Sir Thomas More, also known as Saint Thomas More, was born on 7 February 1478 in London. He was born into a wealthy family. His father, John, was a lawyer who later became a judge. Few people were educated in the 15th century and it therefore says a lot about the status of the family that John was so highly educated. Thomas was the 2nd of 6 children between John and his wife, Agnes.
More received his education at one of London’s best schools at the time, St Anthony’s College. For 2 years after his schooling, More served John Morton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, as a household page. Morton saw potential in More and nominated him for a place at the University of Oxford.
More spent two years at Oxford receiving a classical education. He left the university to receive legal training, on the insistence of his father. He was called to the bar in 1502.
In 1505, More married Jane Colt. Their marriage resulted in 4 children: Margaret, Elizabeth, Cicely and John. After Jane’s death in 1511, More was quick to marry Alice Harpur Middleton, a widow.
More insisted on his daughters receiving the same classical education as his son. This was highly unusual for the time and it prompted many other noble families to follow suit. He was a caring father who always wrote letters to his children while away on business trips.
More's Rise to Prominence
More entered politics and became a Member of Parliament in 1504. It is believed that More almost abandoned his legal career in order to become a monk. He stayed near the Carthusian monastery at the time.
In 1510, More was promoted to one of two under-sheriffs of the City of London. He earned a great reputation and in 1514 was appointed a Privy Counsellor. In that same year, he was also made Master of Requests.
in 1515, he was sent to the Spanish Netherlands as a commercial ambassador. It was fair to say that he had caught the eye of King Henry VIII.
Further promotions followed as More was made under-treasurer of the Exchequer in 1521. He was knighted the same year.
In 1523, through a recommendation by Thomas Wolsey and the influence of his ties with Henry VIII, More was elected Speaker of The House of Commons.
In 1529, More was appointed Lord Chancellor, the first layman to serve in this powerful and influential position.
More was a devout believer in the Catholic Church. He did not support the Protestant Reformation led by Matin Luther and John Calvin. He did believe change was needed, but believed that it should come from the Catholic Church itself. He thought Luther, Calvin and their followers were too undisciplined in doctrine and practice.
As Lord Chancellor, he personally made sure no protestant books were imported into England and spied on suspected protestant followers
More refused to sign a letter which asked Pope Clement VII to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine. More began to quarrel with Henry VIII over heresy laws. He refused to sign the Oath of Supremacy which acknowledged Henry VIII as Supreme Head of The Church of England. More resigned as Chancellor in 1932. Despite this, he remained in Henry’s favour.
The following year, More refused to attend Henry VII’s and Anne Boleyn’s wedding. This was seen as a snub against Anne. Shortly after, More was accused of accepting bribes but the case collapsed due to lack of evidence.
In 1534, More was asked to appear before a commission and swear his allegiance to the Act of Succession. He refused the spiritual validity of the King’s marriage with Anne and refused an oath stating that their children would be heirs to the throne. This along with More refusing to repudiate the authority of the Pope sealed his fate.
Sentence and Death
More was tried for high treason for denying that the king was the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Despite More’s attempts, he was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. A gruesome execution, which was the norm for traitors who were not of nobility.
More’s sentence was commuted to execution by decapitation by King Henry VIII.
More’s adopted daughter, Margaret Clement, was the only family member to witness the execution. He was buried at the Tower of London. His head was fixed on a pike for over a month on London Bridge. This was the tradition for traitors.
Utopia is Thomas More’s most well known and controversial piece of work. It was published in 1516 in Latin. The book was only translated to English and published in England in 1564, many years after More’s execution. It depicts a fictional island and it’s laws and customs. Many of the island’s characteristics parallel that of life in monasteries.
In modern day, Utopia is referred to as being an ideal paradise.