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
(48)
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)
(55)
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)
(57)
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)