- More, Thomas
- (ca. 1478-1535)English humanist, lawyer, polit-ical figure, and Roman Catholic martyr. Born in London, the son of a prominent lawyer, he received an excellent grammar-school educa-tion, then spent several years in the household of Cardinal John Mor-ton, archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor under King Henry VII. More attended Oxford University but left without a de-gree to study law at the Inns of Court in London. He became a friend of the humanist John Colet, who had travelled in Italy and had become interested in Italian Renaissance learning. As a young man, More was drawn both to humanistic studies and to a secular career in the law, but he was also attracted by a monastic vocation and lived for a time in a Carthusian monastery in London before choosing to marry and practice law.In 1499 More met the Dutch humanist Erasmus, and the two soon became friends. Erasmus lived for a time in More's home at London and finished the first draft of his famous satire The Praise of Folly while staying there. The Latin title of the work, Encomium Moriae, is a pun on More's name. More shared Erasmus' conviction that mas-tery of Greek was essential for any serious study of either the classi-cal authors or the Bible and the writings of the Christian Church Fa-thers. The two friends competed in translating the epigrams of the Hellenistic poet Lucian of Samosata, and these translations from Greek into Latin were jointly published. More also wrote original Latin epigrams and poems. He published an English translation (1511) of the life of the Italian philosopher Pico della Mirándola written in Latin by his nephew Gianfrancesco Pico. He also wrote, in both Latin and English versions (1513), a history of King Richard III, the ruler dethroned by the first Tudor king, Henry VII. In it, he depicts Richard as a villain. More's career as a lawyer also flour-ished, and in 1504 he married and fathered four children.The advisers to King Henry VIII spotted More as a man of great promise, and he began to be drawn into public service, going to the Netherlands in 1515 as a member of an English diplomatic mission. On his return he completed a political and social satire, Utopia, an imaginary description of a remote island society that in many ways resembles England and contains both some sharp criticisms of social and political conditions in England and a remarkable description of an ideal society based on the abolition of private property and the mandatory devotion of all citizens to the public interest. Erasmus arranged for the book's publication at Louvain in 1516.In 1517 More became a member of the king's council, abandoning the practice of law for a career as a royal official that culminated in his appointment as Lord Chancellor, the highest judicial office in the land. Although never one of the inner circle who determined royal policy, he was consulted on matters relevant to his legal learning (for example, on the king's divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragon). He was one of those who assisted King Henry in writing his Defense of the Seven Sacraments (1521) against Martin Luther. He was ac-tive in the suppression of Lutheran influences in England, justifying his harsh policies in terms of the threat posed by heresy to social sta-bility, and in 1523 he began publishing (at first under a pseudonym) his own tracts against Luther and his English sympathizers, some-times in Latin but often in English, with the attack being concentrated against William Tyndale, who produced an influential English trans-lation of the New Testament.More himself came under pressure to endorse Henry VIII'S repu-diation of papal authority over the English church. In 1532, after the passage of the Act of Supremacy, a Parliamentary statute recogniz-ing the king as head of the English church and repudiating the au-thority of the pope, the king granted him permission to resign the lord chancellorship. Thus he tried to retire quietly from political life, but he continued to publish tracts attacking English Protestants and also responded to anonymous tracts that accused him of inhumane treatment of accused heretics. These attacks on More defended the supremacy of the secular courts over ecclesiastical courts. More's sharp defense of traditional Catholic doctrine and of the indepen-dence of the church and its courts from secular authority was risky. In 1533 the royal council ordered him to stop publishing his tracts.The next year, like all prominent English subjects, More was re-quired to sign an endorsement of an Act of Succession that not only recognized the succession of Henry's offspring by his second wife, Anne Boleyn, but also required explicit endorsement of the king's re-ligious policy. He had no objection to pledging to recognize Anne Boleyn's daughter (the future Elizabeth I) as heir to the throne, but he flatly refused to endorse the measures taken against papal author-ity, which he regarded as the guarantor of Christian unity. He was charged with treason, tried and convicted on 1 July 1535, and a few days later beheaded as a traitor. Whatever may have been his faults as a persecutor of heretics, he willingly gave his life in witness to his ideal of the unity and independence of the church, and was rapidly recognized as a martyr for the Catholic faith. In 1935 the Roman Catholic Church canonized him as a saint.Although More was ambitious for worldly success, he was also deeply religious, a trait that is evident in many aspects of his life, in-eluding a number of spiritual writings. Although a layman and not a professional theologian, he delivered a series of lectures on St. Au-gustine's City of God in one of the London ehurehes. About 1524 he wrote a meditation, The Four Last Things, which focused on the van-ity and impermanenee of all worldly goods. While imprisoned in the Tower of London, awaiting trial and death, he wrote several prayers and meditations, an incomplete meditation on Christ's agony in the garden of Gethsemane, De tristitia Christi, and a work that became well known after its posthumous publication in 1553, A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation. None of these spiritual works was pub-lished during his lifetime; some remained in manuscript until the 20th century.
Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. Charles G. Nauert. 2004.