The life of the English humanist and statesman Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) exemplifies the political and spiritual upheaval of the Reformation. The author of "Utopia," he was beheaded for opposing the religious policy of Henry VIII.
Thomas More was born in London on Feb. 6, 1478, to parents whose families were connected with the city's legal community. His education began at a prominent London school, St. Anthony's. In 1490 Thomas entered the household of Archbishop John Morton, Henry VII's closest adviser. Service to Morton brought experience of the world, then preferment in 1492 to Oxford, where More first encountered Greek studies. Two years later he returned to London, where legal and political careers were forged. By 1498 More had gained membership in Lincoln's Inn, an influential lawyers' fraternity.
A broader perspective then opened. The impact of humanism in England was greatly intensified about 1500, partly by Erasmus's first visit. His biblical interests spurred the work of Englishmen recently back from Italy; they had studied Greek intensively and thus were eager for fresh scrutiny of the Gospel texts and the writings of the early Church Fathers. John Colet's Oxford lectures on the Pauline epistles, and his move in 1504 to London as dean of St. Paul's Cathedral and founder of its famous humanist school, epitomized this reformist, educational activity among English churchmen. Lay patronage of the movement quickly made Cambridge, where Erasmus periodically taught, a focus of biblical scholarship and made London a favored meeting ground for Europe's men of letters.
England thus shed its cultural provincialism, and More, while pursuing his legal career and entering Parliament in 1504, was drawn to the Christian humanist circle. He spent his mid-20s in close touch with London's austere Carthusian monks and almost adopted their vocation. His thinking at this stage is represented by his interest in the Italian philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who had also become increasingly pious when approaching the age of 30 a decade before; More's 1505 translation of Pico's first biography stressed that development.
But More then decided that he could fulfill a Christian vocation while remaining a layman. Both his subsequent family life and public career document the humanist persuasion that Christian service could be done, indeed should be pursued, in the world at large. He first married Jane Colt, who bore three sons and a daughter before dying in 1511, and then Alice Middleton. His household at Bucklersbury, London, until 1524 and then at Chelsea teemed with visitors, such as his great friend Erasmus, and formed a model educational community for the children and servants; More corresponded with his daughters in Latin. His legal career flourished and led to appointment as London's undersheriff in 1511. This meant additional work and revenue as civic counsel at Henry VIII's court and as negotiator with foreign merchants.
More's first official trip abroad, on embassy at Antwerp in 1515, gave him leisure time in which he began his greatest work, Utopia. Modeled on Plato's Republic, written in Latin, finished and published in 1516, it describes an imaginary land, purged of the ostentation, greed, and violence of the English and European scenes that More surveyed. Interpretations of Utopia vary greatly. The dialogue form of book I and Utopia's continual irony suggest More's deliberate ambiguity about his intent. Whatever vision More really professed, Utopia persists and delights as the model for an important literary genre.
Service under Henry VIII
Utopia book I and More's history of Richard III, written during the same period, contain reflections about politics and the problems of counseling princes. They represent More's uncertainty about how to handle frequent invitations to serve Henry VIII, whose policies included many facets distasteful to the humanists. More had written in Utopia: "So it is in the deliberations of monarchs. If you cannot pluck up wrongheaded opinions by the root … yet you must not on that account desert the commonwealth. You must not abandon the ship in a storm because you cannot control the winds." He finally accepted Henry's fee late in 1517 and fashioned a solid career in diplomacy, legal service, and finance, crowned in 1529 by succession to Cardinal Wolsey as chancellor of England.
More's early doubts, however, proved justified. Under Wolsey's direction More as Speaker of the House of Commons in 1523 promoted a war levy so unpopular that its collection was discontinued. In European negotiations Henry's belligerence and Wolsey's ambition frustrated More's desire to stop the wars of Christendom so that its faith and culture could be preserved.
By the time that Wolsey's inability to obtain the annulment of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon had raised More to highest office and placed him in the increasingly distressing role of Henry's chief agent in the maneuvering that began to sever England from Rome, More was deeply engaged in writings against Lutherans, defending the fundamental tenets of the Church whose serious flaws he knew. More cannot justly be held responsible for the increased number of Protestants burned during his last months in office, but this was the gloomiest phase of his career. The polemics, in English after 1528, including the Dialogue Concernynge Heresyes (1529) and Apologye (1533), were his bulkiest works but not his best, for they were defensive in nature and required detailed rebuttal of specific charges, not the light and allusive touch of the humanist imagination. He continued writing until a year after his resignation from office, tendered May 16, 1532, and caused by illness and distress over England's course of separation from the Catholic Church.
Break with the King
More recognized the dangers that his Catholic apologetics entailed in the upside-down world of Henry's break with Rome and tried to avoid political controversy. But Henry pressed him for a public acknowledgment of the succession to the throne established in 1534. More refused the accompanying oath that repudiated papal jurisdiction in England, and the Christian unity thereby manifest, in favor of royal supremacy.
More's last dramatic year—from the first summons for interrogation on April 12, 1534, through imprisonment, trial for treason, defiance of his perjured accusers, and finally execution on July 6, 1535—should not be allowed to overshadow his entire life's experience. Its significance extends beyond the realm of English history. For many of Europe's most critical years, More worked to revitalize Christendom. He attacked those who most clearly threatened its unity; once convinced that Henry VIII was among their number, More withdrew his service and resisted to his death the effort to extract his allegiance. His life, like Utopia, offers fundamental insights about private virtues and their relationship to the politics of human community.
Further Reading on Sir Thomas More
Preeminent More scholars are now contributing to the Yale Edition of his complete works under the direction of Louis Martz. Thus far published are The History of King Richard III, edited by Richard S. Sylvister (1963), and Utopia, edited by Edward Surtz and Jack H. Hexter (1965). A convenient edition of Utopia, with critical appraisals, is by Ligeia Gallagher, More's Utopia and Its Critics (1964); and a recent study is by R. Schoeck, Utopia and Humanism (1969).
The classic biography is by More's son-in-law, William Roper, The Life of Sir Thomas More, translated by Ralph Robynson and edited with introduction, notes, glossary, and index of names by J. Rawson Lumby (1952). Other good biographies are the Reverend Thomas E. Bridgett, The Life and Writings of Blessed Thomas More (1913), and Raymond Wilson Chambers, Thomas More (1935). For historical background see Stanley T. Bindoff, Tudor England (1954), and Myron Piper Gilmore, The World of Humanism, 1453-1517 (1962).