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Thomas More

(1478—1535) lord chancellor, humanist, and martyr

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martyr. Born in London, the son of Sir John More, barrister and judge, Thomas More at the age of thirteen joined the household of John Morton, archbishop of Canterbury (1486–1500), who sent him to Canterbury College, Oxford, where he stayed for only two years on a very restricted allowance from his father, who called him home. In 1496 he entered Lincoln's Inn and was called to the Bar in 1501. In 1504 he entered Parliament (his constituency is unknown). For four years he had lived at the London Charterhouse, uncertain in his own mind whether to join it or the Friars Minor or to become a diocesan priest. In the event he did none of these things but decided to pursue his legal career and get married. But from these years date his lifelong habit of wearing a hairshirt, the daily recitation of the Little Office, and the use of the discipline. If some reaction against clerics and clerical life is seen in this decision, it would be quite untrue to assume on Thomas's part any rejection of asceticism. Always a Londoner and a lawyer, he delighted both in the capital's way of life and in the cut and thrust of legal argument.

In 1505 he married Jane Colt of Netherhall (Essex), the eldest daughter of John Colt. Although More had originally found her younger sister more attractive, the marriage was a happy one; three daughters and a son were born, but Jane More died in 1511. Already More had made friends with and been deeply influenced by some of the leading men of the New Learning, especially Erasmus, but also Linacre, Grocyn, and Colet. More's many-sided personality, made up of intellectual sophistication and simple moral honesty, brilliance and receptivity, loyalty to his king and affection to his wife, friends, and children, was becoming known. Henry VIII, who became king in 1509, early recognized his worth and integrity; he promoted him to a whole series of public offices: Under-Sheriff of London (1510), envoy to Flanders (1516), Privy Councillor and Master of Requests (1518), Speaker of the House of Commons (1523), High Steward of Oxford University (1524), High Steward of Cambridge University, and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (1525). Meanwhile his reputation as a man of letters and a wit was helped by his publications, the most notable of which was Utopia, written in Latin in 1516, but soon translated into the principal European languages. This is an ironical political essay describing a society in which there is no private property but where there is universal religious toleration and free education for both men and women. Other writings include his Life of John Picus (1510), History of Richard III (printed 1543, a pro-Lancastrian tract later used by Shakespeare), and controversial works against Tyndale such as the Dialogue (1528), the Confutacyon of Tyndale's Answere (1528–32), and his own Apologye (1533). The language of the controversial works is often unpleasing to modern readers but was common currency in his time. So too is his pursuit of heretics whom he regarded as dangerous enemies of both Church and State.


Subjects: Religion

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Works by Thomas More