Article abstract: Devoted to his faith and Renaissance learning, More served as the first lay Lord Chancellor of England, opposed Henry VIII’s break with Rome, and forfeited his exalted position and his life rather than swear allegiance to the king as the supreme head of the Church of England.
Thomas More was born February 7, 1478, in the Cripplegate neighborhood of London. He was the second of five children born to John More and Agnes Granger. Three siblings apparently died in childhood, and Thomas was the only surviving son. An ambitious and talented man, John More had succeeded his father as butler of Lincoln’s Inn but aspired to be a barrister. The benchers of Lincoln’s Inn liked the young fellow who managed their meals and approved him for membership; he subsequently was admitted to the bar. His marriage to Agnes Granger advanced his career, for she was the daughter of a prosperous merchant and sheriff of London. John More was appointed judge in the Court of Common Pleas, then promoted to the Court of King’s Bench, and was even knighted by the king. Having risen from the working class himself, he had great expectations for his son.
Young More learned Latin at St. Anthony’s School in London. He was much influenced by headmaster Nicholas Holt, who had taught John Colet and William Lattimer, both of whom became English humanists and friends of More. At thirteen, More was placed in the household of Thomas Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor, who immediately took a liking to the intelligent boy. In 1492, at Morton’s urging, More entered Canterbury Hall (later absorbed by Christ College), Oxford University, where he met and began lasting friendships with Thomas Linacre and William Grocyn, two scholars who had studied in Italy and drunk deeply of the Renaissance literature. Along with the classics, More studied mathematics and history and learned to play the flute and viol. His lifelong love of humanistic learning had been kindled.
Convinced that his son should pursue a legal career, John More recalled Thomas to London in 1494 and enrolled him as a law student at New Inn. Thomas moved to Lincoln’s Inn in 1496, began lecturing on the law, and came to be known as an eloquent and insightful student of law. He did not, however, forsake literature. He wrote Latin and English verse, immersed himself in the humanistic writings of Pico della Mirandola, and joined the intellectual circle that included Grocyn, Linacre, William Lily, and John Colet. He especially looked to Colet for direction in both life and learning. He and Lily published epigrams rendered from the Greek anthology into Latin prose. More met and began an enduring friendship with the remarkable Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, undoubtedly the leading Christian humanist. As Erasmus later recounted, More seriously considered devoting his life to the Church. For almost four years, he lived near the Charterhouse in London and followed the discipline of the Carthusian order. Spending much of his time in prayer and fasting, he regularly scourged himself and began a lifelong habit of wearing a hair shirt. He came near to joining the Franciscan Order. During this time, he also lectured, at the request of his friend Grocyn, on Saint Augustine’s City of God (413-426).
After four years of living much like a monk, More apparently resolved his doubts about what he should do. Although he remained a pious Catholic, he threw himself into the practice of law. Various reasons have been suggested for this abrupt shift to the secular. The corruption of the Church, his own intellectual and material ambitions, and his unwillingness to remain celibate may all have contributed to his decision; he soon gained a reputation as a just and knowledgeable barrister. He also studied politics, adding to what he had learned from his father and Archbishop Morton. At twenty-six, he was elected to Parliament (apparently from the City of London) and quickly emerged as a primary critic of government inefficiency and heavy taxation.
More played a major role in frustrating Henry VII’s efforts to extract a hundred thousand pounds from Parliament upon the marriage of his daughter Margaret to the King of Scotland. Henry was so angry with young More that he trumped up charges against his father, John More, had him imprisoned in the Tower of London, and released him only after he had paid a large fine. This lesson on sovereign power was not lost upon Thomas, whose thoughts were concerned with much more than politics. In 1505, More married Jane Colte, the eldest daughter of a landed gentleman, and together they had four children. Upon her death in 1511, More wasted little time in marrying Alice Middleton, an affable but rather unattractive and unlettered woman who proved to be a fine mother for his children.
By the time of his second marriage, More was emerging as a leading London barrister. In 1509, the same year that Henry VIII ascended the throne, More was elected to Lincoln’s Inn, where he became a reader in 1511. The year before, he was appointed undersheriff of London, a position of considerable responsibility in the sheriff’s court. Especially well liked by London merchants, More was chosen by King Henry as a member of an English delegation sent to Flanders in 1514 to negotiate a commercial treaty. His contribution was minor, but during those six months abroad, he delighted in the company of Peter Giles, a renowned humanist and friend of Erasmus, and began work on his Utopia, published in 1516. His most significant work, Utopia was a skillful satire that condemned the poverty, intolerance, ignorance, and brutality of English society by juxtaposing it to the economic communism and...
(The entire section is 2357 words.)