A dominant intellectual force of his generation, a devout Catholic and lawyer whose interests extended to philosophy, statesmanship and humanism, Thomas More was born 7 February 1478, the son of Sir John More, himself a successful lawyer and judge. Thomas studied at Oxford and then Lincoln’s Inn before being called to the Bar in 1502. Elected to Parliament in 1504, he became increasingly influential as an adviser to Henry VIII. In 1521, he assisted Henry in writing the Assertio, a formal response to the Protestant radical Martin Luther’s attack on Catholicism. In 1523, More became the Speaker of the House of Commons, and succeeded Thomas Wolsey as Lord Chancellor in 1529.
More became increasingly worried about Henry’s leanings towards the Protestant Reformation, which he considered to be heretical. He had earlier assisted Wolsey in preventing the spread of the writings of Luther, and was later to suppress the use of William Tyndale’s English translation of the New Testament in churches. His spiritual life is reputed to have included practices such as wearing a hair shirt next to his skin and occasional self-flagellation.
(Pictured: Sir Thomas More painted by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1527).
In 1530, More refused to sign a letter from leading churchmen and aristocrats to Pope Clement VII requesting the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine, and by May 1532 he was forced to resign as Lord Chancellor. After refusing to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn a year later, he was charged with accepting bribes and conspiracy but successfully defended himself. When he and John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester, refused to take the Oath of Supremacy or to acknowledge that Catherine’s marriage was lawfully annulled, he was arrested for treason in 1534 and imprisoned in the Tower of London.
God’s servant first
In July 1535, More was brought to trial. A lawyer to the last, he sought to rely on the legal precedent that ‘who is silent is seen to consent’ and he argued that he could not be convicted of high treason for failing to take the Oath of Supremacy if he did not expressly deny that the king was the Supreme Head of the Church. However, the Solicitor-General Richard Rich testified that More had made such a denial in his presence, and although this testimony was highly dubious, it took just fifteen minutes for the jury to find More guilty. Mounting the steps of the scaffold on 6 July 1535, More said ‘see me safe up and for my coming down, I can shift for myself’, and declared that he died ‘the king’s good servant, but God’s first’. In 1935, Pope Pius XI canonized both Thomas More and John Fisher.