Thomas More (c. 1477-1535), in former times also called Thomas Morus, was an English statesman, attorney, and author of humanism. More served as lord chancellor from 1529 to 1532. He was executed on the king’s orders for refusing to accept the secession of the English Church under King Henry VIII from the Catholic Church of the papal Holy See. Today More is seen as an ideal of steadfastness in defense of morality and conviction, especially among Roman Catholics. More was declared Saint Thomas More in 1935; Pope John Paul II made him the “heavenly Patron of Statesmen and Politicians” in the year 2000. He is considered founder of the literary school of Utopia, picturing a vision of an ideal society.
More was born on February 7, 1477 or 1478, in London, the eldest son of the eminent and prosperous judge Sir John More. After attending St. Anthony’s School and spending some time as a scholar with the lord chancellor and archbishop of Canterbury Cardinal Morton, More entered the University of Oxford in 1492. There he studied history, logic, and the classical languages. In 1494 More left the university to study law in London, where he became a lawyer in 1501 and was elected a member of parliament in 1504.
The following year More married Jane Colt, with whom he had four children. Upon the death of his wife in 1511 he married again.
By 1510 More had become an influential public servant in the city of London. In 1516 he became a diplomat of the crown for a short time; then, in 1521, he was knighted and appointed subtreasurer of the court. In 1523, More became speaker of the House of Commons according to the will of the influential confidant of the king, Cardinal Wolsey. In 1529 More was appointed the first layman in the history of England to become lord chancellor. Being known for refusing any Protestant influence in his new function, he also soon acquired a reputation as a persecutor of so-called heretics.
Starting around 1530 More ran into deep conflict with King Henry VIII, triggered by the latter’s attempt to cancel his marriage with Catherine of Aragon and the king’s later self-proclamation as the “Supreme Head of the Church,” culminating eventually in More’s absence on the occasion of coronation of the succeeding queen, Anne Boleyn. In 1532 the king finally accepted More’s second request to resign as lord chancellor. Then, in a campaign against him driven amongst others by his successor Thomas Cromwell, More was charged several times and for different arbitrary reasons, imprisoned in the Tower of London, and deprived of any income and land. On July 6, 1535, five days after his sentence in an unjust trial for high treason, More was beheaded.
Literary Work and Influence
Notwithstanding his manifold duties, More left a rich humanistic literary legacy; as an author he was influenced by his correspondence with his friend Erasmus of Rotterdam. More’s primary literary achievement is Utopia (1516), a thought experiment and a humoristic critique of the zeitgeist in which More flings off the restraints of his own times and describes an imaginary, ideal, tolerant, humanistic society. More thus became the originator of a new literary style and a mode of dealing with time and present circumstances that would exert considerable influence on thinkers in the centuries to come. Utopia is said to even have influenced Karl Marx, despite the fact that the communism More pictured was religious.
Furthermore his History of King Richard III (1518) attracted attention not only as a dispraise of Richard III but also as a cryptic critique of the royal totalitarianism of the ruling Tudors. This work exerted an influence on William Shakespeare’s play King Richard III.
Thomas More was beatified in 1886, was canonized in 1935, and received the title “heavenly Patron of Statesmen and Politicians” in the year 2000. Especially his canonization is thought to have been intended by the Vatican to form a strong warning against the inhuman and un-Christian conduct of German National Socialists as well as of Soviet Communism. Thomas More, who preferred to die rather than betray his firm ideals, still serves as a symbol of humanity and a just societal order.
Matthias S. Hauser
See also Christianity; Humanism; Marx, Karl; Machiavelli, Niccold; Time, Sacred; Utopia and Dystopia
Ackroyd, P. (1999). The life of Thomas More. New York: Anchor Books.
Marius, R. C. (1984). Thomas More: A biography. New York: Knopf.