Sir Thomas More was a major figure in the reign of Henry VIII. A leading Roman Catholic, Thomas More was also a supporter of the Humanist movement. More opposed the move to what was termed the Reformation in England – a stance that led to More being executed.
Sir Thomas More was born in 1478. He had the advantage as a child of being born into a wealthy family. His father, John, was a judge and in an era when few were educated, More went to St. Anthony’s School in London. He was also educated in the household of Archbishop Moreton before going to Oxford University. From Oxford, More went to the Inns of Court in London to start a successful career as a lawyer.
More went into politics when he became a MP in 1504. He clearly made his mark in this sphere as in 1510 More was appointed Under-Sheriff in the City of London. More not only developed a reputation in both law and politics, he was also known in Western Europe as a Humanist intellectual. It was only a matter of time before More came to the attention of Henry VIII and in 1515 the king sent him to the Spanish Netherlands in the role of a commercial ambassador.
In 1516 More wrote ‘Utopia’ – a publication that brought him even closer to Henry VIII. Two years later, in 1518, More was made a member of the King’s Council. It was the start of an association that was to lead to More’s execution.
In 1521, More was knighted and also charged by the king to refine Henry’s challenge/reply to Martin Luther. Their association became closer though both could never be described as friends. In 1523, Henry used his clout in Parliament to get More elected as Speaker of the House.
More was an intellect who remained a steadfast Catholic. He believed that areas of the Catholic Church did deserve to be reformed and modernised. But More believed that any change to the Church had to come from the Catholic Church itself. He saw the Protestants as being too undisciplined both in doctrine and practice – after all, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer etc were all to push for their own version of Protestantism with many differences within each. More believed that the Catholic Church had a far stricter discipline both in doctrine and practice, though it was in the latter that he believed some reform was needed.
In 1528, More published ‘Dialogue concerning Heresies’ against Lutherans. One year later came ‘Supplication of Souls’ – a work that was critical of those who criticised the clergy.
More’s relationship with Henry was further strengthened in 1529 when, on the fall of Cardinal Wolsey, he was appointed Chancellor – the first layman to hold this powerful position. However, More resigned from this post in May 1532.
In that month Convocation passed the Submission of the Clergy, which meant that it would pass no legislation without the agreement of the king. This effectively made it no more than a rubber stamp for anything that Henry VIII wanted. This was a move too far for More as it took away the independence that he believed that the clergy needed to function properly. More ostensibly resigned on health grounds but there is little doubt that his resignation was more to do with spiritual issues – the freedom of conscience that he believed all clergy had to have, and loyalty to the Pope, which were clearly challenged by the Submission of the Clergy.
In 1534, the Succession Act was passed. This required More to take an oath that repudiated the Pope, that declared invalid the marriage between Henry and Catherine of Aragon and acknowledged that the children of Henry and Anne Boleyn would be the legal heirs to the throne. More refused to take the oath.
This infuriated Henry as he believed that it was he who had promoted More to the exalted position of Chancellor – and this was how More repaid the king’s generosity. Henry ordered that More should be placed in the Tower of London, which took place on April 17th, 1534. More was charged with treason and in the climate of the land at the time, there was only likely to be one result – that he was guilty. Thomas More was taken to Tower Hill on July 6th, 1535, and beheaded.