Thomas More was born on February 6, 1478 in London. His parents, John and Agnes Graunger More, sent their young son to Saint Anthony’s School on Threadneedle Street in London. The Elder More was a lawyer and later a judge; placing great value on the faith, he sent his son to live in the house of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Archbishop Morton saw the young man’s academic potential and was instrumental in his going to Oxford . After two years of university life, he entered Lincoln ‘s Inn as a law student and in 1501 was admitted to the bar. Within three years he was a member of Parliament. It was during these events in More’s life that he began a lifelong friendship with Erasmus of Rotterdam, the famous humanist, scholar, theologian, and satirist.
More was very religious, perhaps from his years under the Archbishop’s tutelage, perhaps from his own inclinations. He was very attracted to the London Carthusians, and there is some evidence to suggest the Franciscans had appeal to him. In the end, he chose marriage with Jane Colt of Netherhall in Essex . They were married in 1505 and became the parents of four children: Margaret, Elizabeth, Cecilia, and John, of whom his eldest, Margaret, or Meg, was known to be his most beloved.
More was a brilliantly educated man of the world in the best sense and, without living a monastic life, might be described as an ascetic. He wore a hair shirt, undertook voluntary fasts and penances, assisted at Mass daily, and read portions of the Divine Office. In the home, night prayers were recited by the entire household, including the servants. At mealtime, one of the More children would read several verses of Scripture, along with a brief accompanying commentary. More himself seems to have been spiritually nourished by The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis; the Meditationes Vitae Christi , in his time attributed to Saint Bonaventure; and the Scale of Perfection by the English mystical writer Walter Hilton.
The accession of Henry VIII to the throne in 1509 at first augured well for the young lawyer. Within a year he was appointed undersheriff of the city of London. His career seemed to be soaring when tragedy struck. His beloved wife, Lady Jane, died. Within seven weeks he married Alice Middleton, a widow seven years older than himself. Lady Alice filled a tremendous gap in the More household. A woman of great common sense, blessed with keen humor and easy conversation, she complemented Master More and brought a great deal of needed love and warmth to the family.
In 1516 More completed Utopia , the work for which he is best remembered. In the same year, Henry VIII and his Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, determined that More’s talents could best be used by active service to the Crown. Thomas did not refuse the many promotions coming his way, but was far more disposed to the scholarly, intellectual life and would have been quite content to remain in such circumstance. In 1529 he was named Lord Chancellor to succeed Wolsey. To listen to Erasmus, the choice could not have been wiser: “In serious matters no man’s advice is more prized, while if the king wishes to recreate himself, no man’s conversation is gayer.”
More, on the other hand, had no illusions about it all, especially Henry VIII, and he confided to his son-in-law William Roper, “I have no cause to be proud thereof, for if my head would win him a castle in France , it should not fail to go.”
One of the more curious notes of history is that Henry VIII had been named Defender of the Faith for an apologetical work in which he strongly defended the office of the papacy. It is even more curious that it appeared at a time when Thomas More’s thinking had not developed as fully on the subject. As the years went by, Henry grew more and more frustrated as his queen, Catherine of Aragon, was not producing any male heirs to the throne. He wished to divorce her and marry Ann Boleyn, but Pope Clement VII refused to annul the marriage. Such were the beginnings that led to his separation from Rome . Henry imposed on all the clergy an acknowledgment of himself as “Protector and Supreme Head of the Church of England”.
In May 1532, More resigned as Lord Chancellor and the English bishops submitted their loyalty and obedience to Henry as the head of the Church of England. More’s resignation did not reduce him to abject poverty, but significantly reduced his income. Many of his household staff were dismissed. For the next year and a half he quietly busied himself in writing.
On March 23, 1534, Pope Clement VII declared that the marriage of Henry and Catherine of Aragon had indeed been valid. It made little difference to Henry because one week later, on March 30, Parliament passed the Act of Succession, opposition to which constituted high treason. The Act granted legitimate succession to the throne to the offspring of Henry and Anne Boleyn and negated the same to any children of Henry and Catherine. Shortly hereafter, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy, confirming Henry as Supreme head of the Church of England. With the Acts of Supremacy and Succession accomplished facts, Henry felt himself in an advantageous position. The bishops, with the sole exception of John Fisher, had submitted.
The great majority of Catholics in England did not follow Thomas More’s example. True, many of the northern Catholic families who came to be known as recusants were left alone if they remained silent and docile; still, most took the Oath of Supremacy, often adding the reservation, ‘so long as it not be contrary to the law of God’. On April 13, 1534, More and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, were tendered the Oath and both refused. More was placed in the custody of the Abbot of Westminster Abbey and twice more refused. For this he was incarcerated in the Tower of London for fifteen months. It was to be a time of prayer, meditation, spiritual writing, and growth in holiness. During this time his family tried, to no avail, to see if there were any way his conscience would allow him to take the Oath. As time wore on, visits with family members became less and less frequent, then ceased altogether. One relationship that grew deeper was that with his daughter Meg, through visits and correspondence.
On February 1, 1535, the Act of Supremacy officially recognized Henry’s ecclesiastical headship in England , became law, and made any denial of the same a treasonable offense. Thomas Cromwell, the King’s principal secretary, paid a visit to Thomas and asked his opinion of the bill, but he would not give one. The months passed quickly, and in May he and his daughter Meg were to have their final visit. During that visit, the two watched a memorable event from More’s cell. Carthusians from the Charterhouse in London had joined More and Fisher in their refusal to recognize Henry’s claim. On this particular day, several of those holy men went to their death.
A few days after Meg’s visit, Thomas Cromwell came to the Tower once more to solicit More’s views concerning the Act of Supremacy, but he was unsuccessful. More declared: “I have not been a man of such holy living as I might be bold to offer myself to death, lest God for my presumption might suffer me to fall.”
On June 19, 1535, three more Carthusians suffered martyrdom on Tower Hill, and on the twenty-second, John Fisher was beheaded. It was the feast of Saint Alban, Protomartyr of Britain, though in recent times More and Fisher have been assigned this feast. Nine days after John Fisher’s death, More was indicted and tried for treason in Westminster Hall. He was found guilty and condemned to death.
In the end, More was dying for the principle of papal primacy. It was a notion that grew in him through the years, one to which he gave more and more time, in light of Henry VIII’s once firm defense. More understood that the primacy or headship of the Pope was the principle source of unity and strength upon which Christ had built his Church, and without that principle the Church could not survive in unified fashion. He was correct, though the majority of his countrymen could not see it at the time.
Early on the morning of July 6, 1535, “the King’s good servant but God’s first” was informed that he would die that day. At age fifty-seven, his life ended with one stroke and his mortal remains were placed with many others in the church of Saint Peter in Chains, inside the Tower walls. His head remained atop a pole on Tower Bridge , but was finally retrieved by his daughter Meg, who had it placed on the Roper vault in the church of Saint Dunstan , outside the west gate of the city of Canterbury , where devout Christians still go in prayer. More was beatified with other English martyrs in 1886 and canonized a saint of the Church in 1936.