refusal

was a kiss of death. Once it became public knowledge, all the king's brown-

nosers kicked into high gear. He was summoned to the court to answer an

obscure charge of accepting a bribe while Lord Chancellor. When his

daughter brought him news that the charge was dismissed, he said "quod

differtur, non aufertur" or "that which is postponed is not dropped." Sir

Thomas More was a marked man.

In 1534, Henry enacted a law which declared him supreme ruler of the

world, bar none, including the Pope. All citizens were to accept this by

oath. More said thanks, but no thanks. Henry threw him into the Tower of

London where for a whole year he was locked up, denied pen, paper or books.

His wife and children visited and begged him to submit to the oath but More

refused on principle. More was questioned several times by friends of the

king but he was always careful never to say anything against the King

personally; just that he could not stomach the oath required by the Act of

Supremacy. It was on May 7, 1535 that More was dragged to trial, charged

with treason for failing to take the oath. He could barely walk from his 14-

month confinement.

There were seven judges including the new Lord Chancellor, Thomas

Audley. More was immediately told that he could even yet take the oath and

beg the King's pardon and be saved. Sir Thomas More declined. More, still

one of the country's best barristers, complained first of his long

imprisonment and how he was in no condition to defend himself. A chair was

brought in for him and he was allowed to sit down. More made an impassioned

defence, saying that he had always told the King his personal opinions when

asked. He then complained about the Act which seemed to allow conviction

from silence. "Neither can any one word or action of mine be alleged or

produced to make me culpable. By all which I know, I would not transgress

any law, or become guilty of any treasonable crime for no law in the world

can punish any man for his silence. This God only that is the judge of the

secrets of the hearts." And then Sir Thomas More's trials took a dramatic

turn. The King's solicitor general was sworn in as witness and testified

that More has "confessed" to him, in a private conversation in the Tower of

London several months earlier. According to Richard Rich, More had linked

the King's supposed "supremacy" with the right of Parliament to depose of

the sovereign. How, then, could Parliament depose of a King if he were

supreme, More had allegedly asked? This was sensational testimony and would

suffice to convict More. More was taken by surprise but put on his bravest

face and went on the offensive. "If I were a man, my lords, that has no

regards to my oath, (and) I had no occasion to be here at this time, as is

well known to every body, as a criminal; and if this oath, Mr. Rich, which

you have taken, be true, then I pray I may never see God's face which, were

it otherwise, is an impression I would not be guilty of to gain the whole

world." More did not seem to have a mean bone in his body. Erasmus once

said that "What did nature ever create milder, sweeter and happier than the

genius of Thomas More? All the birds come to him to be fed. There is not

any man living so affectionate to his children as he, and he loveth his

wife as if she were a girl of fifteen." But More faced perjury which could

convict him. "In good faith, Mr. Rich, I am more concerned for your perjury

than my own danger," he rebutted. "I must tell you that neither myself nor

anybody else to my knowledge ever took you to be a man of such reputation

that I or any other would have anything to do with you in a matter of

importance. I am sorry I am forced to speak it (but) you always lay under

the odium of a very lying tongue." More's efforts to discredit Rich were

part of the package the jury of 12 took with them to consider. But they

soon returned with a verdict: guilty. The Lord Chancellor began to read the

sentence when More interjected. "My lord, the practice in such cases was to

ask the prisoner before sentence whether he had any thing to offer why

judgment should not be pronounced against him." The Lord Chancellor

abruptly stopped his sentence reading and asked More what he was "able to

say to the contrary." More was now on borrowed time. He protested against

the charge as best he could. "A son is only by generation. We are by

regeneration made spiritual children of Christ and the Pope." The sentence

for treason was then handed down: "That he should be carried back to the

Tower of London and from thence drawn on a hurdle through the City of

London to Tyburn there to be hanged till he should be half dead; that then

he should be cut down alive, his privy parts cut off, his belly ripped, his

bowels burnt, his four quarters set up over four gates of the City, and his

head upon London Bridge." When the sentence was read out, More said he may

as well speak freely now and revealed that he was totally unable to see the

sense of the oath of supremacy. To this, the Lord Chancellor replied that

why, then, had so many bishops and academics taken the oath of supremacy?

"I am able to produce against one bishop which you can produce, a hundred

holy and Catholic bishops for my opinion; and against one realm, the

consent of Christendom for a thousand years." And upon those desperate

words, More rejoined that "albeit your lordships have been my judges to

condemnation, yet we may hereafter meet joyfully together in Heaven to our

everlasting salvation." Thomas More was then led back to London Tower, but

this time with the Tower's axe before him, pointed edge leading the

procession and towards the convict as was the custom. Henry the 8th later

commuted the sentence to a quick beheading. The day of execution was July

6, 1535 and the procession left London Tower at nine in the morning. This

was a big spectacle for Londoners, a parade of sorts. Persons who had lost

law suits before him when he was Lord Chancellor, seized the opportunity to

heckle the condemned man. To one wretched woman he yelled back: "I very

well remember the case and if I were to decide it now, I would make the

same decree." Brought up to the scaffold, Thomas More said to his

executioner. ""Pluck up thy spirits, man, and be not afraid to do thine

office. My neck is very short. Take heed, therefore, thou not strike awry

for saving thine honesty."

Sir Thomas More was no more.

His head was stuck on London Bridge where it stayed for several

months (his daughter later bought it). When news came of More death, King

Henry abruptly left his game of cards and scowled at his new wife Anne

Boleyn: "Thou art the cause of this man's death." But Henry the 8th, then

44 years old, was still a child and as good an argument one can make

against monarchy as can be found in history. He quickly confiscated all of

More's property and forced More's wife and family to start anew. He even

negated special legal assignments that More had devised to provide for his

family in case he was executed.

Anne Boleyn was beheaded eleven months after More, on charges of

adultery. Henry the 8th went on to marry four more wives, another of which

was also beheaded. Henry died in 1547. During his rein, there had been an

average of 120 executions a month in England. More was named a Catholic

saint in 1866.

A Chronology of More's Life

1477, Feb. 7 - Born in London to John and Agnes More

1484-1489 - Attends St. Anthony's School, London (More's age: 7-12)

1489-1491 - Page for Archbishop and Chancellor Morton (12-14)

1491-1493 - Student at Oxford (14-16)

1493-1495 - Pre-law student, New Inn, London (16-18)

1496-1501 - Law student, Lincoln's Inn; called to bar (18-23)

1499 - Meets Erasmus for the first time (22)

1501-1504 - Frequents Charterhouse (Carthusians) (24-27)

1501 - Lectures on St. Augustine's City of God; begins Greek (24)

1503-1506 - Reader at Furnival's Inn (26-29)

1504 - Elected to Parliament (27)

1505 - Marries Jane Colt; Margaret born (28)

1506 - Studies intensely; visits Coventry; Elizabeth born (29)

1507 - Financial secretary of Lincoln's Inn; Cecily born (30)

1508 - Visits universities at Paris and Louvain (31)

1509 - Member of Mercers' Guild; John born; Henry VIII crowned (32)

1510 - Elected to Parliament (33)

1510-1518 - Undersheriff of London (33-41)

1511 - After Jane's death, marries Alice Middleton; Autumn Reader at

Lincoln's Inn (34)

1512 - Governor and treasurer of Lincoln's Inn (35)

1513 - Henry VIII leads an army against France; to Henry, Erasmus dedicates

his translation of Plutarch's essay on flattery (36)

1514 - Elected to Doctors' Common; serves on sewers commission (37)

1515 - Embassy to Bruges and Antwerp for commercial treaties; Lenten Reader

at Lincoln's Inn; refuses royal pension (38)

1516 - Continues to study history and political philosophy (39)

1517 - Embassy to Calais; counsel to pope's ambassador in England; Evil May

Day; Wolsey's Treaty of Universal Peace; Luther's "Ninety-five Theses" (40)

1518 - Joins King Henry's service; Master of Requests (41)

1520 - Field of Cloth of Cold: peace with France (43)

1521 - Knighted; undertreasurer; ambassador to Bruges and Calais; cautions

Henry not to exaggerate the pope's secular authority; Margaret marries

Roper; Buckingham executed (44)

1522 - Gives public oration welcoming Emperor Charles V; serves as Henry's

secretary and cautions against war; war with France resumed (45)

1523 - Speaker of the House of Commons, proposes free speech; leases Crosby

Hall; truce with France (46)

1524 - High Steward, Oxford; moves to Chelsea; war with France resumes: "If

my head could win [the King] a castle in France, . . . it would not fail to

go." (47)

1525 - High Steward, Cambridge; chancellor of Lancaster; Peasants' Revolt;

peace treaty with France; Cecily marries Heron; Elizabeth marries Dauncey


1526 - Appointed to royal council's subcommittee of four; urges Erasmus to

complete writings against Luther; Turks invade Hungary; Tyndale's New

Testament secretly distributed (49)

1527 - Accompanies Wolsey to France; sack of Rome; Henry consults More

about divorce; More's daughters' dispute before Henry; Holbein paints the

More family (50)

1528 - Tunstall asks More to defend Church in English; Margaret almost

dies; More chosen as alternate Master of Revels, Lincoln's Inn; More's

three great wishes (51)

1529 - Delegate, Peace of Cambrai; fire at Chelsea; appointed Lord

Chancellor; addresses Parliament; John marries Anne Cresacre (52)

1530 - More almost dismissed for his opposition to Henry; Cranmer completes

his defense of caesaropapism (53)

1531 - Henry declared Supreme Head of the Church in England (54)

1532 - Counters Cromwell's and St. German's attacks on the clergy; reports

universities' approval of royal divorce; Henry enraged by undiplomatic

clerics; Submission of Clergy (May 15); More resigns his office (May 16)


1533 - Restraint of Appeals to Rome; England declared an empire (April);

Cranmer authorizes royal divorce (May); Anne Boleyn's coronation (June 1);

Pope Clement VII condemns the divorce (July); to defend his reputation,

More writes to Erasmus (56)

1534 - Henry asks for More's indictment (Feb. 21), but House of Lords

refuses three times; More questioned by royal commission (March),

interrogated at Lambeth Palace (Apr. 13), and finally imprisoned

(illegally) for refusal to take Cromwell's oath regarding the Act of

Succession (Apr. 17); Chancellor Audley sends a warning to More (August)


1535 - Margaret visits while monks are led to execution (May 4); More

interrogated on May 7, June 3, and June 14; Richard Rich removes writing

materials (June 12); More's trial (July 1) and execution July 6) (58)

A Chronology of More's Writings

English poems (c. 1496-1504)

Correspondence (Latin and English, 1499-1535)

Latin verses to Holt's Lac Puerorum (c. 1500)

"Letter to John Colet" (c. 1504)

The Life of John Picus (c, 1504; published 1510)

Translations of Lucian (1505-1506; published 1506)

Latin poems, Epigrammata (1496-1516; published 1518)

Coronation ode (1509)

Epigrams on Brixius (1513)

The History of King Richard III (c. 1513-1518)

"Letter to Dorp" (1515)

Utopia (1516)

Poem and letters to his children, and letter to their tutor (1517-1522)

Letters to Oxford (1518), to a Monk (1519), and to Brixius (1520)

Quattuor Novissima (The Four Last Things] (c. 1522)

Responsio ad Lutherum (1523)

"Letter to Bugenhagen" (1526; published 1568)

A Dialogue Concerning Heresies (June 1529)

Supplication of Souls (September 1529)

A Dialogue Concerning Heresies, 2nd edition (May 1531)

Confutation of Tyndale's Answer I-III (March 1532)

"Letter against Frith" (December 1532; published December(1533)

Confutation of Tyndale IV-VIII (Spring 1533)

The Apology of Sir Thomas More (April 1533)

The Debellation of Salem and Bizance (October 1533)

The Answer to a Poisoned Book (December 1533)

A Treatise upon the Passion; A Treatise to Receive the Blessed Body; A

Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation; "A Dialogue on Conscience" (1534)

"Imploring Divine Help against Temptation"; "A Godly Instruction [on How to

Treat Those Who Wrong Us]'; "A Godly Meditation [on Saving One's Life]"; "A

Godly Meditation [on Detachment]" (1534-1535)

De Tristitia Christi (The Sadness of Christ) (1535)

"A Devout Prayer [before Dying]" (July 1535)


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