Key Facts & Summary
- Thomas More was an English thinker, writer, and barrister.
- More was Roman Catholic.
- In 1515, he wrote Utopia, a book that denounces European societies blinded by possessions and riches, and supported the ideal of an egalitarian communist state.
- At the age of fifty-seven, he was executed at the Tower of London by king Henry VIII for not supporting his divorce with Catherine of Aragon and his new marriage with Anne Boleyn.
Thomas More was raised in a wealthy environment. He was born in London of February 7, 1478. His father, John More was a knight, a lawyer and subsequently a judge of the King’s Bench.
Thomas attended one of the most precious schools in London, St. Anthony’s, and also spent his time in the household of the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Morton.
Having completed his early education, More attended Oxford University, where he studied Latin and formal logic for two years (Marc’hadour 2019). Two years later, his father encouraged him to pursue the study of common law in London, and he was accepted at the Lincoln’s Inn which would prepare him for ‘admission to the bar’ (Marc’hadour 2019).
However, the young Thomas was also able to pursue his study of literature which included the reading of the Bible and other religious texts.
Thomas was more fascinated by his study of theology than by his father’s trade: therefore, at the age of twenty, he lived for four years in the Carthusian monastery and practiced the same habits as the monks; he spent his time in long hours of prayer, indulged in fasting, and slept on the ground. In essence God was at ‘the centre of his life’ (Marc’hadour 2019).
In 1504, Thomas More married Joan Colt (who’s background was a family of farmers from Essex): the consorts possessed a property called the Old Barge, and people such as Desiderius Erasmus were given a room in their home. As a matter of fact, during his stay at the Old Barge, Erasmus wrote Praise of Folly (1509).
More travelled across Europe and continued the study of Greek literary texts and also translated several texts into English (Duhaime 2007)
Between September 1510 and July 1518, More worked for the king and became one of the undersheriff’s of London: he was considered an ‘impartial judge, a disinterested consultant, and the general patron of the poor’ (Marc’hadour 2019).
In 1511, his wife died after having given birth to their fourth child. However, More’s grief did not last long, and after only a few weeks he married Alice Middleton: she was a widow several years older than More.
In 1534, following Henry VIII’s divorce with Catherine of Aragon, he retired from the King’s cabinet by reporting ‘ill health’ (Duhaime 2007). The true reason why More left the bench was because he did not support the king’s liaison with Anne Boleyn.
The term ‘utopia’ derives from Ancient Greek ou-topos (literally, ‘no place’). The book was written in 1515, and it recounts the journey of a pagan in a communist land that is governed by reason.
Utopia narrates the conversation between More and a sailor, Raphael Hythloday (his surname signifies ‘pedlar of nonsense’), who starts criticising the XVI century English society before recounting the existence of a civilisation that lives according to egalitarian principles in a remote island (J.T. 2016). Utopia is a land in which there is no such thing as possessions and private property.
More’s work is radical because throughout the pages he discriminates private property and denounces the ‘conspiracy of the rich’, describing avid men that reject such a communist society as ‘greedy, unscrupulous, and useless’ (Eagelton 2015). Utopia is More’s direct criticism of the era he lived in. However, in his imaginary land, everyone has equal opportunities and rights: ‘Nobody owns anything but everyone is rich – for what greater wealth can there be than cheerfulness, peace of mind, and freedom from anxiety?’ (More 1515). Moreover, Utopia is based on a society that despises war and geographical conquests, and in his book he claims that in other countries ‘most princes apply themselves to the arts of war, in which I have neither ability nor interest, instead of to the good arts of peace. They are generally more set on acquiring new kingdoms by hook or by crook than on governing well those that they already have’ (More 1515).
Thomas More’s fictional land is a territory of peace and perfection where no one is jealous of other people’s possessions since there is no need to feel such feelings of lack: ‘in Utopia, where every man has a right to everything, they all know that if care is taken to keep the public stores full no private man can want anything; for among them there is no unequal distribution, so that no man is poor, none in necessity, and though no man has anything, yet they are all rich; for what can make a man so rich as to lead a serene and cheerful life, free from anxieties; neither apprehending want himself, nor vexed with the endless complaints of his wife?’ (More 1515).
The Utopians are individuals that are not concerned with material goods, for they realise that beauty does not lie in the superficial: ‘The Utopians wonder how any man should be so much taken with the glaring doubtful lustre of a jewel or a stone, that can look up to a star or to the sun himself; or how any should value himself because his cloth is made of a finer thread: for how fine soever that thread may be, it was once no better than the fleece of a sheep, and that sheep was a sheep still for all its wearing it’ (More 1515).
Throughout his book, More criticises the English society he was living in: in fact, through his character Raphael Hythloday, More denounces the harsh execution methods (death penalty), as well as the punishments that thieves receive, the poor conditions peasants had to endure, and the greed and tyranny of the English kings.
Notwithstanding More’s resolutions for an equal and peaceful society, it is worth noting that the British thinker was not exactly a liberal and open-minded person in fact, numerous times he had accused people of being cretics and had put them to the stake (J.T. 2016).
In the following centuries, Thomas More’s work inspired other thinkers such as Karl Marx and Frederich Engels.
Thomas More’s death
According to Henry VIII, Thomas More was responsible for committing high treason, and as a consequence, he had to be executed. What was the reason behind ‘high treason’? The fact that More did not support the king’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. In fact, the English thinker professed the Roman Catholic religion and recognised the Pope’s supremacy, whereas king Henry was Protestant.
Following his divorce with his first wife Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII invited More to his wedding with Anne Boleyn. However, as a ‘devout Catholic’ he declined the invitation since he considered the king’s marriage improper and unholy (Duhaime 2007). Such a decision cost Thomas More his own life.
In fact, More was imprisoned in the Tower of London for an entire year, and did not have access to ‘pen and paper’, even his books were denied to him (Duhaime 2007). The day More was executed he had a long beard, he was filthy and could barely walk due his confinement in the tower. Before being executed, More was given the option to accept the Act of Supremacy and beg for the king’s forgiveness. More declined such life-saving opportunity. Therefore, it was ordered that More ‘should be carried back to the Tower of London and from thence drawn on a hurdle through the City of London to Tyburn there to be hanged till he should be half dead; that then he should be cut down alive, his privy parts cut off, his belly ripped, his bowels burnt, his four quarters set up over four gates of the City, and his head upon London Bridge’ (Duhaime 2007).
Following his trial, More was brought back to the Tower of London, and the following day he left his cell at nine o’clock. Once he was brought up to the scaffold, he uttered his last words to the executioner: ‘Pluck up thy spirits, man, and be not afraid to do thine office. My neck is very short. Take heed, therefore, thou not strike awry for saving thine honesty. I die the King’s good servant and God’s first’ (Duhaime 2007).
Moreover, for several months his head was exposed on London Bridge, until his daughter bought it.
Notwithstanding his execution, More had demonstrated to the king is full support by writing him friendly letters and poems that celebrated Henry’s coronation and power (Ridgway 2010). When Henry VIII was informed of More’s execution he abandoned his game of cards and angrily claimed to his new wife Anne Boleyn: ‘Thou art the cause of this man’s death’ (Duhaime 2007).
[1.] Borman, T. (2015). Anne of Cleves: Henry VIII’s most successful queen? History Extra. [online] Available from: https://www.historyextra.com/period/tudor/anne-of-cleves-henry-viii-successful-queen-fourth-wife-tracy-borman/
[2.] Elton, G.R. (2019). Thomas Cromwell: English Statesman. Britannica. [online] Available from: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-Cromwell-earl-of-Essex-Baron-Cromwell-of-Okeham
[3.] Hanson, M. (2015). Anne of Cleves: Facts, Information, Biography, and Portraits. English History. [online] Available from: https://englishhistory.net/tudor/monarchs/anne-of-cleves/
[4.] Kissane, C. (2018). Thomas Cromwell: A Life, A definitive guide to an extraordinary journey. Irish Times. [online] Available from: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/thomas-cromwell-a-life-a-definitive-guide-to-an-extraordinary-journey-1.3644525
[5.] Macculloch, D. (2019). Who was the real Thomas Cromwell? BBC.