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1.1: The Author

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    Introduction: The Life and Times of Sir Thomas More

    The Life of ThomHans_Holbein,_the_Younger_-_Sir_Thomas_More_-1527 - Wikimedia commonsas More: A Biographical Snapshot (1478-1535)

    Thomas More was born on February 7th, 1478 into a prosperous mercantile family in London, England. He received an extensive education from an early age, which eventually led him to study Latin and Greek literature at Oxford University. As a student, More knew that whatever career he chose would require some understanding of human nature, philosophy, and religion, so he poured himself into those subjects. It was in this continued study that More formed a bond with fellow scholar Erasmus who famously translated the New Testament of the Bible from Greek to Latin in 1516. Together, More and Erasmus explored translations and famous classical minds such as Plato and Aristotle. They were very drawn to Roman humanism—the idea that ancient Rome represents the epitome of style and academia—and there are humanist influences in much of More’s work, including Utopia.

    More’s love for the classics eventually led him to law school, during which he lived in a monastery next to his school. After passing the bar exam in 1501, he had a decision to make: he could either continue to live in a monastery and become a monk himself, or he could pursue a career of law. More chose the path of law, and he entered the British Parliament in 1504, but he never lost his admiration and respect for the monastic life. More proved to be an excellent lawyer, as well as an excellent writer. In between 1513 and 1518, he wrote the well-received History of King Richard III, and he published Utopia in 1516. More’s deep values in learning and the Catholic faith led him to educate his daughters, which was an uncommon practice in the early Sixteenth century.

    In 1518, More’s career path changed drastically when King Henry VIII of England enlisted him into the King’s service. After being promoted to secretary, duke, and member of the Royal Council, More was selected by King Henry VIII in 1529 to serve as the Lord Chancellor of England, which was the highest available office in England besides the monarchy itself. As Lord Chancellor, More became Henry’s closest advisor and confidant. The two men worked together to co-write The Defense of the Seven Sacraments in support of the Catholic Church against Martin Luther and his Protestant followers. More and Henry were both Catholics, and More guided himself by the principle that he should remain a servant to both God and his country, which eventually became impossible to do at the same time.

     While the King and More worked well together, their differences led to an insurmountable disagreement that resulted in More’s death. In 1527, when Henry had sought a divorce from his wife Catherine, More refused to sign off because of his Catholic beliefs. Though they both initially defended the Church, More’s refusal opened up the can of worms, so to speak, of the differences in how More and Henry viewed the relationship between religion and government. As a devout Catholic, More believed in the separation of Church and State, and he felt that his service to God must always come before his service to the government. For Henry, on the other hand, church and state were inherently intertwined. In the early 1530s, Henry formed the new Church of England, declaring himself Supreme Head of the Church, and therefore providing himself with the power to obtain the divorce he wanted. In response, after years of working closely with the King, More resigned his office in 1532 out of respect for his own Catholic faith.

    By declining to take an oath of loyalty to the King in 1534, More rejected Henry as the head of the Church of England, so More was sent to the Tower of London on April 17, 1534. More was found guilty of treason, and he was beheaded a year later on July 6th, 1535. More’s final words were, “The King’s good servant, but God’s first”—an accurate representation of everything that led up to his execution. More was canonized as a saint in the Catholic Church in 1935, and he is considered a martyr for his refusal to give in to the King’s desire for secular power.

    More’s legacy lives on centuries later, both in the Catholic Church as a saint and in secular history as a celebrated scholar. With his deep connections to humanism and religion, More is known as the moral man in politics who remained dedicated to his own belief system and conscience until his last breath. He is also widely known for his writing and social critiques, and Utopia remains the most popularly influential of all his works. Behind the scenes, his translations of poems and classical works expanded the accessibility of writing as a whole, and his embracing of humanist values advanced the world’s understanding of how the disciplines of history, theology, philosophy, and literature all fit together into what we now know as the humanities.

    Image above: Portrait of Thomas More by Hans Holbein, the Younger, 1527 - Wikimedia Commons


    The Times of Thomas More: A Historical Snapshot

    Thomas More wrote and published Utopia in the early Sixteenth century, which was a tumultuous time period in many different ways. This was especially true in England, where Henry VIII ruled as King from 1509-1547. During the times of Thomas More, Henry was married to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. After many years of marriage to Henry, she had failed to give birth to a son, which was an issue for Henry because he needed a male heir to succeed him in the British throne. Looking for a young woman who could provide him with a male heir, Henry set his sights on the young Anne Boleyn, and he decided that in order to have a son, he needed to divorce Catherine and marry Anne instead. Though it seemed that this might give Henry what he wanted, he ended up marrying six different women throughout his reign, divorcing some and killing others in his pursuit of a male heir. As a close advisor and confidant of King Henry VIII, Thomas More closely witnessed the beginning of this pattern.

    Together, More and Henry had to tackle a challenge that involved both the British monarchy and the Catholic Church. In 1517, a year after the publication of Utopia, Martin Luther directly challenged the Catholic Church’s traditional authority throughout Europe by posting his 95 Theses, or 95 issues he sought to debate about the Church’s practices. This set off what is now known as the Protestant Reformation, which caused a major division between Catholics, who aligned themselves with the Catholic Church, and Protestants, who followed Luther in his criticisms of the Church. Though King Henry initially defended the Church against Luther’s criticisms, Henry ultimately went against the Church because of his wishes to end his marriage with Catherine of Aragon.

    This all happened within the context of the Renaissance. The Renaissance is the time period between 1350 and 1550 in which Europeans revived their values for Greek and Roman culture, artistic expression, and individualism. New interests in education and learning sparked by the Renaissance helped to encourage things like sending children to school, studying languages, and thinking as individuals rather than as a part of a group. This drastically changed life for many Europeans, who were no longer so quick to trust institutions like their governments and the Catholic Church.

    King Henry VIII’s search for an heir, growing divisions within and outside of the Catholic Church, and increased individualism sparked by the Renaissance all greatly influenced both Utopia and the course of Thomas More’s life in general.


    By Lisie Fahrenbach

    1.1: The Author is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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