Thomas More was born into a prosperous London family in 1478. When More was twelve years old, he began working as a page boy in the household of Cardinal Morton, the Archbishop of Canterbury and a member of King Henry VII’s cabinet. He learned about the affairs of church and state, impressed Morton with his intelligence and wit, and went on to study Greek and Latin literature at Oxford. In 1501, he became a lawyer and, in 1504, a member of the English parliament.
While still very young, More befriended the Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus, an important figure in a movement known as Humanism. Humanists championed the revival of Greek and Roman philosophy and literature. Inspired by ancient thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, Erasmus and other humanists tended to regard tradition with skepticism, arguing that reason and a belief in human dignity should govern human conduct and the reform of political and religious practices. In 1516, filled with these ideas, More wrote his most important work, Utopia, a critical examination of contemporary English institutions and customs.
More’s life took a dramatic turn when he became an advisor to King Henry VIII, whose ascension to the English throne in 1509 introduced a period of political and religious strife. Early in his reign, Henry began to rely on More’s talents, and in 1521 he enlisted More’s help in writing the famous Defense of the Seven Sacraments, an attack on the German theologian Martin Luther. Luther had recently begun to criticize the Catholic Church on matters of doctrine and the abuse of church power. A movement was growing around Luther’s teachings that would eventually lead to the Reformation, a cataclysmic social upheaval that resulted in the division of the church into Catholics and Protestants. More was a devout Catholic and feared Luther’s Reformation would weaken the church.
More defended Catholicism and won Henry’s respect and trust, and Henry named him Lord Chancellor. However, Henry’s religious allegiances soon shifted when the pope forbade him from divorcing his wife, Katharine of Aragon, thus making it impossible for him to marry his young mistress, Anne Boleyn. Henry married Anne anyway, and the pope promptly excommunicated him from the Church. In response, Henry renounced the pope’s authority and appointed himself head of the church in England, although he never ceased denouncing Luther’s teachings and continued his persecution of Protestants. The deeply religious More steadfastly opposed the break from Rome and made a point of not attending Anne’s coronation. He declined to take the Oath of Succession and Supremacy, which was required of all Henry’s subjects as proof of their allegiance to the new queen Anne and her descendents and also to Henry as supreme head of the new Church of England. By refusing to take the oath, More committed treason, a capital offense. In April 1534, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and on July 6, 1535, he was beheaded.
Because of More’s complex character, scholars are divided as to the true nature of More’s outlook on the world. On one hand, More seems to belong to the tradition of Renaissance Humanism, a progressive movement that emphasized the role of individual moral conscience in matters of politics and religion. Scholars regard More’s greatest work, Utopia, as a brilliant piece of humanist political and social critique. Also, More’s resistance to Henry VIII is often cited as one of the great acts of moral courage in history, a view of him encouraged by the popular 1966 film A Man for All Seasons. On the other hand, though More had much to say about how the church ought to change, he numbered among the courageous few in England who sided with Rome against the rising tide of Protestantism, an act that 400 years later would earn him sainthood in the Catholic Church. More oversaw the cruel persecution and condemnation of Protestant dissenters in England in the years before Henry VIII himself turned against the Catholic Church, and in this regard, More seems to be a defender of tradition and the status quo.
Besides Utopia, his most famous work, More is also known for his religious writings, including Latin and English poetry and a history of Richard III of England, which some scholars believe inspired Shakespeare’s play. In many of his religious writings, More directly engages the most prominent figures of the Reformation, particularly Luther, on matters of religious practice. More is also noted for his anti-Protestant writings, particularly A Dialogue Concerning Heresies, which was his first major attack on the Reformation. He wrote it in 1528, when England was suffering severe food shortages and outbreaks of the plague and not long after the bloody Peasant’s War had subsided in Germany. For More, war and famine were proof of the evils of the Reformation. He believed these were direct signs not only of God’s disapproval but also of the destabilizing effects of Protestantism on European civilization.
During More’s fifteen-month imprisonment in the Tower of London, he wrote A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, an imaginary dialogue between two Hungarians, Anthony and his nephew Vincent, as they await the Turkish invasion. A Dialogue of Comfort is a metaphorical treatment of the issues More faced in his final months: the Turks represent the evils of the Reformation and Henry VIII’s renunciation of the church, both of which More regarded as a catastrophe for Christianity. He argues that one can find comfort from such evil only in Christ and that a person of faith should be prepared to publicly defend Christ even if to do so means death.