Thomas More was the son of John More, a lawyer and later a judge. He was born in Milk Street in the heart of the city of London and saw himself first and foremost as a Londoner for his whole life.
More’s early education was at St Anthony’s Grammar school, followed by a period as a page in the household of John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, spent mainly at the Archbishop’s London palace of Lambeth.
Whether or not there is any truth in the story that Morton spotted More’s potential at an early age and told his guests to watch the boy as he would one day go far, the Archbishop certainly supported his transfer to Canterbury College, Oxford where More spent two years between about 1492 and 1494.
As was fairly common at the time for men who did not intend to become priests, More left without taking his degree. He enrolled in the first stage of legal training at New Inn, one of the Inns of Chancery. By 1501, he had entered the more senior Lincoln’s Inn, with the intention of becoming a barrister.
During this early period, he became acquainted with a circle of the most prominent scholars of the day: John Colet, who later founded St Paul’s school; William Grocyn, later lecturer in Greek at Oxford; Thomas Linacre, later physician to Henry VIII, and also Lord Mountjoy, who already had a position in the household of Henry VII’s younger children, including the future Henry VIII. These friendships brought More into contact with a circle of European academics, including Desiderius Erasmus, most famous scholar of his generation.
Around the turn of the sixteenth century, More, whilst pursuing his legal studies, lived at the Charterhouse in London, perhaps with a view to taking vows in this, the strictest of all the monastic orders. Eventually, he chose to marry instead, choosing Joanna Colt, perhaps the daughter of a neighbour at the small estate his father owned in Hertfordshire.
He and Joanna had four children before her death in 1511.
It is possible that More sat in the Parliament of 1504, however there is no definite evidence about it, and certainly none to support the claim that he made himself unpopular with the king by complaining about excessive taxation. Nevertheless, when Henry VII was succeeded by Henry VIII, More penned verses celebrating the disappearance of avarice and the accession of generosity and open-handedness.
During the 1510s, More came to the notice of Cardinal Wolsey, the King’s chief minister, first acting for him in the capacity of translator for the Papal Orator, Cardinal Carafa, In relation to a commercial dispute. Although not directly involved in the pleadings, More suggested a compromise which the judge, Archbishop Warham, was pleased to recommend.
More then became involved in trade negotiations, on behalf of the Mercer’s Company, the prestigious city guild of which he was a member. One of his trips to the Netherlands resulted in the writing of his most famous work, Utopia, which described a mythical republic and was extremely popular amongst his the Latin reading public, which of course, included the King of England and his wife, Katharine of Aragon.
Having come to royal attention, More was offered a position by the King, which he finally accepted in 1518, when he was sworn in as a member of the King’s council. More was one of the councillors in constant attendance which parted him from his second wife, Alice, and his beloved children, for long periods. When he was not with the King, he was often on diplomatic missions in France and Flanders.
He kept up a regular correspondence with his family, particularly his eldest daughter, Margaret. More was a pioneer of academic education for women, and Margaret certainly repaid all efforts. She became a notable scholar, and was probably the first woman to have a book published in English – her paraphrases on Erasmus’ translation of the Lord’s Prayer.
More spent a good deal of time informally with both King and Queen, often attending on them in the evening and sharing intellectual discussions. He and Henry had a strong joint interest in astronomy and would ‘star-gaze’ together.
In 1523, More was elected as one of the Burgesses to represent the City of London in the House of Commons. He was also elected as Speaker of the House, indicating that the King and Wolsey considered More to be a safe pair of hands. This parliament was a fractious assembly. Henry wanted a far larger tax voted to pursue war in France than the Commons were prepared to grant. A compromise position was eventually worked out, with More undertaking much of the sensitive negotiation.
During the 1520s the movement for internal reform of the Catholic Church, of which More had been a part, was bypassed by the far more aggressive approach of Martin Luther and his followers.
More saw Luther’s doctrines as heretical and the man himself as little better than the devil incarnate, leading the faithful to damnation. He contributed to, although he did not ghost-write, Henry VIII’s own book denouncing Luther, then wrote an excoriating attack on Luther’s response. Over the next few years, he wrote a number of works that aimed to discredit Luther and support both the doctrines and the hierarchy of the church. He and Luther both adopted a style that was coarse and scatological in the extreme.
The position More took on ‘heresy’ and the necessity of burning heretical books, and, if their refusal to recant justified it, heretics, was commonly held at the time, although, as with every kind of government repression, then and now, some ministers pursued these perceived criminals more vigorously than others.
In the face of the growing violence surrounding revolt against the Church, particularly the appalling Peasants’ War in German in 1524 – 1525, and the Sack of Rome of 1527, More took a very hard line, although the suggestion that he took the law into his own hands and personally punished heretics was vehemently denied by him.
During the late 1520s, Henry VIII sought an annulment of his marriage to Katharine of Aragon. More would not publicly approve of Henry’s quest, but nor did he speak against it, and when Wolsey lost his post of Lord Chancellor in 1529, More was appointed in his place. He gained a high reputation for dispensing effective justice, and being financially incorruptible, but pursued heretics relentlessly.
By 1532, More’s policy of saying nothing in regard to Henry’s matrimonial affairs was becoming untenable. He resigned his office, and hoped to retire to private life with his family at his new home of Chelsea. But Henry was not satisfied. More’s European reputation as a scholar and a man whose opinions were highly valued, made Henry determined to have his public support.
Matters came to a head in 1534, when the Act of Succession was passed. All subjects were required to swear to the provisions of the act, which effectively ended Papal supremacy in England, and separated the Church in England from the rest of the Catholic fold. Although More was not so adamant about the role of the Pope per se as he was later represented, he completely and utterly believed that the universal Church could not and should not be undermined by a single state. He therefore declined to swear the oath, although he would not give his reasons, nor enter into debate upon the matter.
In an attempt at compromise, More offered to swear to the succession of Henry’s children by Anne, as that was a political matter within the competence of the English Parliament, but Henry rejected the notion lest it encourage others to do the same. In April 1534, More was rowed downriver from Chelsea to the Tower of London. During the next fourteen months, numerous attempts were made to persuade him to swear the oath, including by his family, but he remained adamant.
In July 1535, More was tried for ‘maliciously’ denying Henry’s role as Supreme Head of the Church of England. The only witness against him was Richard Rich, the Solicitor-General, whom he accused of perjury. He was nevertheless found guilty and sentenced to execution.
On 6th July 1535. he was beheaded on Tower Hill, and his head displayed on a pole on London Bridge. It was later smuggled away by his daughter, Margaret, and buried with her.