Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 763
Thomas More, son of a British lawyer and judge, was born in London on February 7, 1478. He was provided the best educational opportunities from his earliest years, and at the age of thirteen he became a page to the archbishop of Canterbury, a post he held until he was sent to Oxford University in 1492. More received a liberal arts education based on study of the Latin and Greek classics, upon which he relied later in life in his mature writings as a Christian humanist. His father, intending his son for a legal career and suspicious of the teachings at the university, withdrew his son and sent him to London in 1494 to begin the study of law at the Inns of Court and at Lincoln’s Inn (1496).
Sometime later, probably in 1497, More became interested in the religious life, taking upon himself the discipline of the Carthusian order during the period 1499 to 1503. His intellect and personality promised him a bright future, and at age twenty-six, in 1504, he was elected to Parliament. There More aroused the anger of Henry VII and was forced to retire temporarily from public life. But he continued training his mind, devoting himself to the study of music, French, mathematics, and astronomy. Turning again to religion, he considered becoming a priest. Marriage to Jane Cult (or Colt) in 1505 ended his dilemma. The young couple settled in Bucklesbury, where they were twice visited by Desiderius Erasmus, who, as a fellow Christian humanist concerned with reforming the Church and society, dedicated his The Praise of Folly (1509) to More. Domestic life was broken by his wife’s death in 1511, but he remarried within a short time, taking as his wife a widow named Alice Middleton.
After the death of Henry VII in 1509, More resumed his public career and soon attracted the favorable attention of both Henry VIII and his chancellor Thomas Wolsey. In 1518 he was appointed to the Privy Council. He attended the king at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520 and a year later was made under-treasurer and knighted. In 1529 he succeeded Wolsey as chancellor, the first layman to hold that office in England; apparently Henry thought that the new chancellor would favor the royal divorce then being sought from Queen Catherine. More had signed the impeachment of Wolsey and remained silent when Parliament first passed acts limiting the power of the clergy in 1531, but in the end he refused to lend approval to the divorce. When Henry proclaimed himself head of the Church in 1532 (thus initiating the English Reformation), More asked permission to resign his chancellorship, a request quickly granted.
More’s resignation cost him much in financial and personal security. When he refused to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn as the new queen, he created as much resentment in the king as he had previously incurred favor. Charged with receiving bribes, he was proved innocent; he was also acquitted on a charge of treason. The crisis in his affairs came in 1534, when Parliament passed a bill giving Anne Boleyn’s children the right of succession and forcing an oath of allegiance to the king as the supreme authority of the Church. More, believing that the sanctity of the Church must be guarded against royal interference, refused to make such an acknowledgment and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Tried on a new charge of treason, he was found guilty and executed on July 6, 1535, and his severed head was hung on London Bridge. For his loyalty to the Pope and his martyrdom on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church, he was beatified in 1886 and canonized in 1935.
Important as he is in British history and in the crisis of antagonism between church and state—as well as between Catholicism and Protestantism—in the sixteenth century, More also has a place in the history of literature as the author of Utopia, published originally in Latin but translated into English in 1551. He wrote as a Christian humanist, active in the movement popular especially in the first quarter of the sixteenth century which had as its concern the improvement of society. Utopia is an island described by a fictitious mariner who supposedly sailed with the explorer Amerigo Vespucci. The book suggests such reforms as community of goods, universal education, and the establishment of an academy of learning. (It also retains such institutions of More’s time as slavery and monarchy.) The work is usually considered a companion piece to Erasmus’s The Praise of Folly. More’s History of King Richard III is also important as the source of William Shakespeare’s Richard III.