Sir Thomas More

Posted By on July 6, 2009

On this day in history – 6th July 1535 – Sir Thomas More was executed on Tower Hill at the Tower of London. This man, who was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886, canonized in 1935 and called “the heavenly Patron of Statesmen and Politicians” by Pope John Paul II in 2000, ended his life branded a traitor to the King and Crown.

So, what is is about this man that has led to him being a saint, having his own feast day (today) and having schools, churches and cathedrals named after him? Quite simply, he was a man who held fast to his beliefs, who would not take the easy way out and who died for what he believed.

I could write a book about Sir Thomas More, but here is an overview of this courageous man and a video of clips from “The Tudors” – I thought that Jeremy Northam was excellent as More.

Sir Thomas More – Friend and Advisor

Thomas More was born on the 7th February 1478 in London as the son of a successful lawyer and judge, Sir John More. More himself studied at Oxford and became a lawyer, although it is said that he thought of becoming a monk at one point. He married twice – he had four children by his first wife, Jane Colt, who died in 1511, and then he married Alice Middleton, a rich widow, and helped her bring up her daughter. All of his daughters were given a first rate classical education which was unusual for the time they lived in.

He was a talented man. He was a lawyer, author, scholar and politician all rolled into one and his famous book “Utopia”, published in 1516, is still studied and enjoyed today. He also wrote a biography of Richard III – “The History of Richard III”.

More had an amazing political career. He became a Member of Parliament in 1504, served as an undersheriff of London between 1510 and 1518, entered the King’s service in 1517 and was made Privy Councilor in 1518. In 1521, More was knighted and made undertreasurer, and then became Lord Chancellor in 1529, when Wolsey fell from grace. Moore was not only Henry VIII’s trusted secretary and personal advisor, he was also a great friend to the King as both of them loved theology and astronomy.

The Fall of More

When More took over from Wolsey as the King’s number one man, little did he know that it would lead to his downfall and death.  Wolsey had failed to solve the King’s “Great Matter” and now Henry VIII was on the verge of breaking with Rome, denying the omnipotence of the Pope and forming his own church, but what was More to do? More was a passionate defender of all things Catholic and had, at one time, helped Henry defend the Church against heresy by aiding him in the writing of “The Assertio”, yet here he was being asked to go against everything he believed in!

In 1530, things began to get difficult for Thomas More. More refused to sign a letter written by English clergymen and politicians asking the Pope to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and also fell out with the King over heresy laws. A year later, More refused to sign the Oath of Supremacy, declaring that Henry VIII was Supreme Head of the English Church, because he believed that this position belonged to the Pope. He offered to resign on a couple of occasions and his resignation was finally accepted by Henry in 1532.

More refused to swear his allegiance to the Act of Succession, although he accepted Parliament’s right to declare Anne Boleyn as Queen, because he could not accept the part of the Act which asserted Parliament’s authority to legislate in religious matters – in More’s opinion, only the Pope had this right.

Resignation and silence was not enough for the King and his followers. More’s refusal sign the oath, and his refusal to attend Anne Boleyn’s coronation, led to him being arrested for treason on charges of “praemunire” which is described in Webster’s Dictionary of 1913 as “the offense of introducing foreign authority into England, the penalties for which were originally intended to depress the civil power of the Pope in the kingdom.” Bishop John Fisher also refused to sign the oath and was imprisoned in the Tower along with More.

On many occasions, Thomas Cromwell tried to persuade More to sign the oath but More’s conscience would not allow him to back down on matters of faith. On 1st July, 1535, Thomas More was tried for high treason for denying the validity of the new Act of Succession and found guilty under the Treason Act of 1534. More had held on to the belief that if he did not voice his denial of the King’s supremacy over the Church in England, then he could not be found guilty but unfortunately Cromwell produced Richard Rich to claim that he had heard More deny that the King was head of the Church. After hearing this, More spoke up and said that “no temporal man may be the head of the spirituality”. He was then found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Fortunately for More, the King stepped in and changed the sentence to beheading.


thomas moreSir Thomas More’s execution took place at the Tower of London on 6th July 1535. Before he was executed, More declared that he was “the King’s good servant and God’s first”. He was then beheaded by axe and his body buried in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, where Anne Boleyn later joined him. His head was displayed on a pike on London Bridge as an example of what happens if you betray the King.

Sir Thomas More’s head is thought to rest at St Dunstan’s Church, Canterbury, in the Roper family vault. His daughter, Margaret Roper managed to rescue his head before it was thrown in the Thames, the usual grave for traitors’ heads. According to legend, Margaret wanted to be buried with her father’s head in her arms.

Although some may say that Sir Thomas More deserved this kind of death, after all he did have many “heretics” executed, I believe that this was a sad end for a man who gave so much to the world. More was a true martyr, a man who stood firm and would not be swayed. I’m sure that I would have been tempted to sign the oath and keep my beliefs and opinions private, but here was a man who knew the punishment for challenging the King but who put God and his soul first.

David Starkey writes, in “Henry VIII: Personalities and Politics”:

“But it was not his rather limited political activity [after his resignation] but the King’s hatred, now as deep and unquenchable as his affection had once been, that led to More’s imprisonment, trial and execution for treason in 1535.”

I always wonder if Henry VIII felt guilty over More’s death. Henry executed a dear friend on that day in July 1535 and I wonder if this guilt affected his feelings for Anne Boleyn, the woman who had inadvertently made Henry kill his friend. Did Henry’s guilt lead to him falling out of love with Anne? We’ll never know.

David Starkey’s words also make me thing about whether More’s execution should have been a warning to Anne Boleyn. It showed how the King’s love could turn to hate.

25 thoughts on “Sir Thomas More”

  1. Marge says:

    I believe that something inside Henry died when he had Thomas executed. Henry certainly could have stopped the execution, but he was stubborn and always had to have his way. I agree with you about Richard Starkey’s words. Anne certainly should have been warned. Henry loved Thomas More and respected him above all of his advisors. Perhaps Ann had fleeting thoughts about the fact that the King could so easily destroy those he loved. She chose to shut her eyes to it never believing it could happen to her.Initially, Thomas did not want Wolsey’s job , Henry more or less kept at him until he accepted. Certainly Thomas had some foreboding. He knew the character of the King. I do agree with you also that Jeremy Northham was wonderful as Thomas.

    1. Claire says:

      Perhaps Henry felt that he could not ignore More. More was refusing to sign the oath and could Henry just let that go? Would he have lost face and showed himself to be weak if he had just ignored More? It’s hard to know. Henry was always so worried about threats to his throne that he always had to show himself as strong and completely in control and nobody could get away with crossing the King. I’m not excusing Henry’s actions because I think that he could have ignored More because More wasn’t openly speaking out against Henry, but Henry had backed himself into a corner with the oath and needed More to sign it. The oath was a great way for More’s enemies to bring him down.

  2. sarah r. says:

    I loved the film ‘A Man for All Seasons’ Paul Scofield was brilliant. Robert Bolt’s play and the subsequent movie were perfectt examples of how a great man can be brought down by the small. It also showed More as being reluctant to accept his role as Lord Chancellor, if I remember rightly, since he somehow had a premonition of what would befal him.
    They were close friends – prior to Henry’s accident of course that changed him so drastically. Apparently More would often meet with him in his private apartments to discuss geometry, astronomy and divinity, and that sometimes in the evenings they would walk together up on to the leads of the palaces to observe and talk about the stars and the planets. This was the Henry that AB would have known and possibly fallen in love with, of course, quite different to the monster he became and who destroyed those he loved the most.

    1. Claire says:

      I love that film too and yes, paul Scofield was brilliant. Both he and Jeremy Northam have been good in the role because they have managed to show a More who was dignified, who loved the King, who was a family man and who was steadfast in his beliefs.

      “The Tudors” did a good job of showing the deep friendship between man and King, and it is known that the men were great friends. Henry could relate to More – they were both highly educated and interested in the same topics. Like Anne, it was a meeting of minds. It is sad that Henry couldn’t just ignore More when he resigned. More was willing to stay silent about his opinions but Henry obviously felt betrayed by him and perhaps hurt that his great friend was refusing to be by his side. Henry seemed to want revenge for his hurt – horrible!

  3. Matterhorn says:

    Thank you very much for this post. In my opinion, he was a man of great integrity and courage. Certainly a tragic period, though. It seems that almost anyone near Henry VIII at that time was near death…

    1. Claire says:

      So true! To take on a position as Henry’s advisor, or even his wife, was to put your life on the line!

  4. Mattehorn says:

    Hello again:) I suddenly remembered a quote of More’s, mentioned in William Roper’s account of his life, where he seemed to foresee Anne’s downfall. Margaret had gone to visit her father in prison and, after asking about his own family, he inquired how Queen Anne was faring, and when he was told “never better,” he said:

    “Never better, Megg! Alas, Megg, alas! It pitieth me to remember into what misery, poor soul, she shall shortly come.”

    (The life of Sir Thomas More, by William Roper, Samuel Weller Singer, 1822, p. 73)

  5. Michael says:

    Since Anne Bolyn inadvertanly caused More’s death,by whispering in to Henry’ ear and helping to turn Henry against More, I believe God punished Anne by ensuring that she too shared More’s fate,by being beheadede herself. It is said that the screaming ghost of Anne Bolyn has been heard at Hampton Court. I believe contrary to what she believed at her execution, that she went to Hell for all eternity, by sending helping to send a saint to his death.

    1. Claire says:

      How do you know that Anne Boleyn caused More’s death “by whispering in to Henry’s ear”? You write that as a fact but that is your opinion, surely. You also obviously believe in a very different God to the one I believe in, but that is your view and thank you for commenting.

      What about Thomas More encouraging the burning of Protestants, people he saw as heretics? I’m not saying that he was an evil man, I’m just saying that these historical people are all flawed, just as we are.

  6. Michael says:

    I am surprised, Claire, that you say that. Did you not read the prophetic prediction made by More in his prison cell., which appears above my comment (see Matterhorn comment), that Anne would come to a terrible end, which she did, by being beheaded as More was. He clearly knew this from God, I believe, that it was only because of Anne, that he was beheaded. Anne was clearly a scheming, unscrupulous person who wanted to marry Henry at all costs, and More stood in her way.
    That Henry didn’t want to execute More at all, and only did so at Anne’s behest, because he opposed Henry’s marriage to Anne. Remember before the rift over the marriage, Henry and More were very good friends. It is said that three days after More was executed Henry went into black despair.. Does that sound like someone who really wanted More’s death?

    1. Claire says:

      I do not believe that God told More that Anne would come to a terrible end and I don’t believe for an instant that God is like that. More died as a result of what Henry saw as disobedience and treachery, he would not obey his King and so had to suffer the consequences. If you look at Henry’s reign, Henry could very quickly turn against people if he felt that they were rebelling against him: More, Wolsey, Catherine of Aragon, Princess Mary, Cromwell… Just because he showed sadness at More’s death, it does not mean that it was not his decision, he also showed sadness and regret after Cromwell’s death. There is absolutely no evidence that Anne schemed to have More executed or that she was an “unscrupulous person”. She was not a saint or angel but she was not the devil incarnate either.

    2. Claire says:

      I forgot to say that More also said , early on in Henry’s reign, that “if my head would win him a castle in France, it should not fail to go”, so he knew what Henry was capable of. He may have prophesied that Anne would come to a terrible end but that was a pretty safe bet really, after all, he, a man who had been like a father figure to Henry was in prison awaiting death.

  7. Michael says:

    Thank you for your reply. Could I point out in a recent TV drama on the Tudors, Anne Boleyn is shown is really pushing for More to be executed, and Henry is shown as being most reluctant to do that. And so finally with great reluctance, he does as Anne asks. I am not sure if it was the recent BBC Tudors, but it was clearly based on accurate historical research. And so I am not alone in my assertions about Anne’s key role in the death of More. In regard to your comment that More was flawed. But he has been declared a Saint by the Catholic Church. This is only done after the most exhasustive examination of the candidate for sainthood.. If on this examination, the person was deemed to be saintly, and the working of two miracles by the saint, then they are declared a saint. And so if someone say has a terminal illness and medical science says they will die, and mysteriously that person recovers, without natural explanation, following prayers to the saint, then they are declared a saint. This happened to More and he was declared a saint.

    1. Claire says:

      Are you referring to “The Tudors”?! This was highly inaccurate and has been deeply criticised by academic historians, it can’t even get Henry VIII’s sisters right! I actually studied Sir Thomas More at University so I do know all about him and I know that he has been declared a saint by the Catholic Church, but this does not mean he was without sin and in fact he had a lot of blood on his hands, and it also does not mean that therefore Anne Boleyn was the devil incarnate. Thomas More’s death was a decision Henry VIII made, not Anne.

  8. Michael says:

    To return to your claim that God doesn’t send signs, that the wicked will be punished or thwarted, there are many intriguing examples over 2,000 years since Christ died, that he does just that. For instance before the Second World War, Joseph Goebbles, Hiter’s propaganda minister, attended a dinner at the British Embassy in Berlin. After the dinner he like everyone else drank wine, whilst Goebbles held forth on various subjects.
    The subject of the Catholic Church came up and Goebbles, who was holding his glass of wine said : “I will smash the power of the Roman Church, as I smash this glass” and he flung the glass at the wall, fully expecting it to smash. It did not do so, but fell to the floor without a scratch. Goebbles went white as a sheet and abruptly changed the subject. Aftwerwards when Goebbles had gone, the Embassy staff, intrigued, threw the same glass at the wall, and it smashed to pieces. I believe God who was listening sent a sharp answer to Goebbles, that no he would never smash the Roman Catholic Church, which Catholics believe was founded by Christ. And in fact Goebbles never got to do that, as we all know, because he like all the other Nazis were utterly defeated and they all came to a siticky end. And so you see it is quite possible that one way or another, God did let More know that Anne would be beheaded as a punishment for sending More to his death.

    1. Claire says:

      I have never claimed that God does not send signs. I am a practising Christian and I believe that God does send signs, I just do not believe that God’s wrath would be used on a woman who protected Protestant reformers, who encouraged her ladies to read the English Bible and who further the reformation of the Church in England. The God I believe in is one of salvation and forgiveness, as well as judgement. Anne Boleyn was clearly a woman of God, a woman with a personal and very real faith.

  9. David says:

    I struggle with my opinion of Thomas More. First of all I agree with everyone who said Northam was excellent casting for the part in ‘The Tudors’ and certainly captured many of the characteristics I imagine More to have had.

    My opinion of the man is somewhat divided. Because on the on the one hand I have great respect for his apparent intellect an conviction of character. But on the other hand he was a religious fundamentalist and zealot who condemned many to burn for heresy. And yet some part of me is able to look past that and judge the man much more favourably on a whole. Perhaps because he was one of the great thinkers of his time, or maybe because he died so courageously for his beliefs. Like many of the great historical figures the difficulty in identifying with them comes from the framing of the time they lived. By today’s standards I would be horrified at More and see him as a fundamentalist for brutally murdering those he saw as heretics, and for blindly believing in his faith above all else, but looking at him as a historical figure and renaissance humanist I have a lot of respect for the man.

  10. Laskarina says:

    Scholars do not give credence to Henry VIII regretting the death of Moore. As in the case of Anne Boleyn, romantic fiction has overtaken reality completely. Whatever the cause, Henry’s actions in his life represent nothing so much as those of a sociopath. It’s very doubtful that regret was in his repertoire.

    Moore was a middle class lawyer, not an aristocrat. He was not a clergyman. He is credited with writing a good part of Henry’s “defense of the sacraments”, a staunchly Catholic work. while he was a corespondent of Erasmus and a humanist, his beliefs were staunchly Catholic.

    He was killed for that, not for “silence”.

    Moore was not silent by any means; rather he wrote some of his most polemic pro-Catholic works in his retirement and in prison.

    It is not disputed that he chose God over king, for the sake of his soul rather than for a temporal authority like the Pope or out of “stubbornness” as some have said in this thread.

    Ironically, the heterodox Church of England, with the monarch, not any clergy, at it’s head, has made Moore a saint on their calendar as a martyr of the reformation–can you get more hypocritical than that ?

    Yes, you can: all the monarchs since Henry VIII call themselves “defender of the faith” in their coronation oath (with the exception of Mary Tudor). This was a title granted by the pope, they called “anti Christ”. Now Prince Charles has said publicly that when he accedes the throne, he will call himself “defender of faith”, so as not to offend pagans, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. in his realm, thus reducing the phrase to utter meaninglessness.

    Roman Catholics and Protestants of countless denominations, have tortured and murdered each other for centuries longer than the pagan emperors ever did to the early Christians. Those of us who are aware of the hidden hand in this are not shocked they continued to call themselves Christian while violating every command of Christ.

    This is because they are both so far from true Christianity which has remained unchanged as the Orthodox Christian Church.

    In about 1054, the Roman church broke away irrevocably. The bishop of Rome, decided he wanted to rule all the other bishops, when for the first thousand years and seven ecumenical councils they had equal vote. The Pope also changed the Creed of the church which still stands in Orthodoxy unchanged.He excommunicated all other bishops and patriarchs of Christendom who would go along with his scheme (none of them did). So, in effect, the bishops of Rome did far worse than Luther and the rest is history, as they say. many of the renaissance popes were crypto Jews on top of that.

    So when you change the Creed, and make yourself an absolute despot, and call yourself by a pagan title, “Supreme Pontiff”, have your own army, your own lands, your own currency, your own secret police, your own bank, and wage war against true Christendom (the fourth Roman Catholic crusade was against the Orthodox Church–for which Pope John Paul apologized formally 900 years late)– it’s no wonder that by the sixteenth century, things fell apart.

    The head of the Orthodox Church is Jesus Christ, not a patriarch, pope, or monarch. And for the record, it has never burned or decapitated anyone, nor does it have it’s own currency or army, not does it do any of the things that sparked the reformation. This is why, in the twentieth century, it is a steadily growing church which many American Protestant denominations joined as they were looking for the church of the apostles. They found it.

  11. Chris says:

    I always felt bad for Thomas More after watching the Tudors. But I do not believe him to be a martyr for God. He burned many people for heresy which I believe to be the furthest thing from the will of God. Also his support for the Pope and the catholic church sicken me, the Catholic church was insanely corrupt during this time period and how anyone could say that the pope was the voice of God is beyond me. Banning the people from reading the word of God because they are too stupid to understand is unreal, they just used this to have more power over the people. If people would just read the bible they would see that the rock Jesus was talking about in Matthew was the fact that Jesus was the son of God and not Peter I will never know, Catholics have deluded themselves into believing this. Sure Thomas More probably believed he was in the right, but it is possible to be sincerely wrong. So while I feel badly for him I think he should not be considered a martyr or a saint, he was just a poor man unjustly killed like many others he unjustly had killed.

  12. M says:

    Are you not corrupt yourself? Forgive me, but you are showing ignorance in your comments. Study more. Pray more

  13. B. Jeffords says:

    One should not rely too heavily on the TV show The Tudors to make judgments about More and Henry. More was correct to defend the church against state interference and he is to be admired for not recanting his conscience. But he believed that was his right to hold without punishment. In that regard he was a colossal hypocrite as he killed many people for holding to their own consciences. Moreover, More approved the Catholic Church’s perennial executions of heretics and cared not that those victims were holding to their conscience. In the end, More and Henry both were cruel and hypocritical. And they both personally used “legal” authority to kill those with whom they disagreed. I know the times were different but still neither should be taken as a hero.

  14. Deb says:

    I write only to finesse the statements that Thomas More caused the deaths of “many” heretics. In our time, of course, the idea that even one person would be executed for his religious beliefs is shocking, but here is the scholarship on this subject. More was quite zealously involved in a suppression of Reform/ Protestant/ heretical literature, Bible translations, printers, and distributors; arresting heretics; burning books; making heretics recant; forcing them to endure humiliating rides through town with signs on them as people jeered and trash on them, etc. He was directly involved in deciding the burning at the stake of three heretics, and indirectly involved in denouncing two others who were ordered burned by other officials. This is awful by modern standards but his killing of heretics was greatly exceeded by many other contemporary officials and in the following swings of religious faith. As for Anne Boleyn, she may have been a homewrecker, but she became quite sincere in her Reform religious beliefs. Thomas More himself would have wished that they would meet merrily in heaven with all differences forgiven.

  15. Johnna says:


    Why did King Henry VIII decide to change Sir Thomas More’s sentence to only execution, not disembowelment and other harsh punishments? Was it because of their friendship, or something else?

    1. Claire says:

      Yes, it would have been out of respect for More. Noblemen’s sentences tended to be commuted to beheading and although More wasn’t a nobleman, he had been Henry VIII’s friend, a father figure to him, and served him as Lord Chancellor.

      1. Gigi says:

        Thanks! I’m doing a National History Day project on King Henry VIII and Sir Thomas More called, ” The Wrath of King Henry VIII: Turning Camaraderie into Conflict.” I didn’t understand why he would change his sentence because he would seem weak or incapable. But his friendship with More was just masked, not taken away. By the way, I really like your page! Looking at sources, there just wasn’t enough solid information that convinced me, but i found THE website! (This is Gigi, i typed my name wrong as Johnna).

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