Sir Thomas More, 1527, by Hans Hans Holbein, the Younger
Sir Thomas More, 1527

Thomas More is best remembered for his refusal to acknowledge Henry VIII supremacy over the Church and later executed. More was considered a genius by his contemporaries.

Thomas was born in London on 7 February 1478, the son of Judge John More. He was taken into the Archbishop of Canterbury John Morton’s household as a page for two years, before he went to Oxford in 1492. More studied the Greek language and the classics under humanists William Grocyn and Thomas Linacre.

However, Judge More wanted his son to study law, so he sent Thomas to Lincoln’s Inn to learn law and follow the family tradition.

English Humanism

The humanist Desiderius Erasmus was very impressed with More’s piety, wit and knowledge of Greek when he first visited England in 1499. They became lifelong friends and mixed in the same circles.

Desiderius Erasmus in 1523
Desiderius Erasmus in 1523

More had earned a reputation as a brilliant classical scholar of his age, as he was educated in both Latin and Greek, by He had already established a brilliant legal career when he was called to the Bar in 1502.

He became a Member of Parliament in 1504 and Sheriff of the City of London in 1510.

More married Jane Colt in 1505 and they produced four children: Margaret, John, Elizabeth and Cecily. All More’s children, including his daughters, had a classical education.

However, Jane died in 1511, aged 23, so More quickly remarried for the sake of his young children. His second wife, Alice Middleton, was a widow described as “aged, blunt and rude” but she proved she was an excellent housekeeper.

His home in Bucklersbury was a happy home and a meeting place for humanist scholars, although More’s second wife did not take kindly to Erasmus’ regular visits. The Mores’ household was run along firm Christian principles, with morning and evening prayers, with godly discussions at mealtimes.

The Family of Sir Thomas More, c 1594
The Family of Sir Thomas More, c 1594

More is described as calm, witty, kind, wise, a man of faith who refused to compromise his principles. He had a talent for friendship as he was essentially courteous and charming. However he was scathing when reviling heretics and those of whom he disapproved.

Publishing Success

His first literary success occurred in 1511 with his translation of the Italian humanist Pico della Mirandola’s life.

Illustration for the 1516 first edition of Utopia.
Illustration for the 1516 first edition of Utopia.

More’s unflattering portrait of History of Richard the Third was published c 1514. It was regarded as the first “modern” biography.

In 1515, after two diplomatic missions for Henry VIII, More was persuaded to enter the King’s service. More, unlike most courtiers, was an intellectual who understood the superficiality of court life. He disdained the outward trappings of wealth and power. More was often invited to join the King and his Queen Catherine of Aragon to make merry or discuss astronomy, geometry, divinity and various other subjects.

His best-known work, Utopia, was published in 1516, describing the ideal state using Renaissance idealism. It was written in response to the scepticism of Machiavelli’s The Prince and a powerful critique of England’s political system, as well as monarchs and courtiers’ vicious plotting and scheming.

Royal Service

More was working as an unofficial secretary to the King, and Henry VIII preferred him to the Privy Council in 1517.

Henry VIII knighted More in 1521 in recognition of his assistance with the Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (The Defence of the Seven Sacrements). Then More was also appointed Under-Treasurer of the Exchequer. Pope Leo X rewarded Henry with the title, Defender of the Faith.

More promotions quickly followed, as More was chosen as Speaker of the Commons in 1523 and made Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1525.

He moved to Chelsea where the King often called in unexpectedly “to be merry with him” or for dinner.

Portrait of Henry VIII
Portrait of Henry VIII

Erasmus suggested Hans Holbein the Younger travelled to England. Holbein stayed at the Mores’ home. Holbein was recommended to More’s humanist friends, after he commissioned some family portraits.

His last appointment was Lord Chancellor of England on 26 October 1529. More originally declined but Henry refused to take no for answer. More busied himself to stop Lutheran heresy spreading within England, and he dealt severely with reformers, including scathing attacks on William Tyndale.

Henry VIII planned divorcing his Queen, as he had no male heir, and he was attracted to Anne Boleyn, a lady-in-waiting.

An Act of Parliament settled the succession upon the Princess Elizabeth on 23 March 1534. The Act also required every loyal subject to swear an oath recognizing Henry as Supreme Head of the Church. More and Bishop Fisher refused so they were sent to the Tower of London.

He was brought to Westminster for his trial on 1 July 1535, and he was convicted of high treason, condemned and beheaded on 6 July.

The award-winning film, A Man For All Seasons (1966), tells of More’s opposition to Henry VIII’s plans to divorce his wife to marry Anne Boleyn.


Lacey, Robert, The Life and Times of Henry VIII, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1972 (Reprinted and reissued 1992)

Smith, Carol and Roddy, Quicknotes Christian History Guidebook, Barbour Publishing, Uhrichville, OH, 2001

Schama, Simon, A History of Britain: At The Edge of the World 3000BC-AD1603, Volume 1, BBC Worldwide Ltd, London, 2000

Starkey, David, Monarchy: From the Middle Ages To Modernity, HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2006

Thompson, Bard, Humanists & Reformers, A History of the Renaissance and Reformation, Wm B Erdmans Publishing Co, Grand Rapids Michigan, 1996

Weir, Alison, Henry VIII King and Court, Jonathan Cape, London, 2001

© 2010 Carolyn Cash

This article was originally published by Suite 101 on 17 March 2010.

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