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Sir Thomas More

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Sir Thomas More
Sir Thomas More
(Detail from a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1527)

Sir Thomas More (AKA St. Thomas More) (1478 - 1535) was an English philosopher, scholar, statesman and writer of the Renaissance period.

His writing and scholarship earned him a great reputation as a Christian Humanist scholar in continental Europe, and was famously described by Robert Whittington as "a man for all seasons". He occupied many public offices under King Henry VIII, rising to the position of Lord Chancellor of England.

More coined the word "utopia", a name he gave to an ideal, imaginary land whose political system he described in his famous 1516 book of the same name. The book was a forerunner of the utopian literary genre, and has been claimed by some modern Socialists as key in the early development of Socialist ideas.


Thomas More was born on 7 February 1478 in London, England, the sole surviving son of Sir John More (a prominent judge) and Agnes Granger (or Grainger or Graunger). As a youth, he served as a page in the household of Archbishop Morton, who predicted that More would become a "marvelous man". More went on to study at Oxford under Thomas Linacre and William Grocyn.

Around 1494, More returned to London to study law, was admitted to Lincoln's Inn in 1496, and became a barrister in 1501. Even while studying to be a lawyer, he subjected himself to the discipline and the monastic life of the Carthusian monks at a nearby monastery, and the prayer, fasting, and penance habits stayed with him for the rest of his life. However, his sense of duty to serve his country in the field of politics won out over both law and the church, and he entered Parliament in 1504.

In 1505, at the age of 27, More married his first wife, the 17 year old Jane Colt. Their marriage was a happy one, and they bore four children: Margaret (Meg, his favorite, who later married William Roper), Elizabeth (Beth, who married William Daunce), Cicely (Cecy, who married Giles Heron) and John (Jack). In addition, they adopted an orphan girl, Margaret Giggs. He was a very devoted father and, unusually for the era, he educated his daughters as he did his son, saying that women were just as intelligent as men (and taking particular pride in his eldest daughter Meg's achievements).

Jane Colt died in 1511, and More remarried almost immediately (so his children would have a mother) to Dame Alice Middleton, a widow seven years his senior. They bore no children of their own, although he adopted her daughter, also called Alice.

More had become a close friend of Desiderius Erasmus during the latter's first visit to England in 1499, and the two Humanists began of a lifelong friendship and correspondence. Together, they produced Latin translations of the works of Lucian in 1506 during Erasmus' second visit and, on his third visit in 1509, Erasmus dedicated his "Encomium Moriae" ("In Praise of Folly") to More.

From 1510 to 1518, More was one of the two undersheriffs of the city of London, a position of much responsibility, and he earned a reputation as an honest and effective public servant. In 1517, he entered the service of the young King Henry VIII of England as a counselor and personal servant, and in 1518 he became a member of the Privy Council. After a diplomatic mission to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, he was knighted and made Under-Treasurer in 1521. As secretary and personal advisor to King Henry VIII, Sir Thomas became governmentally influential, welcoming diplomats, drafting official documents and liaising between the King and his Lord Chancellor, Thomas Cardinal Wolsey.

In 1523, More became the Speaker of the House of Commons, where he helped establish the parliamentary privilege of free speech. Later, he became High Steward for the universities of Oxford and of Cambridge, and, in 1525, he became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a position holding administrative and judicial control of much of northern England.

He was passionate about maintaining the unity of Christendom and he saw the fragmentation and discord of the Reformation of Martin Luther (1483 - 1546) as a threat to the harmony and strict hierarchy he so greatly valued. With this in mind, he assisted Henry VIII with writing the "Defence of the Seven Sacraments" in 1521 (a polemic response to Luther's "On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church"), beginning a violent exchange which led to intemperate personal insults. He also aided Cardinal Wolsey in preventing Lutheran books from being imported into England, and assisted with a Star Chamber edict against heretical preaching.

Up until this time, More had been fully devoted to King Henry and to the cause of royal prerogative. He initially cooperated with the king's new policy, denouncing both Cardinal Wolsey and the opinion of the theologians at Oxford and Cambridge that the marriage of Henry to Catherine of Aragon had been unlawful. But as Henry began to deny the authority of the Pope, More's qualms grew.

After the fall of Thomas Wolsey in 1529, More became Lord Chancellor, the first layman ever to hold the post. As Lord Chancellor, More had six Lutherans burned at the stake and imprisoned as many as forty others in his zeal to wipe out collaborators of William Tyndale, the exiled Lutheran who had clandestinely published a Protestant translation of the Bible in English in 1525. Although he always denied allegations of violence or torture while interrogating them, More presided over further burnings, including those of the former Benedictine monk Richard Bayfield in 1531 and the priest and writer John Frith in 1533.

In 1530, More refused to sign a letter by the leading English churchmen and aristocrats asking the Pope to annul Henry's marriage to Catherine, and in 1531 he attempted to resign after being forced to take an oath declaring the king the Supreme Head of the English Church. In 1532, he again asked the king again to relieve him of his office, claiming illness and sharp chest pains, and this time Henry granted his request.

When, in 1533, More refused to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn as the Queen of England, Henry had More charged with patently false charges of accepting bribes, which were dismissed for lack of any evidence, and the next year he was also cleared of a trumped-up conspiracy charge. However, later in 1534, More refused to swear to the Act of Succession and the Oath of Supremacy (which denied the authority of the Pope), and he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. In 1535, he was charged with high treason for denying the validity of the Act of Succession, and was convicted (on evidence which was almost certainly perjured).

He was executed by beheading, alongside Bishop Fisher, on 6 July 1535, and his head was placed on a pike over London Bridge for a month, according to the normal custom for traitors. His daughter Margaret Roper rescued it, and the skull is believed to rest in the St. Dunstan's Church in Canterbury. He is considered a Catholic martyr, and was beatified in 1886, canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1935, and declared the patron saint of politicians and statesmen in 1980.

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Despite his busy political career, More was a prolific scholar and literary man. In his communications with other Humanists, Erasmus described More as a model Man of Letters, and he was famously described in 1520 by Robert Whittington (c. 1480 - 1553) as "a man for all seasons". As a Christian Humanist, he sought the re-examination and revitalization of Christian theology by studying the Bible and the writings of the Church Fathers in light of classical Greek literary and philosophic traditions.

Between 1513 and 1518, More worked on an unfinished historiography, the "History of King Richard III", later published in both English and Latin. It reflected an early move from mundane medieval chronicles to a more dramatic writing style.

In 1516, More wrote his most famous and controversial work, "Utopia", a novel wherein a traveler describes the political arrangements of the imaginary island country of Utopia. In Utopia, private property does not exist, and there is almost complete religious toleration. Atheism, however, is not tolerated, with More arguing that, if a man did not believe in a god or in an afterlife, he could never be trusted because logically he would not acknowledge any authority or principle outside himself. The perfectly orderly and reasonable social arrangements of Utopia (based loosely on monastic communalism) are contrasted with the contentious social life of European states, and the social need for order and discipline is emphasized (rather than liberty).

Although some have argued that "Utopia" was largely ironic and that More was at every point an orthodox Christian, it has also attracted the admiration of modern Socialists, who have argued that it was a shrewd critique of economic and social exploitation in pre-modern Europe, and that More was one of the key intellectual figures in the early development of Socialist ideas.

Along with Erasmus, More was responsible for reviving Hedonism to some extent, defending it on religious grounds. He argued that not only did God design us to be happy, but that He uses our desire for happiness to motivate us to behave morally. Perhaps more importantly, More distinguished between the pleasures of the mind and pleasures of the body, and argued that we should pursue pleasures that are more naturally grounded, so that we do not become preoccupied with artificial luxuries.

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