Thomas More: A very brief history

moreholbeinEarly life, marriage, lawyer, family

More was the son of a successful lawyer, John More, and his wife Agnes. Born in 1478, he was educated at a school on Threadneedle street, then Oxford University, then at New Inn and Lincoln’s Inn as he trained to be a lawyer. At some point he served as a page in Cardinal John Morton’s household. Morton saw his potential, and is supposed to have said of More:

This child here waiting at the table, whosoever shall live to see it, will prove a marvellous man

Their relationship was close; and More’s unpublished study of tyranny, Richard III, may well have been based on Morton’s reminiscences. More appears to have been a straightforwardly ambitious, commercial man, and his genius meant his rise in the material world was swift. He became a member of parliament in 1504, and attracted the negative attention of Henry VII when he stood in the way of a tax. As the timeline below shows, he entered his guild, moved up through the legal ranks acquiring honours and business, and landed himself the role of Undersheriff of London, a job that brought him £400 or so. He was a wealthy man. There is some suggestion that he had, however, wanted to withdraw from the world, that he became a lay brother at Charterhouse; it could be so, certainly More would of course demonstrate his piety, but it is not clear. Certainly he doesn’t seem to have shrunk from a materially successful career, whether now or later a Chancellor.

Thomas More and familyMore married Jane Colet in 1505, and his 4 children were born by 1509; when Jane died in 1511, he very quickly married Alice Harpur – within a month. Until 1524, the More’s lived at Bucklersbury, where Erasmus visited. Much of the reputation of More and his idyllic family life comes from Erasmus’s portraits – and it’s just worth noting that he never saw his life at Chelsea, though William Roper, More’s biographer and son in law, certainly did. There’s not much need, though to doubt the strength of More’s family life, and certainly his connection with his daughter Meg was very strong.  More was passionate about the right education for his children, and radical in his belief that women has as great a right to education as any man. Women and men, he wrote to his children’s tutor, are

equally suited for those studies by which reason is cultivated and becomes fruitful like a ploughed land on which the seed of good lessons has been sown

The famous family portrait by Holbein shows a wealthy, well educated, well dressed family living richly in a modern well appointed house. The people in the portrait these folks are linked to some of the most powerful and richest families in England, and More’s household was about 100 strong, people who More would have viewed as his responsibility; and was clearly distressed when his Attainder meant he was unable to look after them any more. Whether he achieved it or not, More aspired to a life for himself and his family of temperance, patience, humility, and hope; there’s a quote from him he makes when he translated a work of Mirandola in 1510, saying there was no book better:

neither to teaching of temperance in prosperity, nor to the purchasing of patience in adversity, nor to the despising of worldly vanity, nor to the desiring of heavenly felicity

Utopia and the New LearningThomas More Timeline

More was closely connected with the group of northern Christian humanists; men like Grocyn, Lily, Colet; and in particular with Erasmus, and More’s erudition and talent was admired by all. When Utopia was published in 1516 after a visit to Bruges where it was largely conceived and written, it took off immediately. It should not be assumed that More approved of the society reflected in Utopia – it was pagan for example – but it allowed him to show how far short of the Christian ideal was contemporary society. It also allowed him to rehearse the argument about whether or not philosophers like himself should engage in society or not, actively to improve the behaviour of Princes. Clearly, More took the Ciceronian approach, and believed in getting involved – given his political career.


More entered royal service as the king’s secretary in 1518, and appointed to the King’s Royal Council. He also worked with the king on his refutation of Luther. When Wolsey fell in 1529, it was Thomas More that profited by becoming Chancellor. Henry and Thomas came to an accord about the king’s divorce and dispute with Rome. On occasion, Thomas was required to deliver judgements on legal positions but by and large he was allowed to stay out of a matter where he clearly disagreed with the King’s case. This was a major concession and bitter disappointment for Henry, who would have dearly loved More’s legal mind working for him.

As Chancellor, More has a big reputation as an innovator, promoting equity through the king’s prerogative courts, removing cases from corrupt and expensive Common law courts, proving incorruptible in the process, and speeding up the process of law. More recently, however, some of the shine has been taken from his reputation; not that he did not do these things, but simply that his predecessor’s reputation has grown; Thomas probably continued and enhanced work Wolsey put in place, rather than being an innovator.


One Historian noted that More’s biographers tend to end up liking him; and his humour seems to be one of the reasons. More often saw the humour in situations, used humour to prick pomposity, and to instruct. He was clearly witty, and often genuinely so. For example, when he was appointed to royal service, he wryly observed to his son in law:

I find his grace my very good lord indeed; and I believe he doth as singularly favour me as any subject within this realm. Howbeit, son Roper, I may tell thee I have no cause to be proud thereof, for if my head could win him a castle in France it should not fail to go

On his way up the ladder to the scaffold he remarked:

Pray Sir, see me safe up; and as to my coming down, let me shift for myself

But often he comes across as painfully condescending. For example, when he bought his first wife false jewels and pretended they were real, then using it as an opportunity for a lecture on the emptiness of baubles. Or when, of Alice his second wife, More joked that he had married her “against the advice of his friends”, that she was “neither a pearl nor a girl” and that he had remarried “more to have someone to look after his household than for his own pleasure.”

Heretic hunter

More was enthusiastic, relentless and rigorous in his pursuit of heretics and pursued them with venom. He pursued them in writing. He pursued them wherever he could find them, such as raiding the Steelyard, the home of the Hanseatic merchants in London in 1525 and requiring them to take an oath that any heretical tracts would be destroyed. He pursued them in the courts and intervened when he felt the Bishops were not being active or hard enough. He pursued heretics in the courts he controlled directly, of Star Chamber in particular. Fox in his original book of martyrs accuses Thomas of even worse crimes. He accused him of interrogating heretics at his Chelsea home; he accused him of torturing heretics to get a confession, and of illegality in the way he pursued them in the courts.

STC469146 The martyrdom of Richard Bayfield, illustration from 'Acts and Monuments' by John Foxe, ninth edition, pub. 1684 (litho) by English School, (17th century); Private Collection; ( Richard Bayfield (d.1531), English Protestant martyr; ); The Stapleton Collection; English, out of copyright
The martyrdom of Richard Bayfield


More was probably innocent of acting illegally; and he had the 15th century act of De Heretico Comburendo to support him, which made it a civic duty to pursue heretics. But there is no doubt he was a zealot, deeply traditional in his view of the supremacy of the catholic fathers and tradition:

I pray God that some of us, as high as we seem to sit upon the mountains treading heretics under our feet like ants, live not in the day that we gladly would wish to be at a league and composition with them, to let them have their churches quietly to themselves, so that they would be content to let us have ours quietly to ourselves.

But critically, the worst accusation if that he refused to allow reformists the right of silence in taking an oath. He was himself to plead with self righteous indignation that he had said nothing against the king’s supremacy of the church. He had maintained his silence. Implicit is the view that it is tyrannical to insist that a man condemn himself from his own mouth and be forced to speak, or be convicted if he remained silent. But More denied this very right to heretics. In 1531, a man called Thomas Bilney was burned to death for heresy. More as Lord Chancellor, had demanded that eyewitnesses to Bilney’s burning attend in Star Chamber; he required they swear an oath and answer whatever he asked. Thomas Cromwell himself picked More up on this himself before his trial; More’s answer was that his case and cases of the heretics were entirely different; that unlike him, they had deviated from the authority of the church. Essentially, he was saying that heretics were not allowed consciences.

The King’s great matter and fall from grace

More was to keep quiet in his opposition to the king’s claims to papal supremacy. But he could not hide his disapproval. And finally when it became clear that he could not stop the king and would not win him round by argument, in 1534 he resigned. The story goes that Henry then broke his promise to keep More out of the divorce and the break with Rome, while More kept his end of the bargain. But this is at best a half truth it appears to me. More wrote furiously in defence of the supremacy of the community of the church, and its indivisibility  – so although he did not write condemning the king’s claim to supremacy of the English church, it was pretty clear what his views were. Famously, he refused to go to Anne Boleyn’s coronation. More’s forbearance was in the letter of the law only – no one could have been in any doubt of his opposition, and it is entirely understandable that Henry’s attitude turned to fury.  More refused the oath of succession, was first attainted in 1534 and sent to the Tower. His issue was not with the right of the king and parliament to decide the succession; his objection was to the king’s claim to supremacy of the church, which came in the preamble. Despite Thomas Cromwell’s patience, More stoutly refused to swear and eventually came to court.

Trial and Execution and assessment

In court, the bench and jury faced one of the most brilliant legal minds. There were 4 indictments – More had three of them dismissed. The 4th was also harsh; essentially in a conversation with Richard Rich, More had denied the royal supremacy. But it was part of a privileged, legal conversation both men had understood to be purely  hypothetical to test the legal case. Despite what Roper wrote at the time in his biography (he was not at the trial) it is very unlikely that More ever accused Rich of perjury. More was therefore condemned – a pretty foregone conclusion. Maybe a farce – but I can’t help concluding that he was after all guilty as charged in the spirit of the thing.

More executed

So, on 6th July, after a rather farcical court case in a legal sense, he approached the scaffold at the Tower of London with perfect outward control and composure. He kept his final speech short, but reputedly said ‘I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first’; it seems entirely possible, not just because it seemed to reflect his priorities, but because it echoed advice his king Henry VIII gave him when he first took him into his service. Maybe this was More throwing the words back at him – which would be entirely in character. After the trial, his daughter Meg was finally able to take the head down from where it had been stuck, and kept it preserved at least until her death in 1544.

Saint or Sinner?

“I do nobody harm, I say none harm, I think none harm, but wish everybody good. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith, I long not to live.”

These are fine words, and maybe they are true; but they are also guilty of more than a little exaggeration, and even hypocrisy. Compare that with what More also wrote of religious reformists:

“I find that breed of men absolutely loathsome, so much so that, unless they regain their senses, I want to be as hateful to them as anyone can possibly be.”

More in CourtThere’s little there of the milk of human kindness. And while More carefully cultivated the image of the unwilling royal servant and courtier, to have little love of power, to be free of the grasping greed that defined the Tudor court; yet he enjoyed its rewards, with an enormous household of over 100 souls at Chelsea, played its game, and accepted the power that went with it.

Now, More without doubt strained all his powers to use that power for the good of the commonwealth, as his classical education taught him he should; he has a towering and deserved reputation for incorruptibility, promotion of equality, and innovation in law as Chancellor. But equally he knew the score. It is true that Henry VIII promised to keep him out of the divorce, and Henry is accused of duplicity for therefore pursuing him. But Thomas More could not resist writing in defence of the supremacy of the catholic church and community, all of which undermined Henry’s claim to be supreme head of the English church, without which none of Henry’s reforms and marriage could stand. Surely More also broke the spirit of the agreement? Lord Mountjoy’s father advised his sons to stay away from Princes, because they were dangerous; As Machiavelli taught the same thing, that you either stayed away or accepted the consequences.  It was deeply, deeply disingenuous of More to pretend that merely by keeping quiet he could avoid the consequences of his opposition to his prince – an opposition which was absolutely obvious to all.

Another thing I found fascinating was the reason that More gave his life. I’d always bought the line of ‘A Man for all Seasons’; the hagiography, essentially, and the basic premise that More died for the liberty of individual conscience. This doesn’t seem to be why More defied the king and gave his life at al – rather the opposite. He believed deeply in the community and tradition of the catholic church, in the teaching of the holy fathers and the saints; he refused to believe that any one part of the church could defy the will of the community of Christendom. Neither Henry nor parliament in his view that the right to define the king as supreme head of one part of the church.

I was left, then, still standing in awe of Thomas More. For his literary and philosophical achievements, for his incorruptibility, his legal brilliance; his forward looking views on education, his erudition, his humour (to a degree). And for his courage of course, the courage to stand up for his principles and die for them.

I found his attitude to heresy deeply unattractive and dishonest, and some of his actions as hypocritical. But equally I have to accept he would not see either as fair; he believed in the catholic community and the absolute evil of those that challenged it against what he saw as the will of God; and that he believed it was his duty and thoroughly legitimate to present himself as he wanted the world to seen him. I suspect my objections are modern ones, rather than seeing the man in the context of his time.

5 thoughts on “Thomas More: A very brief history

  1. Thank you kindly for this. My image of More had always been through the glass of “A Man For All Seasons,” a stirring and personally inspirational work in its own right. Save for More’s violence against heretics, your piece seems to largely confirm Bolt’s portrait of the man and his character. I suppose the intransigence and absolutism he manifested in his opposition to Henry’s primacy claim demonstrated the same personal certainty and justification he evidently felt in his persecution of people who were challenging the Catholicism of his day.

  2. Whew! I have deeply enjoyed finding your site today (teacher on Easter break) and perusing some of the articles.

    Question–I have been researching some questions today about Thomas More and his interrogation of heretics–I wondered if you’d be interested in any of the information I’ve found on Thomas More-I have had my qualms.

    Today before finding your article (thank you!) I also was pondering the problem of hunting people for their secret convictions and the double-standard More seemed to be employing on the issue of keeping silence to protect your conscience, and I happened to find an article today–
    –that specifically addresses More’s practices on this count, drawing from More’s own writing about Heresy, notably!

    I was very encouraged, as a person who had always admired Thomas More’s reputation (which seemed unrelentingly positive when judged on verifiable fact, and which seemed to span considerable national, class, and even religious differences), but had difficulties reconciling what is today a VERY politically incorrect (and therefore, vaguely off-putting even if human respect isn’t everything) feature of his heresy-hunting duties (and ZEAL, that much-maligned word) with his otherwise sterling reputation. I liked what you said at the end of your article about our judgment of More being possibly anachronistic in an age of relative and relativistic western tolerance, driven largely perhaps by an acceptance of secularism. I also appreciate the desire to give him the benefit of the doubt–but in order to avoid giving him undeserved sentimental credit either, and cautious about the blindspots I have as an admirer, I was grateful to find some reading on the topic in some little depth. A short article I found discussing the general approach to heresy of the law at the time restored me to a humble opinion that More’s procedural logic was arguably sound (not special pleading for himself, but revealing a principle of authority and its execution by the state), and his practice one of respectable integrity and consistency, even if his political system may not have been fully ideal, or rather (since scorning the system of monarchy or the idea of Christendom as something worth fighting for is not something that I think we should do) at least the social mechanisms that now (in our post-Enlightenment-period, post-Westphalia-treaty age) seem specifically designed to allow for a religious pluralism not yet conceivable or practicable in the midst of the German uproar of the early Reformation, or the reality of a then at least loosely organized Christendom in Europe under objective and divinely entrusted authority, a then-widespread identification of heresy with sedition and rebellion (which, looking at the uprisings in Germany at the time, was I suppose hard to blame them for), and the growing presence of Protestant movements which sought to throw off hierarchical authority in more or less secret walks of English life (enough so that there were types of Protestant evangelicals highly placed in Henry VIII’s new church, immediately upon formation) that probably felt a little bit like a “red scare” in England. I’m writing you this even though its so long, because I’m just gosh-darn glad to be able to talk to someone about this. Thank you!

    The whole torture-question in law and especially heresy-hunting I’m still working through in consternation, but I think you’ll appreciate and enjoy the article, and perhaps the whole site at which it’s found! Whether or not you follow me up on it, thank you so much for sharing your work with me and the rest of us online!

    1. Hi Jonah, and I’m rather honoured that my podcast led you into interesting channels. I think he’s a fascinating figure. I dont think I can add much; there is no doubt i think that More’s arguments and principles had an internal logic, and that he was a brilliant man. In my innocence, it seems to me that the nub of the difference between protestant and Catholic came to the authority of the church fathers, which More saw very much as part of the authoritative theology and protestants rejected, returning only to the bible and the early church. Both, to each side, are definitive. And their arguments in the end could never reach resolution.

      I have no doubt More was a brilliant and praiseworthy man. I have equally no doubt that Thomas Cranmer was an admirable man. I have no doubt that had they been born into the modern world neither would have burned heretics; we can only judge them according to their day, and my experience is that people find that an almost impossible discipline to follow.

    2. Thank you Jonah for your interesting reply to David’s article on Thomas More but also giving the Thomas More Studies link, a must for anyone interested in depth analysis of him.

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