Classroom Activity on Sir Thomas More: Saint or Sinner?

Classroom Activity on Sir Thomas More: Saint or Sinner?

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In 1516 Thomas More wrote a very important book called Utopia. The book tells of a seaman who has discovered an island called Utopia ("Utopia" is Greek for "nowhere"). The people on this island live in a completely different way from the people of Tudor England. In his book people elect their government annually by secret ballot; wear the same kind of clothes and only work for six hours a day. There is no money or private property on the island. Free education and health care is available for all. All goods are stored in large storehouses. People take what they want from the storehouses without payment. Both men and women can be priests. People are able to hold whatever religious beliefs they want. Some people claimed that in the book More was describing his vision of what England should be like. Others claimed that More had written a book that was supposed to make people laugh because he thought it was a ridiculous idea.

Henry VIII was impressed by Thomas More and by 1518 "More acted in effect as the King's secretary". This led to a series of important posts such as Treasurer of the Exchequer (1521) and Chancellor of Lancaster (1525). He also served as Speaker of the House of Commons. In 1529 he replaced Cardinal Thomas Wolsey as Lord Chancellor. This was the most important government position in England.

In November 1534, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy. This gave Henry VIII the title of the "Supreme head of the Church of England". A Treason Act was also passed that made it an offence to attempt by any means, including writing and speaking, to accuse the King and his heirs of heresy or tyranny. All subjects were ordered to take an oath accepting this. More refused to take the oath and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Sir Thomas More was executed on 6th July, 1535.

Thomas More chose the authority of Pope Clement VII over that of the English king. In 1935 he was canonised by Pope Pius XI and who was made patron saint of politicians by Pope John Paul II in 2000.

Hilary Mantel has recently come under attack for her account of Sir Thomas More in her novels, Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012). It has even been suggested that Mantel's "anti-Catholicism" is a product of her convent education. However, it was the recently broadcast TV drama based on her novels that has increased the amount of people accusing her of being a "fierce critic of Catholicism".

This classroom activity takes a look at the way that More has been portrayed by artists, novelists, historians, journalists and religious leaders over the last 500 years.

(Source 2) Alison Plowden, Tudor Women (2002)

More was the first Englishman seriously to experiment with the novel idea that girls should be educated too. This may have been partly due to the fact that he had three daughters and an adopted daughter but only one son, and was undoubtedly helped by the fact that the eldest girl, Margaret, turned out to be unusually intelligent and receptive.

(Source 3) Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007)

Sir Thomas More, whose daughters were renowned examples of womanly erudition, as well as the shining examples of both Catherine of Aragon and Catherine Parr who proved that women could be both learned and virtuous, the Renaissance concept of female education became accepted and even applauded... in Henry VIII's time, the education of girls was the privilege of the royal and the rich, and its chief aim was to produce future wives schooled in godly and moral precepts. It was not intended to promote independent thinking; indeed, it tended to the opposite.

(Source 4) Bishop Mark O’Toole of Plymouth, The Catholic Herald (2nd February, 2015)

Those modern parallels need to be cautiously drawn. Hilary Mantel does have this view that being a Catholic is destructive to your humanity. It is not historically accurate and it is not accurate in what the Catholic faith has to contribute to society and to the common good as a whole. There is an anti-Catholic thread there, there is no doubt about it. Wolf Hall is not neutral...

The picture of More is dark. More was a man of his time and heresy was the big sin, really, it was the big wrong on both sides. It is hard for us in our modern mentality to see it as wrong. They looked on heretics as we look upon drug traffickers. But it is inaccurate to say that he (St Thomas) condemned people to death.

(Source 5) Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury, The Catholic Herald (2nd February, 2015)

We should remember Wolf Hall is a work of fiction. It is an extraordinary and perverse achievement of Hilary Mantel and BBC Drama to make of Thomas Cromwell a flawed hero and of St Thomas More, one of the greatest Englishmen, a scheming villain.

It is not necessary to share Thomas More’s faith to recognise his heroism – a man of his own time who remains an example of integrity for all times. It would be sad if Thomas Cromwell, who is surely one of the most unscrupulous figures in England’s history, was to be held-up as a role model for future generations.

(Source 7) Jonathan Jones, The Guardian (29th January, 2015)

Why does Wolf Hall demonise one of the most brilliant and forward-looking of all Renaissance people? Its caricature of Thomas More as a charmless prig, a humourless alienating nasty piece of work, is incredibly unfair... Why did Hilary Mantel choose to portray him in a way that flies in the face of all the evidence?

(Source 8) Melanie McDonagh, The Evening Standard (17th September 2009)

Hilary Mantel's Tudor novel, Wolf Hall is a kind of one-volume compensation for all the times the Man Booker prizewinner has been bought and not read.

And that's the trouble. Because it's so readable, so convincing, it risks being taken as a true version of events. And that's scary. Because one of the things it does is to reverse the standing of two Thomases: Cromwell and More. The novel does a grave disservice to More who was, whatever else you say about him, one of the great men of the Renaissance.

In Wolf Hall, you don't get the author of Utopia, Erasmus's favourite companion (these things are mentioned but with a sneer). You don't get the humanist and the humorist. What you get is a heretic-hunter, whose wit is turned to dry sarcasm and whose world view is simple religious fanaticism. This is Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons turned on its head. Granted, Bolt's play wasn't historical verity either but it was, in depicting Thomas More as the martyr of conscience, truthful.

All right, historical fiction is just that: fiction. But nowadays, we know so little history, the Wolf Hall version may well pass for reality, especially when it's true to some extent (the sympathetic portrait of Cardinal Wolsey is perfectly credible). Certainly its prejudices are congenial to the liberal-individualistic mindset that dominates our intellectual life. We may read the novel, or at least the reviews; and that's what's going to stick.

(Source 9) Colin Burrow, London Review of Books (30th April, 2009)

Thomas More is here a dogmatic persecutor of heretics (which he was), a man perhaps unhealthily obsessed by his daughter Meg (which he may have been), and someone who makes cruelly unfunny jokes about his second wife, Dame Alice (which he did). He is not much else (although he was). Here Mantel’s revisionary eye seems cruel, or to have missed something. Her Wolsey has an instinctive ability to see into events and into people, and has wit and warmth. Her More is a stubborn old Catholic sexist.

(Source 10) Helen Langdon, Holbein (1976)

Holbein presents the public figure, robed in authority (for all his saintly reputation More was ferocious enough to condemn heretics to be burnt.) The determined severity of countenance betrays little of the retiring scholar, although this is suggested in the figure's slight sloop. More was certainly concerned with the impression he made, insisting on having the flamboyant cuffs on his official costume replaced by ascetic plain ones.

(Source 11) Thomas More, Utopia (1516)

A man and woman... who hope to live more quietly and merrily... can be divorced and married again to others.... No pleasure is forbidden that causes no harm.... It is lawful for every man to favour and follow what religion he wants. He can bring others to his opinion... so long as he does it peaceably, gently, quietly and soberly.... The only way to the wealth of the community, is equality of all things.

(Source 12) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003)

More had maintained a long and savage war of words with William Tyndale, whom he regarded as an abominable heretic, fit only for the flames.

(Source 13) John Foxe, Book of Martyrs (1563)

William Tyndale... had decided that the people needed to be able to read scripture for themselves instead of trusting the church to explain it to them honestly and fully. He believed that the corruption of the church was tolerated only because people didn't know any better-and the church wasn't about to teach them any better, or its excesses and privileges would be in danger.

In 1526, Tyndale published his English translation of the New Testament and began on the Old Testament, adding prologues to each book....

When his books-especially the New Testament began to be widely read in England, the bishops and prelates of the church did everything in their power to condemn them and point out their "errors." In 1527, they convinced the king to ban all Tyndale's works in England.

Meanwhile, Cuthbert Tonstal, the bishop of London, worked with Sir Thomas More to find a way to keep the translations out of the public's hands.... Tonstal publicly burned all the copies he had bought.

(Source 14) Melvyn Bragg, The Daily Telegraph (6th June, 2013)

The fury of the then Establishment is difficult to credit. The Bishop of London bought up an entire edition of 6,000 copies and burned them on the steps of the old St Paul’s Cathedral. More went after Tyndale’s old friends and tortured them. Richard Bayfield, a monk accused of reading Tyndale, was one who died a graphically horrible death as described in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. More stamped on his ashes and cursed him. And among others there was John Firth, a friend of Tyndale, who was burned so slowly that he was more roasted.

(Source 16) Andrew Hope, Richard Bayfield : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

Bayfield now took on the role of the main supplier of prohibited reformation books to the English market, a role vacant since the arrest of Thomas Garrett in 1528.... Bayfield showed signs of not always appreciating the extreme danger he was in. He had indiscreet conversations with people who did not share his views. He was arrested at a London bookbinder's, possibly in October 1531, imprisoned, and interrogated by More.... He was convicted as a relapsed heretic, degraded, and burnt with excruciating slowness at Smithfield.

(Source 17) Jasper Ridley, Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002)

No one was more active in persecuting the Protestants who distributed the English Bible than Sir Thomas More, a brilliant lawyer, writer and intellectual who was a particularly nasty sadomasochistic pervert. He enjoyed being flogged by his favourite daughter as much as flogging heretics, beggars and lunatics in his garden. He humiliated his wife by pointing out to his guests, in her presence, how ugly she was in order to show that he had not married her because he was lusting for a beautiful woman. When he was writing as a propagandist for the Catholic Church, he was a shameless liar. On one occasion he wrote a very favourable review of his own book, pretending that it had been written by a non-existent, eminent, foreign theologian, when in fact he had written it himself.

(Source 19) Seymour Baker House, Thomas More : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

The vigour with which More pursued heretics through the courts was mirrored by the relentlessness with which he fought them... The times demanded strictness, he repeatedly argued, because the stakes were so high. No other aspect of More's life has engendered greater controversy than his persecution of heretics. Critics argue that as one of Europe's leading intellectuals, and one with particularly strong humanist leanings, More should have rejected capital punishment of heretics. His supporters point out that he was a product of his times, and that those men he most admired... lamented but accepted as necessary the practice of executing heretics.

(Source 21) Lacey Baldwin Smith, Treason in Tudor England (2006)

Once the Reformation broke out, conspiracy took on more sinister and far more cosmic proportions, but nevertheless the conviction prevailed that heresy and its uglier stepsister sedition were the product of tiny groups of conspiring individuals determined upon private profit. Despite the extraordinary speed with which Protestant ideas spread and their obvious association with the basic economic, political and psychological needs of the century, More... continued to view the religious upheaval as the work of a handful of evil men and women set upon corrupting innocent but, alas, gullible subjects.

(Source 22) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012)

Since More was known to be an avid hunter of heretics, it was evident proof that Henry did not wish to disavow the orthodox Church. In fact, More started his pursuit within a month of taking his position he arrested a citizen of London, Thomas Phillips, on suspicion of heresy... It was the beginning of the new chancellor's campaign of terror against the heretics.

(Source 23) Jasper Ridley, The Statesman and the Fanatic (1982)

Apart from other factors, these heretics were burned when More was Chancellor because they refused to recant, or, having recanted, relapsed into heresy, whereas in Wolsey's time all the heretics whom he examined recanted at their trial. But there is no doubt that at least part of the reason is that More was a far more zealous persecutor than Wolsey.

Question 1: Study sources 2 and 3. Do these sources suggest that Sir Thomas More was in favour of all young girls being educated?

Question 2: Read sources 4, 5, 7, 8 and 9. Make a list of the criticisms that these people make of Hilary Mantel.

Question 3: Study sources 1, 6 and 20. Do you think these works of art provide an accurate representation of Sir Thomas More. It might help you to read about the artists, Hans Holbein and Louis Laumen, and to look at source 10 before answering the question.

Question 4: Read source 21. What criticisms does Lacey Baldwin Smith make of Sir Thomas More.

Question 5: Study sources 12-17. Quote from the different sources to explain why Sir Thomas More was so hostile to William Tyndale.

Question 6: Study source 18. Do these statistics support the views of the authors of sources 4, 9, 19, 22 and 23?

A commentary on these questions can be found here

You can download this activity in a word document here

You can download the answers in a word document here

Classroom Activity on Sir Thomas More: Saint or Sinner? - History

=�″ height=�″ /> Wikimedia Common Depiction of Thomas More with his daughter after his sentencing.

Sir Thomas More was many things: a prominent philosopher, writer, lawyer, and one of King Henry VIII’s most trusted friends and counselors. He was a Catholic, but a humanist as well.

He was also found guilty of treason by King Henry, leading to an execution sentence carried out in the form of a beheading.

Sir Thomas More was born in London on February 7, 1478. He went on to study at Oxford and had received enough education to become a lawyer. Instead, in 1517 he entered the king’s service. This was after he spent time grappling with the decision of either becoming a monk or devoting himself to civil service work.

Thomas More worked hard for the king. He wore many hats: chief diplomat, speechwriter, advisor.

Thick as thieves, More and the king continued to establish a close relationship, with More rising up in the ranks. He was knighted in 1521, became speaker of the House of Commons in 1523, and earned the title of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

Alas, the honeymoon period could only last so long.

King Henry was married to Catherine of Aragon but had reportedly developed an infatuation with the alluring Anne Boleyn. (Spoiler: that wouldn’t work out as well. He would go on to behead her too just three years later.)

Trouble started brewing when King Henry wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon. He used the Bible to try to persuade More that the marriage was never valid since Catherine was originally his brother’s wife, thus it was against God’s law from the start.

With his roots in law and philosophy, More was a logical thinker and could not share the king’s viewpoint. He was also a venerated Catholic and saw the divorce as anti-Catholic.

In 1532, More resigned from the House of Commons. His reasoning: “poor health.”

Though More’s failure to appear at the coronation of Anne Boleyn in June 1533 might have indicated that he was faking sick.

Meanwhile, multifaceted as he was, Sir Thomas Moore was always dabbling in his other interests. One such interest was writing. His most notable work was Utopia, written in 1516. It was a socio-political satire that was about a political system made from imaginary ideals. It’s where the term utopian society comes from today, in which policies are governed by reason.

More gave his daughters the same formal education his son received. A practice that was not common in his time.

Wikimedia Commons Oil painting of Sir Thomas More. 1527

He was a man of principles and considered a Renaissance humanist, with a focus on a personal code of beliefs even if they contradicted or conflicted with previous ideologies.

Things only got worse when King Henry enacted a law in 1534 declaring him supreme ruler of the world over everyone, including the pope. Part of the law required all citizens to accept this by taking an oath called the Oath of Supremacy.

Thomas More’s principles didn’t bode well with this. He thought to accept the king as head of the Church would be to undervalue the pope. He said no to the oath.

On April 17, 1534, in the Tower of London, King Henry cited treason in Thomas More’s refusal to take the oath.

Even after his sentencing, Sir Thomas More was given the option of taking the oath and receiving a pardon. But he did no such thing.

Sir Thomas More was beheaded on July 6, 1535.

His final words were: “I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first.”

Sir Thomas More’s execution underscored the tyranny that King Henry would later become well known for. In regards to his own reputation, Thomas More was seen as courageous and canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church in 1935.

CRESTVIEW HILLS, Ky. (May 15, 2021) — Today, Thomas More University honored its newest alumni during an in-person, day-long Commencement Ceremony. More than 260 undergraduate and graduate students registered to participate in the ceremony and walked alongside their families in the Connor Convocation Center to receive their diplomas.

“I hope you realize the remarkable achievement of becoming a graduate,” President Joseph Chillo, LP.D., said in a letter given to each Class of 2021 graduate. “Commencement marks the opportunity for us to celebrate your notable achievement and it signifies that you have met all of the requirements for graduation. As you walk across the stage today, walk slowly, taking it all in and realizing that this graduation is a defining moment for both you and your family.”

Though more than 260 received their diplomas in-person, the ceremony honored the achievements of the entire Class of 2021, which included 371 undergraduate and graduate students, receiving a total of 440 degrees. Of this student total, 63 were first-generation undergraduate students. The class represented students from 14 states and four countries, and 11 of the graduates were veterans or active military.

This year’s Commencement was unlike traditional ceremonies in past years due to modifications necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The ceremony mirrored the Class of 2020’s Commencement, which took place this past August. Each student was given a timeframe to arrive to campus depending on the college in which they were receiving their diploma. The graduate’s family members all received a front-row view of their student as they walked across the platform, being congratulated by President Joseph Chillo, LP.D., Provost Molly Smith, Ph.D., and Board of Trustees Chair Judith A. Marlowe ’69, Ph.D. The setup allowed for a more personalized experience for the students as Chillo, Smith, and Marlowe were able to directly applaud each student on an individualized basis. The ceremony was livestreamed on Thomas More’s Facebook page for those unable to attend.

“As you go out into the world, serving as great leaders in your future endeavors, I know that you will succeed because of the education and Saints Experience you’ve received here at Thomas More,” Chillo added. “You have made an impact on this campus, and now you are equipped to make an impact in our community and world.”

The ceremony was outlined as followed:

  • 10 a.m. – College of Business Programs
  • 12:30 p.m. – College of Arts and Sciences Programs
  • 2 p.m. – College of Education and Health Sciences and the Institute for Ethical Leadership and Interdisciplinary Studies

Student Award Winners

Whitney Johnson, the 2021 Outstanding Senior Award recipient, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. During her time at Thomas More, Johnson has served as president of Black Student Union, a resident assistant, a mentor resident assistant, a residence life intern, Camp Summit mentor, Camp Summit coordinator, and has hosted Live Whitney Wednesdays on Student Life’s social media accounts. Upon graduation, she will be attending Miami University in the Student Affairs in Higher Education graduate program and will be a graduate assistant for the Office of Residence Life. She claims that Thomas More has been a platform for her to grow in leadership and she will be taking everything she has learned and her experiences at the University into her future as a professional and a person.

Abby Link, the 2021 Presidential Service Award recipient, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science and economics. During her time at Thomas More, Link has not only been a dedicated student, but an active member and advocate for campus life, and the well-being of individuals that constitute it. She is easily recognizable through her multiple leadership roles, her persistent dad-jokes, and for being the number one patron of Thomas More apparel. As she moves on to pursue her master’s degree in public administration at the University of Cincinnati, Link remains present at Thomas More through the many students she has mentored and her love for the community around her.

Rebecca Gaeddert, the 2021 Digital, Graduate, and Professional Graduate Award recipient, graduated with a Master of Ethical Leadership (MAEL). A Northern Kentucky native, Gaeddert obtained her bachelor’s degree in human resource management from Northern Kentucky University in 2018. Gaeddert is currently a human resources professional at The Kroger Company, an animal lover, sister, daughter, and friend. She claims that the MAEL program has taught her the importance of authenticity and servant leadership in 21st century teams.

Naomi Diedrichs, the 2021 Digital, Graduate, and Professional Undergraduate Award recipient, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. Diedrichs is currently the corporate strategy manager at Toyota Boshoku America, Inc., and she has more than 20 years of experience in the automotive industry. Her current main activities at Toyota Boshoku America, Inc. include the development of the company’s short and mid-term strategy and the implementation and monitoring of corporate governance. She also manages the company’s external affairs and public relations and works with Toyota Boshoku’s headquarters in Japan, as well as several manufacturing plants in USA, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil. She is originally from Japan and speaks both English and Japanese fluently. She graduated from Nagoya College Japan with an associate degree in English. On the weekends, she enjoys hot yoga and walking her two dogs with her husband. She and her husband have two grown children.

Recordings of each student award winner’s speech can be viewed at

“I encourage you to continue to inspire, be a trailblazer, and most importantly, stand up for what you believe in as did our patron saint Sir Thomas More,” Chillo said in conclusion of his letter. “You will make a difference and you will always be a Saint.”

Classroom Activity on Sir Thomas More: Saint or Sinner? - History

TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students’ minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie.

Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project .


This film depicts the events leading to the martyrdom of Sir Thomas More (1478-1525). More was a judge and a royal official, as well as an author and a leading figure of the Renaissance. More was beheaded by King Henry VIII because he opposed Henry’s actions in taking control of the Church in England, thereby separating it from the Catholic Church. In 1935, More was made a saint by the Pope. The screenplay for the film was written by Robert Bolt, who also wrote the play on which the film was based.


Selected Awards:

1967 Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Scofield), Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Writing 1968 British Academy Awards: Best Film, Best Actor (Scofield), Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Screenplay Best Art Direction 1967 Golden Globe Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Shaw), Best Director, Best Screenplay 1967 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Shaw) and Best Supporting Actress (Hiller) 1967 Golden Globe Awards Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Shaw).

Featured Actors:

Paul Scofield, Leo McKern, Susannah York, Wendy Hiller, Robert Shaw, Orson Welles.


This film shows a man sacrificing high office, his position in society, and finally his life for a religious principle. It introduces Sir Thomas More, a most extraordinary man. The film also provides an introduction to the history of England in the sixteenth century.


SERIOUS. This film presents a limited and uncritical view of Sir Thomas More. Because of its inaccuracies and omissions, the film has been strongly criticized by Richard Marius, author of a respected biography of More. Several years ago, based on Marius’ criticisms, we declined to prepare a Learning Guide for this film. However, many people disagreed with us and felt that the story of a man who gave up everything for a principle could serve as a valuable teaching tool. In addition, we are informed that the film is widely used for this purpose by teachers in England.

After reading several biographies of More and much reflection, we agree with both the proponents and the critics of this film. As a result of its historical inaccuracies “A Man for All Seasons” is not a film to simply show or recommend with the implication that “this is the way it was.” There is too much here that is the way it wasn’t, or at least there is too much that is the subject of controversy among historians. However, the film can become a useful teaching tool if some of the inaccuracies and omissions are brought out and discussed. In addition, the real Thomas More was one of the most interesting and, with the exception of his persecution of heretics, one of the most admirable men who ever lived. Educated people should know of his career, his literary works, and his martyrdom. For a brief description of the more egregious historical inaccuracies in this film see Some of the Substantial Historical Inaccuracies of this Film.


Start with the Quick Discussion Question. Then focus on the following three points. (1) Thomas More was a remarkable man. He was a giant of the Renaissance, having written Utopia, one of its most influential books. In addition, More was an excellent lawyer, a wise judge, an able administrator, a peacemaker, a caring father, a loyal friend, a dutiful and loving son, and a man of charity who shared his wealth with the less fortunate. His only major failing was that he was also a religious bigot who persecuted heretics and, as a judge, ordered them burned at the stake. (2) Thomas More gave up his high position as Chancellor and his life on a matter of conscience, in service of the traditions of Catholic Christendom. (3) Contrary to what the film would have us believe, most people in Britain thought that More was wrong. Before the reign of Henry VIII, England had been ravaged by civil war as two great aristocratic houses fought for the throne. (These were called the “Wars of the Roses”.) If King Henry didn’t have a legitimate male heir, there was a great risk that the country would again be plunged into civil war. Almost every Englishman wanted to avoid this. Catherine had not given Henry a son. The vast majority supported annulment of the king’s marriage and the break with Rome as the best way to prevent civil war. See Helpful Background section relating to this point.

The analysis of this film is fairly academic. Parents who want to enhance a child’s experience in watching the movie will be best prepared if they review the Helpful Background and the Discussion Questions (including the suggested answers).


Henry VIII

King Henry VIII (1491 – 1547 reigned 1509-1547) was concerned about a renewal of civil war if he did not leave a male heir. His wife of 16 years, Catherine of Aragon, bore him a healthy daughter, but their sons were either stillborn or died shortly after birth. Entranced by the young and vivacious Anne Boleyn, and convinced that she would bear him a son, the King sought to annul his marriage to Catherine. The Pope was under the political and military domination of Henry’s enemy Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. Charles V was also Catherine’s nephew. The Pope refused Henry’s request for an annulment of the marriage. The King’s response was to sever England’s relationship with the Catholic Church and to set up a new Church of England with the King at its head. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest cleric of the Church in England, was now appointed by Henry. The new Archbishop promptly annulled Henry’s marriage to Catherine.

All of this occurred against the background of the growing strength of the Protestant Reformation in Northern Europe and in England. More was loyal to the Catholic Church and believed that Western European Christianity should remain united. He correctly foresaw that a separate church in England would encourage Protestantism. When More refused to endorse King Henry’s policies, Henry imprisoned him. When More would not relent but instead wrote books and pamphlets opposing Henry’s plan to separate the Church in England from Rome, Henry executed him.

England at the turn of the 16th century was a medieval society in which daily life was bound by custom, tradition, piety, and superstition. The Catholic Church was an integral part of everyday life. However, the church was in need of reform. The abuses of the clergy rankled the populace. Many Englishmen resented the taxes assessed by Rome and the wealth and power of the monasteries. Scholasticism, the effort to give a rational content to faith, had been the dominant philosophical enterprise of the Middle Ages. It was being challenged by the new secular ideas of the Renaissance. One of the proponents of the new thinking in education and literature was Thomas More. More favored the study of the ancient classical texts in their original Greek, one of the reforms of the Renaissance. He was to write one of the most enduring classics of Renaissance literature, Utopia , for which he become famous throughout Europe and later the world.

By 1500 England had found a new political stability provided by the Tudor Dynasty and King Henry VII. The Wars of the Roses, battles of dynastic succession between the houses of Lancaster and York that devastated England from 1455 to 1485, were over. Learning Guide to “ Looking for Richard “. Public service meant serving the king whose powers were growing at the expense of the Church and the nobility. In 1509 Henry VII was succeeded by his son, Henry VIII, who was to rule England for 38 years.

Henry VIII was the second Tudor to sit on the English throne. Henry was a tyrant, used to having his way and willing to cut off heads without scruple if he felt it was in his best interests. His most important achievement, separation of the Church of England from Rome, would never have occurred if Henry had not been desperate for a male heir. The schism paved the way for Protestantism in England, a result never intended by Henry who retained Catholic beliefs, except for papal supremacy.

In his youth Henry gave promise of becoming a modern and enlightened monarch. He was accomplished in Latin and in music. He authored a book on theology maintaining, ironically, that the Pope was infallible. However, Henry never lived up to those expectations. His early foreign military adventures caused needless destruction and loss of life while draining the kingdom of funds. Henry was served by several able ministers, Wolsey, More and Cromwell being the chief among them, but each fell from royal favor. More and Cromwell were beheaded and Wolsey saved Henry the trouble by dying of natural causes soon after he was removed from office. Henry’s matrimonial escapades are well known. There was no reason for the beheading of Anne Boleyn and five men on false charges of adultery, except to make life easier for Henry.

The Church of England (Anglican) that was begun by Henry VIII still exists today. The Queen of England is the Supreme Governor of the Church, appointing the archbishops, bishops and deans of cathedrals on the advice of the Prime Minister. The two archbishops and 24 senior bishops sit in the British House of Lords. With the growth of the British Empire the Church of England expanded. It now has branches in 106 countries. In the United States it is called the Episcopal Church.

Other Characters

Anne Boleyn (1502 – 1536) was the second of King Henry’s six wives. She was reputed to have been stylish and vivacious rather than beautiful. She captivated Henry who asked her to be his mistress. But she refused, stating that she would be queen or nothing. Henry was unaccustomed to being denied anything and Anne’s refusal captivated him all the more. Henry also wanted a new queen to bear him a son to solve his succession problems. But it took him six years to gain an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Anne held out until she was assured of becoming queen. In 1533, while Anne was pregnant, she and Henry were married in a private ceremony. Anne’s first child was a healthy girl who was to become Queen Elizabeth I and rule England for 45 years. Anne’s second child, a boy, miscarried and she soon fell from favor. When the King wanted to marry again, he had Anne Boleyn accused of adultery with five innocent men, including her brother. After a trial that was widely described at the time as “judicial murder,” Anne Boleyn was beheaded just eleven months after Sir Thomas More. See, e.g., Tudor England’s Web Page on Anne Boleyn .

Thomas Cromwell (1485 – 1540), a commoner who was secretary to Wolsey, was able to distance himself from Wolsey just before the Cardinal fell. Cromwell was an able administrator. He served as the King’s advisor and ultimately Chancellor until 1540 when he fell victim to a plot against him by several nobles. Cromwell was vulnerable because his arrangements for Henry VIII’s fourth marriage, to Anne of Cleves, fell victim to Henry’s distaste for Anne’s appearance. Henry never consummated the marriage and Anne saved her life by gracefully withdrawing her claim to be queen and Henry’s wife, based on a technicality. Cromwell was beheaded on charges of heresy and other infractions. Henry VIII soon bemoaned his loss and then turned on the nobles who had turned him against Cromwell.

Historians doubt that Cromwell played a substantial role in the execution of Thomas More. First, Cromwell was not More’s prosecutor, rather he was one of 18 judges. The More family, for example, invited Cromwell to serve as godfather to a grandchild of Sir Thomas More who was born after More’s execution. For additional information on the life and accomplishments of Thomas Cromwell, see Tudor England’s Biographical Sketch of Thomas Cromwell .

Sir Thomas More

Sir Thomas More was an extraordinary man of many apparently contradictory elements.

He was a man of medieval piety but also a leading figure of the Renaissance, a movement which increased the secularization of society. More wore a hair shirt and prayed extensively each day. More believed the Catholic Church was the visible communion of Christians that was the permanent and living sign of Christ’s presence. Ultimately, he gave his life for this belief. More considered his persecution of heretics to be one of his greatest achievements, requesting that it be specifically mentioned in his epitaph. But More was also a leading humanist, advocating reforms in education and creating a classic of Renaissance literature which envisioned an ideal society that was religiously tolerant and not dominated by Christians.

Thomas More was both a man of literature and a man of practical affairs. He wrote many books and is a world-famous author. His Utopia is still read and studied more than 500 years after it was written. It established a genre of literature in which books describe an ideal society. Among More’s several other books was a biography of King Richard III (on which Shakespeare based his play see Learning Guide to “Looking for Richard” ). While the accuracy of More’s biography has been questioned, it is recognized as a masterpiece of prose, perhaps the best produced during the reign of Henry VIII. It is the beginning of modern historical writing in English. But success as an author was just one of More’s accomplishments. He also served as a respected lawyer, a revered judge, and an official in the royal government. Due to his talent and his indefatigable industry, More served in the positions of under-sheriff of the City of London, ambassador, secretary to the King, Speaker of Parliament, administrator of large portions of the kingdom, and finally Chancellor of England, the highest post that a commoner could attain. At the height of his power, More had more prestige than any member of the nobility. He was one of the few persons who had the courage and moral authority to give advice that the King did not want to hear.

More knew that the Catholic Church was in need of serious reform. Yet he respected priests and was an apologist for the Church. Ultimately More gave his life for the Church. Thomas More seriously considered becoming a priest but his desire to take a wife and have a family were strong. As reported by Erasmus, his friend and correspondent, More resolved to become a good husband rather than a bad priest.

More excoriated heretics and he personally ordered several to be burned at the stake. Yet his Utopia visualizes a religiously tolerant society without a Christian church.

More was a man of great seriousness, but also a wit, a jokester and an entertaining dinner companion.

More was a man who loved life and loved his family but he mastered his fear of death and sacrificed everything for what he considered to be the greater good of his own soul and of Christendom.

As an attorney and later a judge, More was steeped in the English Common Law which held that there were limits to royal power.

More is well known for his piety, his wisdom and incorruptibility as a judge, his talents as an administrator, his ability to write, and the fact that he gave his life for a principal in which he believed. However, Sir Thomas More had many other positive qualities as a man. They include:

Peacemaker: More used his influence to help reign in Henry VIII’s tendency to embark on military adventures.

Man of charity: His reputation for charity was so strong that his home was besieged by the ill and the hungry. He built a separate building in which to house them, administered by his favorite daughter Margaret.

Loyal friend: More inspired great loyalty and friendship and was loyal and a true friend in return.

Witty conversationalist: Because of his entertaining and interesting conversation, More was often required by the King to sit with him at dinner.

Rhetorician: He was an excellent speaker and rhetorician.

Caring father: More was a good and caring father who insisted that his children, especially his daughters, become well educated.

Loving and dutiful son: More’s father, John More, was a Judge of the King’s Bench. More loved his father and showed him great respect.

The only substantial criticism of More relates to his persecution of heretics, which included ordering them burned at the stake. In most European countries during the Middle Ages, persecuting heretics was part of the job description of a pious public administrator. But More himself knew that there was a better way. He wrote, in his Utopia, that “for this is one of their most ancient laws, that no man ought to be punished for his religion.” The tolerance of the Utopian society is a strong theme in the chapter “Of the Religions of the Utopians.” It is very difficult to explain this complete inconsistency in More, but he was a man who straddled the new age and the old.

Some of the Substantial Historical Inaccuracies of this Film

The film presents More as a champion of personal conscience. The character of More says in the play, “I will not give in because I oppose it. Not my pride, not my spleen, nor any other of my appetites but I do. I ….” But More did not understand conscience in this manner. Gerard B. Wegemer, a biographer of More, tells us that “For More, the ultimate justification of conscience is the truth of its judgment. For More, since an act of conscience is an act of the practical intellect, its true or false judgment depends upon its correct grasp of the universal principles involved as well as its correct application to the concrete circumstances at hand.” More saw himself and his martyrdom as merely a small part of something much larger than himself: the visible communion of Christians that was the permanent and living sign of Christ’s presence and that was embodied in the Catholic Church. When, during More’s trial, his successor as Chancellor asked how More presumed to challenge “all the bishops, universities, and best learned of this realm”, More responded that he saw little cause why that should “make any change in my conscience. For I have no doubt that, though not in this realm, but of all those well learned bishops and virtuous men that are yet alive throughout Christendom, they are not fewer who are of my mind therein. But if I should speak of those who are already dead, of whom many are now holy saints in heaven, I am very sure it is the far greater part of them who, all the while they lived, thought in this case the way that I think now.” [Quoted at Wegemer, Thomas More, A Portrait of Courage p. 216.]

Those who accept martyrdom almost never believe that they are acting primarily in defense of their individuality. Most martyrs relate their sacrifice to struggles of a broader nature: to a cause, to a people, or to a nation. This was true of Sir Thomas More who died for the principles of Catholic Christendom.

The film narrowly focuses on the tyranny of King Henry in causing his country to modify its religion and separate from the Catholic Church so that he could try to sire a male heir through a young and vivacious woman. The film completely omits the fact that Thomas More was on the losing side of a religious revolution that engulfed England and Northern Europe in the sixteenth century. In fact, the unified Christian community in Western Europe under the Catholic Church, a community for which More gave his life, had been falling apart for years before More took his stand in 1533-35. Martin Luther had published his 95 Theses in 1517. By 1534, when More was imprisoned, millions of Germans were Lutheran. For several years, England too had been in religious ferment and one of More’s principal occupations while he was a royal official was to try to suppress the growing heresy. While he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, More wrote books vociferously condemning Protestant heretics and calling upon the King to do his duty, i.e., to burn them. More opposed Henry’s effort at schism because he correctly feared that once the community of living and dead faithful Christians (the Catholic Church) was broken, the faith itself would be placed in severe peril. In this sense, More was not “A Man for All Seasons” since the season of the unified western Christian church had already passed away.

In the early sixteenth century the attraction of many Englishmen to the reforms of Martin Luther was strong. They were soon to overwhelm the Catholic faith. On the whole, except for several local uprisings and brief reigns by Catholic monarchs such as Mary I (1503 – 1508) England was spared the terrible conflicts that characterized the struggle over the Reformation on the Continent. (Mary I was the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon and was called by her subjects “Bloody Mary” because she burned so many Protestants at the stake.) Leaving questions of belief aside, one need only look to the great contributions of Elizabethan England to literature, commerce, navigation, the arts, governance, and science to see that the English people took well to life in a country dominated by a separate and increasingly Protestant Church of England. This important concept is omitted from the film.

The film implies that any right thinking Englishman would have joined More in his opposition to the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine and to the schism from Rome. This is simply incorrect. Many Englishmen did not believe that a woman could hold the country together, fearing that unless there was a male heir, civil war would break out again. Mindful of the destruction caused by the Wars of the Roses, they shared Henry VIII’s burning desire for a male heir and a secure transition of power at Henry’s death. In addition, many Englishmen were strongly anticlerical. Others, still a minority, were followers of Luther or other “heretics.” A strong case can be made that almost all viewers of the film, had they lived in the 1530s, would have wanted the King’s first marriage annulled so that there would be no question about the legitimacy of the succession of Anne Boleyn’s expected male child. They, like virtually every Englishman of the time, would have supported annulment and taken the oath required by Henry and the Parliament.

The incident dealing with son-in-law William Roper’s leanings toward the doctrines of Martin Luther is taken out of context and leaves a misimpression that More had a tolerant, almost avuncular attitude, toward Protestant beliefs. Roper’s flirtation with Lutheranism began before the authorities were seriously alarmed at the spread of Luther’s ideas. As a result he was treated gently. Called before Cardinal Wolsey for heresy, Roper was let go with a friendly warning. More reasoned with Roper and was one of the people who convinced him to return to the Catholic Church. After More’s death Roper endured imprisonment and exile for the Catholic faith. The incident as it is portrayed in the film misleads the viewer into believing that More dealt gently with heretics. That is simply untrue. In the late 1520s and into the 1530s, More’s administrative and judicial posts required him to punish heretics. He fulfilled that duty with gusto, going so far as to order several people who refused to abandon their heretical beliefs burned at the stake. By that time, More saw heresy as such a pernicious evil, that despite his reverence for the common law, he defended the practices of the church courts in denying persons charged with heresy the right to remain silent and permitting conviction of heresy, a capital offense, based on the testimony of one witness. These procedures were repugnant to the common law. In the common law courts, an accused had the right to remain silent and conviction of a capital crime required the testimony of at least two witnesses. Many of More’s writings rail against Martin Luther, Protestants, and other heretics. More felt that his actions in persecuting heretics were one of his most important achievements.

The movie unquestioningly adopts More’s claim that he remained “silent” on the issue of the King’s Great Matter (the annulment). In fact, More’s “silence” was a cover for his writings which voiced opposition to the theoretical foundation for Henry’s actions. The fundamental issue between the King and More was the question of the schism from the Catholic Church. More objected to the King’s attempt to impose himself, a layman, at the head of the Church of England, in the place of the inherited custom and traditional knowledge of the religious hierarchy of the Catholic Church. More acknowledged that Anne Boleyn was queen, because it was a temporal matter governed by Parliament and King. (The film is incorrect when it has More attacking the marriage after he was condemned.) But More’s writings about the unity of the Church and of Christendom, both before and after his imprisonment, questioned the basis of the Act of Supremacy. Through his writings on these issues, More was the King’s active opponent. Some historians believe that it was the success of More’s campaign of writing, challenging Henry and Cromwell at the highest theoretical level, that drove them to the extreme step of execution.

More was an effective administrator and a canny politician. He was willing to participate in the King’s court hoping that his advice would curb the more pernicious tendencies of the King and guide him toward beneficial policies. More was not the moralizing and impractical prig claimed by the Wolsey character in the film, a claim which the film never rebutted but which was grossly inaccurate.

The trial was conducted in private, without public spectators. Cromwell was one of the judges, not the prosecutor. The jury did retire but took only 15 minutes for its verdict. More did not attack the marriage after he was condemned, instead he attacked the Act of Supremacy. He also sought “an arrest of judgment” challenging each judge to consider the old and respected laws of England, including the Magna Carta which, More contended, stated that “the Church of England shall be free, and shall have her whole rights and liberties inviolable.”

Richard Rich was not part of More’s household or a friend, although certainly More was acquainted with him. In the film Rich is placed in proximity to More to stress the fact that people have choices and can, like Rich, make the wrong choice.

Sir Thomas More

(Saint Thomas More), 1478�, English statesman and author of Utopia, celebrated as a martyr in the Roman Catholic Church. He received a Latin education in the household of Cardinal Morton and at Oxford. Through his contact with the new learning and his friendships with Colet Colet, John
, 1467?�, English humanist and theologian. While studying on the Continent (1493󈟌), Colet became interested in classical scholarship and in theories of education. After his residency at Oxford as a lecturer, in 1505 he became dean of St.
. Click the link for more information. , Lyly Lyly or Lilly, John
, 1554?�, English dramatist and prose writer. An accomplished courtier, he also served as a member of Parliament from 1589 to 1601.
. Click the link for more information. , and Erasmus Erasmus
or Desiderius Erasmus
[Gr. Erasmus, his given name, and Lat., Desiderius=beloved both are regarded as the equivalent of Dutch Gerard, Erasmus' father's name], 1466?�, Dutch humanist, b. Rotterdam.
. Click the link for more information. , More became an ardent humanist. As a successful London lawyer, he attracted the attention of Henry VIII Henry VIII,
1491�, king of England (1509󈞛), second son and successor of Henry VII. Early Life

In his youth he was educated in the new learning of the Renaissance and developed great skill in music and sports.
. Click the link for more information. , served him on diplomatic missions, entered the king's service in 1518, and was knighted in 1521. More held important government offices and, despite his disapproval of Henry's divorce from Katharine of Aragón Katharine of Aragón,
1485�, first queen consort of Henry VIII of England daughter of Ferdinand II of Aragón and Isabella of Castile. In 1501 she was married to Arthur, eldest son of Henry VII.
. Click the link for more information. , he was made lord chancellor at the fall of Wolsey Wolsey, Thomas
, 1473?�, English statesman and prelate, cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. Early Career

Educated at Magdalen College, Oxford, Wolsey served for a while as master of the Magdalen College school. He was ordained a priest in 1498.
. Click the link for more information. (1529). He resigned in 1532 because of ill health and probably because of increasing disagreement with Henry's policies. Because of his refusal to subscribe to the Act of Supremacy, which impugned the pope's authority and made Henry the head of the English Church, he was imprisoned (1534) in the Tower and finally beheaded on a charge of treason.

A man of noble character and deep, resolute religious conviction, More had great personal charm, unfailing good humor, piercing wit, and a fearlessness that enabled him to jest even on the scaffold. His Utopia Utopia
[Gr.,=no place], title of a book by Sir Thomas More, published in Latin in 1516. The work pictures an ideal state where all is ordered for the best for humanity as a whole and where the evils of society, such as poverty and misery, have been eliminated.
. Click the link for more information. (published in Latin, 1516 tr. 1551) is a picture of an ideal state founded entirely on reason. Among his other works in Latin and English are a translation of The Life of John Picus, Earl of Mirandula (1510) a History of Richard III, upon which Shakespeare based his play a number of polemical tracts against the Lutherans (1528󈞍) devotional works including A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation (1534) and a Treatise on the Passion (1534) poems meditations and prayers. More was beatified (1886) by a decree of Pope Leo XIII, canonized (1935) by Pius XI, and proclaimed (2000) the patron saint of politicians by John Paul II.


See his complete works (16 vol., 1963󈟁) and his correspondence, ed. by E. F. Rogers (1947), which contains all his letters except those to Erasmus. The biography of More by his son-in-law William Roper (ed. by E. V. Hitchcock, 1935) has been the principal source of later biographies, particularly the standard modern biography by R. W. Chambers (1935). See also biographies by R. Marius (1985) and P. Ackroyd (1998) studies by R. Pineas (1968), R. Johnson (1969), E. E. Reynolds (1965 and 1969) G. M. Logan (1983), and A. Fox (1985).

Thomas More

Born Feb. 7, 1478, in London died there July 6, 1535. English humanist, statesman, and writer founder of Utopian socialism. Son of a judge.

From 1492 to 1494, More studied at Oxford University he joined a circle known as the Oxford reformers, whose members included J. Colet, T. Linacre, and W. Grocyn. More studied English common law at Lincoln&rsquos Inn from 1496 to 1501. At the end of the 1490&rsquos he met Erasmus of Rotterdam, who became one of his closest friends. Erasmus&rsquo Praise of Folly was written in More&rsquos home and dedicated to him. In 1504, More became a representative of the London merchant class in Parliament. Because he expressed his opposition to Henry VII&rsquos arbitrary tax policy, he fell into disgrace. With the accession of Henry VIII to the throne in 1509, he resumed his political career, becoming undersheriff of London in 1510 and a member of the king&rsquos council in 1518. He was chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster from 1525 to 1529, and chancellor of England from 1529 to 1532.

More responded negatively to the Lutheran Reformation, which he considered a threat to Christian unity. A Catholic and, consequently, a supporter of the supreme authority of the pope, he refused to swear allegiance to the king as the supreme head of the English church. For this he was charged with treason, imprisoned in the Tower of London (1534), and executed. In 1886 he was beatified by the Catholic Church, and in 1935, canonized.

More&rsquos numerous anti-Protestant polemical treatises and meditations on religious themes (The Four Last Things, Supplication of Souls, Apology, and Dialogue Concerning Heresies, for example) influenced the art of English rhetoric (the sermons of A. Marvell and J. Donne), as well as the development of J. Swift&rsquos style. He translated from Latin into English a biography of G. Pico della Mirandola (1510), whose personality and tragic fate he considered instructive for church reformers. His unfinished History of King Richard III (1531), one of the best works in English Renaissance prose, was a secondary source for Shakespeare&rsquos drama.

More is especially famous for the dialogue Utopia (1516 Russian translation, 1789), which describes the ideal society on the imaginary island of Utopia. (The word &ldquoutopia,&rdquo from the Greek meaning &ldquonowhere&rdquo or &ldquononexistent place,&rdquo was coined by More and subsequently entered English usage.) He was the first to describe a society in which private property (even personal property) has been abolished, equality of consumption has been introduced (as in the early Christian communes), and production and the way of life have been socialized. In Utopia labor is required of all citizens, distribution is based on need, and there is a six-hour workday. Criminals do the heaviest work. The political system of Utopia is based on the principles of election and seniority. The family, a cell for the communist way of life, is organized more as a productive unit than as a kinship unit. An opponent of popular movements, which he associated with anarchy and destruction, More did not believe that the ideal society would be achieved through revolution. Utopia, which was written in Latin for humanist scholars and enlightened monarchs, was translated into other European languages in the mid-16th century. It greatly influenced reformers of subsequent centuries, especially Morelly, G. Babeuf, Saint-Simon, C. Fourier, E. Cabet, and other representatives of Utopian socialism.

Sir Thomas More: Biography, Facts and Information

Today we know Sir Thomas More primarily as the author of Utopia, and as one of the more famous martyrs of Henry VIII’s reign. The popular image is of a man – principled, steadfast, courageous – who placed his own conscience above his king’s demands.

Yet if you were to ask More’s contemporaries to describe him, their words would be as conflicted and contradictory as the man himself. He was a brilliant scholar of the Renaissance who died rather than betray the Catholic church. As a young man, he seriously contemplated joining the priesthood, only to become one of the most successful politicians of his time. And he was a father who insisted his three daughters have the same education as his son. Perhaps more than any other courtier of Henry’s reign, More embodied the searching, troubled spirit of the early 16th century.

After his death, and for centuries thereafter, Sir Thomas More was known as the most famous victim of Henry VIII’s tyranny. It was More’s execution – far more than those of Anne Boleyn or Thomas Cromwell or Margaret Pole – which established the king’s reputation for capricious cruelty. This was partly due to More’s intellectual prominence he was perhaps the most famous Englishman on the continent, with a wide and varied correspondence. It was also due to Henry’s deep and unfeigned friendship with More. (We should note, however, that More – brilliant and perceptive – was never especially comfortable in his king’s good graces. “If my head should win him a castle in France,” he told his son-in-law in 1525, “it should not fail to go.”)

More’s beginnings, however, hardly predicted his spectacular career. In Utopia, he identified himself as a “citizen of London”, and it was in London that he was born on 7 February 1477, the only surviving son of John More and his first wife, Agnes Graunger. John More was a successful lawyer who was later knighted and made a judge of the King’s Bench he was prosperous enough to send his son to London’s best school, St Anthony’s at Threadneedle Street. And he was well-connected enough to later secure his son’s appointment as household page to John Morton, the archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England. There is an apocryphal story that Morton predicted his bright and lively page would grow into a “marvelous man”.

More’s adolescent years were spent under the reign of Henry VII, the first Tudor king. And his patron Morton was infamous as the architect of that king’s very successful – and subsequently very unpopular – tax policy. Morton’s tax philosophy was a marvel of inescapable logic: “If the subject is seen to live frugally, tell him because he is clearly a money saver of great ability, he can afford to give generously to the King. If, however, the subject lives a life of great extravagance, tell him he, too, can afford to give largely, the proof of his opulence being evident in his expenditure.” And while this reasoning worked to replenish the royal treasury for Henry VII, it also provided the second Tudor king with a chance to curry popular favor when he – in one of his first acts as Henry VIII – imprisoned and later executed Edmund Dudley and Richard Empson, who were Morton’s (and his father’s) tax collectors.

However, we should not assume that Morton’s politics had any profound impact upon More. Quite the opposite. Both men were enthusiastic Humanist scholars, but they parted ways with regard to the king’s prerogative. In 1504, More was elected to Parliament and one of his first acts was to oppose Henry VII’s request of a “grant” of three-fifteenths. It was More’s impassioned speeches against this large and unjust burden that made the king reduce it by more than two thirds. And the king was not pleased with the young lawyer he promptly imprisoned More’s father in the Tower until he paid a substantial fine.

That was the beginning of Thomas More’s public career, and it was a telling one. More’s connection to Morton had earlier secured him admittance to Oxford, where he studied for two years, mastering Greek and Latin with “an instinct of genius”, and studying a wide variety of subjects, including music. His father recalled him to London and he trained as a law student at New Inn and later Lincoln’s Inn. The governors of Lincoln admired him enough to appoint him lecturer on law for three consecutive years. More’s brilliance of mind and curious, kindly character gained him many friends and admirers. Yet even as his legal future seemed assured, More was deeply conflicted about his future. He had long felt a calling to the priesthood. Now he decided to seriously test his religious convictions.

He moved into the Carthusian monastery adjoining Lincoln’s Inn and participated in the monks’ way of life as much as he could, while still pursuing his legal career. His father was not supportive, but More was fully prepared to be disowned rather than disobey God’s will. To that end, he spent the next three years in study and prayer, wearing a hair shirt next to his skin (a practice he never abandoned), and struggling to reconcile his genuine religious fervor with the demands of the outside world. In the end, he decided, in the words of his friend Erasmus, “to be a chaste husband rather than an impure priest.”

It should be noted that More’s affinity for the monastic life never left him, despite his later marriages, family, and career. Even as he secretly wore a hair shirt, he openly and consistently fasted, prayed, and maintained a relatively modest household. When he later built his ‘Great House’ in Chelsea, its rooms were specifically designed to encourage quiet study and prayer. More’s piety was the defining aspect of his character even as the circumstances of his life changed, it remained constant and unyielding.

His decision to become a lay Christian now made, More quickly married. His choice was Jane Colt, the eldest daughter of a gentleman farmer. His son-in-law William Roper, whose biography of More is one of the first biographies ever written, tells us that More chose his wife out of pity: “[A]lbeit his mind most served him to the second daughter, for that he thought her the fairest and best favored, yet when he considered that it would be great grief and some shame also to the eldest to see her younger sister preferred before her in marriage, he then, of a certain pity, framed his fancy towards” Jane. True or not, the marriage proved to be happy and fruitful, though of brief duration. After bearing More three daughters (Margaret, Elizabeth, Cicely) and one son (John), Jane died in 1511. More later memorialized her as “uxorcula Thomae Mori” her gentle personality is attested to by Erasmus’s letters, as he was a frequent visitor to More’s home. The two men had first met in 1497 and remained close friends until More’s death.

More’s wife had been – like most women of her time – ill-educated, and during their brief marriage, he taught her Latin and other subjects. She was an apt enough pupil to later converse with visitors in Latin. And More determined that their daughters would receive the same education as their son. The symbolism and importance of this decision cannot be underestimated. More’s eldest daughter Margaret would become the first non-royal Englishwoman to publish a work in translation.

More was thus in his early thirties, successful, happily married, when the tax collectors Dudley and Empson were beheaded on Tower Hill at the command of the new king, Henry VIII. As a newly elected representative for London in Parliament and an undersheriff in the city, he was deeply involved in public life. He worked eight years as undersheriff and proved himself an impartial judge and able administrator. Contemporary chroniclers often referred to him as a friend of the poor. The one potentially scandalous act of his life was his quick second marriage to a widow seven years his senior, Alice Middleton. They married less than a month after Jane Colt’s death and More had to seek special dispensation from the church. It was granted, and the wealthy widow became stepmother to his four children, and More stepfather to her daughter and son. It proved to be another happy marriage, though More’s friends remarked upon Alice’s sharp tongue and occasionally brusque ways. Perhaps the contrast with the quiet, gentle Jane was too striking. For More’s part, he undoubtedly appreciated his second wife’s superb housekeeping skills for they allowed him the freedom to pursue his increasingly successful career.

It is at this moment that we must step back and consider the England in which More now lived. There was a new king, – a handsome, athletic young man who had once been destined for the church. But his older brother perished and the younger brother was crowned at 18 years old, and quickly wed his brother’s widow. She was the Spanish princess, Katharine of Aragon, one of the daughters of the Catholic rulers of Spain. She was a devout and learned young woman, and though we primarily know her as the older wife who could not bear Henry his desired son and heir, she was once young and pretty and well-liked. Henry VIII’s later statements to the contrary, his marriage to Katharine began happily and continued so for some years. There was a feeling in England that a new era had begun.

Henry VIII was a Catholic ruler, and enjoyed friendly relations with the papacy until he sought to divorce Katharine. But that was years in the future. As a young king, he was named “Defender of the Faith” by the pope for defending the church against Protestant heresy his Lord Chancellor was Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. And because of his early education in religious matters, Henry was no mere spectator in religious debate.

For these reasons, More had no cause to suspect his monarch of anything less than fealty to their shared faith. And as his own reputation grew in London, he attracted the notice of the all-powerful Cardinal Wolsey. In May 1515, More was sent to Bruges as part of a delegation arranged by Wolsey to revise an Anglo-Flemish commercial treaty. It was during this trip that he began to write Utopia, his most famous work. It was More who coined the term, a pun on the Greek words for ‘no place’ and ‘good place’. More had already begun writing his History of King Richard III as well it is considered the first masterpiece of English history and is wholly pro-Tudor. Its influence upon William Shakespeare’s Richard III is immense.

Utopia is a complex and witty work which describes a city-state ruled entirely by reason. It is meant to contrast with the reality of European rule, divided by ideologies and greed and self-interest. More essentially argued that communal life is the only way to end the ill effects of self-interest on politics. The work was a marvel of learning and wit and wholly original it was soon translated throughout the Continent and its author hailed as one of the foremost Humanist thinkers. It is no exaggeration to state that its publication ensured More a stature that no other Englishman of his time enjoyed.

Cardinal Wolsey – and the king – needed no further reason to bring More into the king’s service. His work at Bruges and, later, Calais, as well as his continuing duties as undersheriff in London, were clear evidence of his skill and popularity. More’s letters indicate that he was not particularly keen to enter royal service. This was not due to any dislike of the king. Rather, he felt that he could be more effective in the city itself, not closeted away amongst the nobles and councilors of Henry’s court. But polite prevarications only worked for so long and soon More was a genuine courtier, with all its attendant duties – and benefits.

He was first appointed a Privy Councilor and accompanied Wolsey to an important diplomatic mission to Europe. He impressed the cardinal enough that he was knighted upon his return and made under-treasurer of the Exchequer. More importantly, he developed a personal relationship with Henry VIII, and because known as the king’s “intellectual courtier”. Soon he was acting as Henry’s personal secretary and adviser, delivering official speeches, greeting foreign envoys, drafting treaties and other public documents, and composing the king’s responses to Wolsey’s dispatches. More also engaged in a public war of words – on the king’s behalf – with Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation.

In April 1523, he was elected speaker of the House of Commons. His position at court meant that he was to be the king’s advocate before parliament. But to More’s credit, he made an impassioned plea for greater freedom of speech in parliament. Such was his reputation that the the great universities – Oxford and Cambridge – made him high steward. His personal life remained placid and content. His eldest daughter Margaret married the lawyer William Roper in 1521, and More continued his practice of prayer and supervision of learning at his home.

His home at Chelsea was as close as Tudor England would come to an 18th century French salon. Intellectuals from England and Europe visited More was a generous and kind host. He collected books and rare objects, but he gave away his possessions freely as well. He had a true gift for friendship and inspired deep loyalty amongst his family and friends. Among his guests, in fact, was the king himself. He would arrive unbidden, to either eat with the family or walk in the garden with More, his arm slung casually about More’s shoulders.

Despite such evidence of royal favor, it is likely that More chafed at his service to the king. He was no fool he noted Wolsey’s great – and increasingly ostentatious – wealth. His natural piety was at odds with other courtiers, all of whom jockeyed ceaselessly for the king’s favor. Ironically, it was his own honesty and probity which ensured his continued service to Henry.

We come now to the great event of Henry’s reign. By 1527, the king was in his mid-thirties, and his wife six years older. The queen had suffered a series of miscarriages throughout their marriage their only surviving child was the Princess Mary. Henry needed a son and heir. He had an illegitimate son, called Henry Fitzroy, by one of his early mistresses. The boy, born in 1519, was welcome proof to Henry that he could father a son – and that his lack of an heir was entirely Katharine’s fault. Even special physicians summoned from Spain could not help the queen to conceive again.

And so, when More returned from a diplomatic mission to France in summer 1527, the king laid the open Bible before his favorite councilor. It was, Henry told him, proof that his marriage to Katharine was incestuous due to her previous marriage to his brother. It was unlawful before man and God and thus void. The king added that his lack of a legitimate son was clear proof of God’s displeasure.

Was More surprised by this speech? We do not know. We do know that he tried in vain to support the king’s position. He read anything and everything he could find on the subject. In the end, he could not be persuaded. Katharine was the king’s true wife. He did not share his opinion with the king. And the king did not force the issue. Certainly Henry wanted More’s support. As England’s premier intellectual, More’s opinion mattered. It mattered to London shopkeepers, and to great churchmen. If the great Sir Thomas More believed the king’s marriage to be unlawful, why, it must be so! But if the great Sir Thomas More believed the king to be wrong? Henry was wise enough to state his case and let it go, – for a little while at least. And More was more convinced than ever that he needed to leave royal service.

Unfortunately, Cardinal Wolsey was unable to secure an annulment for the king. The reasons were various, but the most important was Katharine’s position as aunt to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Charles would not let his aunt be cast aside (he was also considering the dynastic appeal of her daughter with Henry), and he pressured the pope to deny Henry’s petition. Wolsey, for all his brilliance and cunning, could not compete with that influence. And the king was now newly enamored of a young noblewoman called Anne Boleyn. His desire for an annulment was now not merely to secure a legitimate heir it was also spurred by his desire to marry Anne.

Anne’s personal religious feeling was unimportant. She was by necessity hostile to the Catholic church. They were preventing her marriage to the king. Likewise, Henry became understandably angry at the papacy’s refusal to repudiate Charles. Perhaps his earlier justification for the annulment had been a matter of self-interest, a selective interpretation of opaque text. But time and impatience had made him emphatic in his righteousness. It was perfectly clear to any objective observer that the marriage was unlawful before God! The king raged. He sent envoys. He dictated letter after letter. He badgered Katharine ceaselessly. Nothing worked. The pope would not relent. Meanwhile, time was passing and a king used to instant obedience was determined to wait no longer. Wolsey was destined to die for his failure to secure the annulment. Fortunately for the old cardinal, he died before the king could kill him. Unfortunately for More, Henry appointed him Lord Chancellor of England. The honor was tremendous notably, More was the first layman to hold the office. He handled his responsibilities with his usual skill, but it was a balancing act, and an increasingly dangerous one. For example, as Lord Chancellor, More proclaimed the opinion of the English universities as favorable to the king’s annulment. But he himself did not sign the letter in which most of England’s nobles and prelates petitioned the pope to declare the marriage unlawful. And when the English clergy were forced to acknowledge Henry as the supreme head of their church, More attempted to resign his office.

His resignation was at first not accepted. Henry still hoped for More’s support. But eventually the break between the king and his chief minister could not be ignored. More suffered a sharp chest pain, possibly angina, and begged the king to release him from his duties. This was on 16 May 1532, the date on which the archdiocese of Canterbury, as head of the English clergy, sent a document to Henry VIII in which is promised to never legislate or even convene without royal assent, thus making the king – a lay person – head of the spiritual order in England.

Henry accepted More’s resignation. Their old friendship was past the king’s new advisors were anti-Catholic and pro-Protestant, most notably among them was Thomas Cromwell. He had once served under Wolsey and knew More well. Cromwell was an astute politician whose beliefs changed at the whim of his royal master. He was even more aware than the king of More’s popular appeal and this was to More’s detriment for it meant that his refusal to publicly support the king was not something that could be forgiven or forgotten. More would have to either acknowledge the king’s spiritual supremacy and marriage to Anne Boleyn, or he would die. That was clear to Cromwell almost from the first, and perhaps to More, too.

But in the meantime, More had eighteen months of seclusion and study at his home in Chelsea. He lived in relative poverty, for he held no office and relied solely upon the hundred pounds per annum he collected from a property rental. He did not struggle with the reduction in means, and busied himself with planning a tomb for himself and his wives , as well as defending his faith in various pamphlets. He never explicitly courted controversy, but he felt compelled to answer the ‘reformers’ such as William Tyndale. His months of peace ended in 1533, when he refused to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn.

This blatant disrespect could not be tolerated and More’s name was included in a Bill of Attainder against Elizabeth Barton, the ‘Holy Maid of Kent’, who had prophesized against the king’s annulment. More’s only communication with Barton had been to warn her against meddling in affairs of state. It did not matter. His name was on the attainder and he was brought before the Privy Council in February 1534. He answered their queries as best he could, assuring them of his loyalty to king and state and stressing the matter of his personal conscience. It was his great popularity that saved him. It gave the king pause, and More was allowed to return home. But he knew what was coming. And his old friend, the duke of Norfolk, took care to warn him of his danger, “Indignatio principis mors est.” To which More famously replied, “Is that all, my lord? Then, in good faith, between your grace and me is but this, that I shall die today, and you tomorrow.”

It was the Act of Succession, passed the following month, that sealed his fate. It stated that all who were called upon must take an oath acknowledging Anne as Henry’s wife and their future children as legitimate heirs to the throne. This More was fully prepared to do. Anne was the anointed queen. But – and of course this clause was added simply to trap More – the Act also required a repudiation of “any foreign authority, prince or potentate.” More could recognize Anne as the crowned queen of England. But he could not recognize the king’s authority as head of the new church of England. And so he was imprisoned in the Tower of London on 17 April 1534.

More was not a man to be broken by prison, but he suffered physically. His spirits were high when visited by family and friends, though they were only permitted to see him if they took the Oath which he had refused. He encouraged them to do so. After several months, he was visited by Cromwell, but More refused to engage him in debate and merely declared himself a faithful subject of the king. In June 1535, after he had been imprisoned for over a year, Cromwell’s servant, Richard Rich, now solicitor general, stated that he had spoken with More and More had denied Parliament’s power to make Henry head of the church. This was an obvious lie More had never said anything of the sort to any other visitor, – why Rich? And why such an obvious and clumsy admission?

Despite widespread belief, even amongst Protestants, that Rich was lying, his statement was enough for a fresh inquiry to begin. It was then discovered that More had written to John Fisher, the bishop of Rochester, who was also imprisoned in the Tower for not taking the oath. This discovery resulted in removal of More’s books and writing materials. He could now only write to his wife and favorite daughter Margaret with a piece of coal or burnt stick on scraps of paper.

On 1 July 1535, he was indicted on high treason. The resulting trial was mere show despite his impassioned and brilliant defense, no one ever expected More to be found anything other than ‘guilty’. And so he was. He was sentenced to a traitor’s death – to be drawn, hanged, and quartered – but the king changed it to beheading. It was a small mercy.

The story of More’s last days is terribly affecting. One does not have to share his religious convictions to appreciate his inner strength and noble character. He waited five days before being summoned to the scaffold on Tower Hill. “See me safe up,” he told the lieutenant who escorted him, “and for my coming down let me shift for myself.” He blindfolded himself and exhorted the assembled crowd to witness his end “in the faith and for the faith of the Catholic Church, the king’s good servant but God’s first.” Even More’s Protestant enemies did not believe him a traitor his death was almost universally held to be nothing less than martyrdom. Erasmus mourned his friend and wrote that More’s “soul was more pure than snow” and his “genius was such that England never had and never again will have its like.” More was beatified by the Catholic Church in 1886, and canonized by Pius XI in 1935.

English Historical Fiction Authors

Religion played a huge part in medieval life. It is not too much to say that religion dominated every aspect of daily life. During the tumultuous time of Henry VIII, the religious life of England was ripped asunder and reshaped.

As we approach All Saints Day and All Souls Day, I thought it would be interesting to discuss two men, contemporaries, who did much to shape the religious debate and in many ways embody the disparate sides, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Sir Thomas More. Both are still the subjects of veneration and discussion today, with one being revered as a reformer and martyr in the Church of England and the other, a canonized Roman Catholic saint, being honored in both faiths.

Although both men are well known, my views were shaped as much by fiction (representations of them in novels, television and movies) as by fact. Clearly, some research was in order. As I was reading about these two men, I became intrigued by their differences, and with their similarity. As fascinating as the religious and political issues are, my area of focus became the personal issues that shaped their thinking and viewpoints later.

Thomas More was the elder of the two. He was born February 6, 1478, to Sir John More and his wife Agnes, in London. Sir John More was a man of substance he had inherited lands, and had been given the right to bear a coat of arms by Edward IV. Sir John became an influential barrister and a judge in the Court of the King’s Bench. The first school Thomas More attended as a boy was St. Anthony’s School in Threadneedle Street, where he was educated in Latin.

At roughly the age of 13, about 1490, he was received into the household of John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury (who was also a close advisor of Henry VII). After about 2 years service, Archbishop Morton sent him to Canterbury College at Oxford (Canterbury College was later absorbed into Christ Church), where he studied Greek and Latin. After only 2 years at Oxford, Sir John called Thomas home.

After some time studying at the new Inn, Thomas was admitted as a student at Lincoln’s inn about 1496, and called to the bar in 1501. He also lectured at St Lawrence’s Church on St. Augustine’s City of God. In 1504, Thomas was elected to Parliament. During this time period, he also became drawn to Christian Humanist philosophy, which combined the study of Greek with the study of the Gospels. Available data indicates he was brilliant and popular, with a whimsical sense of humour he was also unsure of his vocation. He lived with the London Carthusians for 4 years but ultimately felt no clear call to either the priesthood or monastic life.

In approximately 1505 (roughly age 27), Thomas married Jane Colt, and they had 4 children (Margaret, Elizabeth, Cecilia and John) before Jane’s death in 1511. He remarried, to a widow named Alice Middleton. Thomas’s home became a seat of learning, entertaining visitors including Thomas Linacre (English humanist scholar and physician), John Colet (English humanist, churchman and educator), John Fisher who became Bishop of Rochester (who studied at Cambridge and was Chancellor of Cambridge), among others.

Thomas was as concerned with the education of his daughters as well as his son. His career was also developing.

During Henry VII’s reign, Thomas became a Burgess in Parliament, but came under Henry VII’s displeasure during an issue involving funds for Princess Margaret’s marriage to the King of Scotland (Thomas was against it). Thomas was prepared to leave England, when Henry VII died.

Thomas’s situation improved when Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509. In 1510, he became one of two under-sheriffs of London, and was very active in the courts. With the King’s consent, he was appointed as ambassador twice at the request of the English Merchants to the Merchants of Stilliards.

On his first visit, he was negotiating for the English Wool Merchants in Antwerp when he began writing Utopia in 15115, his time in the Low Countries giving him an opportunity to observe Reformist activity in that region. (He finished and published Utopia in 1516, a satire on the corruption and abuse of power, with individual reason as a method of acquiring faith-the citizens of his mythical world had the freedom to choose their religion, but not the freedom of unbelief. It would seem to indicate that he observed some need for reform within the Church.)

His successes brought him to the attention of the King and Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey placed Thomas in his household, and Thomas was brought to court. Thomas entered the king’s service about 1517, and gained rapid preferment at court, becoming Master of the Requests and receiving a knighthood in 1521 (his father was knighted in 1518).He also became a member of the Privy Council.

He became very popular with the king and queen, who requested his presence frequently (he had to sneak out to visit his family). When the Treasurer of the Exchequer died, Thomas was appointed to that position. In about 1523 (the 14 th year of Henry VIII’s reign), Thomas was chosen Speaker in Parliament. He was already actively writing against protestant reformers. His work included helping Henry with Henry’s Assertio (a response to Martin Luther) in 1521, his own Responsio Ad Lutheram (a harsh work in which he accused Luther of heresy), among others.

By contrast, Thomas Cranmer was born July 2, 1489 in Aslockton, Nottinghamshire, the second son of Thomas Cranmer and his wife Anne. The Cranmer family was considered minor gentry, long established in Nottinghamshire but possessed of little fortune. Thomas passed to his son a fondness for country sport (hounds, archery and horsemanship-young Tom was known for his skills with a pack of hound and with either the long bow or the cross bow). Tom’s elder brother inherited the property in 1501, while Tom and a younger brother received small allowances intended for their education. Little is known about Tom’s education as a boy.

In 1503, at about age 14, he was sent to Jesus College at Cambridge, where he studied for at least 10 years, obtaining a bachelor of arts in approximately 1511. One of his contemporaries at Cambridge was Hugh Latimer. Tom studied the scriptures and was exposed to the writings of Erasmus.

At this point, Cranmer made what is described as an imprudent marriage to Joan, which caused him to lose his preferment at Jesus College and interrupted his studies. He obtained a lectureship at Magdalen College, which provided a small income. He earned a reputation with his lectures, which were attended by numerous scholars, where he argued against religious superstitions. His wife died in childbirth, with the child, after about a year of marriage.

He regained his preferment at Jesus College, obtaining a master of arts and becoming a fellow as a layman about 1514. The fact that he was able to regain his preferment indicates that he was held in esteem at Cambridge. In 1520, he took orders as a secular priest (not a religious priest-more about this later). Agents of Cardinal Wolsey were looking for a body of learned men to fill Wolsey’s college of Christ Church in Oxford and seem to have offered Cranmer a position.

According to several sources Cranmer elected to stay at Cambridge and became a Doctor of Divinity somewhere between 1523 and 1526. Notes in the margins of the few surviving books from his library indicate his beliefs were still fairly orthodox at this time. He held a lectureship at Cambridge in Old and New Testaments, and was appointed one of the examiners in Theology. He had the reputation of being very strict and requiring his students to be well acquainted with the scriptures. He was also known for his mildness and simplicity.

While Sir Thomas More’s background appears to have been more affluent, these two men are strikingly similar: both of respectable birth, highly intelligent and extremely well educated. Both were exposed fairly early to Humanism and influenced by that philosophy. By all accounts, Oxford was a more conservative institution while Cambridge seems to have attracted a more radical, reformist circle.

Thomas More’s father dictated a change of study to the law after a short time, while Thomas Cranmer was immersed in University studies for over a decade (theological studies). Both seemed to be men of faith and conviction, even though there were differences in their views early on.

It is interesting to note that there would probably have been overlaps in their acquaintances, especially considering that they were both influenced by humanist philosophy. Just to name one, Thomas More’s friend, John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, studied at Cambridge, and was Chancellor of Cambridge-it seems highly unlikely that Thomas Cranmer would have had no acquaintance with him. Both seemed to be well-established in a certain career path.

Marriage is another common point with them. Both men married fairly young a radical point of separation is the outcome. Thomas More and his wife had 4 children before she passed away after 6 years of marriage. As a widower with children, More’s decision to remarry would have been considered the reasonable decision (if not an essential one). Thomas Cranmer lost his wife and their child after roughly a year of marriage, and was not his father’s heir--another marriage would not have been essential for him.

Thomas Cranmer’s decision to take orders a secular priest seems a logical outcome of the death of his wife after a very short marriage and his immersion in theological study (a secular priest was one who had not taken holy orders as part of a religious community there is some question about whether or not a vow of chastity was required of a secular priest, according to different works on the subject).

Thomas More’s career in law owed much at this point to his father’s standing and influence, as well as the advantages gained from Archbishop Morton, and subsequently Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII. Thomas Cranmer was much more of a self-made man at this stage of his life. These similarities and divergences show the roots of their later differences: Thomas More, in spite of his humanist leanings, was much more conservative and traditional in his views. Thomas Cranmer was already vocal about his opinions on reform.

We now come to the watershed: in 1526, the King’s Great Matter (his desire to end his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn) escalated to the divorce debate. This polarizing subject engulfed the legal and religious minds of the day in England.

During this time, Cranmer came to Wolsey’s attention and was sent on a minor diplomat mission to Spain from which he returned in 1527 to his position in Cambridge. About 1529, an illness similar to the plague, possibly the “sweating sickness,” broke out. Schools and universities (including Cambridge) were closed, and Cranmer retired to Waltham in Essex to the house of a Mr. Cressy, whose sons were his students and whose education he continued to supervise. He was still in Waltham in 1529.

After the legatine court was dissolved after revoking the divorce case to Rome, Henry went on a summer progress in southern England in 1529. Members of Henry’s court, Fox and Gardiner among others, were invited to Mr. Cressy’s home, where Fox and Gardiner met Dr. Cranmer. Of course, Henry’s divorce was the topic of discussion.

Supposedly, Cranmer the academic suggested that they pursue a collection of opinions of all of the universities in Europe regarding the question “Is it lawful to marry a brother’s wife?”. If yes, the king’s scruples would be satisfied if no, the pope would have to decide for divorce. This narrowed the central question away from the matter of the dispensation to a point which could allow a decision that the marriage was null.

Fox and Gardiner allegedly brought this to Henry’s attention the next day. Henry met with Cranmer, and sent him to the Boleyn household. The ultimate result was that, after preparing a treatise outlining and defending the course he proposed, Cranmer was appointed to a commission with the Earl of Wiltshire (Anne Boleyn’s father) and the Bishop of London which set out for Rome in 1530. Cranmer was also entrusted with the King’s dispatches and with matters of trade to negotiate for the merchants of England. These activities kept him in Europe for a while, where he became a convert to the Reformation.

The failure of the legatine court to resolve the issue in Henry’s favour resulted in the disgrace of Cardinal Wolsey, who lost the position of Lord Chancellor. The King appointed Thomas More as Lord Chancellor in October of 1529, with More being the first layman to hold this position.

As Lord Chancellor, Thomas More upheld heresy laws, imprisoned Lutherans and other dissenters, and even ordered the burning of six heretics while continuing his writings against reformers. When Henry VIII imposed himself as Supreme Head of the Church of England (even with the limitation of so far as the Law of Christ allows established by the convocation), More wanted to resign as chancellor. However, he was persuaded to stay on and look into the “Great Matter.”

He upheld the validity of Henry’s marriage, but was allowed to stay out of the controversy. However, his opposition to Henry’s proposal to forbid the clergy to prosecute heretics or to hold meetings without his consent, and a later effort to withhold First Fruits from the Holy See resulted in King Henry VIII accepting More’s resignation in May of 1532. Reduced to near poverty, More returned home and lived quietly, engaged in his writing, but staying out of the controversies surrounding the King’s marriage and religious matters.

Ironically, it was in October of 1532 that Cranmer, who was still in Europe, received a message that Henry planned to reward him with the See of Canterbury, which had become vacant upon the death of William Warham.(Another irony: his taking position of Archbishop of Canterbury was dependent upon bulls from the pope.)

Cranmer was troubled by two issues: as a convert to the Reformation, he was not comfortable with the thought of swearing an oath to the Pope secondly, in 1532, he had remarried. There was a prejudice against married clergy, and Henry, in particular, disapproved.

Henry obtained the bulls in February of 1533 and in March, the consecration took place. There is no indication that he disclosed his marriage or discussed his concerns with Henry or anyone else. However, he took his oaths as Archbishop openly making exceptions, taking it as it was consistent with the Laws of God, the King’s prerogatives and the statutes of the realm. By openly swearing his oath with qualifications, he apparently felt no scruples at accepting the post.

So, at this point, both men were in position for the next development in the drama that was England under Henry VIII. As the influence of one waned, the influence of the other grew. Each had their respective strengths and weaknesses each played his part as the drama went on, with More being one of the earlier casualties of Henry’s new order, and Cranmer outliving both Henry and his son Edward only to meet his end under Henry’s daughter Mary.

I don’t intend to get into a discussion of the motivations, ethical dilemmas or other issues. What fascinates me are the similarities between these men, something I frankly had not expected. Well educated, dedicated to their careers, passionate about their religious beliefs, sincere in their desires to serve their king. Descriptions indicate that both were personable men that others liked and respected.

I can’t help but wonder if at any time these two men ever engaged in conversation. Their educational background and diplomatic experiences gave them many points in common. While their religious differences were profound, I think these two men could still have found issues on which they could agree, with both having humanist leanings and years of theological studies under their belts.

I also wonder about the age difference More was 11 years older than Cranmer. Is it possible that, had More been born a bit later, he would have been more open to the Reformation? Would Cranmer have remained more conservative in his outlook if he had been born earlier? At the end of the day, I found both of these men to be much more interesting, engaging and human than I expected.

Walsh, Michael, ed. BUTLER’S LIVES OF THE SAINTS Concise Edition Revised and Updated.New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Wilson, Derek.IN THE LION’S COURT Power, Ambition, and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII.New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2001.

Encyclopedia of World Biography website. “Thomas More Biography.”

Influenced by humanists

Thomas More was born in London on February 6, 1478, to parents whose families were connected with the city's legal community. His education began at a prominent London school, Saint Anthony's. In 1490 he went to work for Archbishop John Morton (c. 1420–1500), the closest adviser of King Henry VII (1457–1509 reigned 1485–1509). In 1492 he attended Oxford University in England, where he first encountered Greek studies. There he seems to have been tempted to become a priest or a monk. Following his father's lead, however, More began studying law when he returned to London two years later. By 1498 More had gained membership in Lincoln's Inn, an influential lawyers' fraternity. Around this time More also came under the influence of John Colet (c. 1466–1519), an important scholar and preacher.

Colet was educated in Italy and brought back to England a controversial method of studying Scriptures (text of the Bible, the Christian holy book), which was developed by humanists. Humanists were scholars devoted to reviving the literary and philosophical works of ancient Greek and Roman writers. They believed that Scriptures should be read within an historical context instead of being regarded as sacred texts that should never be questioned or analyzed. Colet caused a sensation by lecturing on the historical aspects of Paul's Epistles (Letters) to the Romans from the New Testament (the second half of the Bible). Around 1498 More similarly drew attention to himself by lecturing on City of God by Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430), one of the first Christian theologians.

In 1499 More met the famous Dutch humanist Erasmus Desiderius (c. 1466–1536 see entry) and began studying Greek. Together More and Erasmus collaborated on translating works by the Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata (c.120–c.190). Lucian had parodied, or made fun of, pagan superstitions and was widely regarded as an atheist (one who does not believe in God or gods). More and Erasmus learned from Lucian the art of humorous ridicule for a serious purpose, aiming at criticizing the superstitions and immoral practices of Christians without directly doing so. At the time, questioning church doctrines and superstitions was very dangerous. Using parody or satire was a way to disguise one's true message while calling church traditions into question.

5 Things You Never Knew About St. Thomas More

June 22nd is the feast day of St. Thomas More, best known as the patron of lawyers and the writer of humanist classic Utopia. In his life he was right hand man to King Henry VIII just as the crown’s relationship with Rome began to sour, but he was also a family man, a tireless worker against heresy, and a famously sharp wit. While his life’s work was mostly secular, he had the faith of a martyr and was executed for his refusal to acknowledge both the King of England’s supremacy over the Church and King Henry VIII’s annulment from Catherine of Aragon. Here are some things you might not know about his accomplished life (with GIFs St. Thomas would be proud of).

1. He was a huge Greek book nerd


St. Thomas More loved Greek books and Greek literature. In fact, Thomas loved it so much that his father pulled him out of uni in the equivalent of his sophomore year because his father was terrified Thomas would become too nerdy to actually be a lawyer. It’s ok, St. Thomas. The nerds are the cool kids now.

2. He kind of hated his job (but you would too if you worked for King Henry VIII)

Everyone knew that King Henry was kinda adulterous and kinda fond of killing people who didn’t give giant manbaby Tudor his way. Just being near the guy was hazardous for your health from the neck up. But St. Thomas wanted to do a tiny bit to make England a better place for the poor and the suffering. So he took up his post at court not in order to radically revolutionize things, but, in his own words, “so order that it be not very bad.”
You tried, St. Thomas. You tried real hard.

3. He used his education and position to call out Luther and the Reformers

St. Thomas had no time for the games. The Reformation was gathering momentum in Europe, and St. Thomas was having none of it. Much of his time was spent writing refutations against both Luther and popular English Reformer Tyndale, and he even presided over the office which had the power to deal out the death penalty for recalcitrant heretics (though he scarcely used that power, and was only ever forced by law to do so). Never one to be particularly subtle, Thomas referred to Luther’s teachings and the Reformation as “pestilent.”
Same, St. Thomas. Same.

4. He threw some epic shade at Anne Boleyn and her lackeys

While he long refused to take sides before Parliament concerning Henry’s squabbles with Rome, St. Thomas did ultimately resign his post at court. He also pointedly refused to attend the coronation of Henry’s new (and in the eyes of the Church, illegitimate) wife Anne Boleyn, a former lady-in-waiting in the Tudor court, even though the king ordered no less than three bishops to write St. Thomas requesting his presence. They even sent him money for whatever expenses the event would cost him. He refused to go on account of honor, but kept the money. He told them he figured they were rich enough.
The shade of it all, St. Thomas. The shade of it all.

5. He told hilariously bad jokes to his own executioner

While his last words, “I am the King’s good servant, but God’s first,” are perhaps the most famous thing about St. Thomas More, it is less widely known that he jested with the very men who were minutes away from killing him. With classic self-deprecatory British humor, in between reciting psalms, he cajoled the executioner and made light of how his short neck might impede the blade. Just before he uttered his famous last words, as he mounted the scaffold, he is quoted as saying “”I pray you, I pray you, Mr Lieutenant, see me safe up and for my coming down, I can shift for myself.” He may have been a martyr, but he certainly didn’t go out a grim one.

Watch the video: Thomanerchor Leipzig, Imagefilm