Thomas More (1478-1535)
The Oxford DNB summarises thus – ‘lord chancellor, humanist, and martyr’. Thomas came from wealthy families, from trade (his father was a wealthy baker) and the law. He studied at St Anthony’s school in London, and England’s second oldest university, Oxford (joke, sorry). In 1496, More was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn to prepare for admission to the bar, and in 1501 became a full member of the legal profession.
More interests though were of course much wider than the law; he became close friends with Erasmus, and read extensively from Holy Scriptures and the classics. He was a deeply religious man, and in 1503 started to train to become a Carthusian monk, but instead chose public service and in 1504 became a member of parliament.
More published ‘Utopia’ in 1516; and went on to become serve under Henry VIII, helping Henry respond to Luther, also becoming treasurer of England’s exchequer, and, in 1523, was elected speaker of the House of Commons. Famously of course he fell out with Henry over his break with Rome, and was beheaded in 1535, leaving the final words: “The king’s good servant, but God’s first.”
In his youth, More was a member of Dr John Morton’s household, and they appear to have had a close relationship. The relationship is important with reference to More’s unfinished work, Richard III; Morton had a chequered career between support for the Lancastrians, service under Yorkist kings; but famously he was imprisoned by Richard III after the Council meeting of 13th June in Wales. He became Chancellor of England and Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry VII – and is the source of the expression ‘Morton’s Fork’. The point of all this is that he is likely to have been very much part of the Tudor line on interpreting events.
The History of Richard III
More is supposed to have written his History of Richard III between 1513 and 1518; it was to be deeply influential with later historians, and with Shakespeare. It was unfinished; and not published until after his death in 1557.
More had a reputation for rigor and honesty. However, since he was but 7 when Richard died, it’s very likely that he drew on Morton’s knowledge and experience; he also drew on sources such as Vergil’s Historia Anglia and John Rous, both deeply hostile to Richard III, but More adds detail of events. He depicts Richard as an ambitious usurper, but also acknowledges that saintly Edward IV also shared responsibility for the outcome.
Like Vergil, More’s history needs to be viewed with suspicion and some skepticism. Clearly it drew on sources themselves biased and heavily influenced by the Tudor story of events. He is wildly hostile to Richard; he not only accuses him of planning to usurp the throne from Edward’s death, he has him working towards it much earlier – for example, manufacturing Clarence’s death at Edward’s hands.
The history is available through the estimable Internet archives, but fortunately there’s a really easy to read version in modernized English by the Centre for Thomas More Studies; the link is below to the PDF. It’s handily annotated in the margins, so you can scroll easily through to find the bits you want to read about. And I was just too idle to try to do what someone else has done so well.
Unreliable it might be, but it is a great read…