More, Sir Thomas, St.
MORE, SIR THOMAS, ST.
Lord chancellor of England and eminent humanist; b. London, Feb. 7, 1477; executed for high treason, London, July 6, 1535. The exact date of his birth has been the subject of much discussion, but the latest summation of the evidence (Marc'Hadour, 34–41) indicates that 1477, not 1478, is most probably correct. More came from a solidly prospering London family, "not famous, but of honest stock," as he says in his epitaph. His father, John More (d. 1530), was a rising member of the legal profession who seems later to have exerted no little pressure on his son to take up a similar career. More was educated at St. Anthony's school in Threadneedle Street, where Nicholas Holt was master, until he was about 12, when his father procured his appointment as a page in the household of Cardinal John morton, Archbishop of Canterbury and Henry VII's Lord Chancellor. In addition to being an expert canon lawyer, Morton was an astute and flexible politician who had helped to overthrow Richard III and bring Henry VII to the throne. In both his Richard III and Utopia More paid fine tribute to his old patron, and it is indeed difficult to overestimate the importance of the training he received from him. It was while serving in Morton's household that More, according to William Roper, his son-in-law and first biographer, "would suddenly at Christmastide sometimes step in among the players, and never studying for the matter, make a part of his own there presently among them, which made the lookers-on more sport than all the players beside" (Roper, 5). The anecdote reveals More's natural talent for adopting a role, for entering into a situation and yet remaining curiously detached from it. Even when he was only 12, the
world was for him a stage, an insight that must have been appreciated by Morton when he predicted (ibid. ) that his young page would prove "a marvelous man."
Student Years. The best dates for More's service with Morton are 1489 or 1490 to 1492. In 1492, through Morton's influence, he matriculated at Canterbury College, Oxford, where he remained until 1494. Little is known about More's Oxford years; although he did remark later on the poor student fare, he was always attached to university life and it was perhaps at Oxford that he first met John colet, William Grocyn, and Thomas linacre, all senior members in the circle of English humanists that More later adorned so brilliantly.
In 1494, probably because of parental pressure, More left Oxford to begin the study of law at New Inn. He transferred to Lincoln's Inn on Feb. 12, 1496, and thereafter rose steadily through the ranks of his profession. Yet as More continued his legal studies in London, other interests constantly engaged his attention. It is here that one finds emerging, for the first time in the historical record, some indication of the intense spirituality that was later so fundamental a feature of his personality. Strongly influenced by Colet's purity of life, he seriously considered the possibility of a career in the Church. For about four years (probably 1500–04) he lived with the Carthusian monks at the London Charterhouse, where he first began the practice, continued throughout his life, of wearing a hair shirt. More's nature, however, as he gradually discovered for himself, was closely connected to the life of the senses; he would seek God through and in the world, not by retiring from it. About November 1504 he married Jane Colt, the oldest daughter of John Colt of Netherhall, Essex. Four children were born to them before Jane's death in the summer of 1511: Margaret (1505), Elizabeth (1506), Cecily (1507), and John (1509).
Erasmus and the London Humanists. It was during these years too that More firmly established himself as a leader among the group of humanists whose activities were then centering in London. erasmus visited England first in 1499, and he and More immediately became bosom friends. More's first literary works (see below) date from that period, and it was most probably about 1501 that he delivered his lectures on St. Augustine's City of God at Grocyn's church (St. Lawrence's), London. Subsequent visits by Erasmus (1505–06, 1509–14), who was rapidly acquiring an international reputation, cemented the friendship between him and More, a bond playfully alluded to in the title of The Praise of Folly (Encomium Moriae), which Erasmus composed at More's house in 1509. More for his part was no doubt instrumental, with Colet, in directing Erasmus toward the great tasks of Biblical and patristic scholarship that were to become his life work.
Yet Erasmus himself often lamented that More— "England's only genius"—had of necessity to devote so much time to his legal work that little room was left for literature. For most of his life More was to feel this tension between the literary studies and the spiritual devotions so dear to his heart, on the one hand, and the endless round of legal business or royal missions, on the other.
Career of Law. By 1510, when he became under-sheriff of London on September 3, More's competence as a lawyer was beyond question, and his income increased accordingly. Within six weeks of his first wife's death, he married Alice Middleton, a widow some years older than himself, who proved a good stepmother to his children despite her somewhat shrewish nature. The family continued to live at The Barge in Bucklersbury until 1524, when More built his "Great House" at Chelsea. Meanwhile, More's oratorical skill at the bar and his reputation for justice and fairness brought him a host of clients. He championed the cause of the citizens on many occasions and often represented the guild companies of the city in both domestic and foreign affairs. By 1515 henry viii, whose coronation in 1509 had been hailed by More in a series of Latin poems, had become fully aware of the young lawyer's talents. More's first royal mission, the famous "Utopian embassy" to the Low Countries, followed (May 7 to Oct. 25, 1515). More had been abroad before in 1508 for a few weeks (Louvain, Paris), but this was his first real introduction to the international circle of humanists that revolved around the ubiquitous Erasmus. In Flanders More met Peter Giles and Jerome Busleyden and formed lasting friendships with them. From August 26 to c. Dec. 20, 1517, he was again abroad on commercial negotiations, and it is about this time that he is first spoken of as in the King's service. It was not until June 21, 1518, however, that he received his first stipend as a royal counselor. On July 23 of that year, he resigned as under-sheriff of London.
The King's Service. There is every indication that More reached his decision to enter Henry's court only after long and perhaps agonizing meditation. The arguments for and against royal service are dramatized in the first book of Utopia (1516), but it is impossible not to consider More's final choice as to some extent a compromise between his idealistic view of the perfect counselor and his practical sense of what could actually be accomplished. He may well have felt that, given Thomas wolsey's apparently earnest efforts to obtain a universal peace, he would be able as a member of the council to give advice that, if it did not lead to good, might yet avoid what would otherwise be very bad. Nevertheless, his role as a champion of the people, which had just been illustrated by his intervention on their behalf in the May-day riots of 1517, was of necessity diminished. In addition, the precious time that he had snatched from his legal work for literary study was lost.
More's activities during the next 12 years (1518–29) centered on the life of the court. He proved an extremely able member of the council, acting on occasion as a secretary who transmitted reports to or from Wolsey and the King, participating in discussions with foreign ambassadors, attending on Henry at such grand events as the Field of the Cloth of Gold in June 1520, and undertaking still another royal mission in 1521 for commercial negotiations with the Hanse diet. Honors were quickly thrust upon him. On May 2, 1521, he became undertreasurer and was knighted. In 1523 Parliament, in which he had previously served on several occasions, chose him as its speaker. The next year saw him appointed high steward of Oxford University, and in 1525 he accepted the same position for Cambridge, becoming also, in October of that year, chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. During
the 1520s too, More participated in the campaign against Lutheran literature, which was beginning to flood England. In 1523 he had written against Martin luther on the King's behalf; and on March 7, 1528, he was to be authorized by Cuthbert tunstall, Bishop of London, to read Protestant books in order to refute them in English. From 1529 until 1534 More gave much of his time to this polemical work against William tyndale, Simon Fish, Robert Barnes, and other early English Protestants.
Henry VIII's "Great Matter." By the time More's controversial English writings began to pour from the press, signs of change were beginning to appear in England too. Henry VIII had consulted More as early as 1527 with regard to his proposed divorce from catherine of aragon, and after a long study of the problem More had told the King that he could not support his case. Henry then promised to use other men in dealing with his "great matter," as it now came to be called. More thus remained aloof from the long series of negotiations that began in earnest after Wolsey's great embassy to France, with More in his entourage, in the summer of 1527. When Henry's case finally came to trial in the summer of 1529, with Lorenzo campeggio and Wolsey serving as papal judges, More was in France negotiating the Treaty of Cambrai (August) with his friend Tunstal. The London trial ended in a stalemate when Campeggio prorogued the court. Wolsey, unable to gratify the King's wishes, was in disgrace.
Lord Chancellor. More returned to England at the end of August. On Oct. 25, 1529, he replaced Wolsey as lord chancellor. More's 2 and a half-year tenure of the realm's highest office has been the subject of much controversy. When the famous Long Parliament (1529–36) opened on November 3, he made a long speech attacking Wolsey and his policies. Reform was in the air, but the direction that it would take was tied to the course of Henry's plans for divorce. Throughout those years, the King's policies, if schismatic, were not irrevocably heretical. The breach with Rome, when it came, did not immediately involve England in doctrinal changes. While many members of the court showed sympathy for the Protestant doctrines, the King himself did not interfere directly with the campaign More, as lord chancellor, waged against heresy. More has been accused of intolerant cruelty in his handling of heresy cases, but such charges cannot be supported. As he constantly affirmed in his apologetic works, he controlled the civil arm of the law only, not the ecclesiastical courts in which heretics were tried. He did oppose heresy staunchly, believing that it was the cause of civil unrest in a realm still Catholic, but he cannot be accused of bigotry or relentless persecution.
More's record in the courts as lord chancellor is much clearer, for all attest to his fairness; Roper notes the remarkable circumstance that, while he was in office, no case remained to be heard in chancery, so prompt and impartial was the justice he meted out. More than 4,000 cases, all tried during his tenure, on file in the public record office are evidence of his diligence. It remains true, however, that while he was chancellor More's power was often more apparent than real. As the Reformation Parliament pursued its course and it became increasingly obvious that Henry must break with Rome if he was to wed Anne Boleyn, More's counsel was sought less and less. On May 15, 1532, the clergy made their complete submission to the King; the next day More resigned, pleading ill health, which was in fact true, as his reason.
Retirement. For a year at least More was able to live in relatively modest circumstances at Chelsea, continuing his polemical writings and devoting himself to those ascetic practices that he had loved throughout his life. But he was absent from Anne's coronation on June 1, 1533, telling his friends that though "he might be devoured, he would never be deflowered" (Roper, 59). More knew indeed what was in store for him; the recently discovered fact that his Treatise on the Passion, once thought to have been written after his imprisonment, was begun in early 1534 indicates the foresight with which he was preparing himself. Pressure was soon generated from the court to make him acquiesce in the King's new title as head of the Church. Given More's European reputation and his position as the most prominent layman in the realm, it was impossible for Henry to proceed without his submission. Various attempts were made by Thomas cromwell, the King's new minister, to implicate him in treasonable activities; but More resolutely refuted the charge. The affair of Elizabeth barton (executed in April 1534), the so-called "Holy-Maid of Kent" who had seen visions prophesying ruin for Henry, was used against More by Cromwell; but More quickly pointed out that he had refused to discuss the King's business with her. On April 12, 1534, More was cited to appear before the commissioners at Lambeth to swear to the Act of Succession and to take the Oath of Supremacy. More was willing to accept the succession but refused the oath. On April 17, with Bp. John fisher, he was committed to the Tower.
Trial and Execution. His real trial then began in earnest, although the formal legal proceedings against him were not conducted until July 1535. For about a year his family was permitted to visit him, and he was allowed to have writing materials and books. But when Cromwell's and Thomas cranmer's interrogations began on April 30, 1535, these privileges were gradually withdrawn. Such a separation from his wife and children was one of More's greatest agonies, and it was made all the more poignant by the fact that they did not seem to understand the reasons for his refusal to take the oath—and, before his conviction, More swore that he would reveal his conscience to no one. Thus he consistently denied, during his interrogations, that he had acted maliciously in refusing to answer. Again and again efforts were made to entrap him either into submission or into uttering words that could be construed as treasonable. But More was too expert a lawyer and too resolutely confirmed in his knowledge of himself to be caught by such ruses. Finally, on July 1, 1535, he was convicted of treason on the perjured evidence of Sir Richard Rich, one of Cromwell's minions. When the verdict was delivered, More at last uttered his mind in a great speech, declaring that he had all the councils of Christendom and not just the council of one realm to support him in the decision of his conscience. He was returned to the Tower until July 6, when, about 9 a.m., he went to his death. Henry had commuted his sentence (hanging and evisceration) to decapitation; More died on the scaffold, after joking merrily with his executioner, affirming that he died "the king's good servant, but God's first." Simply put, his death resulted directly from his belief that no lay ruler could have jurisdiction over the Church of Christ.
More's Relics and Acknowledged Saintliness. After his execution More's head replaced that of Fisher (executed on June 22) on London Bridge. It was later preserved by his daughter, Margaret, and now lies in the Roper vault at St. Dunstan's, Canterbury. His body was buried in the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula in the Tower. Other relics include his seal as under-treasurer, a gold George and the Dragon, two crosses, and two pendants (all at Stonyhurst College). Lady Agnes Eyston-More (East Hendred, Wantage, Berkshire) possesses More's staff and drinking cup. His hair shirt is preserved in the convent of the canonesses regular of St. Augustine's Priory, Newton Abbot, Devonshire. More's Book of Hours, into which he wrote an English prayer while imprisoned in the Tower, is in the hands of a private collector; the autograph manuscript of his Expositio Passionis, his most substantial literary relic, is in the library of the Royal College of Corpus Christi, Valencia, Spain.
More's death was lamented throughout Europe, and so powerful was the memory of his personality that a whole school of biographers wrote his life in the late 16th century. His saintliness was often openly affirmed by this group, but the movement toward canonization was long and arduous, for his cause was linked with that of other English martyrs from the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth I (see england, scotland, and wales, martyrs of). In 1640 Pope Urban VIII created a commission to study evidence on these martyrs, but it was not until 1855 that the cause was brought forward by Canon John Morris as postulator. Leo XIII beatified More on Dec. 29, 1886. In the early 1930s more than 170,000 signatures were gathered requesting canonization from Pius XI. The movement culminated with a papal decree of Feb. 10, 1935, which dispensed with the proved miracles required in the canonical procedure; canonization took place on May 19. More has become the patron of Catholic lawyers and of university students.
Bibliography: A 14-volume edition of the Complete Works is planned for pub. by Yale University. Published to date are v.2, The History of King Richard III, ed. r. s. sylvester (New Haven 1963), and v.4, Utopia, ed. e. surtz and j. h. hexter (New Haven 1965). The 16th-century biographies of the More school include those of w. roper (1557; ed. e. v. hitchcock, Early English Text Society 197; 1935); n. harpsfield (1557, ed. e. v. hitchcock and r. w. chambers, ibid. 186; 1932); the anonymous Ro. Ba. (1598; ed. e. v. hitchcock and p. e. hallett, ibid. 222; 1950); and t. stapleton (1588; tr. p. e. hallett, London 1928). The first of the modern biographies is that of t. e. bridgett, Life and Writings of Sir Thomas More (London 1891), still a useful pioneer work. The most authoritative of this century is r. w. chambers, Thomas More (Westminster, Md. 1949). The religious elements in More's life are emphasized in e. e. reynolds, Saint Thomas More (New York 1953) and a. vÁzquez de prada, Sir Tomás Moro (Madrid 1963). A recent indispensable guide to data on More is g. marc'hadour, L'Univers de Thomas More (Paris 1963), with full bibliog. Also, the volumes appearing in the Yale ed. of his works (see above) are gradually accumulating a considerable body of new biographical material. The More iconography is excellently handled in s. morison, The Likeness of Thomas More, ed. n. barker (New York 1964). The only full bibliog. for the early period is r. w. gibson, comp., St. Thomas More: A Preliminary Bibliography (New Haven 1961). For works after 1750, see f. and m. p. sullivan, Moreana (Kansas City, Mo. 1946). The periodical Moreana, ed. g. marc'hadour (Angers, Fr. 1963–) devotes its triannual issues to new work on More and his circle.
[r. s. sylvester]
Afterfame. A vital part of the influence of St. Thomas More came through the school of More (see more, school of): a significant part of the thought and letters of the early Tudor period bears the impress of More's ideas and character and, after 1535, reflects the widening significance of his life and action and eventual martyrdom. It is in and through such diverse men as John heywood, William rastell, and Sir Thomas Elyot that the influence of More—a force as yet unmeasured in any fullness—is initially to be detected. Yet the influence of More and his afterfame are scarcely to be separated, and both must be studied together with his literary name. The provisional bibliography by Gibson (see bibliog.) includes a section of Moreana, literary allusions down to 1750 (allusions after that date need to be collected); and this section, expanded and corrected by the time the bibliography appears as the final volume in the Yale edition, will provide the materials for a fuller and more accurate charting.
Utopia. More's most famous work is the Utopia (1516), which has been a model or ultimate source of innumerable utopias and dystopias, from Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (1626) to those of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell in the 20th century. It was written during the closing sessions of the Fifth Lateran Council (1512–17) and published on the eve of Luther's posting his 95 theses. Utopia draws upon More's experience as a young devotee of classical and other studies at Oxford and in London, as a law student in Lincoln's Inn, and, after several years living among the London Carthusians, as a practicing lawyer who lectured in the Inns and achieved preeminence as legal counsel for the city of London, as a skilled arbitrator, and as one experienced in trade and diplomatic missions. But above all Utopia is a humanistic work that manages to subsume interests that in lesser minds might have been compartmentalized; its larger meaning is best appreciated when considered in relation to humanistic grapplings not only with philological concerns but also with the pressing problems of political theory and government. Utopia is written in that form closest to the humanist's mind and heart, the dialogue. For the Utopian dialogue is open-ended: it asks the right questions (and Hythlodaye has an ideal combination of indignation and hope, criticism and enthusiasm) and indicates that although there is no final answer to the problems of pride and greed, of injustice and folly, the use of reason provides a guide to tentative solutions.
Book 1 establishes the failure of contemporary England against the backdrop of debate whether a humanist should serve his prince. Hythlodaye's dramatic monologue in bk. 2 (which, Surtz points out, "contains answers and arguments against the implied queries or objections of his auditors") is the answer to the debate of bk. 1 and to the question of what might be done. Utopia is presented as a real country, and its geography and its political and social organizations are tersely described; its educational and religious practices and beliefs are then presented in greater detail. After touching on such miscellaneous matters as household management, conduct of war, and religion, Hythlodaye vehemently argues that pride is the root of the social ills of Christendom and pleads for Utopia—and the narrator More indicates that although he does not agree with all that Hythlodaye has said, he does wish that many Utopian features might be adopted.
This humanistic dialogue has occasioned literary judgments that range from considering it a jeu d'esprit (failing to understand its context and to appreciate its underlying seriousness) to literal readings by Kautsky and others who, failing to understand its form and tone, saw the work as a proclamation of revolt against medieval feudalism or nascent bourgeois materialism and as a program for socialistic measures, communism, or the like. Chambers's view that the "underlying thought of Utopia is always, With nothing save Reason to guide them, the Utopians do this; and yet we Christian Europeans …" has been widely accepted, but is surely, as Surtz judges it to be, too narrow and moralistic. More was writing at a historical moment whose great urgency is attested by the failure of the Fifth Lateran Council and other events. He appears to have been making one final appeal for the full application of reason to contemporary economic, social, and ecclesiastic problems and making the appeal in the humanistic dialogue and language. He developed his argument like a declamatio: "postulating a society built upon and with reason alone, let us see what they could do," and, given More's own love of jesting and his work with Erasmus on Lucian and the ironic mode, used much wordplay and great irony throughout. The festive quality reinforces the thought, and it enabled the author in good humanistic fashion both to teach and to delight.
Other Works. In order to appraise More's reputation on the Continent as one of the foremost Latinists of his century, his other Latin writings, in particular his epigrams, his other Latin poems, his translations of Lucian, and his Latin epistles must be included with the immortal Latin masterpiece, Utopia. This would establish his rank with bede, john of salisbury, and later John Milton as one of the greatest Latinists in the long range of English literary history.
More's other writings also served as models. The biography of Richard III, which has been called the first English historical work to be written after classical modes and models—and thus the first humanistic English history—is now known to be indubitably More's. It is a great achievement, in both its Latin and English versions, and the simultaneous composition of such a literary work is itself rare. This biography shaped Shakespeare's dramatic rendering, and it has controlled the English conception of this monarch down to contemporary times. More is likewise credited as the inventor of the term "atonement," which appears for the first time in Richard III (see atonement). The controversial writings, largely in English, are only now beginning to be studied fully and in depth (by the editors of the Yale edition), and their influence on later writers of the Reformation is being searched out and evaluated. Such books as John jewel's Apology (1562) inevitably look back to More's work, as does much of Richard hooker; and the controversy between More and St. German is recapitulated in the controversy between Cosin and Morice in the 1590s: even now it is difficult to appreciate how much of later Tudor controversies was fought on ground chosen or seized by More and Tyndale. A significant part of the afterfame of More has been, appropriately, in the theater, although only two plays about More are at all well known. R. C. Bald has surveyed the story and the scholarly problems of the Elizabethan play Sir Thomas More, but there is no convenient study for the éclat of Robert Bolt's 20th-century play. Yet Bolt's A Man for All Seasons has eclipsed all earlier attempts to put Thomas More on the stage and has had a remarkable success not only in the theater but also as a school text since its London production in 1960.
Feast: July 9.
Bibliography: For the influence of More's History. g. b. churchill, "Richard the Third up to Shakespeare," Palaestra 10 (1900) 64–, for 16th century. h. h. glunz, Shakespeare and Morus (Cologne 1938); cf. Complete Works, v.2, ed. r. s. sylvester (New Haven 1965). a. w. reed, Early Tudor Drama (London 1926). h. c. white, English Devotional Literature (Prose ), 1600–1640 (Madison, Wis. 1931); Tudor Books of Saints and Martyrs (Madison 1963). r. w. chambers, Thomas More (Westminster, Md. 1949), esp. "Epilogue: More's Place in History"; The Place of St. Thomas More in English Literature and History (London 1937); On the Continuity of English Prose from Alfred to More and His School (Early English Text Society 191A; 1957). r. c. bald, "The Booke of Sir Thomas More and Its Problems," Shakespeare Survey 2 (New York 1949) 44–61. a. c. southern, Elizabethan Recusant Prose, 1559–1582 (London 1950). r. j. schoeck, "The Place of Sir Thomas More," Revue de l'Université d'Ottawa 34 (1964) 176–190; "Sir Thomas More, Humanist and Lawyer," University of Toronto Quarterly 34 (1964) 1–13. p. hogrefe, The Sir Thomas More Circle (Urbana, Ill. 1959). For Utopia. r. w. gibson and j. m. patrick, comps., Thomas More: A Preliminary Bibliography (New Haven 1961), contains bibliog. of editions and valuable material on Utopian literature. Utopia, ed. e. surtz and j. h. hexter (Complete Works 4; New Haven 1965), contains Latin text and modern Eng. version, with full bibliog., introd., and nn. Utopia, ed. e. surtz (pa. New Haven 1964), best general reader's ed., modern Eng. only.
[r. j. schoeck]
"More, Sir Thomas, St.." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 21, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/more-sir-thomas-st
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