Sir Thomas More (/ˈmɔr/; 7 February 1478 - 6 July
1535), venerated by Catholics as Saint Thomas More,
was an English lawyer, social
philosopher, author, statesman and noted Renaissance humanist. He was also
a councillor to Henry VIII, and Lord Chancellor from October 1529 to 16
Born in Milk Street in London, on 7 February 1478, Thomas More
was the son of Sir John More,
a successful lawyer and later judge, and his wife Agnes (née
Graunger). More was educated at St Anthony's School, then
considered one of London's finest schools.
From 1490 to 1492, More served John
Morton, the Archbishop of Canterbury and
Lord Chancellor of England, as a household page.
enthusiastically supported the "New Learning" (now called the Renaissance), and thought highly of the
young More. Believing that More had great potential, Morton
nominated him for a place at Oxford University (either in St. Mary's Hall or Canterbury College, both now
More began his studies at Oxford in 1492, and received a
classical education. Studying under Thomas Linacre and William Grocyn, he became proficient in
both Latin and Greek. More left Oxford after only two years-at his
father's insistence-to begin legal training in London at New Inn,
one of the Inns of Chancery.
In 1496, More became a student at Lincoln's Inn, one of the Inns of Court, where he remained until
1502, when he was called to the
According to his friend, theologian Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, More once
seriously contemplated abandoning his legal career to become a monk.
Between 1503 and 1504 More lived near the Carthusian monastery
outside the walls of London and joined in the monks' spiritual
exercises. Although he deeply admired their piety, More ultimately
decided to remain a layman, standing for election to Parliament in
1504 and marrying the following year.
In spite of his choice to pursue a secular career, More
continued ascetical practices for the rest of his
life, such as wearing a hair
shirt next to his skin and occasionally engaging in flagellation.
:xxi A tradition of the
of St. Francis honors More as a member of that Order on their
calendar of saints.
Early Political Career
In 1504 More was elected to Parliament to represent Great
Yarmouth, and in 1510 began representing London.
From 1510, 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. More became Master of
Requests in 1514,
the same year in which he was appointed as a Privy
 After undertaking a diplomatic mission to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, accompanying
Thomas Wolsey, Cardinal Archbishop of York, to Calais and Bruges, More was knighted and made
under-treasurer of the Exchequer in 1521.
As secretary and personal adviser to King Henry VIII, More became
increasingly influential: welcoming foreign diplomats, drafting
official documents, and serving as a liaison between the King and
Lord Chancellor Wolsey. More later served as High Steward for the
universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
In 1523 More was elected as knight of the
shire (MP) for Middlesex and,
on Wolsey's recommendation, the House of Commons elected
More its Speaker.
 In 1525 More became Chancellor of the
Duchy of Lancaster, with executive and judicial
responsibilities over much of northern England.
Chancellorship and Resignation
After Wolsey fell, More succeeded to the office
of Chancellor in 1529. He dispatched cases
with unprecedented rapidity. Fully devoted to Henry and the royal prerogative, More initially
co-operated with the King's new policy, denouncing Wolsey in
Parliament and joining 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 Papal
Authority, More's qualms grew.
As the conflict over supremacy between the Papacy and the King
reached its apogee, More continued to remain steadfast in
supporting the supremacy of the Pope as Successor of Peter over
that of the King of England. In 1530, More refused to sign a letter
by the leading English churchmen and aristocrats asking Pope Clement VII to annul Henry's
marriage to Catherine of Aragon, and also quarrelled with Henry
VIII over the heresy laws. In 1531, Henry had isolated More by
purging most clergy who supported the papal stance from senior
positions in the church. In addition, Henry had solidified his
denial of the Papacy's control of England by passing the Statute of Praemunire which forbade appeals
to the Roman Curia from England. Realizing his
isolated position, More attempted to resign after being required to
take an oath declaring the King the Supreme Head of the English
Church, pursuant to Parliament's Act of Supremacy of 1534. He tried
to limit the oath "as far as the law of Christ allows."
Furthermore, the Statute of Praemunire made it a crime to support
in public or office the claims of the Papacy. Thus, 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. Nonetheless,
the reputation and influence of More as well as his long
relationship with Henry kept his life secure for the time being and
he was not relieved of office. However, with his supporters in
court quickly disappearing, 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.
Trial and Execution
In 1533, 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.
Despite this, his refusal to attend was widely interpreted as a
snub against Anne, and Henry took action against him.
Shortly thereafter, More was charged with accepting bribes, but
the charges had to be dismissed for lack of any evidence. In early
1534, More was accused of conspiring with the "Holy Maid of Kent,"
Elizabeth Barton, a nun who had
prophesied against the king's annulment, but More was able to
produce a letter in which he had instructed Barton not to interfere
with state matters.
On 13 April 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 of supremacy
of the Crown in the relationship between the kingdom and the church
in England. Holding fast to the teaching of papal supremacy, More refused to take
the oath and furthermore publicly refused to uphold Henry's
annulment 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, hath 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
most abhor and detest...
With his refusal to support the King's annulment, More's enemies
had enough evidence to have the King arrest him on treason. Four
days later, Henry had More imprisoned in the Tower of London. There More prepared a
devotional Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation.
While More was imprisoned in the Tower, Thomas Cromwell made several visits,
urging More to take the oath, which More continued to refuse.
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 Supremacy and was tried under the Treason Act
More, relying on legal precedent and the maxim "qui tacet
consentire videtur" (literally, who (is) silent is seen to
consent), understood that he could not be convicted as long as he
did not explicitly deny that the King was Supreme 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 characterised by
More as being extremely dubious.
The jury took only fifteen minutes, however, to find More
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 who were not the nobility), but
the King commuted this to execution by decapitation. The execution
took place on 6 July 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, but God's first."
Pope Leo XIII beatified Thomas More, John Fisher and 52
other English Martyrs on 29 December 1886. Pope Pius XI canonised More and
Fisher on 19 May 1935, and More's feast day was established as 9
July. Since 1970 the General Roman Calendar has
celebrated More with St John Fisher on 22 June (the date of
Fisher's execution). In 2000, Pope John Paul II declared More "the
heavenly Patron of Statesmen and Politicians".
Church of England
In 1980, despite their opposing the English Reformation, More and
Fisher were jointly added as martyrs of the reformation to the Church of England's calendar of
"Saints and Heroes of the Christian Church", to be commemorated
every 6 July (the date of More's execution) as "Thomas More,
Scholar, and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, Reformation Martyrs,
Content supplied courtesy of Wikipedia.