More, Sir Thomas
More, Sir Thomas
the noted chancellor of king Henry VIII of England, celebrated for the part he played in the political and ecclesiastical history of his country and for the philosophical views he espoused, was the son of Sir John More, one of the justices of the Court of King's Bench. Thomas was born in London in 1480 (some say 1479, others again 1484), and was educated at St. Anthony's School in Threadneedle Street until about his fifteenth year, when he was placed, according to the custom of the times, in the house of cardinal Morton, archbishop of Canterbury, where he became known to Colet, dean of St. Paul's, who used to say "there was but one wit in England, and that was young Thomas More." In 1497 More went to Oxford. He had rooms in St. Mary's Hall, but carried on his studies at Canterbury College (afterwards Christ Church). Here he became intimately acquainted with Erasmus, who resided there during the greater part of 1497 and 1498, and formed a friendship which continued during life. It was also at Oxford that More composed the greater number of his English poems, which, though deficient in harmony and ease of versification, are spoken of by Ben Jonson as models of English literature. After More left Oxford he prosecuted the study of the law, and soon acquired great celebrity for his legal knowledge. He was appointed reader at Furnival's Inn. where he delivered lectures on law for three years; and about the same time he also delivered lectures at St. Lawrence's church in the Old Jewry, on the work of St. Augustine, De Civitate Dei. It must be remembered that religion, morals, and law were then taught together without distinction; yet More, in his lectures, did not so much discuss the points of divinity as the precepts of moral philosophy and history. It is, however, well known that More also did delight to touch on questions of theology, for he was always fond of it, and for some time thought of taking orders. "He manifested," says Mackintosh, "a predilection for monastic life, and is said to have practiced some of those austerities and self-inflictions which prevail among the gloomier and sterner orders" (Life, in Works, 1:405). He resolved indeed at one time to turn monk, and actually became a lay-brother of the Carthusian convent (the Charter-House) in London, where he is said to have passed several years. But he finally relinquished the ecclesiastical life, influenced perhaps by the general corruption of the priestly orders, or, as Erasmus has it, he preferred to be a chaste husband rather than an impure priest. More was called to the bar, though at what time is uncertain. He appears to have acquired an extensive practice. He came to be generally regarded as one of the most eloquent speakers of his day; indeed, his reputation became so great towards the latter part of the reign of Henry VII that it is said that there was no case of consequence before any court of law in which he was not engaged as counsel. About 1502 he first entered upon public office. He was then made an under-sheriff of London, an office at that time of great legal responsibility. Only two years later he was elected to Parliament, in which he opposed a subsidy which had been demanded by Henry VII for the marriage of his eldest daughter. In consequence of this opposition More incurred the displeasure of Henry 7:a -prince who never forgave an injury; and had not the king died soon afterwards, More would have been obliged to leave the country. Notwithstanding all opposition at court, More flourished, and gained constantly in reputation and friends. His graceful and varied learning, coupled as it was with sprightly, inexhaustible wit, so that Erasmus could write of him that "with More you might imagine yourself in the Academy of Plato," no doubt contributed in a large measure to his rapid advancement. "His professional practice became so considerable," says Mackintosh, "that about the accession of Henry VIII (1509) it produced £400 a year, probably equivalent to an annual income of £5000 in the present day." With the accession of Henry VIII to the English throne More's most auspicious days began. He became a favorite of his royal master, always so quick to detect in his surroundings whatever and whoever was likely to prove serviceable to him. King "Harry" remarked More's talents, and not only gladly consulted him on affairs of state, but sought him as the companion of his amusements and convivial hours. According to the account of Erasmus, the circle there collected must have been one of the most brilliant and engaging that the world has ever seen, and it was adorned by virtues which to other associations, high in intellect, have often been wanting. More was appointed to several important civil offices, and even employed as envoy on foreign missions. Thus, in 1514, he was sent to Flanders, to secure favors from the prince afterwards known as emperor Charles V. More was also employed by his king on various public missions to France, and so interested did Henry VIII become in More that he ordered cardinal Wolsey, then his chancellor, to engage More in the service of the court. Accordingly More was made treasurer of the exchequer in 1520. and not only acceptably performed his public functions, but also grew in popularity with the courtiers and the king, by reason of his sweet temper and great conversational power. The king frequently met More, and enjoyed many hours with him, not only socially, but intellectually. Indeed, in 1521, when king Harry was working up his reply to the German Reformer, More assisted his royal friend by casting that celebrated treatise against the Protestant effort into a proper method. It was published in 1521, under the title of Assertio septem sacramentorum adversus M. Lutherum, etc., and in 1523 More himself published Responsio ad convitia Al. Lutheri congesta in Henricum regent Angliae. "In this Answer to Luther," says Atterbury, "More has forgot himself so as to throw out the greatest heap of nasty language that perhaps ever was put together; and that the book throughout is nothing but downright ribaldry, without a grain of reason to support it, and gave to the author no other reputation but that of having the best knack of any man in Europe at calling bad names in good Latin, etc. The like censure do his English tracts against Tindal, Barnes, etc., deserve" (Epistolary Correspondence, 3:452). And though this criticism is rather harsh, it was yet in a large measure deserved (comp., however, More's Apology, in which he denies these charges of overzeal against heresy). In 1523 More was chosen speaker of the House of Commons, and now entered upon a career in which for a time he alienated both his royal master and the chancellor. The cardinal had taken the liberty of asking a greater subsidy for the king than he was entitled to, and was inclined to be generally lavish in his expenditures for the crown, as well as very unmindful of the ancient liberties and privileges of the house. More valiantly defended the people's cause, and hesitated not to speak out, though it endangered his popularity with the king. Indeed, More had never deceived himself as to the extent of his favor with the king, though his friend Erasmus had dared to assert that "the king would scarcely ever suffer the philosopher to quit him," and though Henry visited him uninvited at Chelsea, and walked with him by the hour in his garden, "holding his arm about his neck." More had a true insight into Henry's character, and clearly revealed this in an answer which he once gave when congratulated by his son-in-law, Roper, on the king's favor: "If my head would win him a castle in France, when there was war between us, it should not fail to go." Henry's faithfulness, was, however, more lasting in More's case than it was wont to be, for he clung to him notwithstanding this waywardness, and shortly after caused his appointment as chancellor of Lancaster, and on the death of the cardinal in 1529 More was even more strongly impressed with his royal friend's affection by his appointment to the high chancellorship of all England, vacated by the disgrace of Wolsey. Here was more than usual expression of confidence and affection. The favor was, moreover, the more extraordinary as he was a layman, and it was wont to be the custom to invest an ecclesiastic with the office of lord chancellor. But it was afterwards revealed why this apparent warmth and fervor. Henry had simply advanced More to the chancellorship with the hope that he would assist him in his divorce, and marriage with Anne Boleyn, and no sooner had he been elevated to the high chancellorship than the king pressed him strongly for his opinion on the subject. But More was sincerely attached to the Roman Catholic Church; he looked with a certain degree of horror upon a project which was denounced by the pontifical head of the Church, and therefore begged Henry to excuse him from giving an opinion. This was granted for a time; but as it was evident that Henry had determined to effect the divorce, and would soon require the active cooperation of his chancellor, More, who determined not to be a party to the transaction, finally asked and obtained permission to retire from the office, May 16, 1532. From this time Henry, who never seems to have recollected any former friendship when his purposes were in the least degree thwarted, appears to have resolved upon the destruction of his old favorite. Anne Boleyn's coronation being fixed for May 31, 1533, all fair means were used to win him over; and when these proved ineffectual, recourse was had to threats and terrors. More was included in the bill of attainder which was passed against Elizabeth Barton, the celebrated nun of Kent, and her accomplices for treasonable practices, on the ground that he had encouraged Elizabeth; but his innocence in the case was made so clear that his name had to be withdrawn from the bill of accusation. He was then accused of other crimes, but with the same effect. Yet the court party soon found an opportunity of gratifying their vindictive master. By a law passed in the session of 1533-34 it was made high-treason, by writing, print, deed, or act, to do anything to the prejudice, etc., of the king's lawful matrimony with queen Anne; and it was also provided that all persons should take an oath to maintain the whole contents of the statute. At the end of the session commissioners were appointed to administer the oath, and on April 15, 1534, More was summoned before them to take it. This More declined doing, but at the same time offered to swear that he would maintain the order of succession to the throne as established by Parliament. In consequence of his refusing to take this oath, More was committed to the Tower; and in the same year two statutes were passed to attaint More and Fisher, SEE FISHER, JOHN of misprision of treason, with the punishment of imprisonment and loss of goods. More remained in prison for thirteen months, during which time several efforts were made to induce him to take the oath, and also to subscribe to the king's ecclesiastical supremacy. His reputation and credit being very great in the kingdom, and much being apprehended from his conduct at that critical conjuncture, all arguments that could be devised were alleged to him by archbishop Cranmer and others to persuade him to a compliance, and many fair promises were made from the king to induce him thereto; but, as nothing could prevail, he was finally brought to trial for high-treason. He appears to have been indicted under the statute alluded to above, which made it high-treason to do anything to the prejudice of Henry's lawful marriage with queen Anne, and also for refusing to admit the king's ecclesiastical supremacy; and although the evidence against him completely failed, he was found guilty and condemned to death. He was beheaded July 6, 1535, and met his fate with intrepidity and even cheerfulness. In the words of Addison: "The innocent mirth which had been so conspicuous in his life did not forsake him to the last. When he laid his head on the block, he desired the executioner to wait until he had removed his beard, 'for that had never offended his highness.' He did not look upon the severing of his head from his body as a circumstance which ought to produce any change in the' disposition of his mind; and as he died in a fixed and settled hope of immortality, he thought any unusual degree of sorrow and concern improper" (Spectator, No. 349). His body was first interred in the Tower, but was afterwards begged and obtained by his daughter, Margaret Roper, and deposited in' the chancel of the church at Chelsea, where a monument, with an inscription written by himself, had been some time before erected, and is still to be seen. His head was placed on London Bridge, but was taken down and preserved also by his daughter in a vault belonging to the Roper family, under a chapel adjoining St. Dunstan's church in Canterbury. The story of Margaret's tenderness and devotion to her father should live as long as the English language endures.
More was the author of many and various works, which were mostly in defence of Romanism, and directed against the revolutionary tendencies of the Church of his day. They have no value now as literary productions. There is, however, one work of his which deserves special notice. It is entitled De optimo reipublicae statu deque nova insula Utopia (Lovanni, 1566, 4to), the first communistic writing by an English author. It criticises the English government and European politics, and is an account of an imaginary commonwealth on the island of Utopia, feigned to have been discovered by a companion of Amerigo Vespucci, and from whom More learns the tale. Society is represented there as an ideal system, in which opinions are expressed with great boldness and originality, and especially favorable to freedom of inquiry even in religion. In it all its members would labor for the public good, all being equally obliged to contribute, and the only difference being in the nature of the labor; all its members would thus be on a footing of absolute equality, all property be in common, all forms of religion perfectly free, etc. "Many questions of the highest importance to the citizen," says Lieber, "are discussed in a spirit far in advance of his time. He recommended perfect freedom of conscience, which was a thing absolutely unknown then, and for centuries afterwards" (Political Ethics, part 1, page 332). Of the work as a whole, lord Campbell says that "since the time of Plato there had been no composition given to the world which, for imagination, for philosophical discrimination of men and manners, and for felicity of expression, could be compared to the Utopia" (Lives of the Lord Chancellors; Life of Sir Thomas More). Hallam pronounces it "the only work of genius that England can boast in this age" (Lit. Hist. of Europe [4th ed. 1854], page 276). Yet, though Sir Thomas advocated such lofty principles in his Utopia, it must be admitted that he was not himself altogether free from the religious bias of the times, being not. only a most strenuous advocate of the power of the pope, but also a vehement opponent and persecutor of heretics. It is true Erasmus cites as proof of More's clemency "that while he was chancellor no man was put to death for these pestilent dogmas;" but Froude contradicts this statement, and implicates Sir Thomas in the persecutions for conscience' sake. There is, however, a solemn declaration by the chancellor himself in his Apology (published in 1533), in which he expressly denies that he was guilty of any cruel treatment of the heretics. It was never contradicted in his own time, and therefore should be well considered before Froude's statement is accepted.
If now, from his works, we turn to the personal character of Sir Thomas More, we find that he is generally acknowledged to have been, "for justice, contempt of money, humility, and a true generosity of mind, an example to the age in which he lived." His Christian temper, too, we may add, was such as made him an honor to the Christian cause in general. It is true he declared upon the scaffold that he died in and for the faith of the Church of Rome, but any Church might have wished him theirs; and therefore that Church has placed him, not without reason, among the brightest of her martyrs. "More," says bishop Burnet, "was the glory of his age; and his advancement was the king's honor more than his own, who was a true Christian philosopher. He thought the cause of the king's divorce was just, and as long as it was prosecuted at the court of Rome, so long he favored it; but when he saw that a breach with that court was likely to follow, he left the post he was in with a superior greatness of mind. It was a fall great enough to retire from that into a private state of life, but the carrying matters so far against him as the king did was one of the justest reproaches of that reign. More's superstition seems indeed contemptible, but the constancy of his mind was truly wonderful" (Hist. Reformation, 3:100). A British writer of considerable note thus summarizes upon More: " The terseness and liveliness of his sayings, his sweet temper and affectionate disposition, his blameless life, his learning and probity, combine to make a union of perfect simplicity with moral and intellectual greatness which will forever endear his memory to his countrymen of every sect and party." The English works of Sir Thomas More were collected and published at London in 1557, and his Latin works at Louvain in 1556. His letters to Erasmus are printed in the collection of Erasmus's letters published at London in 1642. His Utopia, which has been translated into many European languages, and has had a world-wide circulation, was given an English dress by Robynson (Lond. 1551), by bishop Burnet, and more recently by Arthur Cavley (Lond. 1808). The Life of Sir Thomas More has been written by his son-in-law, Roper, who married his favorite daughter Margaret (Lond. 1626); by his great-grandson, T. More (1626); by Hoddesden (Lond. 1652); by Cayley (1808); by Walter [R.C.] (Lond. 1840); and by Sir James Mackintosh, in Lives of Eminent British Statesmen, published in Dr. Lardner's Cabinet Cyclop., and in Miscell. Works (Lond. 1854, 18mo), 1:393 sq. See also lord Campbell, Lives of the Lord Chancellors; Froude, Hist. of Enyl. volume 2, chapter 9, reviewed in North Brit. Rev. 1859; Burnet, Own Times, i, 155 sq.; Wordsworth, Eccles. Biog. 2:49 sq.; Soames, Reformed Ch. of Eng. volume 1 and 2; Macaulay, Crit. and Hist. Essays, 2:543; Seebohm, The Oxford Reformers of 1498 (Lond. 1869); Edinburgh Rev. 14:360; Westminster Rev. 11:193; Foreign Rev. 5:391; Retrospective Rev. (1822), 5:249; North American Rev. 8:181; 66, 272; National Qu. Rev. June 1863, art. 3.