Thomas More: Life Story

Chapter 2 : University & Inns of Court

At some point Archbishop Morton, either from his own observation, or the reports of the school master, decided that More was worthy of further education and he was nominated for a scholarship to Canterbury College, Oxford. Like his fellow scholars, More began his university education at the age of about 14. Some accounts suggest that he also was associated with Saint Mary’s Hall in Oxford. Unlike Canterbury College, which was fundamentally a monastic foundation, Saint Mary’s Hall was purely secular. As at school, all conversation in Oxford colleges had to be conducted in Latin.

The curriculum in the universities had become ossified. There was an emphasis on interpretation and reinterpretation of the same texts - original thought was largely excluded, partially from the fear of heresy but also because of a strong presumption that great scholars of the past knew more than current scholars – Aristotle was particularly revered, and the legal code of Justinian was considered the apogee of jurisprudence. This concept of education, known generally as ‘Scholasticism’ was underpinned by the concept that there is a single, universal, truth that, where it is not ‘revealed’ by God, in either the Bible, or the teachings of the Church (and particularly that of the four chief ‘Doctors’ of the Church Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose and Gregory I) it could be discovered by logic.

As a style of teaching and learning, it was beginning to be challenged, most notably by the Dutch scholar, Erasmus of Rotterdam. The rediscovery of numerous classical texts which began to pour into Europe after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and their more easy dissemination by printing, was leading to a new movement, which later became known as Humanism.

Unlike the modern meaning of the word, Humanism in no way implied atheism, agnosticism or even scepticism, about the existence of God. It was rather an appreciation that God had granted man the ability to think, to consider and to reason and that they should do so, rather than relying on more and more detailed study of the same information. More was often critical of Scholasticism and became a strong supporter of the ‘New Learning’, as it was termed at the time. He did, however retain a very strong belief in the Bible, supplemented by the teaching and the custom and tradition of the Church, as the source of truth.

More remained at Oxford for two years, but left without taking his degree. Biographers have differed in their reasons for why More did not continue his education at Oxford to take a degree. It has been suggested that his father forced him into a career in the law, however his most recent biographer, Peter Ackroyd, disputes this view suggesting that everything that can be inferred about More’s temperament made him a more likely lawyer than scholar. More’s intellect, in Ackroyd’s interpretation, was essentially one of practical intelligence and the application of his knowledge to real-world situations – quite different from the conceptual and theoretical life of the scholar, whether Scholastic or Humanist. In particular, Ackroyd argues that justice and its pursuit was at the heart of More’s conception of what it meant to live a good life.

It was also the case that legal training was becoming equally conducive to a successful career in public office. It was an extremely legalistic and litigious age and many of the contemporaries of More, who later went on to hold high office under the Crown and become extremely wealthy, were lawyers whose descendants entered the ranks of the gentry and the nobility – these were the ‘New Men’, frequently criticised by the old nobility for their lack of illustrious ancestors.

Ackroyd also points to the fundamental requirement of a good lawyer which he calls ‘ambiguity of mind’, which was a key note of More’s character. More was always able to see every side of a problem and to argue a case from a number of different angles. The corollary to this was that it was very difficult to know what More himself actually thought about anything and his first biographer, his son-in-law, William Roper, said that he ‘never showed of what mind himself was therein.’