Sir Thomas More - Historical Profile

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Thomas More
The History
1478 - 1535 (aged 57)
"No famous family,
but of honest stock"
Epitaph on More's tomb,
chosen by himself.

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Thomas More


  • In 1515, Thomas More published Utopia, in which he theorized about a perfect world. In Utopia, More foresaw cities of 100,000 inhabitants as being ideal. In his Utopia, there was no money, just a monthly market where citizens bartered for what they needed. Persons engaged to each other were allowed to see each other naked before marriage, so that they would know if the other was 'deformed.' In Utopia, More also fashioned a society in which individual rights had lower priority than the needs of the community. Therefore, citizens reported on each other for the common good. [see LINKS below]

    • Six years before Utopia was published, Henry VII died and was replaced on the throne by his son Henry VIII. King Henry took a liking to Thomas More, although More did not reciprocate. The king was known to put his arm around More. Privately, More did not like Henry VIII and told his oldest son-in-law that "If my head would win him a castle in France, it should not fail to go."

    • "This growing favour, by which many men would have been carried away," writes the Encyclopedia Britannica, "did not impose upon More. He discouraged the king's advances, showed reluctance to go to the palace, and seemed constrained when he was there. Then the king began to come to More's house and would dine with him without previous notice."

    • "As Thomas More wrote in Utopia: 'You, if you be disposed and can find in your heart to follow some prince`s court, shall with your good counsels greatly help and further the commonwealth. Wherefore there is nothing more appertaining to your duty, that is to say to the duty of a good man.'

    • More himself was well aware that in the real world of the Renaissance court, compromise was the most that morality and honesty could hope to achieve. His own career would show how difficult that was...." (Ives, E.W.)

    • There were six heretics burned at the stake during More's Chancellorship. Ackroyd notes that More explicitly "approved of Burning". More spoke of John Twekesbury as he "burned as there was neuer wretche I wene better worthy." Richard Marius writes in his biography of More: "To stand before a man at an inquisition, knowing that he will rejoice when we die, knowing that he will commit us to the stake and its horrors without a moment's hesitation or remorse if we do not satisfy him, is not an experience much less cruel because our inquisitor does not whip us or rack us or shout at us."

    • When Sir Thomas resigned as Lord Chancellor on May 16th, 1532 he promised to withdraw from public life in order 'to bestow the residue of my life in mine age now to come about the provision for my soul in the service of God, and to be your Grace's beadsman and pray for you'.

    • He wrote: I considered it my duty to protect the integrity of my reputation. After resigning my office, I waited until the opening of the new term, and, so far, no one has advanced a complaint against my integrity. Either my life has been so spotless or, at any rate, I have been so circumspect that, if my rivals oppose my boasting of the one, they are forced to let me boast of the other. As a matter of fact, the King himself has pronounced on this situation at various times, frequently in private, and twice in public. ("Letter to Erasmus, June 1533," Selected Letters pp. 179-180)

    "Shortly after Christmas 1533, Thomas Cromwell received an anonymous tip-off that Thomas More was preparing to publish an attack on Henry. Unable to take the risk, Cromwell raided the shop of More's publisher. Nothing was found, and More told Cromwell in a letter that he hadn't written anything recently, apart from a book defending the theology of the mass....

    A month before Anne Boleyn's coronation in 1533, More had published 'The Apology of Sir Thomas More', a long book defending the old order in the Catholic Church. More advised 'every good Christian man and woman' to 'stand by the old, without the contrary change of any point of our old belief for anything brought up for new'. He urged all Henry's subjects 'to stand to the common well-known belief of the common-known Catholic Church of all Christian people, such faith as by yourself, and your fathers, and your grandfathers, you have known to be believed, and have (over that) heard by them that the contrary was in the times of their fathers and their grandfathers also taken evermore for heresy'. ...

    When Thomas More was a prisoner in the Tower, he and Bishop John Fisher persuaded one of the lieutenant of the Tower's servants, George Gold, to carry letters between them. Asking what he should do if he were caught and questioned, Gold was told by both More and Fisher to deny everything as by English law he was not bound to incriminate himself. But 'if he were sworn upon a book [i.e. questioned on oath], that then ... he should discharge his conscience and say the truth.' Thomas More thought that dissimulation and deceit were morally justifiable in the face of Henry's cruelty, except on oath."
    [Source: Historian John Guy on]

    The Charges against him:

    It should be noted that More accepted Parliament's ability to decide the succession in favor of the king's children with Anne Boleyn, for it was a legal issue and Parliament was within its rights to decide it. However, he would not take the Oath recognizing Henry's position as Supreme Head of a new English church.

    He also had tried to avoid saying anything about the Oath, believing that his silence protected him from prosecution. After his conviction, More discharged his conscience to the court, and at last laid out his objection to Henry's assumption as Head of the Church of England. It resided in the fact that final authority over the universal church was granted by Christ to St. Peter and his successors, the Popes.
    In More's opinion, neither a temporal ruler nor Parliament had the right to override the Holy See's authority. The Pope was the only validly appointed head of the Universal Church.

    Sir Richard Rich committed perjury during More´s trial, claiming that More had spoken to him against the Oath. More flatly accused Rich of perjury, asking if it would be likely that he would have entrusted the opinion so long sought of him on the Oath to Rich, a man known to be "one of so little truth...if he hadn't revealed his opinion to the King himself?"

    It is important to stress that More was decapitated on the grounds of 'treason,' since refusal to accept the <a class="external" href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">Oath of Supremacy</a> was considered treason.

    His last words were "I die the King's loyal servant but God's first."

    These famous last words alluded to the fact that More had
    previous conversations with Henry VIII about conscience.

    ...His Highness...made me [in 1529], as you well know, his Chancellor of this realm. Soon after, his Grace asked me yet again to look and consider his great matter, and well and indifferently to ponder such things as I should find.... And nevertheless he graciously declared unto me that he would in no wise that I should do or say anything except that I should perceive my own conscience should serve me, and that I should first look unto God and after God unto him, which most gracious words was the first lesson also that ever his Grace gave me at his first coming into his noble service. ("Letter to Sir Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex March 5, 1534," Selected Letters, p. 209)

    I have always, from the beginning [of my service to Henry VIII in 1518], truly used myself of looking first upon God and next upon the King according to the lesson that his Highness taught me at my first coming to his noble service, the most virtuous lesson that ever prince taught his servant.... ("Letter to Margaret More Roper, June 3, 1535"; see Selected Letters, pp. 250-1.)

    Thomas More by Hans Holbein
    Hans Holbein's sketch of Thomas More

    More's Letter to Thomas Cromwell, dated March 1534:

    "So am I he that among other his Grace`s faithful subjects, his Highness being in possession of his marriage and this noble woman (Anne Boleyn) really anointed queen, neither murmur at it nor dispute upon it, nor never did nor will, but without any other manner meddling of the matter among his other faithful subjects, faithfully pray to God for his Grace and hers both long to live and well, and their noble issue too, in such wise as may be to the pleasure of God, honour and surety to themselves, rest, peace, wealth and profit unto this noble realm "

    This letter would later be edited by Catholic writers to exclude the part where More describes Anne as 'noble.'

    More also wrote on the subject of the Boleyn marriage that "[I] neither murmur at it nor dispute upon it, nor never did nor will... I faithfully pray to God for his Grace and hers both long to live and well, and their noble issue too..." <a class="external" href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank" title="Eric Ives">Eric W. Ives</a>, The Life and Death of <a class="external" href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank" title="Anne Boleyn">Anne Boleyn</a> (2004), p. 47.

    Revisionist history was rampantly practiced by both Catholics and Reformers after the deaths of Sir Thomas More and Anne Boleyn. However, More did not attend Anne's coronation on June 1st, 1533. It was reported in Europe that the real reason for More's condemnation was his refusal to assent to the 'Boleyn Marriage,' although this was never put into words by More himself.

    Arrest and Execution:

    Sir Thomas More was investigated in the summer of 1533. He was arrested April 17, 1534 and kept in the Tower of London for over a year, under increasingly harsh conditions. The king hoped that imprisonment would alter More's disposition. It did not.

    He was interrogated for 8 weeks before a Writ of Oyer and Terminer was issued against him on June 26, 1535. More was finally charged with high treason and tried at Westminster on July 1, 1535. Despite his brilliant defense, he was found guilty and executed on July 6, 1535.

    The news shocked all of Europe. It remains one of the most infamous examples of judicial murder during Henry VIII's reign, along with the execution of Anne Boleyn and the five innocent men who died with her nearly a year later.

    Sir Thomas More
    St. Dunstan's, Roper Chapel, Sir Thomas More
    Sir Thomas More - The Tudors Wiki
    More confronts Wolsey
    <a class="external" href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">Margaret's final farewell to More</a>
    Margaret's Final Farewell to More
    Painting at Tyburn Convent, London
    Click LINKS for more information:



    • Guy, John. A Daughter's Love (2008)
    • Ackroyd, Peter. <a class="external" href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">The Life of Thomas More</a>. (1998)
    • Fox, Alistair. Thomas More: History and Providence. (1983)
    • Ridley,Jasper: The Statesman and the Fanatic: Thomas Wolsey and Thomas More (1982)

    • "Saint Thomas's Eve," by Jean Plaidy
    • "A Man for All Seasons," play by Robert Bolt (and Oscar-winning film, 1966)
    • "Portrait of an Unknown Woman," by Vanora Bennett
    Thomas More's Last Letter
    The following letter was written to More's daughter Margaret Roper on 5 July 1535, the day before his execution. More wrote with a stick of charcoal on cloth; King Henry VIII had ordered his books and writing materials to be removed:

    "Our Lord bless you, good daughter, and your good husband, and your little boy, and all yours, and all my children, and all my god-children and all our friends. Recommend me when ye may to my good daughter Cecily, whom I beseech Our Lord to comfort; and I send her my blessing and to all her children, and pray her to pray for me. I send her a handkercher, and God comfort my good son, her husband. My good daughter Daunce hath the picture in parchment that you delivered me from my Lady Coniers, her name on the back. Show her that I heartily pray her that you may send it in my name to her again, for a token from me to pray for me.

    I like special well Dorothy Colly. I pray you be good unto her. I would wot whether this be she that you wrote me of. If not, yet I pray you be good to the other as you may in her affliction, and to my good daughter Jane Aleyn too. Give her, I pray you, some kind answer, for she sued hitherto me this day to pray you be good to her. I cumber you, good Margaret, much, but I would be sorry if it should be any longer than to-morrow, for it is St. Thomas's even, and the utas of St. Peter; and therefore, to-morrow long I to go to God. It were a day very meet and convenient for me. I never liked your manner towards me better than when you kissed me last; for I love when daughterly love and dear charity hath no leisure to look to worldly courtesy.

    Farewell, my dear child, and pray for me, and I shall for you and all your friends, that we may merrily meet in heaven. I thank you for your great cost. I send now my good daughter Clement her algorism stone, and I send her and my godson and all hers God's blessing and mine. I pray you at time convenient recommend me to my good son John More. I liked well his natural fashion. Our Lord bless him and his good wife, my loving daughter, to whom I pray him to be good, as he hath great cause; and that, if the land of mine come to his hands, he break not my will concerning his sister Daunce. And the Lord bless Thomas and Austin, and all that they shall have."
    Sir Thomas More - The Tudors Wiki
    More bidding his daughter Margaret Roper farewell

    "I do nobody no harm, I say none harm, I think none harm, but wish everybody good. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith I long not to live."
    - More in a letter to Margaret Roper <a class="external" href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">dated May 3, 1535</a>

    Thomas More's Verse

    Thomas More’s body of Latin verse includes five poems, which were written in celebration of the coronation of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon on June 24, 1509. This copy was probably the one presented to the royal couple. It is written in an elegant italic script, and is decorated in the Flemish style.
    Thomas More
    Sir Thomas More (c) by Kevin W. Michael
    Sir Thomas More - The Tudors Wiki
    Thomas More, c.1527-1528. Modern portrait, painted in multimedia. A re-painting based on a sketch of Sir Thomas made by Hans Holbein the Younger in 1527 or 1528. The original painting of The Family of Sir Thomas More, made from Holbein's sketches, was lost in the Great Fire of London. It was re-painted in 1593 (by Rowland Lockey) based on the original sketches, which survived. The portrait above is a modern representation based on Holbein's original sketch of Sir Thomas. This interpretation of Thomas More has been painted using vibrant colors for More's robes, in place
    of the black or dark colors in which we usually see him clothed. In this portrait, he wears a bright violet robe with red and orange sleeves; he also wears the 'S' necklace of Chancellorship.
    Sir Thomas More - The Tudors Wiki

    Thomas More's Statue at Chelsea, London.
    Created in honor of the martyr.
    Patron saint of government, of good politicians,
    and of people who die for their beliefs.
    Miniatures of Erasmus, More and Holbein in this interesting edition of L´eloge....
    L´eloge de la Folie - Desiderius Erasmus
    Boston College - St. Thomas More Collection - Fall 2007
    UTOPIA - 2nd printing - 3rd edition (Basel 1518)
    Early edition of UTOPIA
    ("No Place" from Greek ou+topos), Thomas More.
    Design Hans Hobein. Annotations: early owner.

    The Household of Sir Thomas More
    Boston College - St. Thomas More Collection - Fall 2007
    Clip from "A Man for All Seasons", 1966 adaptation of the
    play by Robert Bolt. More is portrayed here by Paul Scofield, in an Oscar-winning performance.
    <embed height="228" src="" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" width="276" wmode="transparent"/>
    Sir Thomas More - The Tudors Wiki

    Margaret Roper was Sir Thomas More's favorite child. Like her father, she was a brilliant humanist and scholar. In later years, her own daughters would
    inherit her intelligence; so would the other women in the More family. The lineage of her direct descendants, like that of her brother John More, has been lost -- possibly forever.
    <a class="external" href=",Richard%281BLeez%2901.jpg" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">Sir Thomas More - The Tudors Wiki</a>
    Richard Rich, who became a bitter enemy of More's. He delivered what is generally considered perjured testimony to ensure More's conviction. Richard Rich became Chancellor under King Edward VI, and died in his bed.
    <a class="external" href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">Sir Thomas More - The Tudors Wiki</a>
    <a class="external" href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">Sir Thomas More - The Tudors Wiki</a>
    Cecily More Heron

    Sir Thomas More's youngest daughter also suffered for her faith. Like her older sisters, Cecily More was a well-read and educated child, extraordinarily literate for a woman of her times. Her knowledge rivaled that of her sisters. Her husband Giles Heron was convicted of 'speaking too freely'--he was overheard saying something that was considered an insult to the King, even though its 'treasonableness' was questionable.
    Even so, Giles Heron was convicted of treason and hung, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn on August 4, 1540.
    <a class="external" href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">Sir Thomas More - The Tudors Wiki</a>
    John More II
    Sir Thomas More's only son suffered similar persecution for his own reluctance to accept the Oath of Supremacy. He was never considered as smart and clever as his sisters. Nevertheless, he ultimately followed the example of his father by refusing to compromise himself for something he did not believe in. He was imprisoned and later released. After his release he went to Yorkshire to live with his wife. After his death, his children and later descendants continued to hold independent and controversial beliefs. The children of his sister Margaret More Roper, especially her daughter Mary, were also somewhat controversial. However, Mary Roper chose her words carefully; she produced translations to and from Greek and Latin, as her mother had. Unlike Mary, her cousins--the children of John More--were always mired in controversy. Several of them ended up dying for their faith, just as their grandfather Sir Thomas More had.
    As with the line of descent from Margaret Roper, John More's line of descent became untraceable after 1758.
    Regrettably, there is (so far) no trace of others who could be descended from this great and famous line.
    John More Sketch by Hans Holbein
    John More, Thomas' Father
    by Hans Holbein

    Family portrait of Sir Thomas More by Hans Hilbein
    Depiction of the More family by Rowland Lockey, based on sketches done by the original artist, Hans Holbein. The original painting is believed to have been lost in the Great Fire of London that took place in 1666; that original was painted in approximately 1527 or 1528. It portrays most members of the More dynasty, except for Alice Middleton the Younger and some sons-in-law.

    Note to Contribution: The above painting is called <a class="external" href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">The family of </a>Sir Thomas More c. 1530, by Hans Holbein the Younger. Copy by Rowland Lockey, 1593.

    For more on Sir Thomas More, click the links below: