2017 is the 500th anniversary of the start of the protestant reformation in Europe. It is also the 100th anniversary of the October revolution in Russia. Sir Thomas More is commemorated in both events.
Thomas More was born in Milk Street in 1478, the second of six children of the judge Sir John More. He was educated at St Anthony’s school in London and between 1490-1492 he served as a household page to John Morton, the archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England. Morton’s household was a scholarly environment and More was exposed to ‘Humanist’ and secular thinking from Europe. In1492 he went to Oxford University for 2 years to study the classics but left early after 2 years as his father wanted him to study the law. He enrolled at Lincoln’s Inn and was called to the Bar in 1502. During 1503 and 1504 he lived near Charterhouse and joined in spiritual exercises with the monks but never took holy orders. Throughout his life More was a staunch catholic and continued with ascetic practices such as penance, fasting and wearing a hair shirt.
In 1504 he was elected to Parliament as the representative for Great Yarmouth. More married Jane Colt in 1505 and before she died in 1511 they had 4 children, Margaret, Elizabeth, Cicely and John. Unusually for the time More educated his daughters and his wife to a high standard. After Jane’s death, within 30 days, he married the rich widow Alice Harpur Middleton. This was very unusual and special permission had to be granted so that the banns could be read. Alice had one daughter (Ann) and More was also a guardian to 2 small girls one of whom Margaret Giggs (later Clement) was the only member of the family to witness his execution.
More’s rise through the offices of state was rapid. He had a reputation as an honest and effective public servant. In 1510 he was elected as one of 2 under sheriffs to the City of London. By 1514 he was Master of Requests and a privy counsellor. In 1521 he was knighted and was appointed under treasurer of the exchequer and a personal advisor to Henry VIII. By 1523 he was high steward to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. He became an elected knight of the shire, MP for Middlesex, chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and speaker of the House of Commons. His final position was to become Lord Chancellor after the death of Cardinal Wolsey in 1529.
The reformation in England probably had more to do with securing the Tudor dynasty with a legitimate male heir than a rebellion against catholic worship, although groups such as the Lollards had challenged catholic doctrine. Henry VIIIth as a young man had been a devout defender of Catholicism. Probably with More’s assistance he had written the ‘Defence of the seven sacraments’. It was his desire to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled and then finally to divorce Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn that fuelled the break with Rome. More had travelled in Europe he was friends with the humanist thinker Erasmus and was aware of the works of Martin Luther as early as 1518. He was a lifelong opponent of Martin Luther and regarded the protestant reformation as heresy. He prevented the import of Lutheran texts, any books that slipped through were burnt and those publishing or buying such books were treated as heretics. He carried out a lifelong pursuit of William Tyndale for his attempts to translate the new testament into English. The punishment for heresy was to be burnt at the stake and during More’s chancellorship six people were burned. He personally only admitted to beating a child and a feeble minded man but was known to keep heretics under house arrest at his home in Chelsea.
By 1529 conflict between Henry VIIIth and pope Clement was intensifying due the continued refusal of the pope to annul his marriage to Catherine. The act of Praemunire (made it a crime to support in public or in office the claim of any authority outside the realm, such as the papacy to have legal jurisdiction superior the kings) was reinstated.
In 1531 Henry issued a royal decree to the clergy to take an oath acknowledging him as the supreme head of the church in England. By 1532 most clergy had signed, More asked permission to retire to his house in Chelsea on the grounds of ill health. He still wrote many articles to the annoyance of Thomas Cromwell. He refused an invitation to the coronation of Anne Boleyn but sent Henry and Anne a letter of congratulations and wished them well. More’s continued refusal to sign the act of supremacy led to him being charged with high treason in 1535. He presented an eloquent defence at his trial but it took the jury 15 minutes to find him guilty. The jury contained the father, brother and uncle of Anne Boleyn as well as More’s successor as Lord Chancellor so could hardly be described as neutral. More was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered but as an act of ‘mercy’ to his old advisor Henry allowed More to be beheaded instead. He was executed on tower hill on July 6th 1535.
Thomas More may not have been surprised that he was canonised by the Catholic church in 1935, more surprised that the church of England that he fought so hard against added him to its Calendar of Saints and Heroes of the Christian church in 1980 but most surprising of all that his novel Utopia was an enormous influence on the atheist Lenin. At Lenin’s suggestion a monument was created in Aleksndovsky gardens near the Kremlin in 1918 to influential thinkers ‘who promoted the liberation of humankind from oppression, arbitrariness and exploitation’. Thomas More is the 9th inscription on the pillar