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Useful Notes / Thomas More

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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, 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 (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 100 Greatest Britons.

His works include:

Appears in the following works:

  • 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 portrays him in a negative light, since the main character is his rival Thomas Cromwell. Of course, it must be noted (as seen below) that his authorization of Protestant suppression is quite consistent with his Catholic beliefs—and his proud acceptance of his condemnation to death, while easily visible in a point of suicidal, egotistic arrogancenote  would actually do justice to how an unbending man of principle might actually do it.
  • 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 beheaded for treason, not burned at the stake for being Catholic.

Tropes as portrayed in fiction:

  • Famous Last Words: Before being beheaded, he moved his very long beard aside so it wouldn't fall under the axe as well and said: "Pity that should be cut, that hath not committed treason." Another report says that More said this: "I die the king's faithful servant and God's first."
  • 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.
  • 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.


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