Sir Thomas More Controversies

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Thomas More
Historical Controversies
about Sir Thomas More

More is regarded as both a fearless champion of individual conscience & a ferocious foe of heretics
This dual legacy makes him a complex
one who provokes strong feelings
in admirers and critics alike.

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More was "a cruelly divided man, torn between the necessity of making his way in the secular world and the devout longing to simplify life and to prepare his soul for the eternal world to come."
[Quote from Richard Marius' 1984 Biography of Thomas More]

More "embodied the old order of hierarchy and authority at the very moment when it began to collapse all around him." He was the last Medieval man. [Peter Ackroyd's 1998 The life of Thomas More]

To Catholics
a Saint
a dutiful, discrete, skillful, loyal, pious man
To Evangelical Reformers
a Religious Fanatic & Liar
a superstitious, scathing, rigid, devious man

The steadfastness and courage with which More held on to his religious convictions in the face of ruin and death and the dignity with which he conducted himself during his imprisonment, trial, and execution, contributed much to More's posthumous reputation, particularly among Catholics.

In Thomas More's opinion, the burning of heretics was just and necessary.
(More's Works - A Dialogue concerning Heresies).

He viewed Heresy as an infection :
Now seeing that the king's gracious purpose in this point, I reckon that being his unworthy chancellor, it appertaineth ... to help as much as in me is, that his people, abandoning the contagion of all such pestilent [heretical] writing, may be far from infection.
- More

More, as Chancellor of England and guardian of her laws, sanctioned the imprisonment, torture and death of English subjects.

As 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".

Forasmuch, my lord, as this indictment is grounded upon an act of Parliament directly oppugnant to the laws of God and his holy church, the supreme government of which, or of any part thereof, may no temporal prince presume by any law to take upon him, as rightfully belonging to the See of Rome, a spiritual preeminence by the mouth of our Savior himself, personally present upon the earth, to Saint Peter and his successors, bishops of the same see, by special prerogative granted; it is therefore in law amongst Christian men, insufficient to charge any Christian man....

More have I not to say, my lords, but that like as the blessed apostle Saint Paul, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, was present and consented to the death of Saint Stephen, and kept their clothes that stoned him to death, and yet be they now twain holy saints in heaven, and shall continue there friends forever: so I verily trust and shall therefore right heartily pray, that though your lordships have now in earth been judges to my condemnation, we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together to our everlasting salvation."

- More's speech at his trial in 1535

"As Lord Chancellor, which he became in October 1529, More, though a layman, was soon the church's most eager agent. With the help of John Stokesley, the Bishop of London, More personally broke into the houses of suspected heretics, arresting them on the spot and sometimes interrogating them in his own home. He imprisoned one man in the porter's lodge of his house, and had him put in the stocks. He raided the home of a businessman called John Petyt, who was suspected of financing Tyndale; Petyt died in the Tower. Six rebellious Oxford students were kept for months in a fish cellar; three of them died in prison."

- Excerpted from: Wood, James. <a class="external" href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief</a>.

More's praises may be read in every history of England; he was the ideal of Catholicism of this period. "He had, like the Romish system, two poles - worldliness and asceticism, which although contrary, often meet together. He sacrificed the accessories of his fallen nature to save that same nature"
(Reformation in England d'Aubigne)

Thomas Bilney,
the Cambridge scholar converted to Christ through the reading of the New Testament, was seized while distributing New Testaments. A writ for his burning was quickly procured from More, who dispatched Bilney to the flames with a joke remarking the proper course would have been to "burn him first and procure a writ afterwards"(Hugh Latimer R. Demaus). Bilney was burnt at the Lollards Pit near the gate of the City of Norwich in 1531.

With all the charms of his eloquence, his love of music, his keen intellect and love of jest at the superstitions of the monks of his day he "wore a hair shirt next to his skin, and schooled himself by penances"
(History of English People J.R. Green).

We may not look at our pleasures to go to heaven in featherbed
s; it is not the way, for our Lord Himself went thither with great pain, and by many tribulations, which was the path wherein He walked thither, and the servant may not look to be in better case than his Master.

— To his wife and children, according to Will Roper

James Bainham
was the son of a Gloucestershire Knight. He was a man well read in the classics and a distinguished lawyer of Middle Temple. He was too an earnest reader of Scripture. He was arrested by order of More, taken to his house in Chelsea, tied to the "tree of truth" where More caused him to be whipped in the hope of discovering other "heretics". He was taken to the Tower where he was racked until he was lamed. When he was taken to the stake at Smithfield on 30th April 1531, he said "I die for having said it is lawful for every man and woman to have God's book . . ..that the true key of Heaven is not that of the bishop of Rome, but the preaching of the Gospel." At the stake, as the train of gunpowder ran towards him, Bainham lifted up his eyes towards Heaven and cried "God forgive thee and show thee more mercy than thou showest to me! The Lord forgive Sir Thomas More."

"He agreed with established English law, and with the lessons taught by the thousand-year experience of Christendom, that in order for peace to reign, heresy must be controlled. At the time, heresies were identified as seditious attempts to undermine existing authority .... More heard Luther's call to destroy the heart of Christendom, the Catholic Church, as a call to war. He therefore followed traditional procedures to ensure the safety of this legitimate and time-honored institution." - Gerard B. Wegemer, "Portrait of Courage", p. 136.

One doctor of Magdalene College Cambridge, excused More's persecution of Protestants at his house at Chelsea as "Pure invention" and that More regarded "heretics as we regard drug-pushers and poisoners of society" today.

William Tyndale considered Thomas More the great enemy of the free circulation of the Scriptures in the English tongue. More had singled him out by name on the title-page of The Dialogue in which he attacks Tyndale's New Testament and the Reformers. Tyndale had not sought controversy, but More's book left him no alternative but to reply, and in Tyndale's Answer, he tackles in a straightforward manner the real essence of the controversy between the Roman Church and the Reformers. In More's Confutation however, More states Tyndale is no longer a "heretic swollen with pride"- he is "a beast discharging filthy foam of blasphemies out of his brutish beastly mouth "- a "railing ribald" - a "drowsy drudge that has drunken deep in the devil's dregs" and so on. (William Tyndale, R. Demaus).

More himself refuted charges of torture throughout his life, swearing 'as helpe me God' that he had never used torture as a method of interrogation. He claimed that the heretics he detained in his household suffered 'neuer ... so much as a fyllyppe on the forehead'." - Peter Ackroyd "The Life of Thomas More", page 298

I do nobody harm, I say none harm, I thinke 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.
— Letter to his daughter, Margaret, 1535.

Further burnings followed at More's instigation, including that of the priest and writer John Frith in 1533. In The Confutation of Tyndale's Answer, More described him as "the devil's stinking martyr"

Michael Farris in his From Tyndale to Madison (2007) states : that in April 1529 a heretic, John Tewkesbury, was taken by More to his house in Chelsea and so badly tortured on the rack that he was almost unable to walk. Tewkesbury was subsequently burned at the stake.

"By his own admission, he told minor lies for effect. (He once said that "Utopia" had been published without his knowledge, though in fact he had been preoccupied with getting it into print for almost a year.) He was also not above denouncing the conveniently dead or disgraced to whom he had once been allied. Whatever faults Henry VII may have had, Thomas More's father had certainly prospered under his patronage, yet the son denounced the old king as a tyrant when Henry VIII came to power. The same pattern applied after the disgrace of Thomas More's one-time colleague and predecessor as Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, with the difference that More himself had owed the imperious old prelate many debts of gratitude. After More's own fall from power, he denounced the Maid of Kent, Elizabeth Barton, after her execution. He did this despite the fact he had met with her on several occasions and had, at one time, lent much credence to her prophecies about the doom that would fall on the king because of his divorce of Catherine of Aragon. " - John Reilly
<a class="external" href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank" title="Catholic Encyclopedia entry">Catholic Encyclopedia entry</a> <a class="external" href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank" title="Controversy with William Tyndale">Controversy with William Tyndale</a>
<a class="external" href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank" title="St. Thomas More Website">St. Thomas More Website</a> Sir Thomas More Unmasked by

Sir Thomas More: a man for one season

Was Sir Thomas More a misogynist?

"I wanted to understand a man whose misogyny was obvious in his many derogatory statements about women. For example, when asked why he liked short women, he said that it was best to choose the lesser of evils.

When a mature man, More married a mere girl and got her pregnant so many times in such rapid succession that she lived only a few short years after marrying him.

More married his second wife, as the saying goes, while still in mourning clothes for his first. He mocked that second wife, Dame Alice, publicly. He wrote texts that associated women exclusively with sex and disgusting bodily functions like vomiting and diarrhea.

And, yet, More was exceptional for his time in educating his beloved daughter, the one great passion of his life, Margaret More Roper. ...

Thomas More lived five hundred years ago. We can't ask him to reconcile for us his hateful diatribes against women and his love of Margaret, his ant-like accumulation of worldly goods and his sacrifice for his beliefs.

The records just don't exist.

And, yet ... even though the More in these pages has to remain something of a cypher, even though More, as was the norm in his time, wrote with extreme caution in ambiguous, tradition-bound, unspontaneous and sometimes flowery prose, I felt I had an encounter, through Ackroyd's book, with a remarkable human being. I was in tears throughout the final passages leading up to More's death." ~ Danusha Goska, excerpted review of Peter Ackroyd's The life of Thomas More.