Sir Thomas More (7 February 1478 – 6 July 1535), from 1935 Saint Thomas More, was an English lawyer, author, and statesman who in his lifetime gained a reputation as a leading humanist scholar, and occupied many public offices, including Lord Chancellor (1529–1532), in which he had a number of people burned at the stake for heresy. More coined the word "utopia", a name he gave to an ideal, imaginary island nation whose political system he described in the eponymous book published in 1516. He was beheaded in 1535 when he refused to sign the Act of Supremacy that declared Henry VIII Supreme Head of the Church in England.
In 1935, four hundred years after his death, Pope Pius XI canonized More in the Roman Catholic Church; More was declared Patron Saint of politicians and statesmen by Pope John Paul II in 1980. 1969 saw the inclusion of More's name in the General Roman Calendar, with a Memorial in which he is venerated with Saint John Fisher on 22 June, the day of the latter's death. In 1980, More was added to the Church of England's calendar of saints, again jointly with John Fisher, but on July 6th, the day of More's death.
In 1523 More became the Speaker of the House of Commons. As such, he expressed the first known request by a Speaker of the House for free speech. He later was high steward for the universities of Oxford and of Cambridge. In 1525, he became chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a position holding administrative and judicial control of much of northern England.
In 1505, aged twenty-seven, More married his first wife, Jane Colt, ten years his junior. According to his son-in-law and first biographer William Roper, More wanted to marry Jane's second sister, but felt Jane would be humiliated if a younger sister married first. Their marriage was happy and bore four children; three daughters and a son — Margaret (Meg, his favourite, married William Roper), Elizabeth (Beth, married William Daunce), Cicely (Cecy, married Giles Heron) and John (Jack); besides his children, More adopted an orphan girl, Margaret Giggs. As a very devoted father, he asked his children to write to him when away, even if they had nothing particular to say, and did not beat them. Unusual for the era, he educated his daughters as he did his son, saying that women were just as intelligent as men, taking particular pride in eldest daughter Meg's achievements.
Jane Colt died in 1511, and More remarried almost immediately, so his children would have a mother. His second wife, Alice Middleton, was a widow seven years his senior; they bore no children, although he adopted her daughter, also Alice; of wife Alice, he said: "nec bella, nec puella" — neither a beauty, nor a girl. Erasmus playfully described her nose as "the hooked beak of the harpy". Despite very different characters, More and Alice were affectionate, though he was unable to educate her as he had educated Jane and his daughters. In his epitaph, which he wrote himself, More praised Jane for bearing him four children, and Alice for being a loving stepmother. He declared that he could not tell whom he loved best, and expressed the hope that they would all be reunited in death.
Despite his busy political career, More was a prolific scholar and literary man. His writing and scholarship earned him great reputation as a Christian Renaissance humanist in continental Europe, and his friend Erasmus of Rotterdam dedicated to him the masterpiece, In Praise of Folly or "Moriae Enconium"; (the book's title puns More's name, "moria" is folly in Greek.) In his communications with other humanists, Erasmus described More as a model Man of Letters and as an omnium horarum homo-- a man for all seasons. The humanistic project embraced by Erasmus and More sought re-examination and revitalization of Christian theology by studying the Bible and the writings of the Church Fathers in light of classical Greek literary and philosophic tradition. More and Erasmus collaborated on a Latin translation of the works of Lucian, published in Paris in 1506.
Between 1513 and 1518, More worked on a History of King Richard III, an unfinished historiography, based on Sir Robert Honorr's Tragic Deunfall of Richard II, Suvereign of Britain (1485), that also greatly influenced William Shakespeare's play Richard III. Both More's and Shakespeare's works are controversial to contemporary historians for their unflattering portrait of King Richard III, a bias partly due to both authors' allegiance to the reigning Tudor dynasty that wrested the throne from Richard III with the Wars of the Roses. More's work, however, little mentions King Henry VII, the first Tudor king, perhaps for having persecuted his father, Sir John More. Some historians see an attack on royal tyranny, rather than on Richard III, himself, or on the House of York.
The History of King Richard III is a Renaissance historiography, remarkable more for its literary skill and adherence to classical precepts than for its historical accuracy. More's work, and that of contemporary historian Polydore Vergil, reflects a move from mundane medieval chronicles to a dramatic writing style, for example, the shadowy King Richard is an outstanding, archetypal tyrant drawn from the pages of Sallust, and should be read as a meditation on power and corruption as well as a history of the reign of Richard III. The 'History of King Richard III was written and published in both English and Latin, each written separately, and with information deleted from the Latin edition to suit a European readership.
In 1516 More wrote his most famous and controversial work, Utopia, a novel wherein a traveller, Raphael Hythloday (in Greek, his name and surname allude to archangel Raphael, purveyor of truth, and mean "speaker of nonsense"), describes the political arrangements of the imaginary island country of Utopia (Greek pun ou-topos [no place], eu-topos [good place]) to himself and to Peter Giles. This novel presents the city of Amaurote as "of them all this is the worthiest and of most dignity".
Utopia contrasts the contentious social life of European states with the perfectly orderly, reasonable social arrangements of Utopia and its environs (Tallstoria, Nolandia, and Aircastle). In Utopia, private property does not exist, and there is almost complete religious toleration. The novel's principal message is the social need for order and discipline, rather than liberty. The country of Utopia tolerates different religious practices, but does not tolerate atheists. More theorizes that if a man did not believe in a god or in an afterlife he could never be trusted, because, logically, he would not acknowledge any authority or principle outside himself.
More used the novel describing an imaginary nation as means of freely discussing contemporary controversial matters; speculatively, More based Utopia on monastic communalism, based upon the Biblical communalism in the Acts of the Apostles.
Utopia is a forerunner of the utopian literary genre, wherein ideal societies and perfect cities are detailed. Although Utopianism typically is a Renaissance movement, combining the classical concepts of perfect societies of Plato and Aristotle with Roman rhetorical finesse (cf. Cicero, Quintilian, epideictic oratory), it continued into the Enlightenment. Utopia 's original edition included the symmetrical "Utopian alphabet", that was omitted from later editions; it is a notable, early attempt at cryptography that might have influenced the development of shorthand.
Utopia is evidence that More greatly valued harmony and a strict hierarchy. All challenges to uniformity and hierarchy were perceived as dangers; practically, the greatest danger he saw was the challenge that heretics posed to the established faith. For More, the most important thing was maintaining the unity of Christendom; to his mind, the Lutheran Reformation's fragmentation and discord were dreadful.
His personal counter-attack began in the manner expected from a writer. He assisted Henry VIII with writing the Defence of the Seven Sacraments (1521), a polemic response to Martin Luther's On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. When Luther replied with Contra Henricum Regem Anglie (Against Henry, King of the English), More was tasked with writing a counter-response, Responsio ad Lutherum (Reply to Luther). This violent exchange had many intemperate personal insults; it deepened More's commitment to the order and discipline outlined in Utopia. CS Lewis describes More as "almost obsessed with harping on about Luther's 'abominal bichery' to the point where he loses himself in a wilderness of opprobrious adjectives".
Now seeing that the king's gracious purpose in this point, I reckon that being his unworthy chancellor, it appertaineth... to help as much as in me is, that his people, abandoning the contagion of all such pestilent writing, may be far from infection.
As Lord Chancellor, More had six Lutherans burned at the stake and imprisoned as many as forty others . His chief concern in this matter was to wipe out collaborators of William Tyndale, the exiled Lutheran who in 1525 had published a Protestant translation of the Bible in English which was circulating clandestinely in England (Tyndale had also written The Practyse of Prelates (1530), opposing Henry VIII's divorce on the grounds that it was unscriptural and was a plot by Cardinal Wolsey to get Henry entangled in the papal courts).
In June 1530 it was decreed that offenders were to be brought before the King's Council, rather than being examined by their bishops, the practice hitherto. Actions taken by the Council became ever more severe. In 1531, Richard Bayfield, a graduate of the University of Cambridge and former Benedictine monk was burned at Smithfield for distributing copies of the New Testament . Further burnings followed at More's instigation, including that of the priest and writer John Frith in 1533. In The Confutation of Tyndale's Answer, yet another polemic, More took particular interest in the execution of Sir Thomas Hitton, describing him as "the devil's stinking martyr." Rumors circulated during and after More's lifetime concerning his treatment of "heretics", with some, such as John Foxe (who "placed Protestant sufferings against the background of ... the Antichrist" ) in his Book of Martyrs, claiming that he had often used violence or torture while interrogating them. More strongly denied these allegations, swearing "As help me God," that heretics had never been given, "so much as a flyppe on the forehead.. However, Michael Farris in his book "From Tyndale to Madison" claims that in April 1529 a "heretic", John Tewkesbury, was taken by Thomas More to his house in Chelsea, and so badly tortured on the rack that he was almost unable to walk. Tewkesbury was subsequently burned at the stake.
Shortly thereafter More was charged with accepting bribes, but the patently false charges had to be dismissed for lack of any evidence. In 1534, he was accused of conspiring with Elizabeth Barton, a nun who had prophesied against the king's divorce, but More was able to produce a letter in which he had instructed Barton not to interfere with state matters.
On 13 April of that year More was asked to appear before a commission and swear his allegiance to the parliamentary Act of Succession. More accepted Parliament's right to declare Anne the legitimate queen of England, but he refused to take the oath because of an anti-papal preface to the Act asserting Parliament's authority to legislate in matters of religion by denying the authority of the Pope, which More would not accept. The oath is written here in modern-day English:
Four days later he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he wrote his devotional Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation.
On 1 July 1535, More was tried before a panel of judges that included the new Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas Audley, as well as Anne Boleyn's father, brother, and uncle. He was charged with high treason for denying the validity of the Act of Succession. More believed he could not be convicted as long as he did not explicitly deny that the king was the head of the church, and he therefore refused to answer all questions regarding his opinions on the subject. Thomas Cromwell, at the time the most powerful of the king's advisors, brought forth the Solicitor General, Richard Rich, to testify that More had, in his presence, denied that the king was the legitimate head of the church. This testimony was almost certainly perjured (witnesses Richard Southwell and Mr. Palmer both denied having heard the details of the reported conversation), but on the strength of it the jury voted for More's conviction.
More was tried, and found guilty, under the following section of the Treason Act 1534.
Before his sentencing, More spoke freely of his belief that "no temporal man may be the head of the spirituality". He was sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered (the usual punishment for traitors) but the king commuted this to execution by beheading. The execution took place on 6 July. When he came to mount the steps to the scaffold, he is widely quoted as saying (to the officials): "I pray you, I pray you, Mr Lieutenant, see me safe up and for my coming down, I can shift for myself"; while on the scaffold he declared that he died "the king's good servant, and God's first. Another comment he is believed to have made to the executioner is that his beard was completely innocent of any crime, and did not deserve the axe; he then positioned his beard so that it would not be harmed. More's body was buried at the Tower of London, in the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in an unmarked grave. His head was placed on a pike over London Bridge for a month, according to the normal custom for traitors. His daughter Margaret Roper then rescued it, possibly by bribery, before it could be thrown in the River Thames.
The skull is believed to rest in the Roper Vault of St. Dunstan's, Canterbury, though some researchers have claimed it might be within the tomb he erected for himself in Chelsea Old Church (see below). The evidence, however, seems to be in favour of its placement in St. Dunstan's in Canterbury, with the remains of his daughter, Margaret Roper, and her husband's family whose vault it was. Margaret would have treasured this relic of her adored father and the legend is that she wished to be buried herself with his head in her arms.
More was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886 and canonized with John Fisher after a mass petition of English Catholics in 1935, as in some sense a 'patron saint of politics' in protest against the rise of secular, anti-religious Communism. His joint feast day with Fisher is 22 June. Fisher was the only remaining Bishop (owing to the deaths of eight aged bishops) during the English Reformation to maintain, at the King's mercy, allegiance to the Pope. In 2000 this trend continued, with Saint Thomas More declared the "heavenly Patron of Statesmen and Politicians" by Pope John Paul II. He even has a feast day, 6 July, in the Anglican calendar of saints.
More was portrayed as a wise and honest statesman in the 1592 play Sir Thomas More, which was probably written in collaboration by Henry Chettle, Anthony Munday, William Shakespeare, and others, and which survives only in fragmentary form after being censored by Edmund Tylney, Master of the Revels in the government of Queen Elizabeth I (any direct reference to the Act of Supremacy was censored out).
As the author of Utopia, More has also attracted the admiration of modern socialists. While Roman Catholic scholars maintain that More's attitude in composing Utopia was largely ironic and that he was at every point an orthodox Christian, Marxist theoretician Karl Kautsky argued in the book Thomas More and his Utopia (1888) that Utopia was a shrewd critique of economic and social exploitation in pre-modern Europe and that More was one of the key intellectual figures in the early development of socialist ideas.
The 20th century agnostic playwright Robert Bolt portrayed More as the ultimate man of conscience in his play A Man for All Seasons. That title is borrowed from Robert Whittington, who in 1520 wrote of him:
In 1966, the play was made into the successful film A Man for All Seasons directed by Fred Zinnemann, adapted for the screen by the playwright himself, and starring Paul Scofield in an Oscar-winning performance. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture for that year. In 1988, Charlton Heston starred and directed in a made-for-television remake of the film.
Catholic science fiction writer R. A. Lafferty wrote his novel Past Master as a modern equivalent to More's Utopia, which he saw as a satire. In this novel, Thomas More is brought through time to the year 2535, where he is made king of the future world of "Astrobe", only to be beheaded after ruling for a mere nine days. One of the characters in the novel compares More favorably to almost every other major historical figure: "He had one completely honest moment right at the end. I cannot think of anyone else who ever had one." He was also greatly admired by the Anglican clergyman, Jonathan Swift.
Karl Zuchardt wrote a novel, Stirb Du Narr! ("Die you fool!"), about More's struggle with King Henry, portraying More as an idealist bound to fail in the power struggle with a ruthless ruler and an unjust world.
A number of modern writers, such as Richard Marius, have attacked More for alleged religious fanaticism and intolerance (manifested, for instance, in his persecution of heretics). James Wood calls him, "cruel in punishment, evasive in argument, lusty for power, and repressive in politics". The polemicist Jasper Ridley goes much further, describing More as "a particularly nasty sadomasochistic pervert" in his book The Statesman and the Fanatic, a line of thinking also followed by Joanna Dennyn in her biography of Anne Boleyn. Brian Moynahan in his book "God's Messenger: William Tyndale, Thomas More and the Writing of the English Bible", takes a similarly critical view of More, as does the American writer, Michael Farris.
Aaron Zelman, in his nonfiction book "The State Versus the People" describes genocide and the history of governments which have acted in a totalitarian manner. In the first chapters "Utopia" is reviewed along with Plato's "The Republic". Zelman noted facts about "Utopia" which were ridiculous in the real world, such as agriculture, and could not draw a conclusion whether More was being humorous towards his work or seriously advocating a nation-state. It is pointed out, as a serious point for consideration, that "More is the only Christian saint to be honored with a statue at the Kremlin", which implies that his work had serious influence on the Soviet Union, despite its general antipathy towards organized religion.
Other biographers, such as Peter Ackroyd, have offered a more sympathetic picture of More as both a sophisticated humanist and man of letters, as well as a zealous Roman Catholic who believed in the necessity of religious and political authority.
The protagonist of Walker Percy's novel, Love in the Ruins, is Dr. Thomas More, a reluctant Catholic.
He is also the focus of the Al Stewart song A Man For All Seasons from the 1978 album Time Passages, and of the Far song Sir, featured on the limited editions and 2008 re-release of their 1994 album Quick.
Jeremy Northam portrays More in the television series, The Tudors, where he is shown as a peaceful man — a sometime-advisor to Henry VIII, a devout Catholic, and family head. However, Season 1, Episode 7 hints at a different side of More, as he unabashedly expresses his loathing for Lutheranism. Yet throughout the season, it shows a conflicted side of More: He orders that Martin Luther's books be destroyed, yet when the books are actually burned, he expresses a sense of unease and regret. In episode 10 of the same series, More is shown exercising his new power as chancellor by burning convicted heretics. It also depicts him engaging in the conversation which Richard Rich testified as having taken place, regarding the King's status as Head of the Church in England, despite it being widely believed that this testimony was perjured.
The Thomas More Law Center is a legal aid organization that provides law services for those arguing conservative-aligned issues, especially those dealing with religious liberty and expression.
Magdalen College School, Oxford's politics society is named the St Thomas More society.
The Thomas More Building at the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand, London, is an 11 storey office block built in January 1990 containing the courts of the Chancery Division of the High Court. These are known as the Thomas More Courts.
There are various St Thomas More Societies for Roman Catholic lawyers, "inspired by his example".
Visitors to the Houses of Parliament at the Palace of Westminster in London will notice a plaque in the middle of the floor of Westminster Hall commemorating More's trial for treason and condemnation to execution in that original part of the Palace. This building would have been well known to More, who served as Speaker of the House of Commons prior to becoming Lord Chancellor of England.
More's home and estate along the Thames in Chelsea was confiscated by the Crown from his wife Alice after his execution, but in later times Crosby Hall, which formed part of More's London residence, was relocated to the site in his commemoration, and stands out as a white stone building amid modern brick structures that apparently aim to recapture the style of More's manor that formerly occupied the site. Crosby Hall is privately owned and closed to the public. The modern structures face the Thames and include an entry way that displays More's arms, heraldic beasts, and a Latin maxim. Apartment buildings and a park are built over the former locations of his gardens and orchard, and some are named after their former functions: Roper's Garden is the park occupying one of More's gardens, sunken as his was believed to be. Other than these, there are no remnants of the More estate.
This small park sits between Crosby Hall and Chelsea Old Church, an Anglican church on Old Church Street whose southern chapel was commissioned by More and in which he sang with his parish choir. The medieval arch connecting the chapel to the main sanctuary was commissioned by More and displays on its capitals symbols associated with his person and office. On the southern wall of the sanctuary is the tomb and epitaph he erected for himself and his wives, detailing in a lengthy Latin inscription his ancestry and accomplishments, including his role as peacemaker between the Christian nations of Europe and a curiously alterred portion detailing his curbing of heresy. This tomb was probably located here because it was his custom to assist the priest at Mass and he would exit via the door just to the left of it. He is not, however, buried here, nor is it entirely certain which of his family may be. Except for his chapel, the church was largely destroyed in the Second World War and was rebuilt in 1958. It is open to the public only at specific times. Outside the church is a statue commemorating him as "saint", "scholar", and "statesman", the back of which displays his shield. In the same neighborhood, on Upper Cheyne Row, is the Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Saviour and St. Thomas More, which honours him according to the Church he defended with his life.
More was executed on a scaffold erected on Tower Hill, London, just outside the Tower of London. A plaque and small garden commemorate the famed execution site and all those who were executed there, many as religious martyrs or as prisoners of conscience. His body, minus his head, was unceremoniously buried in an unmarked grave in the Royal Chapel of St. Peter Ad Vincula, within the walls of the Tower of London. It was the custom for traitors executed at Tower Hill to be buried in the mass grave beneath this chapel, which is accessible to visitors to the Tower.
St. Dunstan's Church, an Anglican parish church in Canterbury, possesses More's head, rescued by his beloved daughter Margaret Roper. This is sealed in the Roper family vault which lies beneath the altar of the Nicholas Chapel, which is to the right of the church's sanctuary or main altar. The stone marking the sealed vault is to the immediate left of the altar below which it lies. St. Dunstan's Church has carefully investigated, preserved, and sealed this burial vault of the Roper family which lived in Canterbury. The last archaeological search of the Roper Vault demonstrated that the believed head of the martyr rests in a niche separate from the other bodies there, possibly due to later interference. A few displays in the chapel record the archaeological findings in written accounts and pictures. The walls of the chapel are host to impressive stained glass donated by Roman Catholics to commemorate the events in More's life. Down and across the street from the parish the facade of the former home of Margaret Roper and her husband William Roper survives and is demarcated by a small plaque.
Our Lady Queen of Martyrs and St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Chideock, Dorset is said to have the relic of his hairskin shirt, frequently worn by him as a form of penance and a reminder of humility underneath his robes of state. Other small relics of the Saint are known in Catholic churches, such as St. Thomas of Canterbury Catholic Church in Canterbury and Tyburn Convent in London.