London 7 February 1478 – Tower Hill 6 July 1535
Certain periods in history are marked by great changes, revolutions, catastrophes. In some of them, everything seems to culminate in total chaos, in which people no longer know where they stand and lose all guidance. Such a period was certainly the first half of the sixteenth century. On a global level, the borders were broadened by the discovery of new countries and even continents. European monarchs and states gained almost total power through, among other things, the establishment of colonies and the looting of these newly conquered territories. Charles V could say that in his empire the sun never set. The French, English, Dutch, as well as Spaniards and Portuguese dispute the power over immense territories.
This was accompanied by a huge flowering of sciences and arts. The humanism that emerged in Italy in the fifteenth century permeated the thought of scholars and settled in the universities. Macchiavelli wrote Il Principe and this work became like a manual for princes and rulers and laid the foundation of a new form of exercise of power. Along with the flourishing, chaos arose with the emergence of totally new ideas of a religious nature in Europe, where for more than twelve centuries the Catholic Church was about the only moral and religious power regulating the functioning of society of the time. Among other things, due to the misconduct and mismanagement of a number of Renaissance popes (Alexander VI, Julius II and Paul III) and an increasing number of scandals within the clerical state, the general experience of Christianity came under severe pressure. The first half of the sixteenth century saw the rise of Protestantism, schisms in the church and disputes, with all the consequences that entails. The civil authorities often knew only one way to maintain control over the successive changes: arbitrariness in the exercise of power, severe repression, persecutions, etc.
During that period Sir Thomas More, philosopher, jurist, art lover, writer, statesman, Lord Chancellor at the court of Henry VIII of England and above all … a loyal and believing Catholic, lived and worked.
Chronology of a successful life:
He was born into a wealthy bourgeois family in London and received a very solid education for that time, including as a page with John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, but also at Oxford where he studied law and arts (fine arts). At his father’s side, he practiced the profession of lawyer. During his studies he joined a circle of English humanists such as John Holt, John Colet and William Grocyn. He studied Latin, Greek and Hebrew. He studied the Bible in its original language and also researched church fathers such as Augustine and Jerome. In 1509 he met Erasmus of Rotterdam for the first time. This was the beginning of a long-standing friendship and extensive correspondence between like-minded people.
As early as 1504 Thomas More became a member of the House of Commons, in 1510 undersheriff of the city of London, in 1519 a member of the King’s Privy Council, lord in 1521, leader of various diplomatic missions to the European continent. In 1529 he succeeded Cardinal Thomas Wolsey as Lord Chancellor, highest political authority after the king himself, which he remained until 1532.
Thomas More married Jane Colt and had three daughters and a son from this marriage. After the death of his first wife, he married Alice. The family lived in a castle in Chelsea. With him lived his wife Alice, the four children from the first marriage and an adopted daughter, a few protégés, the children’s husbands and eleven grandchildren. As Lord Chancellor, Thomas More was an influential and a wealthy man. He provided the best possible education for his family members. Even his wife was taught by him and his humanist friends.
More was very religious. He had two chapels built on his estate in Chelsea, where the tides of the church were prayed with the whole family. One of the chapels, followed by a library and a gallery, served Thomas as a quiet haven for prayer and study. Each evening ended with reading from the Bible.
He began his career under a predecessor of Henry VIII, but was for a very long time in the service of this king whose politics he faithfully carried out. The young king found in him a true companion and counselor. This went well until the crisis that arose when the king wanted to be separated from Catherine of Aragon, a Spanish princess and relative of Charles V of Habsburg, whose influence in Europe at that time was very great.
When the king pushed through the separation, even against the pope’s will, and distanced himself from the Church by declaring himself head of the church throughout England, Thomas More protested by resigning as Lord Chancellor. This happened in 1532. In 1534, the king legally remarried, but without Catholic recognition of his divorce, to Lady Anne Boleyn. When he demanded that the nobility recognize that only children from this second marriage would be recognized as heirs to the throne, Thomas More openly protested.
When he also rejected the “Act of Suppremacy” (the law that appointed the king as head of the English church and the separation with Rome) he was arrested on 17 April 1534. He was on trial for high treason and desecration of majesty, and his family was deprived of all goods and wealth. A royal commission finally put pressure on Thomas More to make him follow the king’s will. His final refusal was followed by his conviction and finally his beheading on Tower Hill, on 6 July 1535.
His most famous work bore the long Latin title: “De Optimo Rei Pubblica Statu deque Nova Insula Utopia”. It was written in 1516 and published the first time in Basel. This work (abbreviated “Utopia“) describes an ideal state with a socializing slant and is clearly intended as a criticism of the polity that was then in force in England. Its content parallels that of The Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus. The ironic genre used in Utopia was very fashionable among humanists throughout Europe.
Another well-known work is the history that More wrote about the reign of Richard III of England. This gives an overview of the reigns from Edward IV to those of Richard of Shrewsbury. It was written in Renaissance style and inspired by ancient Roman masters such as Sallustus, Suetonius and Tacitus.
Thomas More was also a poet and his works are collected in the work Epigrammata from 1520.
The humanity of Thomas More:
Through the correspondence that More had (in Latin) with Erasmus of Rotterdam, we get a glimpse into his private life. He let his four daughters study, a rarity at the time. For example, he forced them to write letters in Latin to Uncle Erasmus, who thus kept abreast of their progress.
To both his first and second wives, he was a loving and tender husband, which was also a rarity in those times. He also took care of his father and reprimanded him with the necessary irony if, as a widower, he did not take the church’s marriage morality very seriously.
He was learned and astute, but also straightforward, true to a given word and to his conscience. He was steadfast in his faith and in his connection with the Church of Rome and the pope (Even if this pope was not necessarily an example of holiness: see above). This attitude inevitably led to a conflict with the king when divorced his lawful wife and broke with Rome.
His great steadfastness was also evident when his relatives urged him not to break ties with the king, in order to save life and property. He did not go into it, despite the certainty that it would lead him to death on the scaffold.
Irony and humour were among his weapons. On the scaffold he almost fell over the last step, and when the executioner held him up he would have said that if he had broken his neck by a fall, the executioner would lose his wages.
Prayer, attending Mass, regular confession, praying the tide prayers in family and reading the Bible were regular parts of his daily life.
It was not until 1886 that Thomas More was beatified by Pope Leo XIII. His canonization followed on May 19, 1935, 400 years after his death. In 1980, his feast day in the Anglican Church was set at June 22, along with that of Saint John Fisher, the only bishop who remained loyal to the Pope and the Catholic Church during the schism under Henry VIII and the Reformation (and who also paid for it with his life).
Saint Thomas More is considered in the church the patron saint of lawyers and statesmen.
His head is kept as a relic in the church of St. Dunstan in Canterbury and his body is buried in the church St. Peter ad Vincula in the Tower in London (where many priests, prelates and noblemen are also buried, victims of Henry VIII’s repression against those who did not agree with him).
The Catholic Church – and one can even speak of the Catholic world of the sixteenth century – was, as today, under heavy pressure and criticism. This was not always without reason, given, among other things, the behavior of a number of successive Renaissance popes. The whole context of that period brought new ideas to the surface, both in the field of science and art, as well as in the field of faith, theology and religious experience. The great masses understood nothing of it, only those who had studied, the more affluent citizens and the noblemen with a certain education, could understand the new lines of thought in politics, morality and theology.
In that time of loss of values, certainties and centuries-old traditions, in which powerful people ruled, a few strong figures could exert a great influence on man and society, both for better and for worse. Kings wallowed in lust for power and self-righteousness, prelates lived in every possible way, except according to the rules of the Church, corruption was omnipresent. That world led to the emergence of splits from Catholicism and to the establishment of a number of new church communities within Christianity, such as those of Luther and Calvin. In the wake of this, the rise of a number of sects, such as the Anabaptists in Münster, was also seen. These schools of thought usually had in common the search for God, the Truth and the understanding of the Holy Scriptures, unfortunately separate from the Holy Mother Church, which was reviled as hellish Babylon. However, there were also schisms that happened out of flat opportunism and abuse of power, such as that of the Church of England.
It is now up to us to draw the necessary lessons from this and see the signs of our time. We must learn to understand how people, thanks to their courage and righteousness, can stand up in the storm and how they can draw strength in their fidelity to Catholic doctrine.
Thomas More was a successful citizen, an erudite man and a politician who could build a wonderful career. He rose to the highest possible position of power. Nevertheless, he chose loyalty to the Church, to his faith and his principles, against his monarch, even though he knew that this would necessarily lead to a conviction for high treason and consequently the death penalty.
A man, a saint, who can count as a wonderful example in our own troubled times, for all, but especially for lay people, heads of families and people in leadership positions.
Saint Thomas Morus, lead us and our leaders, civil as well as religious, to the way of God’s wisdom. Amen.
Ed. Note. Despite our great respect for the heroism and exemplary life of Thomas More, objectivity also commands us not to cover up his possible mistakes. Saints have also committed it. In 1529 (13 years after Utopia) he wrote “A Dialogue concerning Heresies”: a doctrinal book, containing some passages that seem to justify the burning of heretics in some cases. He himself would be partly responsible for the final condemnation of some heretics to the stake, including John Frith, who had translated a Lutheran Bible into English and denied both the existence of purgatory and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The execution took place in 1533, about two years before his own death sentence, when he was no longer chancellor. We write this in the conditional sense, because he himself formally denied his co-responsibility for these executions.
His tolerant ideas expressed in Utopia and other works may not always have corresponded to some of his political decisions. He, too, was undoubtedly influenced by the intolerance of his time, with large-scale religious conflicts and a vague to nonexistent separation between Church and State. The unilateral assessment of characters of the past, starting from the comfortable position of legal and moral principles that are now evident, is short-sighted and makes little sense. Such an attitude can itself be regarded as a form of intolerance projected towards the past. Much more interesting is the reflection in which we wonder how St. Thomas More would evaluate some of his views or decisions at the time, continuing on the overall picture of his life and beliefs. In it he emerges as a deeply religious Catholic who obeyed God in the first place, a capable statesman who could act sternly when it was really necessary, and as a tolerant and charitable intellectual who still inspires many today.