Life of Sir Thomas More
Thomas More was knighted and has consequently been known as Sir Thomas More through the later years of his life and through succeeding centuries. On the 400th anniversary of his death he was canonized by the Roman Catholic church and has sometimes been known as Saint Thomas More. If in this study he is sometimes informally referred to, for the sake of brevity, by his surname, no disrespect is intended.
Most educated persons are familiar with More's name for one reason or another. To students of English history, he is famous as a leading diplomat at Henry VIII's court. To students of literature, he is the famous author of Utopia. To Roman Catholics he is a martyred hero and saint. In recent years his name has become something of a household word through the great success of Robert Bolt's biographical drama and the following movie adaptation, A Man for All Seasons.
A detailed study of More's life can be a source of inspiration, and it can serve as an excellent introduction to the period — the intellectual, political, and spiritual activities of the age. Since no such detailed presentation is possible in the present study, only a skeleton outline will be offered, with emphasis on those phases of the biography having particular bearing on the interpretation of Utopia.
His dates were 1478–1535. He was born in London, the son of Sir John More, a distinguished judge. His early education came at St. Anthony's School, the same school which had trained John Colet and William Latimer, two of the group of prominent "Oxford reformers" who later became close friends of More. An important chapter in More's early life was his period of residence in the home of John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury. More studied at Canterbury College, Oxford, then entered New Inn, London, and later Lincoln's Inn for legal training. In his early years he deliberated between a career in law or in the church; although he decided in favor of the law, he retained strong religious feelings all his life, as manifested by his wearing a penitential hair shirt, but even more by his high principles and the nobility of his actions.
Early in his career More was invited by William Grocyn, a prominent teacher of Greek and the new humanism, to deliver a series of lectures on St. Augustine's City of God. His interest in the City of God has a bearing on his Utopia, as will be seen later.
More early became a highly successful lawyer. He was elected to Parliament in 1504 and became Under-Sheriff of London in 1510. In 1515, he was appointed to a commission sent to Bruges to negotiate with representatives of the Holy Roman Empire for trade agreements. It was at this point in his career that he began work on Utopia.
Soon after his return from the Netherlands, he was persuaded to enter government service permanently, and his rise to prominence was rapid. In 1518 he was appointed to the Privy Council (the king's cabinet), and he was knighted in 1521.
During the decade of the 20s, at Henry VIII's request, he became involved in the writing of polemics defending Catholicism against Luther's attacks.
In 1529, following the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey, More became Lord Chancellor, equivalent of Prime Minister; but his tenure in that office was brief and stormy. In the early 1530s Henry started negotiations to divorce Catherine of Aragon — or have his marriage annulled — and he expected to find a loyal supporter in his Lord Chancellor. More's refusal to second the king's arguments eventually brought about a breach, and More resigned. Then when Henry broke off allegiance to the pope, declaring himself head of the Church of England, he tried to force all Englishmen to acknowledge the "Act of Succession and Supremacy" under penalty of law. More was one of a distinguished group of faithful Roman Catholics who refused to recognize Henry's proclaimed supremacy over the Church of England. He was accused of treason, imprisoned in the Tower, and beheaded, July, 1535.
The full story of More's life and character casts valuable light on Utopia, even those events that came after the writing of the work; but the principal key to its interpretation is the story of More the humanist scholar. He came to Oxford as a student, when Greek studies were being encouraged through the instruction of William Grocyn, an Englishman who had been trained in Italy. More was to become a friend and collaborator with the leaders in the new movement — Colet, Latimer, and the rest — and eventually a leader himself. When Erasmus visited England, he and More became warm friends. The great Dutch scholar was often a guest in More's home; in fact, it was in More's house that he wrote part of his famous Praise of Folly (Encomium Moriae), which he dedicated to More. It was Erasmus who was responsible for introducing More to Peter Giles, the man who figured prominently in the composition of Utopia. And it was Erasmus who arranged for the anonymous publication of Utopia in Louvain in 1516.
It is important at the outset to understand certain circumstances connected with the writing of Utopia. During More's stay in the Low Countries, there was a long recess in the official negotiations, during which he spent a good deal of time in conversations with that friend of Erasmus, Peter Giles. The tenor of their speculations on world-wide problems apparently led More into writing down his account of an imaginary kingdom on an imaginary island. That account was to become the basis for, or chief portion of, Book II of Utopia. During the year following his return to England, he wrote Book I, the section on contemporary English and European society, which offers sharp contrasts to Utopian life.
This over-simplified account will serve for the present. A fuller explanation of details of the piecing together of these parts and the significance of this information for the better understanding of More's life and personality, as well as how they impinge upon the work, Utopia, will be presented later.
Other Works of Thomas More
Since Utopia is the only book by More that most people have ever heard of, there is the common impression that he is a one-book man. Actually he was a prolific writer, but because much that he wrote was theological in nature and written in Latin, it has had little circulation since his time. It is interesting to note that early in his career he published an abridged translation of a biography of the brilliant Italian humanist, Pico della Mirandula (The Life of John Picus, Earl of Mirandula). The best known of his works after Utopia was A History of Richard III. For several centuries after that work appeared it exerted great influence either directly or indirectly on the interpretation of Richard's character and the events of his reign. Shakespeare's Richard III was a product of that interpretation. Recent scholarship has tended to discount More's report of that king as untrustworthy, and there can be no doubt that More's sources of information were strongly prejudiced in favor of the Tudor regime and, consequently, anti-Yorkist.
A moving document, Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, written by More in prison shortly before his execution, has been compared to Boethius's Consolations of Philosophy.