"No famous family, but of honest stock."
Epitath on More's tomb, chosen by himself.
Thomas More (pictured below) was born in London on February 7, 1478.
He was educated at St. Anthony's School in London, then the best in the city.
More managed to get a placement with the family of the Archbishop of Canterbury through his father's influence (Sir Thomas More, Senior, was a prominent local barrister and judge).
Thomas Jr. went on to study at Oxford where he wanted to learn Greek. But Greek was frowned upon by the elite because it was thought that it would give young people access to "novel and dangerous ways of thinking."
Couldn't have that.
More's father removed him from Oxford and sent him to be tutored in law privately.
More soon became a lawyer (barrister) like his father but he did not lose his interest in Greek studies and he read all the Greek books that he could. When he was about twenty, he toyed with the idea of becoming a monk, fasting every Friday, sleeping on the ground with only a log as pillow. But he soon bored of that and then befriended Erasmus, then an "prince of learning".
More renewed his learning of Greek, and was exposed by Erasmus to Roman law, then mushrooming all over Europe. He began to translate Greek publications in English. He also continued his career as a barrister and was elected to Parliament in 1504.
In 1515, Thomas More published Utopia, in which he theorized about the perfect world. In Utopia, More foresaw cities of 100,000 inhabitants as being ideal. In his Utopia, there was no money, just a monthly market where citizens bartered for what they needed. Persons engaged to each other were allowed to see each other naked before marriage so that they would know if the other was "deformed". In Utopia, More also fashioned society where personal rights ceded to those of society; and citizens all reported on each other.
Six years before Utopia was published, Henry VII died and he was replaced by son, Henry VIII. King Henry took a liking to Thomas More although More did not reciprocate. The King was known to put his arm around More. Writes the Encyclopedia Britannica:
"This growing favour, by which many men would have been carried away, did not impose upon More. He discouraged the king's advances, showed reluctance to go to the palace and seemed constrained when he was there. Then the King began to come to More's house and would dine with him without previous notice."
Privately, More did not like Henry VIII and told his oldest son-in-law that:
"... if my head would win him a castle in France, it should not fail to go."
More was right. Henry VIII failed miserably as King. He divorced his first wife (and his brother's widow), Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of the King of Spain and married Anne Boleyn, without the blessing of the Pope. More was a devout Catholic and believed deeply in the supremacy of the Pope and the impropriety of this marriage. It would be his downfall.
Henry promoted More until More became Lord Chancellor. As such he was master of equity law and of the Court of Chancery, the most powerful judicial office in the land. But, in 1532, when he saw that King Henry was determined to marry Anne Boleyn and that divorce was in the air, rather than stay in the King's cabinet, he claimed ill health and was allowed to retire from the bench.
That's when things started to deteriorate. The King invited him to the marriage with Boleyn and More declined to attend. His refusal was a kiss of death. Once it became public knowledge, all the king's brown-nosers kicked into high gear. He was summoned to the court to answer an obscure charge of accepting a bribe while Lord Chancellor. When his daughter brought him news that the charge was dismissed, he said "quod differtur, non aufertur" or "that which is postponed is not dropped." Sir Thomas More was a marked man.
In 1534, Henry enacted a law which declared him supreme ruler of the world, bar none, including the Pope (known as praemunire). All citizens were to accept this by oath.
More said thanks, but no thanks.
Henry VIII threw him into the Tower of London where for a whole year he was locked up, denied pen, paper and, eventually, when the last of his books were taken away, More had the curtains drawn. When asked why by his jailer, More replied:
"Now that the goods and the implements are taken away, the shop must be closed."
His wife and children visited and begged him to submit to the oath but More refused on principle. His wife cursed his stubbornness but his daughter Margaret supported him throughout.
More was questioned several times by friends of the king but he was always careful never to say anything against the King personally; just that he could not stomach the oath required by the statute, the Act of Supremacy.
It was on May 7, 1535 that More was dragged to trial, charged with treason for failing to take the oath and facing death as a common criminal by partial hanging and thereafter being drawn and quartered.
He was filthy and could barely walk from his 14-month confinement in the Tower of London (pictured). He had a long beard as he had not been given anything to shave with.
There were eighteen judges including the new Lord Chancellor (Thomas Audley), Thomas Cromwell and even Anne Boleyn's uncle, (the Duke of Norfolk).
More was immediately told that he could even yet take the oath and beg the King's pardon and be saved.
Sir Thomas More declined.
More, still one of the country's best barristers, complained first of his long imprisonment and how he was in no condition to defend himself. A chair was brought in for him and he was allowed to sit down. More made an impassioned defence, saying that he had always told the King his personal opinions when asked. He then complained about the Act which seemed to allow conviction from silence.
"Neither can any one word or action of mine be alleged or produced to make me culpable. By all which I know, I would not transgress any law, or become guilty of any treasonable crime for no law in the world can punish any man for his silence. Tis God only that is the judge of the secrets of the hearts."
And then Sir Thomas More's trials took a dramatic turn.
The King's solicitor general was sworn in as witness and testified that More has "confessed" to him, in a private conversation in the Tower several months earlier.
According to Richard Rich, More had linked the King's supposed "supremacy" with the right of Parliament to depose of the sovereign. How, then, could Parliament depose of a King if he were supreme, More had allegedly asked?
This was sensational testimony and would suffice to convict More. More was taken by surprise but put on his bravest face and went on the offensive.
"If I were a man, my lords, that has no regards to my oath, (and) I had no occasion to be here at this time, as is well known to every body, as a criminal; and if this oath, Mr. Rich, which you have taken, be true, then I pray I may never see God's face which, were it otherwise, is an impression I would not be guilty of to gain the whole world."
More did not seem to have a mean bone in his body. Erasmus once said that:
"What did nature ever create milder, sweeter and happier than the genius of Thomas More? All the birds come to him to be fed. There is not any man living so affectionate to his children as he, and he loveth his wife as if she were a girl of fifteen."
But More faced perjury which could convict him. His rebuttal:
"In good faith, Mr. Rich, I am more concerned for your perjury than my own danger. I must tell you that neither myself nor anybody else to my knowledge ever took you to be a man of such reputation that I or any other would have anything to do with you in a matter of importance. I am sorry I am forced to speak it (but) you always lay under the odium of a very lying tongue."
More's efforts to discredit Rich were part of the package the jury of 12 took with them to consider. But they returned 15 minutes later with a verdict: guilty. The Lord Chancellor began to read the sentence when More interjected.
"My lord, the practice in such cases was to ask the prisoner before sentence whether he had any thing to offer why judgment should not be pronounced against him."
The Lord Chancellor abruptly stopped his sentence reading and asked More what he was "able to say to the contrary."
More was now on borrowed time. He protested against the charge as best he could.
"A son is only by generation. We are by regeneration made spiritual children of Christ and the Pope."
The sentence for treason was then handed down:
"That he should be carried back to the Tower of London and from thence drawn on a hurdle through the City of London to Tyburn there to be hanged till he should be half dead; that then he should be cut down alive, his privy parts cut off, his belly ripped, his bowels burnt, his four quarters set up over four gates of the City, and his head upon London Bridge."
When the sentence was read out, More said he may as well speak freely now and revealed that he was totally unable to see the sense of the oath of supremacy. To this, the Lord Chancellor replied that why, then, had so many bishops and academics taken the oath of supremacy?
"I am able to produce against one bishop which you can produce, a hundred holy and Catholic bishops for my opinion; and against one realm, the consent of Christendom for a thousand years."
And upon those desperate words, More rejoined that "albeit your lordships have been my judges to condemnation, yet we may hereafter meet joyfully together in Heaven to our everlasting salvation."
Thomas More was then led back to London Tower, but this time with the Tower's axe before him, pointed edge leading the procession and towards the convict as was the custom. Henry VIII commuted the sentence to a quick beheading.
The day before he died, he wrote to Margaret:
"Tomorrow, long I to go to God....I never liked your manner towards me better than when you kissed me last for I love when daughterly love and dear charity hath no leisure to look for worldly courtesy. Farewell my dear child and pray for me."
The day of execution was July 6, 1535 and the procession left London Tower at nine in the morning. This was a big spectacle for Londoners, a parade of sorts. Persons who had lost law suits before him when he was Lord Chancellor, seized the opportunity to heckle the condemned man.
To one wretched woman he yelled back: "I very well remember the case and if I were to decide it now, I would make the same decree."
Brought up to the scaffold, Thomas More said to his executioner.
"Pluck up thy spirits, man, and be not afraid to do thine office. My neck is very short. Take heed, therefore, thou not strike awry for saving thine honesty. I die the King's good servant and God's first."
Sir Thomas More was no more.
His head was stuck on London Bridge where it stayed for several months (his daughter later bought it). As the king wanted, it was a brigand's demise to a man that history has since come to admire and even revere.
When news came to him of More death, King Henry abruptly left his game of cards and scowled at his new wife Anne Boleyn: "Thou art the cause of this man's death."
But Henry VIII, then 44 years old, was still a child and as good an argument one can make against monarchy as can be found in history. He quickly confiscated all of More's property and forced More's wife and family to start anew. He even negated special legal assignments that More had devised to provide for his family in case he was executed.
Anne Boleyn was beheaded eleven months after More, on charges of adultery. Henry VIII went on to marry four more wives, another of which was also beheaded. Henry died in 1547. During his rein, there had been an average of 120 executions a month in England.
As for More, he was named a Catholic saint in 1935.
- Birks, P. and McLeod, G., Justinian’s Institutes (London: Gerald Duckworth & Co., 1987), page 7.
- Johnson, Paul, Heroes (HarperCollins, 2007).