With Tudor Times we profile a different figure every month. Here, Melita Thomas looks at Sir Thomas More, the ‘Man for All Seasons’ who stood up to King Henry VIII.
Sir Thomas More is famous for three things – his History of Richard III, portraying Richard as a bloody tyrant and murderer of his nephews; his authorship of Utopia, a vision of an ideal society, whose very title became an adjective in English, and his execution by King Henry VIII for refusing to accept the king as Supreme Head of the church in England.
Perceptions of More have been mixed, his first historians praised him extravagantly if they were Catholic, or condemned him heartily if Protestant. By the 20th century, as religious division became a distant memory in most of Britain, More emerged as a hero in the widely loved film A Man for All Seasons, the title of which is taken from a description of him by fellow Humanist, Robert Whittington. More is presented as a man of integrity, prepared to die for his principles.
Lately though, More has once again become a villain, depicted in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall as the antagonist to her hero, Cromwell.
The facts of More’s life are straightforward. He was the son of John More, a prosperous London lawyer, later a knight and a judge who sent him first to St Anthony’s School, in Threadneedle Street. When he was about 12, More became a page in the household of John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, at Lambeth Palace.
Morton was King Henry VII’s senior minister, and it was probably there that More gathered information that he later used in his History of Richard III. It is debatable whether the work was intended as serious history, or whether it was a literary composition on the dangers of tyrannical rule, applicable to any king. Written simultaneously in both English and Latin, the work was neither finished nor published by More, which perhaps negates the charge that it was written to curry favour with the Tudor regime.
More was recommended for one of the Archbishop’s scholarships and studied at Oxford for two years, before qualifying as a barrister at Lincoln’s Inn. During his training period, he lived in the Carthusian Monastery at the Charterhouse in London, perhaps contemplating joining this strict order of monks, but he decided to marry instead.
He and his wife, Joanna Colt, set up home in the City of London in 1505, and had four children, before her untimely death in 1511, after which he married Alice Harpur, a widow with a daughter of her own. As his family grew, and his professional life expanded, More became closely linked with a circle of internationally famous scholars, including the renowned Erasmus.
In 1518, More accepted an appointment as one of King Henry VIII’s councillors, and for the next few years was seldom far from the King’s side, often liaising between Henry and Cardinal Wolsey as well as undertaking frequent diplomatic missions to François I of France and the Emperor Charles V.
In the Parliament of 1523, More was an MP and Speaker of the House of Commons. It was his unpalatable job to try to persuade the Commons to grant a subsidy for Henry to pursue another military campaign in France.
As well as advising Henry, More spent many hours informally with the king and his first wife, Katharine of Aragon. A promoter of the education of women (his daughter, Margaret Roper was a notable scholar) he may have advised the royal couple on the education of their daughter, Princess Mary.
This friendship was challenged in 1526 when Henry questioned the validity of his marriage to Katharine. For the next seven years, the matter caused consternation not just in England but throughout Europe. More did his best not to become embroiled in the matter. He would not firmly state that he thought the marriage legal, but nor would he become active on Henry’s behalf, as the king had hoped. Even in 1529, when Wolsey was dismissed as Lord Chancellor, and More took his place, he hoped to avoid any entanglement in the matter.
As Lord Chancellor, it was part of More’s role to hear cases in the Courts of Chancery, where he gained a reputation as a judge who gave swift and fair rulings. It was also his responsibility to investigate sedition and heresy, which he did with great thoroughness, giving rise to allegations that he had illegally held and tortured heresy suspects himself – a charge he vehemently denied. More had great respect for the law, and to act in such a way would be completely counter to every principle he believed in.
But More’s respect for the law of the land was subordinate to his respect for the law of the Church and his vision of the Christian community. For him, the wisdom and authority of the Catholic Church as developed over centuries was superior to any local interpretations or changes. This was the rock on which his allegiance to Henry VIII foundered.
More refused to swear the oath accepting the Act of Succession, making Henry’s children by Anne Boleyn his heirs, and acknowledging Henry as Supreme Head of the Church in England. Although willing to accept any successor to Henry that Parliament appointed, he could go no further. He declined to give any argument about the rights and wrongs of the oath, he would not persuade anyone else either for or against it, he would not articulate any criticism of it. But he would not sign it.
Despite the pleas of his family, to whom More was devoted, he would not budge. For 18 months, he remained in the Tower of London, subject to increasing pressure to conform, but to no avail.
Eventually, More was tried for ‘maliciously’ denying Henry’s supremacy. He accused the only witness of perjury, but the court found him guilty and he was executed on 6 July 1534. More was canonised by the Roman Catholic Church in 1935, and is recognised as a martyr by much of the Anglican Church.
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