“The King’s good servant, but God’s first”
Thomas More was the son of John More, a lawyer and later a judge. Thomas was born in Milk Street, near Cheapside, in the City of London. He went to St Anthony’s school in Threadneedle Street. It was the custom of the day for children to be sent to learn in another household. At the age of twelve he went to live in the household of Archbishop Morton, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor. At fourteen he went to Oxford. His father became alarmed at his interest in “liberal sciences and divinity”. He withdrew his son from the university and set him to train in the law.
When he was a teenager, More first met Erasmus, the famous Dutch Humanist. They became lifelong friends. In 1499 More and Erasmus, for the first time, met the future Henry VIII, aged 9, who was destined to bring the friendship to a sharp end. They walked to a neighbouring manor where Henry was staying. As the custom was, More presented him with a poem.
Between 1499 and 1503, More got religion. More was a barrister by 1501 and taught at one of the Inns of Court for three years. But he was not interested in a career at the bar. Instead he was considering joining the priesthood. While working at the law, he moved near Charterhouse to be close to the Carthusian order of monks and to join in their daily spiritual exercises. He wore a sharp hair shirt, scourged himself, and allowed himself only four or five hours sleep a night.
In 1504, More was elected to parliament but we do not know the constituency he represented. Almost immediately he risked his career prospects by speaking out against Henry VII’s request for a special tax to cover the cost of marrying his eldest daughter, Margaret, to the king of Scotland. When Henry discovered he had been thwarted by “a beardless boy”, he trumped up a charge against his father and put him in the Tower until he paid a large fine.
In 1505 More married Jane Colt. Their home was the Old Barge side in Bucklersbury in the City of London. They had children. But Jane died in 1511. Within a month later he married Alice Middleton. She was a widow seven years older than him, and she had a child of her own. As he himself said, she was neither beautiful nor young, but he wanted a good mother for his children. The Dutch Humanist, Desiderius Erasmus described her to a friend as having “the hooked beak of a harpy”. Erasmus and More had been close friends during his marriage to Jane and Erasmus lived with the Mores during his visits to London. He wrote Praise of Folly while staying there.
The accession of Henry VIII improved More’s professional prospects. In 1510, More was appointed one of the under-sheriffs of the City of London. An under-sheriff was the judicial representative of the sheriff for cases sent to the sheriff’s court. He is said to have declared: “If the parties will at my hands call for justice, then, were it my father stood on the one side, and the Devil on the other; his cause being good, the Devil should have right.” More became so popular with Londoners that they let him use a deputy, rather than stand down, when Henry VIII sent him on an embassy to the Netherlands. While he was away his salary was cut and he joked that it was a pity he couldn’t get his wife and children to fast in his absence.
In 1516 Thomas More published the work for which he is famous, and which introduced a new word to the language – Utopia. Utopia is a communist city-state on an imaginary island where decisions are based on reason rather than self-interest, and where communal ownership of land, education of men and women alike, and religious toleration, are all practised. It was an imaginary scheme for reform of the public and private life of the age. More saw egoism as the problem and communism as the only cure. But despite appearances, Utopia is a totalitarian state like Hitler’s Germany. Everyone has their place in an ordered community; there is no unemployment; rough work is done by alien workers or by forced labour of people who do not meet the state’s standards. When more land is needed, the state can seize it on the grounds that a more intelligent people could use it better than their inferior neighbours. The book established his reputation as one of the foremost intellectuals of the age. Utopia was soon translated into most European languages – including English. More wrote it in Latin.
More’s career in the royal service progressed. He became a Privy Councillor; he took part in talks with the emperor Charles V; he accompanied Henry at his meeting with the king of France known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. In 1521 he was knighted and made under-treasurer. He welcomed foreign envoys, delivered official speeches, drafted treaties, read dispatches received by the king, and answered in the king’s name. As a reward for his services, More was awarded lands in Oxfordshire and Kent. In addition to his routine duties at the Exchequer, More became “Henry’s intellectual courtier,” secretary, and confidant. The King used to arrive at More’s house uninvited and they would go for walks and talks in his garden. But More was not fooled. Erasmus later reported him as saying: “If the price of a castle in France was my head, it should not fail to go”.
In April 1523, Cardinal Wolsey had More elected speaker of the House of Commons. More was a supporter of Wolsey, but not unquestioningly. When More opposed a proposal of Wolsey’s on one occasion, Wolsey said angrily: “You show yourself a foolish Councillor”. More’s reply was to thank God that Henry VIII only had one fool on his Council. He amassed other offices. Oxford and Cambridge universities made him their high steward. He was promoted to chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, which put a large portion of northern England under his judicial and administrative control.
By 1524 More moved to Chelsea. He built The Great House, with its own chapel, and library. He employed a fool, called Henry Patterson, for entertainment.
In Utopia, More had advocated religious tolerance. Services were to be so simple that they would not be tied to any particular religious belief. Everyone could believe what they wanted in the privacy of own homes. The only provisos were that anyone who rejected god altogether, could not hold public office, and anyone who attacked a neighbour’s religion should be banished. More did not live up to such ideals in his real life. He had heretics flogged in his back garden. If they refused to recant, he had them racked in the Tower. He had a madman, who interrupted some church services, tied to a tree and beaten until he agreed to behave himself.
In 1527, Henry VIII resolved to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. He was impelled partly by a passion for Anne Boleyn and partly by the conviction that Catherine’s repeated miscarriages were the punishment of God for their wrongful marriage. It was wrongful, in his view, because she had previously been the wife of his elder brother Arthur, who had died young. It was forbidden by church law for a brother to marry his brother’s wife. But the marriage connection to the House of Aragon in Spain had been an important pillar of Henry VII’s foreign policy. He had obtained a dispensation from Pope Julius for Henry to marry his brother’s wife. So if Henry VIII was to obtain a divorce from Pope Clement, the present Pope, he had to establish that the previous Pope’s dispensation had itself been unlawful, thus making his marriage to Catherine incestuous, and therefore invalid.
In 1527 the king and his chief Minister, Cardinal Wolsey, had reason to hope that Pope Clement would grant the petition. There were precedents. In 1437, the childless king of Castile, had been given permission to divorce his wife and remarry, with the added proviso that if the second wife did not prove satisfactory, he could remarry the first one. The legal arguments seemed to favour the king: he argued that Pope Julius had not been given all the facts.
But Catherine had a more powerful weapon. The Spanish and the French had been at war in Italy. Charles V, the Habsburg king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor was the decisive victor. Clement became a virtual prisoner in Rome. His “jailer”, Charles V was Catherine’s nephew. Clement vacillated – he did not want to risk schism with England – but England was far away and the forces of Charles V were on his doorstep. In March 1534 the Pope finally refused the divorce.
When Wolsey fell from power in 1529, More succeeded him as Lord Chancellor. This was unprecedented. More was the first layman to be Lord Chancellor of England. But as the King moved towards a final breach with Rome, More found himself in an increasingly difficult position. More did not dispute the vices of many of the recent popes, but he refused to impute it to the office of Pope. He hoped for reform of the Church from within and could not support breaking away from the Church. In addition, he could not convince himself that the divorce was legal. His studies of the position convinced him that Catherine was the king’s true wife.
However, he did not speak out. He attempted to say nothing and do nothing which would defy the King, so long as he did not have to say or do anything against his own conscience. So when the universities were commissioned to produce a report on the legality of the divorce, it was More who delivered their verdict to the House of Lords. He did not dispute the marriage to Ann Boleyn, but he did not attend her coronation either.
In 1532, Henry forced the synod (governing body) of the church in England to agree that royal assent would now be necessary for any legislation or rules they wished to pass. This effectively placed Henry at the head of the church in England. When Henry went on to propose a relaxation of the laws against heresy, More finally abandoned his office as Lord Chancellor.
Thomas Cramner, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, granted Henry his divorce from Catherine in 1533. Parliament then passed an Act of Succession to confirm Henry’s marriage to Anne and to make her children successors to the throne. (Because she was pregnant, Henry had actually married her in secret some time before the divorce). The Act of Succession empowered the King to require any subject to assent to the Act of Succession under oath. More was willing, in principle, to do this. He even agreed to acknowledge that Anne was, in fact, the anointed queen. What he finally could not force himself to accept was wording abjuring “any foreign potentate”, That entailed a repudiation of papal supremacy. Cranmer proposed that More be allowed to swear an amended oath, but Ann Boleyn, who regarded More as her enemy, opposed it. The King took her side and More was arrested.
On 17th April 1534, More was imprisoned in the Tower. He welcomed prison life. He said that, if he had not had family responsibilities, he would have chosen for himself “as strait a room and straiter too.” In prison, More wrote A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation.
As a knight, More was expected to keep up appearances and to have a servant with him. He was also expected to pay 10 shillings a week for his upkeep, and 5 shillings for his servant’s. More’s properties had been seized. His wife was reduced to selling her clothes to pay his prison fees. His wife and daughter pleaded with him to relent and swear the oath.
His trial took place on 1st July 1535. More had very carefully kept to his plan of saying nothing against the King or the divorce and remarriage. The authorities found they had no evidence to put before the court. This was inconvenient, but no more than that. Richard Rich, the Solicitor General, simply testified (quite untruthfully) that More had, in his presence, denied the king’s title as supreme head of the Church of England. Despite More’s scathing denial of this perjured evidence, the jury unanimously found him guilty. Before the sentence was pronounced, More was allowed to speak “in discharge of his conscience.” Now he spoke out. He said that defending the unity of the church was the main motive of his martyrdom and that “no temporal man may be head of the spirituality.” More was sentenced to a traitor’s death – “to be drawn, hanged, and quartered” – which the king mercifully changed to beheading. During five days of suspense, More prepared to meet “the great spouse” and wrote prayers and letters of farewell.
Erasmus wrote various descriptions of More. He lived a simple life but was happy to enjoy innocent pleasures. He was born for friendship and could extract delight from the dullest people or things. His family affections were warm yet unobtrusive. He gave freely and gladly, expecting no thanks. He found hours for prayer and for supervising his domestic school. More never discarded the habits of rising early, prolonged prayer, fasting, and wearing the hair shirt. God remained the centre of his life. The title of Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, (1960) comes from Erasmus’s description of his friend as omnium horarum homo, a man for every hour.
More walked to the scaffold on Tower Hill. “See me safe up,” he said to the lieutenant, “and for my coming down, let me shift for myself.” He told the onlookers to witness that he was dying “in the faith and for the faith of the Catholic Church, the king’s good servant and God’s first.” He altered the ritual by blindfolding himself. As he put his head on the block, he moved his beard to one side, and joked, “This hath not offended the king!”
There are conflicting reports as to what happened to his head. It was certainly put on a spike on London Bridge. It was said that it was thrown in the river after a month. But a witness reported it still being on the bridge in 1536. Another story is that his daughter Margaret bought it and preserved it with spices till her own death in 1544. Her husband died after her. His grave was later opened and it was said that a head in a jar was found in the coffin with him.
More was canonized by Pius XI in May 1935. 22nd June is his “saint’s feast day”. According to the City Corporation, More’s Barbican connection is that he was born in Milk Street. But Milk Street is, in fact, quite a way south of the Barbican near Cheapside in the City.