Sir Thomas More (7 February 1478 ? 6 July 1535), also known as Saint Thomas More, was an English lawyer, author, and statesman who in his lifetime gained a reputation as a leading Renaissance humanist scholar, and occupied many public offices, including Lord Chancellor (1529?1532). More coined the word "utopia", a name he gave to the ideal, imaginary island nation whose political system he described in Utopia, published in 1516. He was beheaded in 1535 when he refused to sign the Act of Supremacy that declared King Henry VIII Supreme Head of the Church of England. In 1935, four hundred years after More''s death, Pope Pius XI canonized him in the Roman Catholic Church. More was declared Patron Saint of politicians and statesmen by Pope John Paul II in 2000. In 1969, More''s name was included 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 6, the day of More''s death.
Born in Milk Street, London, Thomas More was the eldest son of Sir John More, a successful lawyer who served as a judge in the King''s Bench court. The younger More was educated at St Anthony''s School and was later (1491) a page in the household service of John Morton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who declared that young Thomas would become a "marvellous man." Morton sent More to attend the University of Oxford for two years as a member of Canterbury Hall (subsequently absorbed by Christ Church), where he was a friend of Erasmus, John Colet, and William Lilye. A pupil of Thomas Linacre and William Grocyn, More studied Latin and logic. He then returned to London, where he studied law with his father and was called to the bar. Admitted to Lincoln''s Inn in 1496, in 1501 More became a barrister, where he was eminently successful. To his father''s great displeasure, More seriously contemplated abandoning his legal career in order to become a monk. From 1499 to 1503 he lodged at the London Charterhouse, subjected himself to the discipline of a Carthusian monk, and also considered joining the Franciscan order. He abandoned the order, however, perhaps because he judged himself incapable of celibacy. More finally decided to marry in 1505, but for the rest of his life he continued to observe many ascetical practices, including self-punishment: he wore a hair shirt every day and occasionally engaged in flagellation. After becoming a Member of Parliament in 1504, More successfully opposed Henry VII''s demand for monetary aid upon the marriage of then-Princess Margaret Tudor. More had four children by his first wife, Jane Colt, who died in 1511. He remarried almost immediately, to a rich widow named Alice Middleton who was several years his senior. More and Alice Middleton did not have children together, though More raised Alice''s daughter, from her previous marriage, as his own. More provided his daughters with an excellent classical education, at a time when such learning was usually reserved for men. He wrote poetry in Latin and English.
From 1510 to 1518, More served as one of the two undersheriffs of the city of London, a position of considerable responsibility in which he earned a reputation as an honest and effective public servant, impressing the king by his arguments in a noted Star Chamber case. More became Master of Requests in 1514; in 1517, entered the king''s service as counsellor and "personal servant"; and became privy councilor in 1518. At the Field of Cloth of Gold, he met Greek scholar Guillaume Bud? (Budaeus). After undertaking a diplomatic mission to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, accompanying Thomas Wolsey to Calais and Bruges, More was knighted and made undertreasurer in 1521. As secretary and personal advisor to King Henry VIII, More became increasingly influential in the government, welcoming foreign diplomats, drafting official documents, and serving as a liaison between the king and his Lord Chancellor: Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, the Archbishop of York. Recommended by Wolsey, in 1523 More was elected the Speaker of the House of Commons. He later served as high steward for the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. In 1525 he became chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a position that entailed administrative and judicial control of much of northern England.
More was a prolific scholar, literary man, critic, and patron of the arts. 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 Encomium" (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. The humanistic project embraced by Erasmus and More sought reexamination 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. More was also the author of Life of John Picus, Earl of Mirandula (1510), showing his humanistic ideals.
More sketched out his most well-known and controversial work, Utopia (completed and published in 1516), a novel in Latin. In it 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 on ou-topos [no place], eu-topos [good place]) to himself and to Peter Giles. This novel describes the city of Amaurote by saying, "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, with communal ownership of land, private property does not exist, men and women are educated alike, and there is almost complete religious toleration. Some take the novel''s principal message to be the social need for order and discipline, rather than liberty. The country of Utopia tolerates different religious practices, but does not tolerate atheists. Hythloday 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.
After Wolsey fell, he was succeeded as lord chancellor by More in 1529. Against his own will, More became the first layman to hold the office. He dispatched cases with unprecedented rapidity. At that point fully devoted to Henry and to the cause of royal prerogative, More initially cooperated with the king''s new policy, denouncing Wolsey in Parliament and proclaiming the opinion of the theologians at Oxford and Cambridge that the marriage of Henry to Catherine had been unlawful. But as Henry began to deny the authority of the Pope, More''s qualms grew.
More supported the Catholic Church and saw heresy as a threat to the unity of both church and society. "He agreed with established English law, and with the lessons taught by the thousand-year experience of Christendom, that in order for peace to reign, heresy must be controlled. At the time, heresies were identified as seditious attempts to undermine existing authority .... More heard Luther''s call to destroy the heart of Christendom, the Catholic Church, as a call to war. He therefore followed traditional procedures to ensure the safety of this legitimate and time-honored institution." However, More also sought radical clergy reform and more rational theology.
His early actions against the Protestants included aiding Wolsey in preventing Lutheran books from being imported into England. He also assisted in the production of a Star Chamber edict against heretical preaching, treating heretics mercilessly. During this time most of his literary polemics appeared. After becoming Lord Chancellor of England, More set himself the following task:? 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. ?More is commemorated with a sculpture at the late 19th-century Sir Thomas More Chambers, opposite the Royal Courts of Justice, Carey Street, London.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; John Foxe (who "placed Protestant sufferings against the background of ... the Antichrist") in his Book of Martyrs claimed that More had often used violence or torture while interrogating them. A more recent Evangelical author, Michael Farris, also used Foxe''s book as a reference in writing that in April 1529 a heretic, John Tewkesbury, was taken by 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. More himself refuted these charges throughout his life, swearing ''as helpe me God'' that he had never used torture as a method of interrogation. He claimed that the heretics he detained in his household suffered ''neuer ... so much as a fyllyppe on the forehead''."
In 1530 More refused to sign a letter by the leading English churchmen and aristocrats asking the Pope to annul Henry''s marriage to Catherine; he also quarrelled with Henry VIII over the heresy laws. In 1531 he attempted to resign after being forced to take an oath declaring the king the Supreme Head of the English Church "as far as the law of Christ allows"; he refused to take the oath in the form in which it would renounce all claims of jurisdiction over the church except the sovereign''s. In 1532 he asked the king again to relieve him of his office, claiming that he was ill and suffering from sharp chest pains. This time Henry granted his request.
The last straw for Henry came in 1533, when More refused to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn as the Queen of England. Technically, this was not an act of treason as More had written to Henry acknowledging Anne''s queenship and expressing his desire for the king''s happiness and the new queen''s health. His refusal to attend was widely interpreted as a snub against Anne. There is no documented record of her reaction to this, but it would have been out of character for her to accept it passively.
Shortly thereafter More was charged with accepting bribes, but the patently false charges had to be dismissed for lack of any evidence. In early 1534, More was accused of conspiring with "holy maid of Kent" Elizabeth Barton, a nun who had prophesied against the king''s annullment, but More quickly produced a letter in which he had instructed Barton not to interfere with state matters.
On April 13, 1534, 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 Boleyn the legitimate queen of England, but he steadfastly 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 impugning the authority of the Pope, which More would not accept; he also would not swear to uphold Henry''s divorce from Catherine. John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, refused the oath along with More. The oath reads: by reason whereof the Bishop of Rome and See Apostolic, contrary to the great and inviolable grants of jurisdictions given by God immediately to emperors, kings and princes, in succession to their heirs, has presumed, in times past, to invest who should please them, to inherit in other men''s kingdoms and dominions, which thing we, your most humble subjects, both spiritual and temporal, do utterly abhor and detest.
Four days later More was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he prepared a devotional, Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation. While More was imprisoned in the Tower, he had a few visits from Thomas Cromwell who urged More to take the oath, but More persistently refused to do so.
On July 1, 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.
If any person or persons, after the first day of February next coming, do maliciously wish, will or desire, by words or writing, or by craft imagine, invent, practise, or attempt any bodily harm to be done or committed to the king''s most royal person, the queen''s, or their heirs apparent, or to deprive them or any of them of their dignity, title, or name of their royal estates.
That then every such person and persons so offending shall have and suffer such pains of death and other penalties, as is limited and accustomed in cases of high treason.
?Treason Act 1495
After the jury''s verdict was delivered and 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 decapitation. The execution took place on July 6, 1535. 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 asked that his foster daughter Margaret Giggs should be given his headless corpse to bury. He was buried at the Tower of London, in the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in an unmarked grave. His head was fixed upon a pike over London Bridge for a month, according to the normal custom for traitors. His daughter Margaret (Meg) 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 church, 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 favor of its placement in St. Dunstan''s, 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 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 loyal Bishop (owing to the apparent and coincident natural 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.
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