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Utopia: Biography: Thomas More


Thomas More achieved fame as one of the greatest lawyers, humanists and scholars of his time. He was born in London on February 7, 1478, the son of a judge, Sir John More. His early education was at St Anthony's School, London, and in the household of Cardinal Morton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, where he lived for much of his childhood. Morton predicted that More would grow up to be a "marvelous man." Subsequently More attended Oxford University and then studied law at New Inn and Lincoln's Inn, two of the Inns of Court in London. After graduating as a barrister, he taught law at Furnival's Inn and seems to have considered becoming a monk, as he lived for four years in the Charterhouse monastery. He never took vows, however, and in 1505 he married Jane Colt. The marriage produced four children.
In 1511, More's wife died, and within a month, he married again. His second wife was Alice Middleton, a widow. More did not have further children with Alice, although he raised her daughter from her previous marriage as his own. More was remarkable for giving his daughters an excellent classical education, which was normally confined to men.
More enjoyed great success in his career. From 1510 until 1518, he served as an undersheriff for the City of London. In 1517 he entered the service of King Henry VIII. After undertaking a diplomatic mission to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, he was knighted and made undertreasurer. He became increasingly influential at Henry VIII's court. When his son-in-law William Roper remarked on the extraordinary familiarity with which the king treated him, More agreed, but added (to quote Roper's biography of More), "Howbeit (son Roper) I may tell thee, I have no cause to be proud thereof. For if my head would win him a castle in France (for then there was wars between us) it should not fail to go." Given More's eventual fate, this was a prescient comment.
In 1523, More was elected Speaker of the House of Commons in the English Parliament, and in 1525 he became chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, giving him administrative and judicial control of a large part of northern England. In 1527, King Henry VIII ordered Cardinal Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor, to petition the Pope for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Catherine had failed to provide Henry with an heir and he had fallen in love with Anne Boleyn. Wolsey failed to persuade the Pope to agree to the annulment. In 1529, Henry forced Wolsey to resign, and replaced him as Lord Chancellor with More.
More combined his political career with writing. Between 1513 and 1518, he worked on a History of King Richard III, an unfinished work which influenced William Shakespeare's play Richard III in its hostile portrayal of Richard. In 1515 More wrote his masterpiece, Utopia. The work, as well as being a manifesto for an ideal society, encompassed a biting satire on the injustices and inequalities of contemporary European society. Its contentious nature meant that it was not published in England during the reign of Henry VIII. Instead, it was published in Belgium in 1516, under the editorship of More's friend, the renowned Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1466-1536). The book was highly influential, and Erasmus advised a correspondent to read Utopia if he wished to see the true source of all political evils.
Utopia's influence continued into modern times. It was a seminal work for the worldwide communist and socialist movements and even today, its ideas provide inspiration to radical reformers in many fields. It spawned an entire literary genre, utopian literature (which described ideal societies) and its opposite, dystopian literature (which described hellish societies).
More believed that the rise of Protestantism threatened the social order in Europe. During his time as Chancellor, he wrote several works defending Catholicism and the anti-heresy laws, including the burning at the stake of heretics. His defense of the Catholic order brought him into conflict with the king in 1530 when he refused to sign a letter asking the Pope to annul the king's marriage to Catherine. In 1531 he tried to resign as Chancellor rather than take an oath making the king supreme head of the English church (More, like all Catholics, held that the Pope was the head of the entire Christian church, and that no earthly authority could deny this). In 1532, More, claiming illness, repeated his request to be relieved of office. This time, the king agreed.
Though More no longer held a post in the king's service, his opposition to the king's policies had become so well known across Europe that Henry could not afford to leave him in peace. Various trumped-up charges were brought against More, but his lawyer's skill saved him and nothing could be proved. In 1533, the king asked More to sign the Act of Succession, which denied the authority of the Pope in matters of religion in England. More refused, and was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he wrote his devotional work, A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation (1535).
On July 1, 1535, More was charged with high treason for denying the Act of Succession. Though he kept silent on the question of the Act, his silence was interpreted as denial. He was sentenced to execution by beheading, which took place on July 6. More had become a hugely popular and respected figure, and even many Protestants thought his conviction unfair. Erasmus declared after his execution that More had been "purer than any snow" and that his genius was "such as England never had and never again will have." More was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1935.


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