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Sir Thomas More | Biography

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Sir Thomas More was, quite literally, one of the most famous men in European history. A writer, lawyer, philosopher, and politician, More was declared a Catholic saint in 1935 and described as a "Reformation martyr." Utopia, written in 1516, was a seminal work that had a dramatic impact on political philosophy and literature.

Childhood and Education

Thomas More was born on Milk Street in London on or around February 7, 1478. His father was a well-regarded attorney. Like most Englishmen of his time, More was brought up Catholic. As a boy he worked as a page for John Morton, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Chancellor of England, and a Cardinal of the Catholic Church. Morton believed that More would grow up to be a "marvelous man," and history proved him right.

More was educated at St. Anthony's School in London and then went on to study at Oxford University. He spent only two years at Oxford, where he studied classical Greek and Latin literature, drama, and comedy. Before young Thomas could complete his education at Oxford, however, his father called him back to London to take up the law in 1496. At that time the legal profession was made up of four legal societies. Lawyers received their training and opportunities for legal practice through these groups. More was admitted to Lincoln's Inn and quickly became a practicing lawyer.

Career

Though More was a capable lawyer, he had strong leanings toward monastic life (living as a Catholic monk in religious seclusion). As a result he spent much of his life reading and discussing theology. He even partook in religious activities such as fasting and wearing an uncomfortable goat hair shirt next to his body as a way to atone for sin.

More's religious leanings did not stop him, however, from enjoying life. More had many friends, including the Dutch humanist scholar Erasmus, with whom he became close. More was also known as a warm and pleasant person, a good conversationalist, and a caring father.

In 1504 (or thereabouts) More entered Parliament (the English governing body). He was also married in the same year to Joan Colt, with whom he had four children before her death in about 1511. He married a second time to Alice Middleton but had no children by his second wife. More was a devoted father, ensuring that all his children—including his daughters—received an excellent education. It was most unusual at that time to educate women in academic fields.

More had some political disputes with King Henry VII. After the death of Henry VII and the coronation of Henry VIII, More rose quickly through the ranks of government. After 1521 More was under-treasurer of the exchequer (treasury) and Henry VIII's secretary. He was also elected speaker of the House of Commons (one of the two houses of Parliament). Together with the king, he composed a scathing response to the works of Martin Luther, founder of the Protestant movement against Catholic practices.

In 1527 More's relationship with Henry VIII began to sour. King Henry, desperate to father a male heir, insisted that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was void. He argued that a divorce was appropriate. More, a dedicated Catholic, disagreed. Divorce was not sanctioned by the Catholic Church. By 1532 More had resigned from Parliament—probably due to stress over the king. He refused to attend the coronation of Henry VIII's new wife, Anne Boleyn, because he believed her marriage to the king to be a form of adultery.

In 1534 King Henry presented More with an ultimatum. The king demanded More must swear to the Act of Succession and the Oath of Supremacy. These documents stated Henry VIII was the rightful head of the Church of England and denounced the religious authority of the pope. More refused to do so and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. A trial, at which several of Anne Boleyn's relatives served as judges, led to a guilty verdict.

Thomas More was executed by beheading on July 6, 1535. His last words were, "The king's good servant, but God's first." Long after his death, More was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886 (meaning that More was allowed limited public honor). He was later canonized (made a saint) by Pope Pius XI on May 19, 1935.

Writings

Thomas More was a prolific writer. As a young man he wrote comic plays. Many of his later writings were in the form of parliamentary speeches and political publications. He also wrote History of King Richard III (1557), which is considered to be one of the great works on the subject, in English and Latin. In addition he wrote a number of poems and several theological works. Utopia was his best known and most significant written work.
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