The career of Thomas More as king’s servant
On May 1, 1517, a mob of London apprentices attacked foreign merchants in the city. More’s role in quenching this Evil May Day riot inspired a scene, attributed to Shakespeare, in Sir Thomas More, a composite Elizabethan play. More’s success in the thorny negotiations with the French at Calais and Boulogne (September to December 1517) over suits born of the recent war made it harder for him to dodge royal service. That year he became a member of the king’s council and from October was known as master of requests. He resigned his City office in 1518. While yielding to pressure, he embraced the chance of furthering peace and reform. The lord chancellor, Thomas Wolsey, now looked ready to implement some of the political ideas of the Christian humanists.
Between 1515 and 1520 More campaigned spiritedly for Erasmus’s religious and cultural program—Greek studies as the key to a theology renewed by a return to the Bible and the Church Fathers—in poems commending Erasmus’s New Testament. More’s Latin poems were published in 1518 under one cover between his Utopia and Erasmus’s Epigrammata; they are extremely varied in metre and matter, their main topics being government, women, and death.
Erasmus offered his London friend as a model for the intelligentsia of Europe in letters to the German humanist Ulrich von Hutten (1519); the Paris scholar Germain de Brie (1520), with whom More had just engaged in a polemic; and Guillaume Budé, whom More had met in June 1520 at the Field of Cloth of Gold, the meeting ground, near Calais, between Henry VIII and Francis I. According to Erasmus, simplicity was More’s mark in food and dress. He shrank from nothing that imparted an innocent pleasure, even of a bodily kind. He had a speaker’s voice and a memory that served him well for extempore rejoinders. “Born for friendship,” he could extract delight from the dullest people or things. His family affections were warm yet unobtrusive. He gave freely and gladly, expecting no thanks. Amid his intense professional activity, he found hours for prayer and for supervising his domestic school. Most of his charges were girls, to whom he provided the most refined Classical and Christian education.
In 1520 and 1521 More took part in talks, at Calais and Brugge, with the emperor Charles V and with the Hansa merchants. In 1521 he was made undertreasurer and knighted. His daughter Margaret married William Roper, a lawyer. For Henry VIII’s Defense of the Seven Sacraments, More acted as “a sorter out and placer of the principal matters.” When Martin Luther hit back, More vindicated the king in a learned, though scurrilous, Responsio ad Lutherum (1523). In addition to his routine duties at the Exchequer, More served throughout these years as “Henry’s intellectual courtier,” secretary, and confidant. He welcomed foreign envoys, delivered official speeches, drafted treaties, read the dispatches exchanged between the king and Wolsey, and answered in the king’s name. Often he rode posthaste between the cardinal’s headquarters at Westminster and Henry’s various hunting residences. In April 1523 More was elected speaker of the House of Commons; while loyally striving to secure the government’s ends, he made a plea for truer freedom of speech in Parliament. The universities—Oxford in 1524, Cambridge in 1525—made him their high steward.
By 1524 More had moved to Chelsea. The Great House he built there bore the stamp of his philosophy, its gallery, chapel, and library all geared toward studious and prayerful seclusion. In 1525 he was promoted to chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, which put a large portion of northern England under his judiciary and administrative control.
On More’s return from an embassy to France in the summer of 1527, Henry VIII “laid the Bible open before him” as proof that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, who had failed to produce a male heir, was void, even incestuous, because of her previous marriage to Henry’s late brother. More tried in vain to share the king’s scruples, but long study confirmed his view that Catherine was the king’s true wife. After being commissioned in March 1528 by Bishop Tunstall of London to read all heretical writings in the English language in order to refute them for the sake of the unlearned, More published seven books of polemics between 1529 and 1533—the first and best being A Dialogue Concerning Heresies.
More’s refusal to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn, whom Henry married after his divorce from Catherine in 1533, marked him out for vengeance. Several charges of accepting bribes recoiled on the heads of his accusers. In February 1534 More was included in a bill of attainder for alleged complicity with Elizabeth Barton, who had uttered prophecies against Henry’s divorce, but he produced a letter in which he had warned the nun against meddling in affairs of state. He was summoned to appear before royal commissioners on April 13 to assent under oath to the Act of Succession, which declared the king’s marriage with Catherine void and that with Anne valid. This More was willing to do, acknowledging that Anne was in fact anointed queen. But he refused the oath as then administered because it entailed a repudiation of papal supremacy. On April 17, 1534, he was imprisoned in the Tower. More welcomed prison life. But for his family responsibilities, he would have chosen for himself “as strait a room and straiter too,” as he said to his daughter Margaret, who after some time took the oath and was then allowed to visit him. In prison, More wrote A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, a masterpiece of Christian wisdom and of literature.
Why did Henry VIII form the Church of England?
His trial took place on July 1, 1535. Richard Rich, the solicitor general, a creature of Thomas Cromwell, the unacknowledged head of the government, testified that the prisoner had, in his presence, denied the king’s title as supreme head of the Church of England. Despite More’s scathing denial of this perjured evidence, the jury’s unanimous verdict was “guilty.” Before the sentence was pronounced, More spoke “in discharge of his conscience.” The unity of the church was the main motive of his martyrdom. His second objection was that “no temporal man may be head of the spirituality.” Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, to which he also referred as the cause for which they “sought his blood,” had been the occasion for the assaults on the church: among his judges were the new queen’s father, brother, and uncle.
More was sentenced to the traitor’s death—“to be drawn, hanged, and quartered”—which the king changed to beheading. During five days of suspense, More prepared his soul to meet “the great spouse” and wrote a beautiful prayer and several letters of farewell. He walked to the scaffold on Tower Hill. “See me safe up,” he said to the lieutenant, “and for my coming down let me shift for myself.” He told the onlookers to witness that he was dying “in the faith and for the faith of the Catholic Church, the king’s good servant and God’s first.” He altered the ritual by blindfolding himself, playing “a part of his own” even on this awful stage.
The news of More’s death shocked Europe. Erasmus mourned the man he had so often praised, “whose soul was more pure than any snow, whose genius was such that England never had and never again will have its like.” The official image of More as a traitor did not gain credence even in Protestant lands.