Thomas More’s Life and Literature and Being a Reformation Martyr

images.jpg I am continued my journey through my undergraduate degree by looking at English literature through the ages. Today we have Sir Thomas More.

Thomas More was born on Milk Street, London on February 7, 1478, son of Sir John More, a prominent judge. He was educated at St Anthony’s School in London.He attended St. Anthony’s School in London, one of the best schools of his day. As a youth he served as a page in the household of John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury and chancellor of England. More went on to study at Oxford under Thomas Linacre [humanist scholar and physician] and William Grocyn [an English scholar and a friend of Erasmus]. During this time, Thomas wrote comedies and studied Greek and Latin literature. One of his first works was an English translation of a Latin biography of the Italian humanist Pico della Mirandola. It was printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1510.

Around 1494, More returned to London to study law, 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. More managed to keep up with his literary and spiritual interests while practicing law, and he read devotedly from both Holy Scripture and the classics. Also around this time, More became close friends with Desiderius Erasmus during the latter’s first visit to England. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship and professional relationship, for they corresponded often regarding their ideas, and the pair worked on Latin translations of Lucian’s works during Erasmus’ second visit. These were printed in Paris in 1506. On Erasmus’ third visit, in 1509, he stayed in More’s home and wrote Encomium Moriae [or] Praise of Folly, dedicating it to More.

While at Lincoln’s Inn, he determined to become a monk and moved into a monastery outside of London 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, as would the practice of wearing a hair shirt. 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, to Jane Colt. They had four children: Margaret, Elizabeth, Cicely, and John.

More is thought to have written History of King Richard III (in Latin and in English) between 1513 and 1518. The work is considered the first masterpiece of English historiography (the study of history, or the study of a particular historical subject), and, despite remaining unfinished, influenced subsequent historians, including William Shakespeare.

In 1504 More was elected to Parliament to represent Great Yarmouth, and in 1510 began representing London. 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 had imprisoned More’s father and not released him until a fine was paid and More himself had withdrawn from public life. After the death of the King Henry VII in 1509, More became active once more. In 1510, he was appointed one of the two under-sheriffs of London. In this capacity, he gained a reputation for being impartial, and a patron to the poor. In 1511, More’s first wife died in childbirth. More soon married again, to Alice Middleton. They did not have children.

During the next decade, More attracted the attention of King Henry VIII. In 1514, he became Master of Requests (The Court of Requests was a minor equity court in England and Wales.). In 1515 he accompanied a delegation to Flanders to help clear disputes about the wool trade. His most famous work, Utopia, opens with a reference to this very delegation. More was also instrumental in quelling a 1517 London uprising against foreigners, portrayed in the play Sir Thomas More, possibly by Shakespeare. More accompanied the King and court to the Field of the Cloth of Gold.  In 1518 he became a member of the Privy Council. After undertaking a diplomatic mission to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, accompanying Thomas Wolsey, Cardinal Archbishop of York, to Calasis and Bruges, More was knighted and made under-treasurer of the Exchequer in 1521.

More helped Henry VIII in writing his Defence of the Seven Sacraments, a repudiation of Luther, and wrote an answer to Luther’s reply under a pseudonym. More had garnered Henry’s favor, and was made Speaker of the House of Commons in 1523 and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1525. As Speaker, More helped establish the parliamentary privilege of free speech. However, 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. More’s fate would begin to turn when, in the summer of 1527, King Henry tried to use the Bible to prove to More that Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, who had failed to produce a male heir, was void. More tried to share the king’s viewpoint, but it was in vain, and More could not sign off on Henry’s plan for divorce. 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, and his vengeance was imminent. This amounted to More essentially refusing to accept the king as head of the Church of England, which More believed would disparage the power of the pope. 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 attainted 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 on April 17.  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.” More was beatified in 1886 and canonized by the Catholic Church as a saint by Pope Pius XI in 1935.

In 1516, More published Utopia, a work of fiction primarily depicting a pagan and communist island on which social and political customs are entirely governed by reason. The description of the island of Utopia comes from a mysterious traveler to support his position that communism is the only cure for the egoism found in both private and public life—a direct jab at Christian Europe, which was seen by More as divided by self-interest and greed.

Utopia covered such far-reaching topics as theories of punishment, state-controlled education, multi-religion societies, divorce, euthanasia and women’s rights, and the resulting display of learning and skill established More as a foremost humanist. Utopia also became the forerunner of a new literary genre: the utopian romance.

Summary of Book 1 of Utopia: The author/narrator meets Raphaell Htholdaye. He brings him to the house of a friend in Antwerp where they discourse on the economic and social abuses prevalent in contemporary England. They lament the prevalence of crime, declaring that it cannot be checked by the methods of punishment then practiced. They are opposed to capital punishment for thieving, branding it as unjust in consideration of the fact that thieving has its source in poverty. Especially likely to become thieves were those parasitical retainers who lost their means of subsistence when their lords went bankrupt. Accustomed to live in pampered luxury, they are not able to work for a living when work proves necessary. Another cause of poverty was the law enforcing the enclosure of sheep lands and general morality was at a very low state anyhow. 

The remedy for these conditions was to be found in Perisia. Here evil-doers would be segregated in places provided by money collected from alms or taxes. These evil-doers would be free except from a certain amount of daily labor. They would have to wear a special form of dress. Anyone who would inspire these people to rebel would be punished by death. 

In these conversations on the state of England, it is further suggested that kings should be allowed a limited amount of money, since it was more important that the people be wealthy than that the king be wealthy. If, furthermore, wealth is to be distributed with greater equality, it would be necessary to abolish property. Under the present system, the poor are getting poorer and the rich richer. 

Analysis of Thomas More’s Tale: Utopia is a special treatise. If falls into the class of literature, which today is generally known as Utopian. Thomas More, a man with social conscience, looked upon the England of his day as a land governed with much inefficiency. He saw no reason for the sufferings, which the common people had to endure in the struggle for existence. Even more, he believed he had the remedy for these sufferings. He conceived a land in a far-away spot that was governed much as he believed contemporary England could be. This system of government he has painted in Utopia. From this work shines forth the author’s humanitarianism and hatred of war. Thomas More wanted people to be happy, hence the people of his imaginary land are happy. Further, he presents those constituents of government and life which would make people happy. Most important to the happiness of people was work. Second, as recreation from labor, innocent recreations were provided. Nor does he write as an impractical idealist. He was perfectly well aware that human nature is such that it often comes into conflict with beautiful ideals. Hence, a certain amount of force is also used in this ideal land to compel cooperation from the inhabitants. As an artist, More gives us his ideal picture with enough concrete detail to make his imaginary land live as working reality. As a whole he writes dispassionately, but with deep love for humanity. From the passage on punishment especially it can be seen how far ahead of his times More was in his social thinking. 



Gabrieli, Vittorio. Melchiori, Giorgio, editors Introduction. Munday, Anthony. And others. Sir Thomas More. Manchester University Press.

History of English Literature (Part I – Early Saxon Through Milton). Hymarx Outline Series. Student Outlines Company Publishers, Boston, MA, pp. 95-96.


Magnusson (ed.) Chambers Biographical Dictionary (1990) p. 1039.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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3 Responses to Thomas More’s Life and Literature and Being a Reformation Martyr

  1. vvaught512 says:

    I particularly enjoyed his portrayal in Showtimes channel’s Tudor series. He’s a fascinating historical figure, a true man of integrity.

  2. Pingback: Overview of the Elizabethan and Restoration Eras | ReginaJeffers's Blog

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