MORE, Sir Thomas

Known throughout the world for his authorship of Utopia, Thomas More wrote humanist, polemical, and devotional works in Latin and English. Lawyer, politician, humanist, statesman, and lord chancellor, he was executed on grounds of treason and died a martyr. The Roman Catholic church canonized him in 1935.
Son of judge Sir John and Agnes Graunger More, More was educated at St. Anthony's School, London. He spent two years of his youth as a page in the house of Cardinal John Morton. With Morton as his patron, he went to Oxford, where he studied under Thomas Linacre* and William Grocyn. Back in London to study common law in 1494, he was admitted to Lincoln's Inn in 1496 and called to the bar in 1501. While at Lincoln's Inn, he tested a vocation to the priesthood by living at a Carthusian monastery; there habits of prayer, fasting, and penance became parts of his life. Having decided against the monastic life, in 1505 he married Jane Colt, who bore him three daughters and a son. On her death in 1511, he married Alice Middleton.
More's Chelsea home became a center of intellectual life. Since 1499 he had been friends with Desiderius Erasmus*; Hans Holbein* was his guest, John Colet* another friend. Erasmus and More produced Latin translations of some of Lucian's Greek works during Erasmus's second visit to England. At More's Chelsea home, on his third visit in 1509, Erasmus wrote Moriae encomium (Praise of Folly), the title of which plays on More's name.
In 1504 More entered Parliament and won Henry VII's disapproval by op­posing his financial demands. With Henry VIII's* accession in 1509, he gained the king's favor and began to rise rapidly in public life. From 1510 to 1518 More was undersheriff in London and earned a reputation for being impartial and protecting the poor. In 1515 he was sent as a diplomat to Flanders to settle a dispute in the wool trade; here he wrote book 2 of Utopia. He became privy councillor and master of requests in 1518, accompanied Henry to the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, and was knighted in 1521. The king's favor seemed without bounds, and More became speaker of the House of Commons (1523), chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (1525), and lord chancellor (1529).
More's fall from favor came rapidly. When the king decided to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, who had given him no male heir, so he could marry Anne Boleyn—a position involving him in disputes with Emperor Charles V* (Catherine's nephew) and Pope Clement VII—More refused to support Henry. After years of futile negotiations, Henry, despite his opposition to Martin Lu­ther's* Reformation, repudiated papal authority, named himself head of the church in England in 1531, had his marriage to Catherine declared invalid, and married Anne.
More resigned the chancellorship in 1532 and by doing so lost nearly all his income. He refused to attend Anne Boleyn's coronation and was one of those accused of complicity with Elizabeth Barton, the nun of Kent, who opposed Henry's break with Rome. In 1534 More refused to swear to the Act of Suc­cession, which made Henry and Anne's children legitimate heirs to the throne, and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. He remained there for fifteen months, until Richard Rich, solicitor general, acting as prosecutor at More's trial, brought a charge of treason against him on 1 July 1535. On 6 July 1535, fourteen days after John Fisher's* execution, More was beheaded on Tower Hill. Pope Leo XIII beatified him in 1886; Pope Pius XI canonized him in 1935.
Because More played so many parts so well—lawyer, judge, civil servant, political figure, statesman, humanist, critic, intellectual, jester, man of wit, sto­ryteller, poet, husband, father, friend, host, educator, polemicist, ascetic, man of conscience, defender of the Catholic faith—it is sometimes difficult to find unity in his writings as a whole. His work in Latin and English helped to shape early-sixteenth-century humanism in England and on the Continent. Although he left some works unfinished, his canon was enormous. The largest part of it was polemical, and his defense of Catholicism against the Protestant Reformers, mainly Luther and William Tyndale,* is historically and culturally important. His literary reputation, however, depends on his humanist pieces and the letters and devotional tracts he wrote as a prisoner in the Tower. Written at the request of the bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, Responsio ad Lutherum (Response to Luther), Dialogue Concerning Heresies, Supplication of Souls, The Confu­tation of Tyndale's Answer, The Apology, The Debellation of Salem and Bizance, The Answer to a Poisoned Book, and some letters comprise his polemical works. His humanist works include English verses, Latin and English versions of The History of King Richard III, a translation of the Life of Pico, some Latin epi­grams, and letters in defense of humanism. Utopia (completed 1516), his humanist masterpiece, an enigmatic description of an imaginary society that has provided the name for and model of a literary form, was written in Latin and found its place as a classic of English literature after Ralph Robinson translated it in 1551. Of his devotional treatises, A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribula­tion, which he wrote in the Tower as he contemplated his fate, stands as one of his noblest pieces and the finest English prose of its time.
R. W. Chambers, Thomas More, 1935.
A. Fox, Thomas More: History and Providence, 1983.
R. Marius, Thomas More, 1984.
Al Geritz

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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