Thomas More was born into a legal family in London on 7 February 1478 and received a first class education in Oxford and the law schools of London from 1492 to 1502. The European Renaissance had already spread its “new learning” to England, and More was torn between the old and the new. For a time he considered becoming a monk, but instead he became a kind of lay ascetic: though elected to parliament in 1504 and married to Jane in 1505, he continued to observe the penances common to monks in those days.
Tragically, Jane died after only six years of marriage, during which time she bore four children. Thomas More then married a widow, Alice Middleton, and raised her daughter along with his own daughters. His second marriage does not appear to have been as happy as his first. We know from his letters to his daughters, however, that he was always an attentive, gentle and loving father, and much concerned that they should receive a classical education.
In 1509 the young King Henry VIII took the throne of England. Thomas More, meanwhile, rapidly rose through the ranks of public service, becoming a Privy Councillor to the King in 1514, knighted in 1521, and made Speaker of the House of Commons in 1523. During these years he reflected much on British history and the future of parliamentary democracy. He invented the term Utopia in his book of the same name in 1516. He then commenced a long history of King Richard III.
In 1529 Thomas More was made Chancellor of all England and worked closely in support of Henry VIII, even supporting the opinion that Henry’s first marriage had been unlawful. However, as the tensions of Luther’s Reformation spread to England, More took a firmer Catholic position. At first these resulted in him approving the execution of a number of Protestants in 1530, but it soon resulted in More falling out with the King over his marriage to Anne Boleyn in 1533. More was then charged with treason and imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1534. He was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered, but the King commuted this sentence to decapitation. On 6 June 1535 he was duly executed. He declared himself ‘the king’s good servant but God’s first’.
His friend Erasmus, the father of Christian humanism, described Thomas More as ‘more pure than any snow’ and his genius as ‘such as England never had and never again will have.’ When he heard news of More’s execution, Emperor Charles V said: ‘Had we been master of such a servant, we would rather have lost the best city of our dominions than such a worthy councillor. The Anglican writer Jonathan Swift wrote that More was ‘a person of the greatest virtue this kingdom ever produced’. In 2000, Pope John Paul II declared More the ‘heavenly patron of statesmen and politicians’.
Thomas More is memorably portrayed in Robert Bolt’s play, and the subsequent film, A Man for all Seasons.