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Saturday, 2 July 2016

Thomas More


Thomas More was born in Milk Street in London, on February 7, 1478.

He was the eldest son of Sir John More,  a successful lawyer who served as a judge in the King's Bench court.

Thomas was educated at a free school, St Anthony's School, Threadneedle Street, London.

In his early teens Thomas entered the household of Cardinal Morton as a page who predicted young Thomas would be a "marvelous man."

More attended Canterbury College (now Christchurch) at the University of Oxford for two years, where he studied Latin and Logic. More left Oxford without a degree and returned to London, where he studied law with his father and was admitted to Lincoln's Inn in 1496


Whilst studying law at St Lincoln's Inn, More lodged with monks at the nearby Charterhouse as he was considering joining their order. In 1502, he was called to the Bar.

Increasingly involved in public affairs, More became a Member of Parliament in 1504, representing Great Yarmouth.

In 1510 More was appointed Under Sheriff of London where he gained a reputation for being impartial and a patron to the poor.

By now a brilliantly successful lawyer, More undertook a diplomatic mission to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. He accompanied Thomas Wolsey, Cardinal Archbishop of York, to Calais and Bruges.

More was knighted and made Under-Treasurer of the Exchequer in 1521

Thomas More was appointed Henry VIII 's Lord Chancellor in place of Cardinal Wolsey in 1529. This was because of Wolsey's failure in obtaining a papal annulment for Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He was the first layman to be appointed Lord Chancellor.

Hans Holbein, the Younger - Sir Thomas More 

The Government's chief heretic hunter, More's brigade of spies and informers condemned to death many devout men who wished to read the Bible in English.

Thomas More resigned as Lord Chancellor in 1532 in protest over the Act of Supremacy, which made Henry VIII  the supreme head of the English church.


Thomas More wrote Utopia in 1516, when he was the Undersheriff for London. The book is based on Plato's Republic.

Utopia reads as a guide to an ideal civilization governed by reason on an island off America, where people share everything and are committed to God, In reality, Utopia was an angry, satirical look at early 16th century society in Europe.

More advocated in Utopia more education, medical and spiritual help for the poor. No one had to work for more than six hours a day. There was a compulsory two years of country living. Everyone was to dress in black. Once a month all wives had to kneel down in front of their husbands and beg forgiveness.

The book's full title was " Optimo Reipublicae Statu, Deque Nova Insula Utopia."

Illustration for the 1516 first edition of Utopia.

The word "Utopia" was the Greek word for “nowhere”. It now means an ideal place to live.

A first edition of Utopia can be found at Lambeth Palace.

More's Latin translation of four Greek dialogues of Lucian, which appeared in 1506, sold more than twice as many editions as Utopia.

More introduced to the English language the following words: Absurdity, contradictory, exaggerate, indifference, monopoly and paradox.

The phrase "A penny for your thoughts", refers to an invitation to someone lost in thought to share his or her preoccupation. It is derived from a line by Sir Thomas More, who said: "It often happeth that the very face sheweth the mind walking a pilgrimage, in such wise that other folk sodainly say to them a peny for your thought."

More had a dry sense of humor. An author once asked his opinion on a book. The Lord Chancellor suggested he turned it into a rhyme. The author took heed of his advice and did this, duly resubmitting it to Thomas, who replied "ay ay, that will do, that will do. Tis rhyme now, but before it was neither rhyme nor reason."


Thomas More was a traditional and knowledgeable Catholic, who was entirely against everything Luther stood for.

As a youngster Thomas More had thought of becoming a priest. He was also strongly attracted by the austere life of the Carthusian monks. More even planned to spend four years in a Carthusian monastery to test his vocation.

More's early desire to become a priest exacerbated a repressed nature that led him secretly throughout his life to wear a hair shirt and practice self-flagellation.

Though More idealized freedom of religion in Utopia, he supported the punishment of heretics and Protestants like Martin Luther and William Tyndale.

More was known to imprison Protestant believers in his own home and have them whipped on a tree in his garden.


When looking for a wife, the three daughters of John Colte seemed eligible and attractive. More's inclinations were towards the middle daughter, but he chose the eldest, Janet, as he didn't want the middle one to be ashamed by being married after her younger sister.

They married in 1505. Janet was five years younger than her husband, quiet and good-natured. More arranged to have Jane educated and taught her how to play music.

Janet proved to be a good wife and bore her husband three daughters and one son. However, she died young in 1511 of childbirth.

More remarried within a month to a rich widow named Alice Middleton who was several years his senior. His new wife bore him no children, but More raised her daughter (by her previous husband) as his own.

More and Alice loved each other dearly and enjoyed exchanging jokes between themselves, teasing each other mercilessly.

More provided his daughters with an excellent classical education at a time when such learning was usually reserved for men.

One one occasion, whilst at dinner with his family More took off his ruff for comfort. His daughter in law looked at him and started to giggle. The rest of the family gradually joined in the increasingly hysterical laughter, Finally More looked down at himself and joined in the commotion. Then red faced he stuffed back under his doublet the secret hairshirt that had nudged itself into sight.

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

More's Chelsea home was an open house for many writers and scholars, including his good friends Bishop Fisher and Erasmus.

By the early 1520s More had become one of Henry VIII 's best friends. The king often sought More’s company for philosophical conversations.


More devoted his leisure to literature especially the works of classical Greek and Roman writers.

More was always bringing pets home to entertain his family: More's great friend Erasmus once said of him "One of his great delights is to consider the forms, the habits and the instincts of different kinds of animals. There is hardly a species of bird that he does not keep in his house and rare animals such as monkeys, foxes, ferrets, weasels and the like."


Thomas More annoyed Henry VIII, when he returned the £20, which the monarch had sent him to purchase a new suit for the coronation of Anne Boleyn.

More refused to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn and resigned from the chancellorship.

More stood charged with an offence against the Act of Supremacy having refused to swear that the king was the head of the church. "There are things which no government can do" More declared, "no Parliament can make a law that God shall not be God."

More was imprisoned in The Tower of London. He bore his incarceration with a serene spirit; the tender love of his wife and children, especially that of his oldest daughter Margaret (Meg) Roper , comforted him.

After fifteen months in prison, 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. More was found guilty of high treason on July 1, 1535.

More was sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, but the King commuted this to execution by decapitation.

William Frederick Yeames, The meeting of Sir Thomas More with his daughter after his sentence of death, 1872

The execution took place on July 6, 1535. Just before Thomas More climbed the scaffold at Tower Hill quipped to the officials, "I pray you master Lieutenant see me safe up, and for coming down, let me shift for myself. " He then told the watching crowd "The king's good servant-but God's first", before reciting Psalm 51.  More then embraced his executioner and gave him a piece of gold . Finally More pulled his beard aside before putting his head on the block and said, "This hath not offended the King."

More asked that his foster/adopted daughter Margaret Clement (née Giggs) be given his headless corpse to bury. She was the only member of his family to witness his execution.

He was buried at the Tower of London, in the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in an unmarked grave.

More's head was fixed upon a pike over London Bridge for a month, according to the normal custom for traitors. Meg Roper kept vigil at London Bridge whilst her father’s head swung like a pendulum from the mast and reclaimed it before it was thrown into the Thames.

More's head today can be found in the vault of St Dunstans church, Canterbury. The rest of his remains can be found at the Chapel at the Tower of London.


William Roper wrote a classic biography about his father in law, Thomas More. It was one of the first biographies in Modern English.

Erasmus' chief work The praise of Folly in it's original Latin was called "Moriae Encomium", which punningly also means "The Praise of More".

Pope Pius XI canonized More on May 19, 1935, and More's feast day was established as July 9th.  In 2000, Pope John Paul II declared More "the heavenly Patron of Statesmen and Politicians.”

English playwright Robert Bolt portrayed Thomas More as the tragic hero in his 1960 play A Man for All Seasons.

The 1966 movie A Man for All Seasons won the Best Picture Oscar and Paul Schofield won the Best Actor Oscar, for his portrayal of Thomas More.

Source Faber Book Of Anecdotes

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