Monday, May 21, 2018

Defying Henry VIII: Thomas More

Like many people who defied Henry VIII, Thomas More had reason to believe that he may be able to speak his mind while retaining the relationship that he had built with the king over the years. Also like many others, he was fatally incorrect.

Sir Thomas More
by Hans Holbein the Younger
More became one of the thousands of religious martyrs of the sixteenth century or, perhaps more accurately, one of the large number sacrificed on the altar of the Church of Henry. King Henry had counted Thomas More as a close friend and confidant for years. A scholar and humanist with friends like Erasmus, More was welcome at court where the king appreciated great thinkers and theological conversation. More and the king both wrote at length against the reformer Martin Luther. Yet when Henry decided to make his own protest against the Catholic Church, he expected More to give him his support.

More did not. And Henry should not have been surprised, for he knew More's past and understood his passion for the church better than most. Even as a young lawyer with a bright future ahead of him, More had considered becoming a monk and had lived as much like one as possible while practicing law at Lincoln's Inn. A desire for marriage and statesmanship kept the devout young man from committing himself to the life of a Carthusian.

Even as a married man, More had lived much less ostentatiously than the typical Tudor courtier. He was generous and hospitable but never glamorous. The habit of wearing a hair shirt beneath his clothing that he had picked up while living in the monastery was maintained for the remainder of his life. Striving to serve his country and the people, More was hesitant to become too close to the king. Despite being Henry's confidant and having been awarded several lucrative positions, More maintained that, "If my head would win him a castle in France, it should not fail to go."

Although More had a clear understanding of his king's willingness to sacrifice others to gain his desires, he was unafraid to challenge him. In writing Utopia, More courageously pointed out immorality and corruption in all areas of society, including government and church. As a new member of Parliament, he spoke passionately against the king's request for funds that More felt placed an unfair burden on the populace. When Henry first presented his evidence for annulment from Katherine of Aragon, More promised to research the issue but not to give his unconditional support.
Sir Thomas More Bids Farewell to his Daughter
by Edward Matthew Ward

Nothing he read and nothing the king could say convinced More of the righteousness of Henry's divorce. As England's Lord Chancellor, it was More's duty to serve the king and enforce the Act of Succession, which required signed oaths recognizing Henry as Head of the Church. As he refused to sign it himself, More resigned his position. Henry accepted the resignation, and More retired to his estates.

Perhaps he would have been safe yet had More studied and lived the quiet life of a country gentleman. However, he was compelled to write defenses of his faith, and he refused to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn. More was arrested and sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered - the death of a traitor - when he continued to refuse the oath. In his benevolence, Henry reduced this sentence to beheading. Before his execution, More said he was, "the king's good servant but God's first."

Thomas More, believed innocent by Protestants and Catholics alike, was beatified by the Catholic Church in 1886 and canonized in 1935.

Don't miss the rest of the Defying Henry VIII series!


  1. One of the reasons I heartily dislike Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy—apart from the impossibly turgid and overwrought prose—is her warped portrayal of More as a bigoted religious villain, a fact she admitted in an interview. I suppose that is permissible, since she damn near canonized Cromwell.

    I know More was not the “sanitized” version of Robert Bolt’s play, but he was indeed a rather virtuous product of his times. I succumb to severe eye-rolling when More and Mary Tudor are roundly condemned for burning poor protestants at the stake while Elizabeth gets a pass for her executions of thousands of Catholics.

    1. While I do love Mantel's works, I heartily agree with you regarding the inconsistent treatment of Mary versus Elizabeth. It is frustrating to see one historical figure so maligned when the other is practically worshiped. Curious how some people end up pop culture icons while others are forgotten or looked at with disdain. I do like to go against the crowd regarding that.

    2. You are certainly helping improve Mary's reputation. Any chance of her being beatified?

    3. Margaret i am pro Elizabeth but you make a good point. Mary also helped establish trade with Russia and was quite a good queen.

    4. I had never considered whether or not Mary should or could be beautified. Without being commonly popular, I would say no, although that is certainly not what it should be based upon.

    5. I think it would send the wrong message. 500 years of propaganda isnt going to go away overnight.

  2. An enjoyable post Samantha. I always felt that More was a bit pompous but your post has challenged that idea. All in all, it shows him to be a decent, humble man who tried to live a moral life and stand by his convictions without causing anyone harm.

    1. Thank you! I do try to see people as fully human but find the good in them as well.

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