St Thomas More was born in 1478. He died in 1535 at the age of fifty-seven.
England, at the time of the Tudors, was very different from modern England. So, to understand More, we must understand the world in which he lived. England in the late middle ages had experienced the Black Death, a recurrent plague in which half of the population of England had died. This was a rural society. Most people lived and died not far from where they were born. The Wars of the Roses had involved recurrent dynastic conflict. England was a second-rate power compared to Spain. In 1453 Byzantium, the last phase of the Roman Empire fell to the Muslim Turks who continued to be a threat to Christian Europe. On the other hand, in 1492, Muslim Granada, in southern Spain fell to the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, completing the Reconquista. Scholars were returning to the Greek and Latin classics, creating an intellectual and artistic Renaissance. The voyages of exploration and trade, undertaken by Spain and Portugal, opened a new world to Europe. In 1517 Martin Luther pinned his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg, beginning the Protestant Reformation. The printing press was beginning to change communication and scholarship. The traditional idea that the earth was the centre of the universe was to be challenged by Copernicus, and, later, Galileo. Renaissance princes adopted the end justifies the means style of Machiavelli’s The Prince.
In Rome, the Borgia Pope Alexander VI was pope from 1484 – 1503. He used bribes to secure election as pope. He moved into the Vatican with his wife and seven children. He had a child by his daughter, Lucretia. He put the Borgias in charge of the papal states. He poisoned many of his opponents, and himself almost certainly died from being poisoned.
Pope Alexander VI was succeeded in 1503 by the warrior pope, Pope Julius II. From 1513 – 1521 Leo X was pope. At the time of his election Leo X had yet to be ordained a priest. Leo X was a Medici, a patron of the arts. Leo X’s method of financing construction of St Peter’s in Rome scandalised Martin Luther. Leo X’s condemnation of Luther only encouraged the spread of Lutheran ideas. Leo X said: “Since God has granted us the papacy, let us enjoy it.” Leo X’s successor was the Dutchman, Adrian VI, who was pope from 1522-1523. Adrian VI’s attempts at reform were brought to an end by his death.
Clement VII was pope from 1523-1534. Clement VII was a capable pope, and a person of exemplary life, but overwhelmed by the many difficulties confronting the Church. Paul III was pope from 1534 – 1549. Before being elected pope, Paul III had a mistress by whom he had five children. He later put aside his mistress. Nevertheless, he appointed his grandsons, aged 14 and 16, cardinals. Paul III, established the Council of Trent which was to reform the Catholic Church.
More’s father was a lawyer, and, later, a judge. More spent only two years at Oxford University before his father (who was a pragmatist) insisted More enrol at New Inn, where, for two years, More commenced his study of English law. From 1496 to 1502 More was a student at Lincoln’s Inn. In 1502 More was called to the bar. Despite not having obtained a degree from Oxford, More became proficient in Greek and Latin. More was a proponent of the “new learning”, emphasising a return to the Greek and Latin classics. More gave a series of lectures on St Augustine’s (the greatest of the western fathers) City of God. More toyed with a religious vocation, spending 1503 and 1504 living near the Carthusian monastery in London, taking part in the life of the Carthusian monks. But the life of a Carthusian monk was not for More.
Marriage and Family
In 1505 More married Jane Colt. They had three daughters and one son, Margaret, Elizabeth, Cicely and John.
Unfortunately, More’s wife, Jane, died in 1511. More, in accordance with the custom of the time, wanting a mother for his children, promptly married a widow somewhat older than himself, Alice Middleton.
Alice brought with her a daughter from her former marriage. More, at some stage, became the guardian of two orphans – Anne Cresacre and Margaret Giggs. So, there were eventually seven children in the More household. More insisted on giving his daughters the same excellent classical education he gave his son – unusual in that age.
In 1516 More wrote the classic of world literature Utopia.
Professionally, More was a lawyer, a parliamentarian, an administrator, a judge, a diplomat. This was a time when the concept of the separation of powers – legislative, executive, judicial – was unknown. More moved effortlessly to positions of greater and greater responsibility. Most importantly, More became Speaker of the House of Commons, and, in 1525, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, having executive and judicial responsibility for much of northern England. From 1529 to 1532 More was Lord Chancellor, effectively (in modern terms) prime minister of England.
Hidden Life of Prayer and Penance
At some stage, it would seem, More became a member of the Third Order of St Francis. Although a layman, More lived a fervent hidden life of prayer and penance.
In 1532, at the Convocation of Canterbury, the English bishops, with the notable exception of Bishop John Fisher, acknowledged King Henry VIII as “Supreme Head” of the Church in England “so far as the law of God allows”. As the bishops knew full well, the law did not allow, and does not allow. The bishops, in acknowledging Henry as Supreme Head of the Church in England, caused great confusion to the faithful, betraying their duty as bishops. This was a time of corruption, scandal and betrayal by the leaders of the Church in England, most notable of whom was Cardinal Wolsey, More’s predecessor as Lord Chancellor.
While Henry commenced well, Henry’s wars, Henry’s constant falling out with his closest collaborators, ending in their imprisonment and beheading, Henry’s sexual journeying and stopping at many different ports, Henry’s quest for a male heir, Henry’s need for money, resulting in confiscation of the assets of the monasteries, and destruction of England’s system of care for the poor was to give rise to one hundred and fifty years of political and religious conflict. More remained silent, saying, nothing on the issue as to the Supreme Head of the Church in England – although a vigorous opponent of the growing protestant revolt. More refused to take the oath acknowledging Henry as Supreme Head of the Church in England, giving no reason for his refusal.
Imprisonment, Trial and Death
More was imprisoned in the Tower of London from 13 April 1534 until his execution on 6 July 1535. More’s trial for treason on 1 July 1535 was a kangaroo court. Only after his conviction for treason did More state his conscientious conviction that, as Catholic teaching has always held, the Pope is the head of the Church on earth, the Vicar of Christ.
More went to his death for his faith, at a time when the renaissance popes were far from the saintly examples provided by, say, the twentieth century popes – Pope Pius XII, Pope St John XXIII, Pope St Paul VI, and Pope St John Paul II.
To understand the hidden depths of St Thomas More, one needs to look at his Tower writings, written when More was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Only there can one understand the hidden More. St Thomas More went to his death, Henry VIII’s good servant, but God’s first. More went to his death with good humour, born of an understanding that there is more to life than family, intellectual achievement, riches, power, that our ultimate goal is not in this life.
St Thomas More is the patron saint of statesmen and politicians, lawyers, large families, and those who have difficult marriages.
William Roper, The Life of Sir Thomas More (1626)
Upon whose departure Sir Thomas More, as one that had been invited to a solemn feast, changed himself into his best apparel; which Mr. Lieutenant espying, advised him to put it off, saying: “That he that should have it was but a worthless fellow.” “What Mr. Lieutenant” (quoth he), “shall I account him a worthless fellow, that will do me this day so singular a benefit? Nay, I assure you, were it cloth of gold, I would account it well bestowed on him, as St. Cyprian did, who gave his executioner thirty pieces of gold.” And albeit, at length, through Master Lieutenant’s persuasions, he altered his apparel, yet, after the example of that holy martyr Saint Cyprian, did he of that little money that was left him, send one angel of gold to his executioner.
And so was he brought by Master Lieutenant brought out of the Tower, and from thence led towards the place
of execution, where going up the scaffold, which was so weak that it was ready to fall, he said merrily to Master Lieutenant: “I pray you, Master Lieutenant, see me safe up, and for my coming down, let me shift for myself.”
Then he desired he all the people thereabouts to pray for him, and to bear witness with him, that he should then suffer death in and for the faith of the Holy Catholic Church. Which done, he kneeled down, and after his prayers said, he turned to the executioner, and with a cheerful countenance spake unto him: “Pluck up thy spirits, man, and be not afraid to do thine office, my neck is very short. Take heed therefore thou strike not awry, for saving thine honesty.”