Who Is/Was Thomas More?

Thomas More was a very successful English lawyer (barrister — Lincoln’s Inn, 1501), a judge, and a Member of Parliament about the time of King Henry VIII. But he was much more than that. He came from a family of lawyers. His father, Sir John More, was a prominent lawyer and a judge.

We would probably not know about Sir Thomas More except for the fact that King Henry had appointed him Lord Chancellor of England and Wales in 1529, replacing Thomas Wolsey, but ultimately the King and Thomas did not see eye to eye with each other. As Lord Chancellor, he was the head of the judiciary and also the presiding officer of the House of Lords. We would call him the Chief Justice, as the House of Lords was the Supreme Court and in charge of regulating the judiciary. Sir Thomas was also one of the most respected people in England and Wales at the time — certainly the most respected lawyer then, and maybe one of the most respected lawyers of all time.

King Henry, you will recall, was married to Katherine of Aragon, his first wife. But he did not want to be married to her and in fact wanted to marry Anne Boleyn. 

The King wished to have Sir Thomas endorse King Henry’s plan to marry Anne Boleyn, but he refused and resigned as Lord Chancellor in 1532 citing ill health, but the reason was surely his disapproval of the marriage. Thomas also refused to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn in June of 1533. When King Henry broke with the Catholic Church in Rome, the King thought (and rightly so) that Sir Thomas also opposed this act.

More also refused to swear to the Act of Succession and thereafter was committed to the Tower of London and ultimately found guilty of treason and beheaded. His last words were, “The King’s good servant, but God’s first.”

No doubt this is why we still talk about Thomas More, five hundred years later. He was a man who stood up for what he believed.

In 1935, Thomas More was made a saint by the Catholic Church. In 2000, Pope John Paul II declared St. Thomas, the “heavenly patron of statesmen and politicians.” In 1980 More was added to the Anglican calendar of Saints and Heroes of the Christian Church, jointly with Bishop John Fisher, who was beheaded with More.

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Peter Heyne

    Mr. Andrew,

    Thank you for raising awareness of Sir Thomas More.

    Re “His last words were, ‘The King’s good servant, but God’s first.’”

    A common misquotation, due in large part to Robert Bolt’s famous play “A Man for All Seasons.” Even the Petition sent to John Paul II for the proclamation of Saint Thomas More as Patron of Statesmen has the disjunctive.

    What More in fact said, as recounted by an eyewitness (The Paris Newsletter Account of More’s Trial and Execution, August 4, 1535), is “I die the King’s good servant *and* God’s first.”
    As More scholar Matthew Mehan notes in an enlightening article in the National Review, “More’s final words were ones not of conflict or tragedy, but of hopefulness and harmony between God and man, church and state, the individual and the collective.”

    For more on More, I highly recommend the Center for Thomas More Studies, helmed by *the* expert on the saint, Dr. Gerald Wegemer. The Marquette Law Library also has on reserve “A Thomas More Source Book” (primary sources).

    Peter Heyne, St. Thomas More Society

    1. Thomas Teague

      I second this. Dr Wegemer is the leading More scholar. And Mr Heyne is absolutely right about the mistranslation of the French “et” as “but”. It probably results from an assumption that More saw an opposition between his duty to God and his duty to the King, but that is not so (cf the advice More had given Thomas Cranmer, that in advising the King he should not tell him what he was able to do, but what he ought to do: “So shall you show yourself a true faithful servant”.

  2. Melissa Greipp

    Another good book on Thomas More is The Life of Thomas More, by Peter Ackroyd.

  3. Mike Zimmer

    Hi, Hilary Mantel’s novel, “Wolf Hall,” winner of the Booker prize, is, of course, a novel. But it appears to be based on deep historical research. In it, Thomas Cromwell comes out looking better that “we” thought, and Thomas More worse.

    The novel does, however, end before the trial of Ann Bolyen which was a charade mastermined by Cromwell. Mantel is apparently writing a sequel starting there.

  4. Gordon Hylton

    As Mike Zimmer’s comment suggests, historical opinion regarding More’s character is quite divided. The Peter Ackroyd biography is quite favorable to More, but Ackroyd is a journalist and literary critic, not a trained historian.

    Other biographers have reached different conclusions. Richard Marius, a member of the Harvard faculty from 1978 to his death in 1999, characterized More as a man given to religious fanaticism and intolerance in his 1985 work, Thomas More: A Biography. Literary historian James Wood, also a Harvard professor, has used the phrase, “cruel in punishment, evasive in argument, lusty for power, and repressive in politics” to summarize More’s career. Englishman Jasper Ridley, educated at Oxford and the Sorbonne, described More even more harshly as “a particularly nasty sadomasochistic pervert.” Brian Monynahan forms a similar opinion of More in his book on William Tynsdale and the English Bible.

    Catholics tend to admire More because of the steadfast way he refused to acknowledge Henry VIII as the head of the English Church. Protestants and non-religious commentators tend to view him as a tyranical figure who was unwilling to tolerate any dissent on religious matters or permit the Bible to be made available in English. At least such six dissenters were tortured and then burned alive upon his orders as Lord Chancellor.

    Part of the confusion about More stems from the overwhelmingly favorable portrayal of him in Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons.” Viewers assume that this is an histocially accurate account of his life, but I believe that all historians, including Peter Ackroyd, would acknowledge that this is not the case.

    More was a major figure in English history, but he was hardly unblemished.

  5. Theloh Slobus

    Gordon Hylton’s claims “Protestants and non-religious commentators tend to view him as a tyranical figure who was unwilling to tolerate any dissent on religious matters or permit the Bible to be made available in English. At least such six dissenters were tortured and then burned alive upon his orders as Lord Chancellor.” Wikipedia describes the subject of ‘A man for all seasons’ as an ‘agnostic’ and that presumably makes him some kind of non-religious commentatator (as I would also describe myself, being very much an ex-Catholic and ex-Christian agnostic). Some Protestants view him as a monster, but he is also a canonized saint of the ‘Protestant’ Church of England. And I know of no evidence that any heretic was executed ‘on his orders’ while he was Lord Chancellor – it would be strange if they were, as issuing such orders was the job of the courts. He contributed to a climate that facilitated such executions, but he was presumably not alone in doing so. Jasper Ridley makes him a villain and Wolseley a hero on the basis that there were only 2 executions of heretics during Wolseley’s much longer period in office, but quite likely this was just because Wolseley got lucky in his timing compared to More, with the rate of executions presumably reflecting the number of heretics and the fears of the Church in general far more than the views of one single prominent individual. I know of no evidence that More attended any of these executions, nor any other evidence to back up Ridley’s charge of ‘sadism’.

  6. Gordon Hylton

    The six Christian dissenters burned at the stake for heresy during More’s chancellorship were Thomas Hitton, Thomas Bilney, Richard Bayfield, John Tewkesbery, Thomas Dusgate, and James Bainham. This can be confirmed by either the pro-More biography by Peter Ackryod or the less flattering portrayal by Richard Marius.

    As Marius writes on p. 407 of his above-mentioned biography, “More believed that they (Protestants) should be exterminated, and while he was in office he did everything in his power to bring that extermination to pass.”

  7. Theloh Slobus

    Correction to my comment of December 6th 2013, where I wrote: “Wikipedia describes the subject of ‘A Man for All Seasons’ as an ‘agnostic.'” I meant to write: “Wikipedia describes the author of ‘A Man for All Seasons’ as an ‘agnostic.'”

    Gordon Hylton’s comment of December 10th 2013 seems to be a reply to my comment 4 days earlier, but it doesn’t clearly address the points I was trying to make. To the best of my knowledge, the 6 executions were not on More’s orders, but on the orders of the courts, although More certainly approved of such executions and helped create a climate of opinion that facilitated them, and was presumably not alone in doing so. Also nobody disputes that Marius is one of several writers who portray him as a tyrannical figure. But the fact remains that agnostics such as Robert Bolt (author of “A Man for All Seasons”) and Protestants such as those in the Church of England who canonized him as a saint (despite those 6 executions, which were intended among other things to prevent the English Reformation that eventually created that Church) are clearly not portraying him as a tyrannical figure. Their reasons for not doing so presumably vary but probably come broadly under a heading such as “A man is entitled to be judged by the standards of his time,” and More lived at a time when burning heretics at the stake had been the norm for centuries, and when the problem had become particularly acute and frightening to conservatives as a result of Martin Luther’s success in Germany, and so on. Trying to judge a man by the standards of his time does not mean that we have to like him or approve of what he did (I expect that, like me, Bolt and the Church of England members who canonized him were aware that More would have wanted us burned at the stake for our heretical views had we lived in his day, so we’re hardly likely to approve of the burning of heretics, but that isn’t really the point).

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