The rise and fall of Sir Thomas More

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The rise and fall of Sir Thomas More

Thomas More

Thomas More was born in London on February 7th 1478, the son of a prominent barrister. He went to one of the best schools in London, and then on to study Greek at Oxford. He was persuaded by his father to change his academic pursuits to law. He had seriously considered becoming a monk at one stage, but became a lawyer instead. In 1504 was elected an MP.

He was a friend of Erasmus, they corresponded frequently.

Probably influenced by his reading of Greek philosophy, and by his contact with Humanists, he wrote Utopia in 1516.

He came to the king's notice quite early on in the reign. (Henry liked to think that he was a bit of an intellectual, and he surrounded himself with notable poets, writers and philosophers.) More found himself being invited to court more and more frequently. He was promoted to Chancellor in 1529.

Wolsey fell partly because he failed to secure a divorce for the king from Catherine of Aragon. Henry replaced him with another man who was not fully committed to securing a divorce for him. More found himself increasingly torn between what was asked of him as chancellor, and his own conscience. He resigned in May 1532, on grounds of ill health.

He was invited to the marriage of Henry and Anne, but declined the invitation. Henry was angry at this affront. Those who were close to the king, and looking towards bettering their positions jumped on this opportunity, and soon More was summoned to court on jumped-up charges of accepting a bribe. The charge was dropped.

In 1533 Henry passed the Act of Supremacy and the Act of Succession, which made him the Head of the Catholic church in England, and all of Anne's children heirs to the throne. All adults were made to declare an oath accepting the changes. In the preamble to the Act of Succession, there was a denial of the pope as the Head of the Catholic church in England. More did not contradict the oath, but he refused to swear it (as did Bishop John Fisher).

He was sent to the Tower of London, where he stayed a prisoner for 14 months.

On May 7th his trial began. His main point of defence was that a man was being convicted for being silent, and this did not constitute treason. He is reported to have said, "'Tis God alone who can judge the secrets of the heart." But with witnesses like Richard Rich (his former pupil) testifying against him, and the decision of the king and council being predetermined, he stood little chance, and he probably knew this. It would have been far too dangerous for Henry, this late on in the game, for More's argument to win.

He was executed at the Tower, and his head was placed on London Bridge for many weeks, until purchased by his daughter.

Thomas More's reputation might precede him. So much has been written, played and filmed about him since his death, that it is hard to separate the man from the myth, and find out who the real Thomas More was.

He was canonised by the Catholic church in 1935.

He has an obelisk dedicated to him in Russia.

He played the role of a 'moral paragon' at the outset of the impeachment of President Clinton in January 1999.

William Roper wrote of him in 1557, "of clear and unspotted conscience...more pure and white than the whitest snow".

For a long time now the popular image of More has been of a man who lived with an ideal, loving and supportive family, who followed his conscience in all that he did; all this against the tyranny of Henry VIII. The stage for this was set with his first few biographies, which were written in 1557 and 1558. These dates are significant as it was during the reign of Catholic Mary, and More was used as an example of a man who held true to the Faith.

Yet, this was a man who persecuted heretics. He fully believed that heresy deserved a sentence of capital punishment. Guy says, "If post-Enlightenment moral and humanitarian values are invoked, he was an inquisitor."

There are, what Guy terms, 'biographical blackholes', in so much that his death is the focus of most books, rather than his whole life. There are huge gaps in sources, and the letters that More wrote while in prison might not be wholly reliable. He may have known that they would in some way be used for public purposes after his death. "From the beginning, it was clear that the letters had more than one audience."