House Coordinators: Mrs C Kernan & Mrs K Lea
Thomas More was born on 7 February 1478 in London, the son of a successful lawyer. As a boy, More spent some time in the household of John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury. He later studied at Oxford, and qualified as a lawyer, although he did contemplate becoming a monk. From 1510 to 1518 he was one of the two under-sheriffs of London and in 1517 entered the king’s service, becoming one of Henry VIII’s most effective and trusted civil servants and acting as his secretary, interpreter, speech-writer, chief diplomat, advisor and confidant. In 1521 he was knighted, in 1523, he became the speaker of the House of Commons and in 1525 chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
At the same time More was building a reputation as a scholar. He was close to the radical catholic theologian Erasmus, but wrote polemics against Martin Luther and the protestant reformation. Around 1515, he wrote ‘The History of Richard III’ which established that king’s reputation as a tyrant and has been described as the first masterpiece of English historiography. In 1516, he published his most important work ‘Utopia’ – a description of an imaginary republic ruled by reason and intended to contrast with the strife-ridden reality of contemporary European politics. More remained a passionate defender of Catholic orthodoxy – writing pamphlets against heresy, banning unorthodox books, and even taking responsibility when chancellor for the interrogation of heretics.
More took the post of lord chancellor in 1529, just as Henry had become determined to obtain a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. The previous chancellor, Lord Wolsey, had failed to achieve this objective. Henry was close to breaking with the Church of Rome, and the so-called ‘Reformation parliament’ was about to convene.
When Henry declared himself ‘supreme head of the Church in England’ – thus establishing the Anglican Church and allowing him to end his marriage – More resigned the chancellorship. He continued to argue against the king’s divorce and the split with Rome, and in 1534 was arrested after refusing to swear an oath of succession repudiating the pope and accepting the annulment of Henry’s marriage. He was tried for treason at Westminster and on 6 July 1535 was executed on Tower Hill.