Thomas More: Life Story

Chapter 4 : Humanist Friends

It was during this year 1499 that the first known meeting of Thomas More with Henry, Duke of York, later Henry VIII, took place, although we can infer from the circumstances of it that he had previously met the Prince.

Erasmus was staying at the house of Lord Mountjoy, who had previously been Erasmus’ pupil in Paris and was now a member of the Duke of York’s household. One afternoon More and his friend, Edward Arnold, came to visit Mountjoy, and a visit to nearby Eltham Palace, where the young Henry and his sisters lived, was suggested. How More knew Mountjoy is unclear although More’s association with Archbishop Morton and Sir William Say, Mountjoy’s father-in-law, are probably at the root of their friendship.

During this period, More first began to speak to a wider audience. His friend William Grocyn, was the priest at the Church of St Lawrence Jewry and asked him to lecture to the congregation and guests on St Augustine’s work, ‘The City of God’. This work, from one of the most important Doctors of the Christian Church, discusses the difficulties of leading a virtuous life and at the same time being a part of secular society. How could a good Christian best live a spiritual life while still contributing to the wider community? This seems to have been a question that dominated much of More’s own philosophy.

It was also around this time that More translated the life of Pico della Mirandola as a New Year’s gift for a friend, Joyce Leigh, who was about to make her vows as a nun of the Poor Clares. Pico della Mirandola was one of the leading lights of the early Renaissance in Florence. In the biography originally written by his nephew, Mirandola’s use of self-flagellation to control his earthly desires is mentioned. Flagellation, which to the 21st century mind inevitably brings up visions of sadomasochistic sexuality, was relatively commonplace in the late 15th century as an expression of religious fervour. In earlier times, there had been whole associations and societies that used the practice as a means of obtaining the grace of God. It was particularly prevalent in the Low Countries but also in some of the Italian city states. It is perhaps from Mirandola’s example that More learnt, as self-flagellation was one of the religious practices that he followed, certainly in later life.

At some time during the early years of the 16th century More spent considerable time in and around the Carthusian monastery known as the Charterhouse on the outskirts of London. It is possible that he contemplated the religious life and this is what his son-in-law, William Roper, later claimed. His grandson, Cresacre More, believed that Thomas merely lodged in the Charterhouse, without ever intending to consider the religious life. The monks of the Charterhouse were famous for their austerity and their rigourous observance of one of the most severe monastic rules. Even if More himself had no religious vocation he cannot have failed to be influenced by their sincerity and discipline.

But another of More’s biographers, Richard Marius, believes that More was forever torn about his decision to opt for marriage and a secular life, which More had justified with the statement that it was ‘better to be a faithful husband, than an unchaste priest’. But Marius also suggests that More’s frequent protestation that a public career was forced upon him, was his way of lessening the guilt he felt for not choosing the religious life – the matter had been out of his control.

More’s understanding that he would have found celibacy impossible, and his consequent rejection of the life of a monk has given rise to all sorts of theories about how his guilt over his sexual desires informed his whole philosophy of life. He lived much of his intellectual life in a world of clerics and scholars who promoted the virtues of celibacy, or at least very moderate sexual appetites contained within marriage, no matter how the reality of life for most people differed. Over-indulgence in sex, even with a spouse, might lead to damnation. Undoubtedly, More struggled with his strong physical desires, seeing them as likely to lead him into sin.

This interest in the religious life, and the concern that More had for how he lived in a secular society, the state of his soul, and his fear of damnation, informed his whole character, always led him to be in two minds about his public role, and prevented him from displaying the whole-hearted dedication to a career exhibited by Wolsey and Cromwell.