The Birth of Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor

Thomas MoreIt is not known exactly when Sir Thomas More was born but it is thought to be 6th or 7th February 1477 or 1478. He was born in Milk Street, London, which now bears a plaque saying “Sir Thomas More was born in a house near this site 7 February 1478”. His parents were Sir John More, a lawyer and judge on the King’s Bench, and Agnes Graunger, daughter of Thomas Graunger, a merchant of the Staple of Calais and an Alderman of London.

More joined the household of John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, before studying Latin and logic at the University of Oxford. He then studied law in London. It was while he was a student that he met and became friends with men like William Lilye, John Colet and Erasmus.

Between 1499 and 1503, More stayed at the Carthusian priory, London Charterhouse, while he considered joining the order. He also considered becoming a Franciscan monk, but decided to devote himself to the law after he realised that a life of celibacy did not suit him. More became a Member of Parliament in 1504, an Undersheriff of the City of London in 1510, a Master of Requests in 1514, one of the King’s counsellors in 1517 and then a Privy Councillor in 1518.

In 1521, Thomas More was knighted and made Undertreasurer after proving himself by carrying out a diplomatic mission to Charles V with Cardinal Wolsey. He rose in influence as the King’s personal secretary and adviser, became Speaker of the House of Commons in 1523, and then the High Steward of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. He was appointed the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1525. In 1529, More was made Lord Chancellor after the fall of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.

More supported the Catholic Church, which he saw as the true faith, and campaigned against the Reformation and heresy. His actions against the Reformation included helping Cardinal Wolsey to prevent the importation of Lutheran books into England, producing scholarly works against Luther’s writings and persecuting people whom he perceived as heretics. His non-religious scholarly work included “History of King Richard III” and “Utopia”.

He was a loyal servant of King Henry VIII, but ended up being executed as a traitor on 6th July 1535 after refusing to take the Oath of Succession. He believed that “no temporal man may be the head of spirituality”, even his beloved King.

More is famous as St Thomas More, after being beatified in 1886 and canonised in 1935. His feast day is celebrated on 22nd June in the Roman Catholic Church and 6th July in the Anglican Church.

(Based on an extract from “On This Day in Tudor History” by Claire Ridgway)

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10 thoughts on “The Birth of Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor”
  1. Thank you Claire.
    What an excellent portrait – it might almost be a photo. It seems to show a man of great compassion. Such a shame that nothing of that quality was allowed to survive of Queen Anne.

  2. I have always found it fascinating that regardless of what path Thomas More chose, either the path of a lawyer at the Tudor court or if he had chosen to become a Carthusian monk, either way, he would have probably been executed as a traitor to the crown.

    The Carthusians suffered the horrible fate of being drawn and quartered in June of 1535 while Thomas was beheaded in July of 1535.

    1. Many modern people’s picture of Thomas More has been influenced by the movie ‘A Man for All Seasons,” which presents him as good and kind and wise. This is not necessarily true. Our historical novel group at the University of Illinois Osher Life Long Learning Institute has just finished ‘Wolf Hall,’ which gives a very different picture. Of course, Hilary Mantel is looking at him from Cromwell’s point of view. I believe they were at cross purposes, Cromwell being more of a reformer. I think he was darker in ‘The Tudors’ as well.

  3. The earliest book I read about More was the now old but excellent The Field Is Won, a Catholic but balnaced portrayal of More as scholar, moderate inquirer into the spread of heresy, teacher, friend of the King, man of principle and conscience and also a man of the times. He is a man of contradictions, a champion of fair justice for the poor and equal access to the courts; but also a man who believed that heresy should be dealt with strictly and if needed, with severity, but only as a last resort. He did all he could to root out the spread of the many varied reforms from the continent, but in fact he was more moderate in his approach than many; only actually authorised the execution of 5 heretics. There are many legends about the methods that he used, many of them a load of rubbish; and there is some confusion as to where he drew the line. But he also believed the same as anyone else in authority at that time when it came to the prosecution of heretical or reformed ideas. The majority of the world was still mainstream Catholic and orthodox belief was that so called new ideas of Luther and others were in favour of either execution or prison to punish what was seen as a real threat to society, in the case of those who did not repent or where extreme in their heretical beliefs.

    Even Protestants saw ‘heresy’ as a threat and Calvinists also did so. What was meant by heresy varied, but it basically is that which one chooses to believe in the face of the official beliefs of the state or the Church or the ruling bodies of the day. Groups of Protestants even saw each other as heretical; so it was not confined to the Catholic Church. Even Cromwell had to burn heretics under his leadership when the Six Articles had been passed, one his friend Lambert, a Sacramentarian, or one who denied that Christ was really present in the Host of the Alter. He may not have agreed with having to do so, but he did so as it was his job, and Cromwell is a hypocrite as he also believed many of these new beliefs but did nothing to protect those who were accused as he could not do so.

    Thomas More was raised in the Catholicism of the Middle Ages and he was schooled in the authority of the Church. He was orthodox in his beliefs and it was natural to him that he should regard the Catholic Faith as the truth and new ideas as a threat to those traditional beliefs and to the communities in which he served. He has been criticised as a hard liner by modern writers but is it fair to judge a man for being part of his time. These modern authors are writing in a souless society with few religious beliefs to guide it and have no idea what it was like to live in the heart of a society where the Church and beliefs, rituals and traditions guided and affected every aspect of a person’s life. As seen in the Tudor Monastic Farm ritual played a part in everything, prayer and wisdom and faith were the life blood of the day to day lives of the people, even the preparation of food and growing of crops depended on ritual and faith. Such convictions could only come from people who believed their faith was that of absolute truth. Into such a world came Thomas More and into his world came the new beliefs that would tear that world in two.

    Sir Thomas was a humanist and a scholar and many of his writings have lived on giving us a small window into his mind and his soul. He was a man of conscience and it was that which led him to his ultimate destiny; that of martyrdom. His own convictions were strong, no matter what he did and he proved that he had what it took in the end to go to his own death for those beliefs. More was a man that also had doubts and fears and cared for his family and the people he knew. He loved the King and it must have saddened him when Henry abandoned the Church that he had once defended against Luther. More saw in the young Henry a man who would bring in a golden age, a wounderful age and praised the young King at his coronation. Henry sought him out at all hours of the day and night to ask his advice, such was his respect for his man’s wisdom but he could not bring his friend and confidant with him when it came to the divorce. In the end it was as much political differences as religious ones that split King and councillor and it was fatal for both of them.

    Henry had promised Thomas More that he could follow his conscience when it came to the divorce but when it came to the stumbling block he went back on his word and instead of leaving More to retire quietly he had to have his support for his new marriage as well as his title as Supreme Head more than anyone elses. More’s endorcement was essential as if he found that the law was sound then others would follow; if he refused then others may do so as well. More was a lawyer and he knew what he was talking about. His opinion was very much respected by many; Henry needed his support at all costs. Beyond the fact that the Treasons Act and the Supremacy and Succession Acts made it treason to refuse to say Henry was Head of the Church and his marriage to Anne valid; the personal need for More’s support was desperately required by Henry. This may be why he took such a time over the final trial and execution of both Bishop John Fisher and Thomas More; he struggled with his own conscience in putting to death two so respected men of learning and international reputation. Especially with More, Henry wanted to save his old friend if he could; but More just could not give up the faith that he knew to be the basis of truth and in the end he had to give up trying. Had Henry been able to persuade More of course who knows, others may have followed, and it would have been a real coup as well as a personal victory for the King.

    At the end of the day it was all just theory and More could not be moved from his convictions. I do not believe that he set out with the intent to be a martyr, but something took hold of his soul in the Tower and not even his beloved Meg could persuade him refusing to take the oath, let alone his death. More I am sure loved his wife and his family, especially his beloved Meg but he could not deny his faith and his devoution to the Catholic orthodox Church. Some of his most spiritual readings and writing come from the time in the Tower and we get a mirror into his soul. Yes, I am sure he loved life and wanted to return home. but some convictions are just too strong. He had seen some of the people he had questioned as reformers and their strong convictions and he must have been reminded of that importance as he now faced his own tests of faith; and in the end he was able to make the ultimate sacrifice.

    If anyone needs proof that More was a man who loved it is in his death. He sacrificed all that he had, even his life as he loved so much. Martydom is the ultimate expression of sacrifice and love; a deeper and purer love, even more than that he had for his beloved King or his family. It is hard to understand how he could have left them when he had the chance to save his life and to remain with them, but he had to remain constant to a love and truth that he knew existed before all of that; from the start of creation; and that allowed him to face his death with honour and dignity.

  4. As an amateur looking on- I have just written a book about St Katharine’s, neighbour to the Tower of London- its Royal Foundation of St Katharine’s Hospital and Church survived from 1148 to 1825. ‘Old Kate’ got through the reformation probably because it was prepared to bend towards King Henry’s requirements and also because of his fondness for the place; from founder Queen Matilda onwards, it did a good job in praying for the souls of the Monarch and families, as demanded by its continual patrons (usually the Queen). In doing so, it also influenced the lives in the precinct for many hundreds of years, mainly for the better. Sir Thomas More chose his destiny, as I understand it. Anyone who regularly attends the Royal Chapels at the Tower, as I am privileged to do, can feel the pressure and atmosphere that must have pervaded in those days. Whether he was kind and good, or not, he set a great example for personal integrity; his shrine is deeply respected and cared for diligently. I cannot visit without gaining a feeling of awe, humility and need to do my best, countless others probably share a similar experience. The Hospital pragmatically changed and continued to serve- Sir Thomas made his stand- his memory serves on!

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