Recently I wrote a piece on Margaret Roper, the daughter of Sir Thomas More and it reminded me of something. My parents took me to see a movie and it was probably the first inkling I had about how fascinating history can be. The movie was “A Man for All Seasons” based on a play by Robert Bolt. It tells the story of Sir Thomas More and his clash with King Henry VIII of England. The character of Sir Thomas More made a strong impression.
Thomas was born in London on February 7, 1478 to Sir John More and his wife Agnes (née Graunger). He attended school at St. Anthony’s and was a page in the household of John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England. Morton was so impressed with More’s intellect and scholarship that he found him a place at Oxford where Thomas spent two years. Then, as so often happened at the time, he followed in his father’s footsteps and began legal training. He studied from 1494 to 1502 and was then called to the bar. Between 1503 and 1504, More lived with the Carthusian monks just outside London and followed their spiritual practices. He may have considered becoming a monk but eventually decided to remain a layman after marrying and becoming a Member of Parliament. He was to wear a hair shirt under his clothes for the rest of his life, emulating the Carthusians.
More married Joanna Colt, a woman 10 years younger. He immediately began educating her and their children after they were born. They were to have four children, Margaret, Elizabeth, Cecily and John before Joanna died in 1511. He married again within a month, choosing Alice Middleton, a rich widow with a daughter of her own. More educated all his children, stepchildren and wards, including the girls. This was to set an example for other noble families at the time. Even his good friend, the humanist Erasmus, advocated for the practice of educating women after seeing the positive effects it had on More’s family, especially his eldest daughter Margaret.
After having various careers, such as undersheriff of London, More entered royal service. In the spring of 1515, he was sent on a diplomatic mission to Bruges and met up with his friends Erasmus and Peter Gillis. While he was in Bruges, based on conversations with Gillis, he began writing his influential work, “Utopia” about an ideal world. It was finished and published in 1516. He also wrote a history of King Richard III which was the basis for the play written by Shakespeare. In 1521, Martin Luther attacked Henry VIII in print. Henry asked More to respond and the result was printed in 1523. More defended the primacy of the Catholic Church and the Pope. From this point forward his theological conservatism was confirmed and he never criticized the Church’s authority. More was to write many theological treatises and religious polemics as well as poems and translations of Latin works.
In March of 1518, after years of indecision, More accepted a place as a member of Henry VIII’s privy council. After a diplomatic mission in 1521, More was knighted and made under-treasurer of the Exchequer. He became secretary and personal advisor to King Henry and his influence grew, serving as liaison between Henry and his Lord Chancellor, Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York. In 1523 he was elected as knight of the shire (MP) for Middlesex and elected as Speaker of the House of Commons. In 1525, he became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. After the fall of Wolsey from power, More succeeded him in the office of Lord Chancellor.
More initially agreed with the theologians that Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was unlawful. But as Henry started to break with the Catholic Church in his quest to marry Anne Boleyn, More began to have qualms. In his capacity as Lord Chancellor, he worked to quash the Reformation in England, including having Protestants burned at the stake. The further Henry strayed from the Catholic Church, the harder More resisted. By 1530, he was openly quarreling with Henry over heresy laws. When Parliament passed a law requiring all to swear an oath denying the Pope’s authority in England, More tried to resign. Henry allowed him to stay in office due to his reputation and friendship. However, More was losing supporters and influence and in 1532, he requested the King relieve him of his duties due to ill health and Henry agreed.
More was not safe after this. By April 1534, he was asked to appear before a commission and swear to the Parliamentary Act of Succession naming children born to Anne Boleyn as Henry’s heirs. More agreed to swear to this. But he still would not swear the oath of Supremacy, naming Henry head of the Church of England. More was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower. On July 1, 1535, More was tried before a panel of judges. He bravely and skillfully defended himself but the panel found him guilty. He was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered but the King commuted the sentence to beheading. He was executed on Tower Hill on July 6, 1535. His body was interred in the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula within the precincts of the Tower of London. His head was hoisted on a pike and displayed on London Bridge for a month. His daughter Margaret bribed the man who was to throw the head into the river and surreptitiously took the head and preserved it. She was buried with her father’s head when she died.
More died a martyr to his Catholic faith and was canonized in May of 1935. His son in law, William Roper, husband of More’s daughter Margaret was wrote a biography of him that was published in 1626.
Further reading: “A Daughter’s Love” by John Guy