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Useful Notes / Thomas More

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A portrait of the man for all seasons by Hans Holbein the Younger

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 (at the time the highest political office a non-royal could attain, somewhat like British Prime Minister). All of Europe's Catholic monarchs envy Henry VIII for having a 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, recognizing 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 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. Oh, and he was a whip-smart tip-top barrister, as well. He was also canonized by the Catholic Church in 1935 and declared the patron saint of lawyers and politicians. On the other hand, some people see him as an example of religious intolerance, accusing him of using his position as Lord Chancellor to persecute the Protestants.

He ended at #37 in the poll One Hundred Greatest Britons.

Major Works:

  • A Merry Jest (c. 1503, 1509): A poem by More portraying a man pretending to be a friar. It was written probably for the occasion of his father being elected as sergeant of law in 1503 or for his own appointment as an honorary mercer in 1509.
  • The Life of John Pico (c. 1510): A translation of a biography of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, a Renaissance philosopher and the founder of Christian Kabbalah.
  • The History of King Richard III (c. 1513-1518): This work was unpublished in More's lifetime. It is the biography from which Shakespeare based his characterisation of Richard III: the deformed tyrant who murdered the Princes in the Tower. Seen as a provocative study of tyranny.
  • Utopia (1516): Probably More's most famous work. It is a satire that examines questions such as: "What is the best way for human beings to live, both personally and politically? What does humanity need to flourish in justice, peace, friendship, and concord? What kind of citizens and leaders does a commonwealth need to achieve such ends?" More presents these answers in the words of a traveller named "Raphael Hythloday", who describes the titular island. Some of his descriptions of Utopia are reminiscent of life in monasteries.
  • The Four Last Things (c. 1522): A work written by More in a contest with his daughter Margaret (Meg). Here, he examines and reflects on the "Four Last Things" in Christianity: death, judgment, heaven, and hell.
  • A Response to Luther (1523): One of More's works critiquing Protestantism, written at the request of Henry VIII. King Henry had written a work called Defence of the Seven Sacraments in response to Martin Luther's attacks on the Catholic faith. In response, Luther wrote Against Henry, King of the English, and More wrote this work against Luther, defending the papacy, the sacraments, and Catholic doctrine in general. Luther was notably scatological in his attacks on Henry VIII, so More responded in kind in certain excerpts.
  • A Dialogue Concerning Heresies (1529): Considered by C. S. Lewis to be probably the best-written dialogue in English, and a good example of Thomas More's wit, irony, and humanism. It is a dialogue in four parts in which he gets in a conversation with "the Messenger" about the ideas of "new men", or the Protestants.
  • The Confutation of Tyndale's Answer (1532-1533): William Tyndale, a scholar known for being one of the earliest translators of the Bible into English, wrote An Answer unto Sir Thomas More's Dialogue, in which he responds to More's critiques of Protestantism in his dialogue. More, who suspected that Tyndale deliberately mistranslated the Bible to promote heresy, wrote back not using a fictional framing device, but by quoting Tyndale's work, analyzing his arguments, and refuting them.
  • The Apology of Sir Thomas More, Knight (1533): A work written by Thomas More in response to another work by a Christopher St. German called A Treatise Concerning the Division Between the Spiritualty and Temporalty. It is an apology (a defence, in other words) against the seven charges against him (like his alleged mistreatment of heretics) while simultaneously refuting the claims of St. German's work.
  • The Answer to a Poisoned Book (1533): The last book Thomas More published in his lifetime. It is a five-part treatise in defence of the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence of the Eucharist, in response to the work The Supper of the Lord, written by a George Joye.
  • A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation (1534): Written while More was imprisoned in the Tower of London for refusing to betray the Catholic faith. It is a dialogue set in Hungary featuring a young man named Vincent who, overcome by fear of an impending Turkish invasion, turns to his dying but wise old uncle, Anthony, for counselling.
  • The Sadness of Christ (1535): The last book Thomas More wrote before his eventual execution for refusing to betray the Catholic faith. Here, he reflects on the Gospel passages depicting the agony of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Appears in the following works:

  • A Man for All Seasons, a 1960 play by Robert Bolt (adapted into an Oscar-winning 1966 film 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 portrays him in a negative light, since the main character is his rival 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 addresses 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? I’ll 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 actually beheaded for treason, not burned at the stake for being Catholic. His Catholicism did play a role in his eventual execution, though.

Tropes as portrayed in fiction:

  • Historical Villain Upgrade: In Wolf Hall, a novel that sympathetically portrays its main character Thomas Cromwell, Thomas More is portrayed as a man who used his position of Lord Chancellor to persecute the Protestants.
  • Utopia: More's book, written in 1516, is the Trope Namer. The basic structure and plot outline — a traveler 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.