Thomas More was born in Milk Street, London on February 7, 1478, son of Sir John More, a prominent judge. He studied at Oxford University, and around 1494, he returned to London to study law. He was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn in 1496, and became a barrister in 1501.
Yet More did not automatically follow in his father’s footsteps. He was torn between a monastic calling and a life of civil service. While at Lincoln’s Inn, he determined to become a monk and subjected himself to the discipline of the Carthusians, living at a nearby monastery and taking part of the monastic life. The prayer, fasting, and penance habits stayed with him for the rest of his life. More’s desire for monasticism was finally overcome by his sense of duty to serve his country in the field of politics. He entered Parliament in 1504, and married for the first time in 1504 or 1505.
One of More’s first acts in Parliament had been to urge a decrease in a proposed appropriation for King Henry VII. In revenge, the King imprisoned More’s father and did not release him until a fine was paid and More had withdrawn from public life. After the death of the King in 1509, More became active once more. In 1510, he was appointed one of the two undersheriffs of London. In this capacity, he gained a reputation for being impartial, and a patron to the poor.
He authored many works, the most famous of which is Utopia. Considered to be Thomas More’s masterpiece, Utopia is still critically acclaimed more than four and a half centuries after publication. Book I, written in 1516, is a critique of the social ills of England: oppression of the poor, misrule by the rich, diplomatic intrigue, excessive taxation, ruinous war, and an inadequate legal system. Book II describes a better world and offers many ideas now commonplace in most of contemporary society: eligibility of all citizens to hold public office, secret ballot, equality of women in all fields, free public education, shorter work days, social security programs, and the free choice and exercise of religion.
More’s work attracted the attention of King Henry VIII. In 1523, he was made the Speaker of the House of Commons, and two years later, he was made the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. As Speaker, More helped establish the parliamentary privilege of free speech. He refused to endorse King Henry VIII’s plan to divorce Katherine of Aragón (1527). Nevertheless, after the fall of Thomas Wolsey in 1529, More became Lord Chancellor, the first layman yet to hold the post.
While his work in the law courts was exemplary, his fall came quickly. He resigned in 1532, citing ill health, but the reason was probably his disapproval of Henry’s stance toward the church. He refused to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn in June 1533, a matter which did not escape the King’s notice. In 1534, he was one of the people accused of complicity with Elizabeth Barton, the nun of Kent who opposed Henry’s break with Rome, but was not convicted due to protection from the Lords who refused to pass the bill until More’s name was off the list of names. In April 1534, More refused to swear to the Act of Succession and the Oath of Supremacy, and was committed to the Tower of London. More was found guilty of treason and was beheaded alongside Bishop Fisher on July 6, 1535. More’s final words on the scaffold were: “The King’s good servant, but God’s First.” He was a defender of conscience and was willing to die rather than surrender his freedom of conscience.
More was beatified in 1886 and canonized by the Catholic Church as a saint by Pope Pius XI in 1935.
For more information about St. Thomas More, we recommend reading The Life of Thomas More, written by Peter Ackroyd.