Thomas #2, Thomas More, acted in both legal and spiritual advisory capacities to King Henry VIII. He was born in London in 1478, the son of a lawyer and later judge, Sir John More. He attended Saint Anthony Grammar School in London while also working as a page to the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Morton, who supported his transfer to Canterbury College, Oxford, where he studied for two years before leaving to study law at Lincoln’s Inn in 1501.
While pursuing his legal studies, More spent four years at the Charterhouse, a Carthusian Priory in London, one of the strictest monastic orders. In the end, he declined to become a priest, but married Jane Colt, with whom he had four children before her untimely death in childbirth in 1511 at age 23.
During 1510, More became the under-sheriff of London and also acted as a translator for the Papal Orator, Cardinal Carafa, regarding a commercial transaction; in so doing, he favourably impressed Cardinal Wolsey. Soon More was rubbing shoulders with the foremost scholars of the day, including Desiderius Erasmus, whose humanist philosophy would influence More’s own work. By 1514, he had been appointed Master of Requests and was invited to join the King’s council in 1518, deployed on diplomatic missions in France and Flanders.
More continued to rise steadily through the ranks. He was knighted by Henry VIII and made Treasurer of the Exchequer in 1521, followed by his appointment to Speaker of the House of Commons in 1523, a somewhat unenviable position, given the fractiousness of the assembly. The King was eager for funding for his war with France; Parliament was reluctant to grant it. More was responsible for much of the delicate negation, resulting in a compromise.
While More supported internal reform of the Catholic Church during the 1520s, Martin Luther and his followers demanded a far more aggressive reorganization.
The King and More were united in rejecting Luther’s Protestantism and worked together on Henry’s treatise, the Defence of the Seven Sacraments. More followed that up with an excoriating attack on Luther’s response. Over the next few years, he wrote vigorously to discredit Luther and support the Catholic church’s doctrines and hierarchy.
More was made Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and after Cardinal Wolsey’s fall from grace in 1529, he became Lord Chancellor, the most powerful ministerial position in the land and the pinnacle of his career.
But it was not to last. A mere two years later, like Wolsey, More’s career crashed on the rocks of The King’s Great Matter, Henry VIII’s desire to annul his 24-year marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.
More could not reconcile his desire for reform with Henry’s decision to completely separate the Church from Rome. So his strategy was one of delay combined with delicate diplomacy, striving to speak neither for nor against the King’s position. Instead, he focused on reducing the King’s extravagant spending and actively persecuting Protestant reformers, who placed the authority of the Bible above that of the Church.
More’s position became untenable, and he resigned from office in May of 1532, hoping his silence would save him from the King’s wrath and revenge. But for Henry, silence was not an option. Not only did he not “do failure”, he didn’t tolerate anything but wholehearted support.
And thus, Thomas #2, More, was succeeded by Thomas #3, Cromwell, who would wholeheartedly support Henry in his aims.
Meanwhile, Catherine of Aragon was being shifted about the countryside, confined to her increasingly less salubrious residences, in a vain attempt to force her cooperation. By December of 1532, Anne Boleyn finally consummated her relationship with Henry, perhaps concluding that a baby was the only way to force the matter.
Thomas #4, Cranmer, the new Archbishop of Canterbury and as keen as Henry VIII to split the Church from Rome, formally annulled Henry’s first marriage in May of 1533. The following year, Parliament passed the Act of Succession in April 1534, rendering Mary, the daughter of Henry’s first marriage, illegitimate.
The Act of Supremacy, passed in November of 1534, appointed the English Monarch head of the Church of England, replacing the Pope. Now Henry, and all subsequent English monarchs, had only one higher authority: God himself.
All subjects were required to swear to the provisions of the Act. But what of our retired More? Was he able to live out his days in secluded comfort?
Not by a long shot. Like a dog with a bone, Henry would not let the matter drop, despite having achieved his purpose and marrying Anne Boleyn in 1533.
More, perhaps unwisely, had declined the King’s personal invitation to the Queen’s coronation. Henry was well aware that his former Chancellor remained an influential figure not only in England but also Europe. That’s the trouble with men of principle…
Although he was not fixed on the role of the Pope, per se, More firmly believed that the universal Church should not be undermined. He declined to swear the oath, remaining silent on his reasons; he refused to debate the matter.
King Henry, nettled, insisted that More swear to the Act of Succession and Oath of Supremacy. In an attempt at the compromise for which he was so well known, More offered to swear to the succession of Henry’s children by Anne Boleyn; that was a political matter within the competence of the English Parliament.
Nothing doing. Henry rejected the notion. Others might do the same!
In April 1534, More was arrested and taken to the Bell Tower in the Tower of London. Over the next fourteen months, numerous people, including More’s successor, Thomas Cromwell, and More’s family, attempted to persuade him to swear to the oath, but he remained intransigent.
He was tried for treason at Westminster Hall, remaining silent throughout, making it difficult to secure a guilty verdict. Under English Law, treason had to be demonstrated by a denial; silence didn’t count.
Thomas Cromwell, of more elastic morals than More, obtained the perjured evidence of one of his agents, Sir Richard Rich, the Solicitor-General, who claimed that during his tenure in the tower, More had broken his silence and spoken of his disapproval of Henry’s Act and Oath.
More was, thus, found guilty and executed on July 6, 1535, on Tower Hill.
Ironically, as Henry VIII’s Tetrad of Thomases eased him on the way to perdition, two were devout men of the cloth; the other two were lawyers, and it was one of those (More) who held fast to his moral compass.