Thomas More

Thomas More
The Right Honourable
Sir Thomas More
Lord Chancellor
In office
October 1529 – May 1532
Preceded by Thomas Wolsey
Succeeded by Thomas Audley
Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
In office
31 December 1525 – 3 November 1529
Preceded by Richard Wingfield
Succeeded by William FitzWilliam
Speaker of the House of Commons
In office
16 April 1523 – 13 August 1523
Preceded by Thomas Neville
Succeeded by Thomas Audley
Personal details
Born 7 February 1478
City of London, London
Kingdom of England
Died 6 July 1535(1535-07-06) (aged 57)
Tower Hill,
Stepney, London
Kingdom of England

Sir Thomas More (play /ˈmɔr/; 7 February 1478  – 6 July 1535), also known by Catholics as Saint Thomas More, was an English lawyer, social philosopher, author, statesman and noted Renaissance humanist. He was an important councillor to Henry VIII of England and, for three years toward the end of his life, Lord Chancellor. He is recognised as a saint within the Catholic Church and is commemorated by the Church of England as a "Reformation martyr".[1] He was an opponent of the Protestant Reformation and in particular of Martin Luther and William Tyndale.

More coined the word "utopia" – a name he gave to the ideal and imaginary island nation, the political system of which he described in Utopia published in 1516. He opposed the king's separation from the Catholic Church and refused to accept the king as Supreme Head of the Church of England, a status the king had been given by a compliant parliament through the Act of Supremacy of 1534. He was imprisoned in 1534 for his refusal to take the oath required by the First Succession Act because the act disparaged the power of the Pope and Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. In 1535, he was tried for treason, convicted on perjured testimony and beheaded.

Intellectuals and statesmen across Europe were stunned by More's execution. Erasmus saluted him as one "whose soul was more pure than any snow".[citation needed] Two centuries later Jonathan Swift said he was "the person of the greatest virtue this kingdom ever produced",[citation needed] a sentiment with which Samuel Johnson agreed. Historian Hugh Trevor-Roper said in 1977 that More was "the first great Englishman whom we feel that we know, the most saintly of humanists, the most human of saints, the universal man of our cool northern renaissance."[2] The Catholic Church proclaimed him a saint in 1935. The Franciscan order has the tradition that he was a member of the Third Order of St. Francis and venerates his memory as a member of the order.


Early life

Saint Thomas More
Honored in Catholic Church; Anglican Communion
Beatified 1886, Florence by Pope Leo XIII
Canonized 19 May 1935, Rome by Pope Pius XI
Feast 22 June (Catholic Church)
6 July (on some local calendars) 9 July on the traditional Catholic (Latin Mass) calendar
Attributes dressed in the robe of the Chancellor and wearing the Collar of Esses; axe
Patronage KCYM (Kerala Catholic Youth Movement); Adopted children; Ateneo de Manila Law School; civil servants; Diocese of Arlington; Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee; University of Malta; University of Santo Tomas Faculty of Arts and Letters; court clerks; lawyers, politicians, and statesmen; stepparents; widowers; difficult marriages; large families

Born in Milk Street in London on 7 February 1478, Thomas More was the son of Sir John More,[3] a successful lawyer, and his wife Agnes (née Graunger). More was educated at St Anthony's School, considered one of the finest schools in London at that time. He later spent the years 1490 to 1492 as a page in the household service of John Morton, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England.[4]:xvi Morton enthusiastically supported the "New Learning" of the Renaissance, and thought highly of the young More. Believing that More showed great potential, Morton nominated him for a place at Oxford University (either in St. Mary's Hall (Oriel) or Canterbury College), where More began his studies in 1492.[5]:38 More may have lived and studied at nearby St. Mary’s Hall. Both Canterbury College and St Mary’s Hall have since disappeared; part of Christ Church College is on the site of Canterbury, and part of Oriel College is on the site of St Mary’s. More received a classical education at Oxford and was a pupil of Thomas Linacre and William Grocyn, becoming proficient in both Greek and Latin. He left Oxford in 1494 – after only two years – at the insistence of his father, to begin his legal training in London at New Inn, one of the Inns of Chancery.[4]:xvii[6] In 1496, he became a student at Lincoln’s Inn, one of the Inns of Court, where he remained until 1502, when he was called to the bar.[4]:xvii

According to his friend, the theologian Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, More once seriously contemplated abandoning his legal career to become a monk.[7] 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 the piety of the monks, he ultimately decided on the life of a layman upon his marriage and election to Parliament in 1504.[4]:xxi In spite of his choice to pursue a secular career, More continued to observe certain ascetical practices for the rest of his life, such as wearing a hair shirt next to his skin and occasionally engaging in flagellation.[4]:xxi

Family life

More married Jane Colt in 1505.[5]:118 She was nearly ten years his junior and was said by More's friends to be quiet and good-natured.[5]:119 Erasmus reported that More had taken an interest early on in giving his young wife a better education than she had previously received at home, and became a personal tutor to her in the areas of music and literature.[5]:119 More had four children with Jane: Margaret, Elizabeth, Cicely, and John.[5]:132 When Jane died in 1511, More remarried almost immediately, choosing as his second wife a rich widow named Alice Middleton. Alice More did not enjoy the reputation for docility that her predecessor had and was instead known as a strong and outspoken woman. More's friend Andrew Ammonius derided Alice as a "hook-nosed harpy", although Erasmus attested that the marriage was a happy one.[5]:144 More and Alice did not have children together, although More raised Alice's daughter from her previous marriage as his own. More became the guardian of a young girl named Anne Cresacre, who would eventually marry his son, John More.[5]:146 More was an affectionate father who wrote letters to his children whenever he was away on legal or government business, and encouraged them to write to him often.[8]:xiv[5]:150

More took a serious interest in the education of women, an attitude that was highly unusual at the time. Believing women to be just as capable of academic accomplishment as men, More insisted upon giving his daughters the same classical education given to his son.[5]:146–47 The academic star of the family was More's eldest daughter Margaret, who attracted much admiration for her erudition, especially her fluency in Greek and Latin.[5]:147 More recounted a moment of such admiration in a letter to Margaret in September 1522, when the Bishop of Exeter was shown a letter written by Margaret to More:

When he saw from the signature that it was the letter of a lady, his surprise led him to read it more eagerly... he said he would never have believed it to be your work unless I had assured him of the fact, and he began to praise it in the highest terms... for its pure Latinity, its correctness, its erudition, and its expressions of tender affection. He took out at once from his pocket a portague [A Portuguese gold coin]... to send to you as a pledge and token of his good will towards you.[8]:152

The success More enjoyed in educating his daughters set an example for other noble families. Even Erasmus became much more favourable towards the idea once he witnessed the accomplishments of More's daughters.[5]:149

Early political career

Study for a portrait of Thomas More's family, c. 1527, by Hans Holbein the Younger

In 1504 he was elected to Parliament to represent Great Yarmouth and in 1510 to represent London. [9]

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,[10] the same year in which he was appointed as a Privy Councillor, a member of His Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council.[11] After undertaking a diplomatic mission to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, accompanying Thomas Wolsey to Calais and Bruges, More was knighted and made under-treasurer of the Exchequer in 1521.[11]

As secretary and personal adviser 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 Wolsey, the Cardinal Archbishop of York.

In 1523 he was elected as knight of the shire (MP) for Middlesex and, recommended by Wolsey, was elected the Speaker of the House of Commons.[11]

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.[11]

Scholarly and literary work

Woodcut by Ambrosius Holbein for a 1518 edition of Utopia. The traveller Raphael Hythlodeaus is depicted in the lower left-hand corner describing to a listener the island of Utopia, whose layout is schematically shown above him.

Between 1512 and 1519, Thomas More worked on a History of King Richard III, which was never finished, but which greatly influenced William Shakespeare's play Richard III. Both More's and Shakespeare's works are controversial to contemporary historians for their unflattering portrait of King Richard III, a bias partly due to both authors' allegiance to the reigning Tudor dynasty that wrested the throne from Richard III in the Wars of the Roses. More's work, however, little mentions King Henry VII, the first Tudor king, perhaps for having persecuted his father, Sir John More. Some historians see an attack on royal tyranny, rather than on Richard III himself or on the House of York.

The History of King Richard III is a Renaissance history, remarkable more for its literary skill and adherence to classical precepts than for its historical accuracy. More's work, and that of contemporary historian Polydore Vergil, reflects a move from mundane medieval chronicles to a dramatic writing style; for example, the shadowy King Richard is an outstanding, archetypal tyrant drawn from the pages of Sallust, and should be read as a meditation on power and corruption as well as a history of the reign of Richard III. The 'History of King Richard III was written and published in both English and Latin, each written separately, and with information deleted from the Latin edition to suit a European readership.


More sketched out his best known and most controversial work, Utopia (completed and published in 1516), a novel in Latin. In it a traveller, Raphael Hythlodeaus (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 Pieter Gillis. 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. Hythlodeaus theorises that if a man did not believe in a god or in an afterlife he could never be trusted, because he would not acknowledge any authority or principle outside himself.

More used the novel describing an imaginary nation as a means of freely discussing contemporary controversial matters; speculatively, he based Utopia on monastic communalism, based upon the Biblical communalism in the Acts of the Apostles.

Utopia is a forerunner of the utopian literary genre, wherein ideal societies and perfect cities are detailed. Although Utopianism is typically a Renaissance movement, combining the classical concepts of perfect societies of Plato and Aristotle with Roman rhetorical finesse (cf. Cicero, Quintilian, epideictic oratory), it continued into the Enlightenment. Utopia's original edition included the symmetrical "Utopian alphabet" that was omitted from later editions; it is a notable, early attempt at cryptography that might have influenced the development of shorthand.

Utopia ironically points out, through Raphael, More's ultimate conflict between his beliefs as a humanist and a servant of the King at court. More tries to illustrate how he can try and influence courtly figures including the king to the humanist way of thinking but as Raphael points out, one day they will come into conflict with the political reality.

Religious polemics

In 1520 the reformer Martin Luther published three works in quick succession: An Appeal to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (Aug.), Concerning the Babylonish Captivity of the Church (Oct.), and On the Liberty of a Christian Man (Nov.).[5]:225 In these works Luther set out his doctrine of salvation through grace alone, rejected certain Catholic practices, and attacked the abuses and excesses of the Catholic Church.[5]:225–6 In 1521, Henry VIII responded to Luther’s criticisms with a work known as the Assertio, written with the editorial assistance of More. In light of this work, Pope Leo X rewarded Henry VIII with the title Fidei defensor (“Defender of the Faith”) for his efforts in combating Luther’s heresies.[5]:226–7

Martin Luther then attacked Henry VIII in print, calling him a “pig, dolt, and liar”.[5]:227 At the request of Henry VIII, More set about composing a rebuttal: the resulting Responsio ad Lutherum was published at the end of 1523. In the Responsio, More defended the supremacy of the papacy, the sacraments, and other church traditions. More’s language, like Luther’s, was virulent, and he branded Luther an “ape”, a “drunkard”, and a “lousy little friar” amongst other insults.[5]:230

This confrontation with Luther confirmed More’s theological conservatism, and from then on his work was devoid of all hints of criticism of Church authority.[5]:230 In 1528, More produced another religious polemic, A Dialogue Concerning Heresies that asserted that the Catholic Church was the one true Church, whose authority had been established by Christ and the Apostles, and that its traditions and practices were valid.[5]:279–81 In 1529, the circulation of Simon Fish’s Supplication for the Beggars provoked a response from More entitled, The Supplication of Souls.

In 1531, William Tyndale published An Answer unto Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue in response to More’s Dialogue Concerning Heresies. After having read Tyndale’s work, More wrote his half-a-million-word-long Confutation of Tyndale’s Answer over the next several months. The Confutation is written as a dialogue between More and Tyndale in which More responds to each of Tyndale’s criticisms of Catholic rites and doctrines.[5]:307–9 These literary battles convinced More, who valued structure, tradition, and order in society above all else, that Lutheranism and the Protestant Reformation in general were dangerous, not only to the Catholic faith but to the stability of society as a whole.[5]:307–9


Most major humanists were prolific letter writers, and Thomas More was no exception. However, as in the case of his friend Erasmus of Rotterdam, only a small portion of his correspondence (about 280 letters), survived. These letters include everything from personal letters to official government correspondence (mostly in English), letters to fellow humanist scholars (in Latin), including several epistolary tracts, verse epistles, prefatory letters (some fictional) to several of More's own works, letters to his children and their tutors (in Latin), and the so-called "Prison-Letters" (in English) which he exchanged with his oldest daughter, Margaret Roper while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London awaiting execution.[12]

More wrote about the more spiritual aspects of religion. This is how he wrote A Treatise on the Passion (Treatise on the Passion of Christ), A Treatise to Receive the Blessed Body (Holy Body Treaty), and De Tristitia Christi (The Agony of Christ), which reads his own hand in the Tower of London at the time he was confined before his beheading on 6 July 1535. This last manuscript, saved from the confiscation decreed by Henry VIII, passed by the will of his daughter Margaret to Spanish hands and through Fray Pedro de Soto, confessor of Emperor Charles V, went to Valencia, home of Luis Vives, a close friend of More. Now kept in the collection of Real Colegio Seminario del Corpus Christi Museum in Valencia, Spain.


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 the authority of the Pope, More's qualms grew.

Campaign against the Reformation

More supported the Catholic Church and saw the Reformation as heresy, a threat to the unity of both church and society. Believing in the theology, polemics, and ecclesiastical laws of the Church, More "heard Luther's call to destroy the Catholic Church as a call to war."[13]

His early actions against the Reformation included aiding Wolsey in preventing Lutheran books from being imported into England, spying on and investigating suspected Protestants, especially publishers, and arresting any one holding in his possession, transporting, or selling the books of the Protestant reformation. More vigorously suppressed the travelling country ministers who used Tyndale's English translation of the New Testament. This English language translation of the Bible challenged the Catholic monopoly of reading the Latin Bible. It contained translations of certain words—for example Tyndale used "elder" rather than "priest" for the Greek "presbuteros"—and some footnotes which challenged Catholic Doctrine.[14] It was during this time that most of his literary polemics appeared.

Sir Thomas More is commemorated with a sculpture at the late 19th-century Sir Thomas More House, opposite the Royal Courts of Justice, Carey Street, London.

Rumours circulated both during More's lifetime and posthumously regarding the treatment of heretics during his time as Lord Chancellor. The popular anti-Catholic polemicist John Foxe, who "placed Protestant sufferings against the background of... the Antichrist"[15] was instrumental in spreading rumours of torture in his famous Book of Martyrs, claiming that More had often personally used violence or torture while interrogating heretics. More current Protestant authors, such as Brian Moynahan and Michael Farris, continue to cite Foxe as a source when repeating these allegations in their own respective works.[16] More himself denied these allegations:

Stories of a similar nature were current even in More's lifetime and he denied them forcefully. He admitted that he did imprison heretics in his house – 'theyr sure kepynge' – he called it – but he utterly rejected claims of torture and whipping... 'so helpe me God.'[5]:298

In total there were six heretics burned at the stake during More's Chancellorship: Thomas Hitton, Thomas Bilney, Richard Bayfield, John Tewkesbery, Thomas Dusgate, and James Bainham.[5]:299–306 Burning at the stake had long been a standard punishment for heresy—about thirty burnings had taken place in the century before More's elevation to Chancellor, and burning continued to be used by both Catholics as well as Protestants during the religious upheaval of the following decades.[17] Ackroyd notes that More explicitly "approved of Burning"[5]:298 After the case of John Tewkesbury, a London leather-seller found guilty by More of harbouring banned books and sentenced to burning for refusing to recant, More declared: he "burned as there was neuer wretche I wene better worthy."[18]

Historians have been long divided over More's religious actions as Chancellor. While biographers such as Ackroyd have taken a relatively tolerant view of More's campaign against Protestantism by placing his actions within the turbulent religious climate of the time, other equally eminent historians, such as Richard Marius, have been more critical, believing that such persecutions were a betrayal of More's earlier humanist convictions. As Marius writes in his biography of More: "To stand before a man at an inquisition, knowing that he will rejoice when we die, knowing that he will commit us to the stake and its horrors without a moment's hesitation or remorse if we do not satisfy him, is not an experience much less cruel because our inquisitor does not whip us or rack us or shout at us."[19]


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 Papal throne over that of his King. 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, and furthermore, 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 forced to take an oath declaring the king the Supreme Head of the English Church "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 consequently, 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

Rowland Lockey after Hans Holbein the Younger, The Family of Sir Thomas More, c. 1594

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.[20] 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 patently false charges had to be dismissed for lack of any evidence, given More's reputation as a judge who could not be bribed. 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 ancient 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;[21]

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 Succession. More, relying on legal precedent and the maxim "qui tacet consentire videtur" (silence presumes 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 extremely dubious: witnesses Richard Southwell and Mr. Palmer both denied having heard the details of the reported conversation, and as More himself pointed out: "Can it therefore seem likely to your Lordships, that I should in so weighty an Affair as this, act so unadvisedly, as to trust Mr. Rich, a Man I had always so mean an Opinion of, in reference to his Truth and Honesty, ...that I should only impart to Mr. Rich the Secrets of my Conscience in respect to the King's Supremacy, the particular Secrets, and only Point about which I have been so long pressed to explain my self? which I never did, nor never would reveal; when the Act was once made, either to the King himself, or any of his Privy Councillors, as is well known to your Honours, who have been sent upon no other account at several times by his Majesty to me in the Tower. I refer it to your Judgments, my Lords, whether this can seem credible to any of your Lordships." However, the jury knew where their own best interests lay, and took only fifteen minutes to find More guilty.

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.[22]

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."[23]


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.[24] More asked that his foster daughter Margaret Giggs be given his headless corpse to bury.[25] 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 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 favour of its placement in St Dunstan's, with the remains of his daughter, Margaret Roper, and her husband's family, whose vault it was.

Among other surviving relics is his hair shirt, presented for safe keeping by Margaret Clements (1508–70), his adopted daughter.[26] This was long in the custody of the community of Augustinian canonesses who until 1983 lived at the convent at Abbotskerswell Priory, Devon. It is now preserved at Syon Abbey, near South Brent.


Statue of Thomas More by Leslie Cubitt Bevis in front of Chelsea Old Church, Cheyne Walk, London.

More was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886 and canonised, with John Fisher, on 19 May 1935 by Pope Pius XI, and his feast day was established as 9 July. This day is still observed as his feast day by traditional [Latin Mass] Catholics. Following a series of post-Vatican II reforms, his feast day was changed and his name was added to the Roman Catholic calendar of saints in 1970 for celebration on 22 June jointly with St John Fisher, the only remaining Bishop (owing to the coincident natural deaths of eight aged bishops) who, during the English Reformation, maintained, at the King's mercy, allegiance to the Pope.[27] In 2000, Pope John Paul II declared More the "heavenly patron of statesmen and politicians".[28] In 1980, More was added to the Church of England's calendar of Saints and Heroes of the Christian Church, jointly with John Fisher. More is commemorated on 6 July.[29]

Influence and reputation

The steadfastness and courage with which More held on to his religious convictions in the face of ruin and death and the dignity with which he conducted himself during his imprisonment, trial, and execution, contributed much to More's posthumous reputation, particularly among Catholics. Many historians argue that his conviction for treason was unjust, and even among some Protestants his execution was viewed as heavy-handed.[citation needed] His friend Erasmus defended More's character as "more pure than any snow" and described his genius as "such as England never had and never again will have." When he knew of the execution, Emperor Charles V said: "Had we been master of such a servant, we would rather have lost the best city of our dominions than such a worthy councillor."

More was greatly admired by the Anglican writer Jonathan Swift. Swift wrote that More was "a person of the greatest virtue this kingdom ever produced".[30][31] Samuel Johnson is often cited as the origin of that quote,[32][33] but mistakenly: it is not to be found in his writings or recorded by Boswell.

The English Roman Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton said of More that "He may come to be counted the greatest Englishman, or at least the greatest historical character in English history." [34]

Popular culture

More was portrayed as a wise and honest statesman in the 1592 play Sir Thomas More, which was probably written in collaboration by Henry Chettle, Anthony Munday, William Shakespeare, and others, and which survives only in fragmentary form after being censored by Edmund Tylney, Master of the Revels in the government of Queen Elizabeth I (any direct reference to the Act of Supremacy was censored out).

As the author of Utopia, More has attracted the admiration of modern socialists. While Catholic scholars maintain that More's attitude in composing Utopia was largely ironic and that he was an orthodox Christian, Marxist theoretician Karl Kautsky argued in the book Thomas More and his Utopia (1888) that Utopia was a shrewd critique of economic and social exploitation in pre-modern Europe and that More was one of the key intellectual figures in the early development of socialist ideas. Others have seen in it an attempt at mythologising Indian cultures in the New World during a time when the Catholic Church was still debating over how to view the decidedly anti-Christian cultures of the Indians.

The 20th-century agnostic playwright Robert Bolt portrayed Thomas More as the tragic hero of his 1960 play A Man for All Seasons. The title being drawn from what Robert Whittington in 1520 wrote of More:

"More is a man of an angel's wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons."[35]

In 1966, the play was made into the successful film A Man for All Seasons directed by Fred Zinnemann, adapted for the screen by the playwright himself, and starring Paul Scofield in an Oscar-winning performance. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture for that year. In 1988, Charlton Heston starred and directed in a made-for-television film that followed Bolt's original play almost verbatim, restoring for example the commentaries of "the common man".

Catholic science fiction writer R. A. Lafferty wrote his novel Past Master as a modern equivalent to More's Utopia, which he saw as a satire. In this novel, Thomas More is brought through time to the year 2535, where he is made king of the future world of "Astrobe", only to be beheaded after ruling for a mere nine days. One of the characters in the novel compares More favourably to almost every other major historical figure: "He had one completely honest moment right at the end. I cannot think of anyone else who ever had one."

Karl Zuchardt's novel, Stirb du Narr! ("Die you fool!"), about More's struggle with King Henry, portrays More as an idealist bound to fail in the power struggle with a ruthless ruler and an unjust world.

A number of modern historians and writers, such as Richard Marius, have evaluated More in his political capacity and have criticised him for Anti-Protestantism and, "intolerance." The historian Jasper Ridley, author of several biographies including one on Henry VIII and another on Mary Tudor, goes much further in his dual biography of More and Cardinal Wolsey, The Statesman and the Fanatic, describing More as "a particularly nasty sadomasochistic pervert," a line of thinking followed by the late Joanna Denny in her 2004 biography of Anne Boleyn.

Several authors have criticised More for his war against Protestantism. Brian Moynahan, in his book God's Messenger: William Tyndale, Thomas More and the Writing of the English Bible, takes a similarly critical view of More, as does the American writer Michael Farris. The novelist Hilary Mantel portrays More as a religious and masochistic fanatic in her 2009 novel Wolf Hall. Wolf Hall is told through the eyes of a sympathetic Thomas Cromwell. Literary critic James Wood calls him "cruel in punishment, evasive in argument, lusty for power, and repressive in politics".[36]

Aaron Zelman's non-fiction book The State Versus the People includes a comparison of Utopia with Plato's Republic. Zelman is undecided as to whether More was being ironic in his book or was genuinely advocating a police state. Zelman comments, "More is the only Christian saint to be honoured with a statue at the Kremlin."[citation needed] By this Zelman implies that Utopia influenced Lenin's Bolsheviks, despite their brutal repression of organised religion.

Other biographers, such as Peter Ackroyd, have offered a more sympathetic picture of More as both a sophisticated philosopher and man of letters, as well as a zealous Catholic who believed in the authority of the Holy See over Christendom.

The protagonist of Walker Percy's novels, Love in the Ruins and The Thanatos Syndrome, is "Dr Thomas More", a reluctant Catholic and descendant of More.

More is the focus of the Al Stewart song "A Man For All Seasons" from the 1978 album Time Passages, and of the Far song "Sir", featured on the limited editions and 2008 re-release of their 1994 album Quick. In addition, the song "So Says I" by indie rock outfit The Shins alludes to the socialist interpretation of More's Utopia.

Jeremy Northam depicts More in the television series The Tudors. In The Tudors, More is portrayed as a peaceful man, as well as a devout Roman Catholic and loving family patriarch. He vocally expresses his loathing for Protestantism. By the order of King Henry VIII, More commissions the burning of Martin Luther's books. He is shown exercising his authority as Chancellor by burning English Protestants who have been convicted of heresy. The Tudors shows More engaging in the conversation that Richard Rich testified about regarding the King's title as Supreme Head of the Church of England. More's avowed insistence that Rich's testimony was perjured is excised from the show's depiction of the trial.

The cultus of More has been satirised. In the The Simpsons an episode, "Margical History Tour", contains a parody of both Henry VIII and More. King Henry (Homer Simpson) is depicted as a gluttonous slob who stuffs his face while singing "I'm Henery the Eighth, I am". He then wipes his mouth with the Magna Carta and sets out to dump Queen Catherine (Marge Simpson). Sir Thomas (Ned Flanders) objects, "Divorce! Well, there's no such thing in the Cath-diddly-atholic Church! But it's the only Church we got, so what are you gonna do?" King Henry retorts, "I'll start my own Church... Where divorce will be so easy, more than half of all marriages will end in it!" When a horrifed Sir Thomas refuses to go along, King Henry has him shot out of a cannon.

Institutions named after More

Historic sites

Westminster Hall

Visitors to the Houses of Parliament at the Palace of Westminster in London will notice a plaque in the middle of the floor of Westminster Hall commemorating More's trial for treason and condemnation to execution in that original part of the Palace. This building would have been well known to More, who served as Speaker of the House of Commons prior to becoming Lord Chancellor of England.

Crosby Hall

More's home and estate along the Thames in Chelsea was confiscated by the Crown from his wife Alice after his execution. But in later times Crosby Hall, which formed part of More's London residence, was relocated to the site in his commemoration and reconstructed there by the conservation architect, Walter Godfrey. Today after further rebuilding in the 1990s it stands out as a white stone building amid modern brick structures that aims to recapture the style of More's manor that formerly occupied the site. Crosby Hall is privately owned and closed to the public. The modern structures face the Thames and include an entry way that displays More's arms, heraldic beasts, and a Latin maxim. Apartment buildings and a park are built over the former locations of his gardens and orchard, and some are named after their former functions: Roper's Garden is the park occupying one of More's gardens, sunken as his was believed to be. Other than these, there are no remnants of the More estate.

Chelsea Old Church

This small park sits between Crosby Hall and Chelsea Old Church, an Anglican church on Old Church Street whose southern chapel was commissioned by More and in which he sang with his parish choir. The medieval arch connecting the chapel to the main sanctuary was commissioned by More and displays on its capitals symbols associated with his person and office. On the southern wall of the sanctuary is the tomb and epitaph he erected for himself and his wives, detailing in a lengthy Latin inscription his ancestry and accomplishments, including his role as peacemaker between the Christian nations of Europe and a curiously altered portion detailing his curbing of heresy. This tomb was probably located here because it was his custom to serve Mass and he would leave by the door just to the left of it. He is not, however, buried here, nor is it entirely certain which of his family may be. Except for his chapel, the church was largely destroyed in the Second World War and was rebuilt in 1958. It is open to the public at specific times. Outside the church, facing the River Thames, is a statue by L. Cubitt Bevis erected in 1969, commemorating him as "saint", "scholar", and "statesman", the back of which displays his coat-of-arms. In the same neighbourhood, on Upper Cheyne Row, is the Catholic Church of the Holy Saviour and St. Thomas More, which honours him according to the Church he defended with his life.

Tower Hill

More was executed on a scaffold erected on Tower Hill, London, just outside the Tower of London. A plaque and small garden commemorate the famed execution site and all those who were executed there, many as religious martyrs or as prisoners of conscience. His body, minus his head, was unceremoniously buried in an unmarked grave in the Royal Chapel of St. Peter Ad Vincula, within the walls of the Tower of London. It was the custom for traitors executed at Tower Hill to be buried in the mass grave beneath this chapel, which is accessible to visitors to the Tower.

St Dunstan's Church, Canterbury

St Dunstan's Church, an Anglican parish church in Canterbury, possesses More's head, rescued by his beloved daughter Margaret Roper. This is sealed in the Roper family vault beneath the altar of the Nicholas Chapel, to the right of the church's sanctuary or main altar. The stone marking the sealed vault is to the immediate left of the altar below which it lies. St Dunstan's Church has carefully investigated, preserved and sealed this burial vault of the Roper family who lived in Canterbury. The last archaeological investigation of the Roper Vault revealed that the suspected head of More rests in a niche separate from the other bodies there, possibly due to later interference.[citation needed] A few displays in the chapel record the archaeological findings in written accounts and pictures. The walls of the chapel are host to impressive stained glass donated by Roman Catholics to commemorate the events in More's life. Down and across the street from the parish the facade of the former home of Margaret Roper and her husband William Roper survives and is marked by a small plaque.

See also

Gloriole blur.svg Saints portal


NOTE: The reference “CW” is to the relevant volume of the Yale Edition of the Complete Works of St. Thomas More (New Haven and London 1963–1997)

Published during More’s life (with dates of publication)

  • A Merry Jest (c. 1516) (CW 1)
  • Utopia (1516) (CW 4)
  • Latin Poems (1518, 1520) (CW 3, Pt.2)
  • Letter to Brixius (1520) (CW 3, Pt. 2, App C)
  • Responsio ad Lutherum (1523) (CW 5)
  • A Dialogue Concerning Heresies (1529, 1530) (CW 6)
  • Supplication of Souls (1529) (CW 7)
  • Letter Against Frith (1532) (CW 7)
  • The Confutation of Tyndale's Answer (1532, 1533) (CW 8)
  • Apology (1533) (CW 9)
  • Debellation of Salem and Bizance (1533) (CW 10)
  • The Answer to a Poisoned Book (1533) (CW 11)

Published after More’s death (with likely dates of composition)

  • The History of King Richard III (c. 1513–1518) (CW 2 & 15)
  • The Four Last Things (c. 1522) (CW 1)
  • A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation (1534) (CW 12)
  • Treatise Upon the Passion (1534) (CW 13)
  • Treatise on the Blessed Body (1535) (CW 13)
  • Instructions and Prayers (1535) (CW 13)
  • De Tristitia Christi (1535) (CW 14)


  • Translations of Lucian (many dates 1506–1534) (CW 3, Pt.1)
  • The Life of Pico della Mirandola (c. 1510) (CW 1)


  1. ^ "Holy Days". Worship – The Calendar. Church of England. 2011. Retrieved 20 April 2011. 
  2. ^ Cited in Marvin O'Connell, "A Man for all Seasons: an Historian's Demur," Catholic Dossier 8 no. 2 (March-April, 2002): 16-19 online
  3. ^ Jokinen, A. (13 June 2009). "The Life of Sir Thomas More." Luminarium. Retrieved on: 2011-09-19.
  4. ^ a b c d e Rebhorn, Wayne A, ed. (2005), "Introduction", Utopia, Classics, New York: Barnes & Noble .
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w Ackroyd, Peter (1999), The Life of Thomas More, New York: Anchor Books .
  6. ^ Harpsfield, Nicholas (1931), The Life and Death of Sr Thomas More, London: Early English Text Society, pp. 12–3 .
  7. ^ Erasmus, "Letter to Ulrich von Hutten", in Adams, Robert M, Utopia, New York: WW Norton & Co, p. 125 .
  8. ^ a b More, St Thomas (1961), Rogers, Elizabeth Frances, ed., Selected Letters, New Haven and London: Yale University Press .
  9. ^ "History of Parliament". History of Parliament Trust. Retrieved 2011-10-13. 
  10. ^ Magnusson (ed.) Chambers Biographical Dictionary (1990) pg 1039
  11. ^ a b c d Rebhorn, W. A. (ed.) pg xviii
  12. ^ Romuald I. Lakowski, "Sir Thomas More's Correspondence: A Survey and a Bibliography," in: The Late Medieval Epistle, ed. Carol Poster and Richard Utz (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1996), pp. 162–79.
  13. ^ Gerard B. Wegemer, "Portrait of Courage", p. 136.
  14. ^ Moynahan, Brian, God's Bestseller: William Tyndale, Thomas More, and the Writing of the English Bible – A Story of Martyrdom and Betrayal, St Martin's Press; 1st edition (23 August 2003).
  15. ^ Diarmaid MacCulloch, 277.
  16. ^ Farris, Michael (2007), From Tyndale to Madison .
  17. ^ Guy, John A. Tudor England Oxford, 1988. pg 26
  18. ^ More, Thomas (1973), Schuster, LA; Marius, RC; Lusardi, JP et al., eds., The Confutation of Tyndale's Answer, Complete Works, 8, Yale, p. 20 .
  19. ^ Marius, R (1986), Thomas More: A Biography, Fount Paperbacks, London: Collins, p. 407 .
  20. ^ Eric W. Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (2004), p. 47. More wrote on the subject of the Boleyn marriage that "[I] neither murmur at it nor dispute upon it, nor never did nor will... I faithfully pray to God for his Grace and hers both long to live and well, and their noble issue too..."
  21. ^ Elton, Geoffrey Rudolph (1982). "The Crown". The Tudor constitution: documents and commentary (2nd ed.). Cambridge, Cambridgeshire: Cambridge University Press. p. 7. ISBN 0521245060. OCLC 7876927. Retrieved 24 July 2009. 
  22. ^ "Annotated original text". 
  23. ^ "Account of trial". Retrieved 27 July 2007. 
  24. ^ David Hume, The history of England (1813) p 632
  25. ^ Guy, John, A Daughter's Love: Thomas & Margaret More, London: Fourth Estate, 2008, ISBN 9780007192311, p. 266.
  26. ^ Catholic Encyclopaedia, .
  27. ^ Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation, (New York: Viking, 2004), 194
  28. ^ Apostolic letter issued moto proprio proclaiming Saint Thomas More Patron of Statesmen and Politicians
  29. ^ Calendar of Holy Days of the Church of England
  30. ^ Writings on Religion and the Church, Chapter 14 "Concerning that Universal Hatred which prevails against the Clergy" by Jonathan Swift, 1736
  31. ^ Reputation, Thomas More Studies, .
  32. ^ Kenny, Jack (2011). "A Man of Enduring Conscience". Resource Center. Catholic Culture via Trinity Communications. 
  33. ^ Chambers, R. W. (1929). Sir Thomas More's Fame Among His Countrymen. London: Sheed & Ward. p. 13. 
  34. ^ Chesterton, G. K. (1929). The Fame of Blessed Thomas More. London: Sheed & Ward. p. 63. 
  35. ^ A Man for all Seasons: an Historian's Demur
  36. ^ Wood, James (2000) (softcover). The Broken Estate, Essays on Literature and Belief. New York: Random House. p. 16. ISBN 0-7126-6557-9. 


  • Brady, Charles A. (1953). Stage of Fools: A Novel of Sir Thomas More. Dutton. 
  • Basset, Bernard, S.J. (1965). Born for Friendship: The Spirit of Sir Thomas More. London: Burns and Oates. 
  • Reynolds, E. E. (1964). The Trialet of St Thomas More. 
  • Reynolds, E. E. (1965). Thomas More and Erasmus. 
  • Guy, John (1980). The Public Career of Sir Thomas More. ISBN 978-0300025460. 
  • Ridley, Jasper (1983). Statesman and Saint: Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Thomas More, and the Politics of Henry VIII. ISBN 0-670-48905-0. 
  • Marius, Richard (1984). Thomas More: A Biography. 
  • Wegemer, Gerard (1985). Thomas More: A Portrait of Courage. ISBN 978-1889334127. 
  • Ackroyd, Peter (1999). The Life of Thomas More. 
  • Guy, John (2000). Thomas More. ISBN 978-0340731383. 
  • Guy, John (2009). A Daughter's Love: Thomas More and his daughter Meg. 
  • Berglar, Peter (2009). Thomas More: a lonely voice against the power of the state. New York: Scepter Publishers. ISBN 9781594170737. 
  • Wegemer, Gerard. Thomas More on Statesmanship (1996)


  • Gushurst-Moore, André. "A Man for All Eras: Recent Books on Thomas More" Political Science Reviewer, 2004, Vol. 33, pp 90-143 online
  • Guy, John. "The Search for the Historical Thomas More," History Review (2000) pp 15+ online edition,

Primary sources

  • More, Thomas. Yale Edition of the Complete Works of St. Thomas More (New Haven and London 1963–1997) links
  • More, Thomas. Utopia (Norton Critical Editions) ed. by George M. Logan and Robert M. Adams (3rd. ed. 2010)
  • More, Thomas. Saint Thomas More: Selected Writings ed. by John F. Thornton (2003)
  • More, Thomas. The Last Letters of Thomas More ed. by Alvaro de Silva (2001)

External links

Political offices
Preceded by
Sir Thomas Neville
Speaker of the House of Commons
Succeeded by
Sir Thomas Audley
Preceded by
Sir Richard Wingfield
Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
Succeeded by
Sir William Fitzwilliam
Preceded by
Thomas Wolsey
Lord Chancellor
Succeeded by
Sir Thomas Audley
(Keeper of the Great Seal) 

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