No sooner had the vast current of spiritual and mental awakening nurtured the Renaissance in Italy than it engendered the Reformation in central Europe. Like a mighty river that divides its flow in its delta at the sea, streams of moral, intellectual and social energy contended with and reinforced each other. Pico della Mirandola replaced deadening literalism with transforming magic and rigid dogmatism with philosophical imagination, whilst Desiderius Erasmus encouraged fundamental religious reforms without the traumatic destructiveness of schism, standing up for humanistic education in the face of growing fanaticism. When the titanic forces that called forth the Promethean efforts of such thinkers and teachers washed across England, they were more subtly blended, yet undiminished. More radically than on the Continent did intellectual, moral and social change arise together, culminating in the stellar brilliance of Shakespeare and the exhilarating and dangerous Elizabethan Age. To be truly alive in that unfathomably mysterious period was to court unlimited promise and perilous undoing.
Thomas More was born on Milk Street in the city of London on February 7, 1477. His father, John More, was a lawyer who was later knighted and made a judge of the King's Bench. His station afforded Thomas a basic education at St. Anthony's, the best school in London, and whilst still young, Thomas was placed in the household of John Cardinal Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury. This privileged arrangement was common to the times, being a kind of finishing school and entrée into the highest circles in the kingdom. Cardinal Morton recognized the youth's potential to prove to be a "marvellous man and saw to it that More was sent to Oxford University at the appropriate age. More spent two years at Oxford, studying under a number of gifted teachers including, perhaps, the reformer John Colet. Linacre taught him Greek, a daring undertaking since neither Greek nor mathematics was admissible as regular studies until John Dee wrote his Mathematical Preface in the sixteenth century. Such subjects were considered dangerous innovations reflecting tainted tendencies of Continental turmoil, and when his father heard of his efforts, More was withdrawn from the university. Enrolled at New Inn, one of the excellent schools of law associated with the chancery, More completed his courses in two years and was admitted to Lincoln's Inn, an inn of court, in 1496, and so distinguished himself that he was soon appointed reader at Furnival's Inn. In 1501 he became a barrister.
When Erasmus first visited England in 1499 as the guest of William Blount, his former pupil and the future Lord Mountjoy, he was introduced to Thomas More. One tradition places the first meeting at the lord mayor's table where the two were seated opposite each other. Their casual conversation soon became a lively debate, and each was so taken by the other's wit and skill that Erasmus exclaimed, "Aut tu es Morus, aut nullus" ("Either you are More, or no one"), and More replied, "Aut tu es Erasmus, aut diabolus!" ("Either you are Erasmus, or the devil"). Whether true or apocryphal, the two became close friends and corresponded regularly. Whilst the Erasmian view of learning deeply impressed More, he also found within himself a profound spiritual sensitivity that insisted upon religious expression. Around this time he took up residence in a Carthusian monastery near Lincoln's Inn and practised – in so far as his profession allowed – the disciplines leading to the priesthood. Renouncing the preoccupations of the world, he wore a hair shirt, periodically fasted and slept upon the ground. Though he was attracted to the Franciscan Order and way of life, he eventually replaced his emergent asceticism with a more liberal outward bearing, whilst remaining simple in taste and manner throughout his life.
More's energetic pursuit of law brought him to the fore in an age when law itself had become a focus of interest and a lever of social change. Around 1502 More was appointed undersheriff of London, a dignified position which he held for a number of years with much popular approval. More was thrust into the arena of national affairs in the parliament of 1504. Henry VII was entitled under feudal law to a grant for his daughter's marriage, but he came to parliament demanding a considerably larger sum than he intended to bestow on his offspring. Whilst unwilling to produce the exorbitant sum, parliament hesitated to offend the king until More delivered a speech that resulted in a reduction of the grant to the limits set by law. When the king heard that he had been thwarted by a 'beardless boy', he threw More's father in the Tower and released him only after exacting a fine. More grasped the moral problems and social implications of public life and immediately withdrew into retirement. During this obscuration More devoted himself to intense study of music, mathematics and astronomy, and learnt French.
More met the family of John Colt of New Hall around this time and was quite taken with his three daughters, marrying Jane, the eldest, in 1505. He moved into Old Barge, near the Thames in Bucklersbury in London, and there established a family and a home that would serve him for twenty years. When Erasmus visited More in 1505, he was given permanent rooms, and together they translated and published works of Lucian. More taught Jane music and Latin so that she might be at ease in entertaining foreign guests, thus inaugurating the principle that every member of the family should be devoted to lifelong learning. He used his leisure to write the Life of John Picus, a biography of Pico della Mirandola, and when Henry VIII succeeded to the throne in 1509, More resumed his profession. Erasmus returned to England and wrote his famous Encomium Moriae (In Praise of Folly) at More's house, jokingly including More's name in the title. The natural grace of More's life was shattered by Jane's death in 1511, leaving four young children in his care. Very soon he married Alice Middleton, a widow with two children, and the choice proved excellent.
More's reputation grew despite his persistent efforts to remain apart from public life. He pleaded the case for the church in a dispute with the crown before the Star Chamber, and Henry in person watched as his cause was lost. Rather than revenge himself on More, he immediately took the brilliant lawyer in his service. In 1514 More was knighted, made master of the requests and sworn into the privy council. He was sent to Bruges and other cities of the Low Countries as part of a delegation to revise Anglo-Flemish commercial treaties, and later served the king as Wolsey's negotiator with France at Calais. Between negotiations More travelled, met a number of Continental humanists and wrote his most famous work, Utopia. Cast as an account of a lengthy conversation with Raphael Hythloday, a seafaring philosopher who sailed with Americus Vespucius, stayed behind in New Castile and eventually worked his way westward until he found himself in Ceylon, where he took a Portuguese ship – his own nationality – home, Utopia was a description of an ideal state for meditation and reflection. Without claiming that Utopian society should or ever could be the model for European reform, More outlined a set of social, economic, agricultural, religious and ecological principles that are fundamental to any consideration of social structure and national goals.
In Utopia, Raphael gives More his reasons for not seeking the service of any king: such service is chancy and ineffective since the king is the source of both good and evil in the kingdom; kings prefer war to peace because they are more interested in acquisition than wise government of what they have acquired; royal servants are often idle, living off the work of other men; and kings tend to create standing armies which inevitably destroy the nation they were created to defend. Through Raphael, More analyses the root economic problems of Tudor England. The growing wool trade is an example of the illness: being profitable, agriculture is destroyed to provide pasturage for sheep; farms are forced to sell for cash which, even if equitable for the land, is soon spent; and people are forced into the cities where they live in family-destroying slums and are reduced to beggary and crime. Since the wool trade is held in the hands of few, it is a virtual monopoly which keeps prices artificially high, and with reduced agriculture, food prices also rise. A few individuals grow wealthy, but the whole society suffers deprivation and social and moral disintegration. The proffered solution is often nothing more than severe punishment for crime, as ineffective as it is immoral.
More warned against making the punishment for a minor crime like stealing too severe, believing that it may only provoke worse crimes, even murder, in its place to obliterate testimony and evidence.
More did not criticize English life by comparing it to the ideal Utopia in his "little golden book"; rather, he analysed the ills of society in terms of the inner logic of the prevailing social order, and then offered Utopia as an alternative model which could be used to spark fresh thought and action in dealing with social concerns. This approach was consonant with More's concept of lifelong education in which learning is a continuing seminarium, a nursery for the growth and fruition of seed-ideas planted by a teacher. (More made his own household the first example of this kind of educational adventure.) After giving a scathing analysis of social and economic conditions in England, Raphael concludes:
The philosophical seaman then outlines the life and society of Utopia, a term More invented from the Greek ou topos, 'no place', a pun on eu topos, 'good place'. Utopia is an island nation, vaguely reminiscent of Ceylon, consisting of fifty-four cities organized hierarchically in units. Simplicity and harmony mark every phase and department of Utopian life, and Utopians manifest an undogmatic moral purity, economic equity and social respect, religious tolerance which discriminates essentials from variations in detail, a pervading concern for social welfare, an appreciation of hard work and pure play, and a love of learning. With the family as the basic unit of the social order, organization into townships, cities, counties and nations makes the whole country a single family and a gentle patriarchy. Whilst each family cultivates a particular skill or trade, inhabitants periodically change from city to country so that all may share in every kind of task. Families exchange children to keep all families of roughly equal size. Each unit – family, city or deme – looks to its own welfare but freely gives from its own stores to others labouring under the misfortunes of weather or natural calamities. Cooperation and sharing are the twin forces of individuation in Utopian society.
Shunning war as an instrument of policy, Utopians are courageous in defence. Working hard for the sake of all, they encourage those mental and bodily pleasures that are truly recreational or uplifting. Fearless in love and generous in kindness, they indulge in neither as a mere compensation for failure to individuate socially. The aged, priests and princes are esteemed for their wisdom and service, not for their status. The land is respected as a living and sustaining mother, used without indifference or abuse. Belief in a supreme intelligent power pervading all of natural and human life is as necessary to Utopia as it is to the city in Plato's enigmatic Laws. It is the tap-root of mutual respect, integrity and creative energy, but there is complete tolerance in the forms and observances of its worship on the ground that no human being has the definitive word on its incomprehensible essential nature.
More makes it clear that he does not believe that Utopia can be wholly incarnated in England, but, he concludes, "There are many things in the Commonwealth of Utopia that I rather wish, than hope, to see followed in our governments."
On May 1, 1517, More was so instrumental in quelling a London riot that his actions inspired a scene, probably written by Shakespeare, in the composite Elizabethan play, The Book of Sir Thomas More. More worked for the acceptance of Greek as the key to biblical studies, being inspired by the letters of Erasmus. But by 1519 More was compelled to sacrifice his personal interests, his post as undersheriff and his profession for service to his king. In 1521 he was appointed treasurer to the exchequer, and in 1523 he was elected speaker of parliament. His cogitations on The Four Last Things – a medieval meditation upon death, doom, pain and joy – were unfinished whilst he worked to achieve the king's ends, but also pleading for greater freedom of speech. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge made him their high steward in 1524 and 1525, and Cardinal Wolsey grew increasingly jealous of More's public reputation. Wolsey tried to send More as ambassador to Spain, but More appealed to Henry on grounds of delicate health, and the king saw through Wolsey's artifice. Instead, Henry made More chancellor of Lancaster in 1525.
Henry sought to keep More at court, but he only reluctantly appeared there. Finally the king began to visit More at his new Great House, built in Chelsea. When others noted the king's friendliness, More remarked:
In 1527 Henry tried to convince More that since Catherine of Aragon had not borne a male heir, she was not in fact legally Henry's wife, according to scripture. After much reflection, More disagreed. He and the king saw less of one another, and More turned to the examination of heresies, upon which he wrote seven books. But when in 1529 Wolsey almost destroyed the Peace of Cambrai, More tactfully averted the exclusion of England. The cardinal was forced to resign and six days later More unwittingly found himself chancellor.
With More as chancellor, Henry hoped to introduce reforms reflected in Utopia, whilst avoiding dissension and heresy. Since More avoided becoming a close confidant of the king, he could put great energy into his office, and he soon became a legend for his scrupulous honesty, fair-mindedness and prompt performance of his duties. When it became obvious, however, that Henry would marry Anne Boleyn, he pleaded to be allowed to resign his office on the pretext of ill health. Reluctantly the king agreed, and in 1532 More left office with royal expressions of good will. Perhaps the greatest mark More made in this period was in the astonished recognition of the court that he left office no richer than when he entered it. More retired to his home and concentrated on his now large family with its sons- and daughters-in-law. Erasmus wrote of a visit to Chelsea:
More's peace could not last, however. When he declined a special invitation to attend Anne Boleyn's coronation, he was marked for vengeance. He was charged with taking bribes whilst chancellor, but he easily showed that every allegation was false. Accused of encouraging Elizabeth Barton, a nun who claimed to see visions which promised calamity if Anne became queen, More produced the suspect letters, showing that he had advised her not to meddle in affairs of state. Whilst such charges were easily disproven, More knew that in time he would have to face a more powerful royal weapon, the bill of treason. In 1534 the Act of Supremacy was passed, and More was sought to swear the required oath. He freely swore to the succession but remained silent on the oath of supremacy of king as head of the church in England on grounds of conscience. He was put in the Tower where he lived in constraining circumstances for a year before his trial. When he was called to the bench, the judges of which included Anne's father, brother and uncle, More quickly disproved all charges of treason, even getting the jury to agree that, legally, silence had to be treated as assent in the absence of other evidence. The case came to rest upon a fundamental constitutional issue. More argued that his refusal to recognize the monarch as head of the church was based on conscience: he could not believe that a lay person could be head of an ordained ecclesiastical body. The prosecution argued that silence on the matter constituted malice by definition, and malice against the king was treasonable, as everyone including More agreed. More pointed out that the court had to presume unprovable states of mind on this interpretation of law, but the court hastily pronounced him guilty. Though of no help to More, his arguments prompted considerable changes in later English law.
Sentenced to the traitor's death – "to be drawn, hanged and quartered" – the king changed the order to simple beheading. In the Tower, More wrote beautiful letters of consolation and farewell. On July 6, 1535, he walked with dignity to the scaffold on Tower Hill. "See me up safe," he said to the executioner, "and for my coming down let me shift for myself." To the people, he declared his loyalty to the unity of the church and to the king. Then, in defiance of the ritual, he insisted on blindfolding himself so that he might play a part of his own on this final stage. The world was shocked by More's execution. Grief-stricken, Erasmus called him omnium horarum homo, 'a man for all hours', which became in the popular mind 'a man for all seasons'. More's property was taken from his family and given to Princess Elizabeth, later the great queen who gave her name to an age. Because of his spirit of reform and the communitarian perspective in Utopia, he became the hero of communist revolutions, his name being placed on a stele in Moscow's Red Square. Beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886, he was declared a saint by Pope Pius XI in 1935, and monuments have been erected in his honour in the Tower and at Westminster. An exemplar of virtue in personal, family and public life, upholder of conscience as the fountain of moral discrimination, and advocate of tolerance and needed reform, More, in the words of R.L.P. Milburn, "bore witness to this: that man's life on earth is not merely a thing of shreds and patches but that enriched and dignified by the Spirit of God it may be used, and surrendered, in the service of truth".