Sir Thomas More, 1478–1535

Biographical note

Historical and political writer, son of Sir John M., a Justice of the King’s Bench, was born in London. In his 16th year he was placed in the household of Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was wont to say, “This child here waiting at the table ... will prove a marvellous man.” In 1497 he went to Oxford, where he became the friend of Erasmus and others, and came in contact with the new learning. He studied law at New Inn and Lincoln’s Inn, and for some time thought of entering the Church. He was, however, in 1504 sent up to Parliament, where his powerful speaking gained for him a high place. Meanwhile, he had brilliant success in the Law Courts, and was introduced by Wolsey to Henry VIII., with whom he soon rose into high favour. He became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Speaker of the House of Commons, 1523, and was sent on missions to Charles V. and Francis I. At length, on the fall of Wolsey, M. was, much against his will, appointed Lord Chancellor, an office which he filled with singular purity and success, though he was harsh in his dealings with persons accused of heresy. But differences with the King soon arose. M. disapproved of Henry’s ecclesiastical policy, as well as of his proceedings in regard to the Queen, and in 1532 he resigned his office. In 1534 he refused the oath which pledged him to approval of the King’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, and for this he was imprisoned in the Tower, and on July 7, 1535, beheaded. His body was buried in St. Peter’s in the Tower, and his head exhibited on London Bridge, whence it was taken down and preserved by his daughter, the noble Margaret Roper. All Catholic Europe was shocked at the news of what was truly a judicial murder. Among his works are a Life of Picus, Earl of Mirandula [1510], and a History of Richard III., written about 1513. His great work, Utopia, was written in Latin in two books — the second 1515, and the first 1516. It had immediate popularity, and was translated into French 1530, English 1551, German 1524, Italian 1548, and Spanish 1790. It gives an account of an imaginary island and people, under cover of which it describes the social and political condition of England, with suggested remedies for abuses. The opinions on religion and politics expressed in it are not, however, always those by which he was himself guided. M. wrote many works of controversy, among which are Dyaloge concerning Heresies, also epigrams and dialogues in Latin. His pure and religious character, his sweet temper, his wit, his constancy and fortitude under misfortune combine to render him one of the most attractive and admirable figures in English history.

[From A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature by John W. Cousin, 1910]

Works

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