Useful Notes: Thomas More

Nursie: You almost were a boy, my little cherry pip.
Queen Elizabeth I: What?
Nursie: Yeah. Out you popped, out of your mummy's pumpkin and everybody shouted : "It's a boy, it's a boy!". And somebody said "but it hasn't got a winkle!". And then I said, "A boy without a winkle? God be praised, it is a miracle. A boy without a winkle!" And then Sir Thomas More pointed out that a boy without a winkle is a girl. And everyone was really disappointed.
Lord Melchett: Oh yes, well you see, he was a very perceptive man, Sir Thomas More.
Blackadder II

The year is 1530. Henry VIII and his good Queen Catherine are on the throne of England, with renowned scholar and lawyer Sir Thomas More as Lord Chancellor (the highest political office a non-royal could attain, somewhat like British Prime Minister). All of Europe's devout Catholic monarchs envy the devoutly Catholic Henry for having a devoutly Catholic Lord Chancellor with whom he can co-write blistering tracts condemning Martin Luther. Whatever could come between such good friends?

The beautiful and fertile Anne Boleyn, that's what.

More was a renowned writer and wit, whose Utopia was widely read and imitated — and still is to this day. He became Speaker of the House of Commons in 1523. He was also the first layman to become Lord Chancellor, after the fall of Cardinal Wolsey in 1529. Queen Catherine could not provide Henry with a male heir, and Henry saw this as a punishment from God for marrying her, as she had been his elder brother's widow. He wanted The Pope to annul the marriage for being invalid, but a previous Pope had already declared it valid (not to mention the fact that the troops of the Holy Roman Emperor — Catherine's nephew — had looted Rome very recently, and he was the last guy the Pope wanted to offend). So, Henry decided to break away from Rome, declare himself Head of the Church in England, and annul the marriage himself. This went against Sir Thomas' most cherished beliefs: he thought it was impossible for a human institution (The king and Parliament) to usurp the authority of an office established by God himself (the Papacy). Sir Thomas chose to resign and live in poverty rather than have anything to do with the new changes.

Then came the Oath of Supremacy... an oath which everyone had to swear, recognising the King as Supreme Head of the Church. Thomas used every legalistic ploy to get out of swearing the oath while still obeying his conscience, but when it came to the crunch, Sir Thomas chose to follow his conscience rather than his King, even though it meant imprisonment and execution.

The story of Sir Thomas More and his struggle with King Henry still has a lasting appeal, even for writers and audiences who have no particular interest in religion; Robert Bolt, who wrote the play A Man for All Seasons, was a non-Catholic and a Communist. This is because it is a story where a writer can explore issues such as political idealism, the conflict between the individual and the state, the primacy of conscience, and moral victory in death.

Not to mention that Sir Thomas wrote one of the most Troperiffic books of his century, Utopia.

He is generally (though not universally) seen as an upright politician in a country facing huge upheaval, with some very modern ideas regarding women's equality and education, and a talented satirist and philosopher. He was canonized by the Vatican in 1935, and declared patron saint of lawyers and politicians.

He ended at #37 in One Hundred Greatest Britons.

His works include:

Works associated with Sir Thomas More include:

  • A Man for All Seasons, a play by Robert Bolt (adapted into an Oscar-winning movie starring Paul Scofield) about his family life and conflict with the King. Played by Charlton Heston in the 1988 made-for-TV remake.
  • Wolf Hall which portrayes him in a negative light, since the main character is Thomas Cromwell.
  • He is a character (nearly always referred to as Lord Chancellor) in Shakespeare's Henry VIII.
  • He is the central character of Sir Thomas More, a mammoth Elizabethan play written by no less than six collaborators, one of whom might have been Shakespeare. One of the speeches of More attributed to Shakespeare, where he address racist rioters, is the play's most memorable moment.
    "Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
    Hath chid down all the majesty of England.
    Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
    Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
    Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
    And that you sit as kings in your desires,
    Authority quite silent by your brawl,
    And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
    What had you got? Iíll tell you: you had taught
    How insolence and strong hand should prevail."
    • It is highly significant that More, a Catholic apologist and martyr, was still remembered positively in determinedly Protestant Elizabethan England.
  • Gulliver's Travels owes a lot to Utopia, and there is a Shout-Out to More on the Island of Glubdubbdrib (Book 3, chap. 7)
  • Played by Jeremy Northam in The Tudors.
  • Anne Of The Thousand Days.
  • The Six Wives of Henry VIII
  • In The Simpsons episode "Margical History Tour", which shows the characters in the place of famous historical figures, Ned Flanders appears as Sir Thomas.
  • Referenced in Blackadder II and Blackadder the Third:
    Edmund E. Blackadder: Well, it is so often the way, sir, too late one thinks of what one should have said. Sir Thomas More, for instance — burned alive for refusing to recant his Catholicism — must have been kicking himself, as the flames licked higher, that it never occurred to him to say, "I recant my Catholicism."
Of course, More was beheaded for treason, not burned at the stake for being Catholic.

Tropes associated with Sir Thomas More include:

  • Alas, Poor Yorick: When Thomas More had been condemned for treason and beheaded, his daughter Margaret climbed up onto the "Traitors' Gate" of London Bridge, where the heads were displayed, retrieved it (reportedly by bribing the man whose job it was to toss it in the river), and kept it in her room as a holy relic for the rest of her life, and it was eventually buried with her husband after her own death.
  • Bribe Backfire: A wealthy client bribed Sir Thomas by sending him a beautiful, expensive cup as a gift. Sir Thomas did not want to be tainted by corruption, but he also did not want to be rude by returning the cup, so he sent the client a thank-you note, along with an equally expensive and beautiful cup.
  • Cluster F-Bomb:
    • In a letter to Martin Luther after the latter had written an attack on King Henry VIII:
      ''Come, do not rage so violently, good father; but if you have raved wildly enough, listen now, you pimp. You recall that you falsely complained above that the king has shown no passage in your whole book, even as an example, in which he said that you contradict yourself. You told this lie shortly before, although the king has demonstrated to you many examples of your inconsistency. But meanwhile, for as long as your reverend paternity will be determined to tell these shameless lies, others will be permitted, on behalf of his English majesty, to throw back into your paternity's sh**ty mouth, truly the sh**-pool of all sh**, all the muck and sh** which your damnable rottenness has vomited up, and to empty out all the sewers and privies onto your crown divested of the dignity of the priestly crown, against which no less than against the kingly crown you have determined to play the buffoon. In your sense of fairness, honest reader, you will forgive me that the utterly filthy words of this scoundrel have forced me to answer such things, for which I should have begged your leave. Now I consider truer than truth that saying: 'He who touches pitch will be wholly defiled by it' (Sirach 13:1). For I am ashamed even of this necessity, that while I clean out the fellow's sh**-filled mouth I see my own fingers covered with sh**.
    • More wasn't exactly Sir Swears-a-Lot in most of his writings. Also, the S-word wasn't as taboo then as it is now. What More was trying to do was give Luther a taste of his own medicine. (Luther could swear like a trooper and was not averse to using the occasional poo-analogy in his writings.) This was written before Sir Thomas split from the king, and back then, anyone who wanted to insult the king would have to go through More first.
  • Corrupt Church: Thomas More was aware that the Catholic church of his time was rife with corruption, and he eagerly wanted to see change... but the kind of Reformation which eventually happened was too much for him.
  • Double Meaning Title: Utopia (a Greek word) can be translated as "good place" (Εὐτοπία) or "no place" (Οὐτοπία).
  • Dystopia: It can be argued that More's Utopia was meant to be a dystopia, because many of its laws and customs (the abolition of private property, euthanasia, complete religious liberty) were probably abhorrent to More. On the other hand, Utopia was not written as a political manifesto. It was intended to be satire. More was not advocating the abolition of private property, but rather was pointing out the social and economic damage caused by greedy land-grabbing. All in all, he was trying to put 16th century Christian Europe to shame by showing a pagan society that was less dysfunctional.
  • Dying Moment of Awesome: Honestly, everything this guy said at his execution was a gem:
  • Evil Lawyer Joke: Subverted. All the lawyer jokes concerning More poked fun at him being the only honest lawyer in England.
  • Forgiveness Requires Death: To the judges at his trial, after his sentence had been pronounced:
    Sir Thomas More: More have I not to say, my Lords, but that like as the Blessed Apostle St. Paul, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, was present and consented to the death of St. Stephen, and kept their clothes that stoned him to death, and yet be they now both twain holy saints in heaven and shall continue there friends together forever, so I verily trust, and shall therefore heartily pray, that, though your Lordships have been on earth my Judges to my condemnation, we may hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together to our everlasting salvation.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • In 1529, after he had been appointed Lord Chancellor, his son-in-law William Roper commented on how highly King Henry esteemed him. More replied "If my head should win him a castle in France, it should not fail to go."
    • When Roper commented on Henry's fidelity to the Catholic Church, More replied, "True it is indeed (son Roper), and yet (son Roper) I pray God, that some of us, as high as we seem to sit upon the mountains, treading heretics under our feet like ants, live not the day, that we gladly would wish to be at league and composition with them, to let them have their churches quietly to themselves; so that they would be content to let us have ours quietly to ourselves."
  • The Good Chancellor: Sir Thomas More, for many, exemplifies this trope. For others, he certainly does not. He had several people burned at the stake for their religious beliefs.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Representations of More often overlook his suppression of Protestantism and approval of execution for heresy, instead focusing on his more traditionally moral beliefs and personal integrity.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: In Wolf Hall.
  • Judgment of Solomon: Sir Thomas' second wife, Alice, came across a dog which she thought was a stray, and grew very attached to it. However, the dog actually belonged to a poor woman. Thomas was called to solve the dispute. He decided that Alice and the poor lady should both call for the dog, and whoever the dog responded to positively was the rightful owner. The dog obeyed his original owner and Alice was upset... so Thomas bought the dog from the poor lady for a handsome sum. Everyone was happy.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Sir Thomas Cromwell, the main antagonist in More's trial for treason and his successor as Lord Chancellor, was himself beheaded for treason. He reverted to Catholicism before his execution.
  • Last Request: At the execution block, he asked if he could position his beard so that it would be spared the impact of the axe's blow: "This hath not offended the king".
  • Meaningful Name: Raphael Hythloday is the traveller who has visited Utopia and describes the country and its customs. "Hythloday" is the Greek for "teller of nonsense".
  • Old-School Chivalry:
    • Sir Thomas had been courting a girl whom he wished to marry. However, she had an elder sister who was still unmarried, and "albeit his mind most served him to the second daughter, for that he thought her the fairest and best favoured, yet when he considered that it would be great grief and some shame also to the eldest to see her younger sister preferred before her in marriage, he then, of a certain pity, framed his fancy towards the elder". Jane Colte (the elder sister) became More's first wife.
    • Also, he supported Queen Catherine at a time when everyone was trying to prove that she'd had sex with her first husband.
  • Open-Minded Parent: More gave his daughters the same education he gave his son. His daughter Margaret later became the first non-royal woman to write and publish a book translated from Latin.
  • Omniglot: He knew the French and Greek languages, and could speak Latin as fluently as he spoke English.
  • Renaissance Man: More was a well-read man, and could converse intelligently on a variety of topics: Astronomy, Geography, Theology, Politics, Mathematics, music, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera...
  • Take a Third Option: As you might have guessed, Sir Thomas More was an expert when it came to these.
  • Together in Death: A non-romantic example: John Fisher and Thomas More had both began their careers working for Cardinal Morton (the Trope Namer for Morton's Fork). They both became noted scholars of Greek and Latin; both reached high office (More became Lord Chancellor, Fisher became Archbishop of Rochester). When Henry VIII declared himself Head of the Church, Sir Thomas was one of the few office-holders to stand his ground, while Archbishop Fisher was the only English bishop to remain loyal to the Pope. They were both sent to the Tower of London, both were executed within fifteen days of each other, and both were buried in the same church. Sir Thomas' head was stuck on the same spike over London Bridge which had been previously occupied by Fisher's. (People were getting spooked because Fisher's head was not decaying — back then taken to be a sign of innocence). They were beatified together in 1886 and canonised together in 1935, and they share the same feast day: June 22nd.
  • Utopia: More's book, written in 1516, is the Trope Namer. The basic structure and plot outline — a traveller tells of a land he has visited where everything is (seemingly) morally and socially perfect — has been imitated by many writers, including: Francis Bacon (The New Atlantis, ) Jonathan Swift (Gulliver's Travels), Samuel Butler (Erewhon), and James Hilton (Lost Horizon).
    Karl Marx: Although Utopia is more than four hundred years old, the ideals of More are not vanquished but still lie before a striving mankind.
  • Values Dissonance: More's active suppression of Protestantism was a product of its day.
  • Worthy Opponent: Jonathan Swift was not a fan of Catholicism (or at least the Irish incarnation of it), so his admiration for Thomas More certainly amounts to more than faint praise: "The person of the greatest virtue these islands ever produced."