More, Thomas ca. 1478–1535 English Statesman and Writer
English statesman and writer
Thomas More was one of England's leading thinkers and writers during the Renaissance. He held several high government offices and wrote many works on political and religious subjects. A devout Catholic, More became a martyr* for refusing to support the English king in his efforts to break away from the Roman Catholic Church.
Education. More was born into a well-to-do middle-class family in London. His father, a successful lawyer, provided his son the best possible education. More's father also had important connections: when Thomas was about 12 years old, his father sent him to live in the house of John Morton, a cardinal in the Catholic Church and a key adviser to the king, Henry VII.
As a young man More attended Oxford University, where he considered becoming a priest or a monk. However, he chose instead to enter the London law school known as the Inns of Court. There More became familiar with the new humanist* methods of reading ancient Greek and Roman texts. Around 1501 he gave a lecture on City of God, a book by the early Christian writer Augustine of Hippo.
In 1499 More met the Dutch humanist Desidirius Erasmus, who was impressed by the young More's learning and wit. Together the two men translated some works by Lucian of Samosata, an ancient Greek author known for his satires*. From Lucian's writings, More and Erasmus learned the art of using humorous ridicule to make serious points. More adopted this approach in his own writing, particularly his poetry, using wit and sarcasm to teach readers about the virtuous and sensible life.
Personal and Professional Growth. Around 1504, More married Jane Colt, a young woman from rural England. The couple had four children before she died in 1511. Within a month, More took a second wife, a widow named Alice Middleton. More made sure that his children received a proper education, and reports indicate that he also made efforts to educate both of his wives.
When Henry VII died in 1509, More wrote several poems that lavishly praised the new king, Henry VIII, with whom More had been friendly in his youth. A collection of these poems was published in 1518. Twelve of the poems in this volume attacked tyranny*, and one expressed a preference for republican* government over monarchy. More argued that in a republic people could choose their leaders on the basis of reason, while monarchs rose to power through blind chance.
More also wrote a history of Richard III, an English king who had ruled briefly during More's childhood. More presented Richard as a ruthless monarch who murdered his two young nephews in order to keep his throne. More wrote one version of his History in English and a shorter one in Latin. In the English version, More mixed fiction and fact, even inventing conversations based on second- and third-hand sources. However, More was less interested in strict accuracy than in teaching a lesson. He aimed to show that people are never safe under tyrants, who will always bend the law to protect their own power.
Searching for Utopia. The discovery of the Americas in 1492 inspired More to write Utopia, a story about an imaginary and ideal country. The first part of the book features a conversation between More and a Portuguese sailor named Raphael Hythloday, who has been to the New World. As Hythloday tells More of his journeys abroad, he expresses great scorn for Europe, with all its social problems. He especially criticizes the economic system that places wealth in the hands of a few people while many suffer in poverty, begging or stealing to survive. More suggests that Hythloday should become a counselor to a European monarch, but Hythloday disagrees, claiming that most kings refuse to listen to good advice.
In the second part of Utopia, Hythloday describes a country called Utopia, located on an island off the coast of Brazil. In Utopia, private property does not exist and all people share the society's wealth. Every Utopian male must work six hours each day at a craft, and everyone must spend two years working on a farm. The nation has no king or central ruler, but an assembly elects mayors for each city. Elected councils handle the business of government; one branch deals with day-today business and another with important matters of policy.
To modern readers, this perfect society has many disturbing features. Husbands and wives are rarely alone, because Utopians eat, work, travel, and spend all their free time in groups. Laws prevent people from having any private life or individuality. Private political discussions are crimes punishable by death, as is adultery*. The society also allows slavery, and brutally murders slaves who revolt. The state also controls religion. All Utopians must believe that God exists and that in a future life he will reward the good and punish the evil.
Politics, Religion, and Conflict. More rose steadily in his professional career, holding a series of positions in government. He served as a member of the royal council, as speaker of Parliament, and as lord chancellor, the highest office in the English government.
More was a strict Catholic who, according to his son-in-law, beat himself with whips as a religious exercise. During the Protestant Reformation*, More became a strong defender of the Catholic faith. In a series of books, More engaged in bitter religious debates with the German Protestant leader Martin Luther. He also attacked English Protestant reformers and supported burning heretics* at the stake.
More's strong religious beliefs limited his political influence when England became a Protestant nation in the early 1530s. When Henry VIII made himself head of the newly formed Church of England, More resigned from his office as lord chancellor. He continued to publish anti-Protestant writings, even as the king sought to reach out to Protestants in England and elsewhere. In 1533 the royal council ordered More to stop publishing.
The following year More was arrested for refusing to sign an oath supporting all of the king's actions against the Catholic Church. He spent more than a year imprisoned in the Tower of London, steadfastly refusing to sign the oath. In 1535 he was tried, convicted of treason, and beheaded. Five hundred years later, the Catholic Church made More a saint.
- * martyr
someone who suffers or dies for the sake of a religion, cause, or principle
- * humanist
referring to a Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living
- * satire
literary or artistic work ridiculing human wickedness and foolishness
- * tyranny
form of government in which an absolute ruler uses power unjustly or cruelly
- * republican
refers to a form of Renaissance government dominated by leading merchants with limited participation by others
- * adultery
sexual relationship outside of marriage
- * Protestant Reformation
religious movement that began in the 1500s as a protest against certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church and eventually led to the establishment of a variety of Protestant churches
- * heretic
person who rejects the doctrine of an established church