Thomas More rose from humble origins to achieve the highest political and judicial office of England, second only to that of the king. He was recognized throughout early sixteenth-century Europe as one of the great lawyers, Christian humanists, and classical scholars of his day. ,Even at a very early age, More gave clear evidence of his uncommon gifts. Because of this, a family friend successfully persuaded his father to allow him to attend Oxford University. More so enjoyed his studies there that his father became alarmed. Two years into the program, he decided that his son should learn something useful. Under what seems to have been considerable coercion, Thomas returned to London to study law at New Inn. Although this law program was among the best and most demanding in London, More found time to continue his study of Greek, philosophy, literature, and theology with such world-renowned teachers as Linacre, Grocyn, and Colet, as well as with the pious and learned Carthusians.
Meanwhile, More excelled at his legal studies at the New Inn. Once finished, he read through the law again at Lincoln's Inn for two more years, after which he was chosen as reader at Furnivall's Inn and reappointed for three successive years - a considerable honor for such a young man. During these years of studying and teaching, More continued an intense life of prayer, during which time he sought to discern his vocation in life. By the age of 25, More was convinced that his place was with city and family, not monastery and cell. At 26 he was elected to Parliament; at 27 he married Jane Colt and fathered four children in the next five years. Jane died when More was 33, leaving him with four young children during the height of his career as a lawyer. Despite his deep sorrow, he married again within one month for the sake of his children. He married the best woman he knew, Alice Middleton, who had neither his interests nor his playful temperament and who was six or seven years his senior. As Erasmus recounts, she was "neither a pearl nor a girl ... but a shrewd and careful housewife."He marvels that More's" life with her is as pleasant and agreeable as if she had all the charm of youth, and with his buoyant gaiety he wins her to more compliance than he could by severity."
With his gifts of intellectual genius and endearing wit plus his reputation for virtue, More was much sought after as a lawyer and diplomat. He was chosen, for example, by the London merchants to represent them on three major embassies to foreign countries. At the age of 32, he began his work as a judge, a position that made him well-known and loved among the general London citizenry.
Throughout these years, More was also active in the areas of literature and philosophy. The Utopia, a work considered by some to be one of the finest Socratic dialogues of all time, has long been recognized as his masterpiece. After fifteen years of prosperous civic life, More was called to serve the King at court, a position he did not and would not seek out. Early on, he was well aware of the dangers of political life; he valued his freedom for family and writing, and he knew that giving up his lucrative law practice to enter public service would cost him a considerable portion of his income. Yet as a loyal citizen, More considered it the "duty of every good man" to contribute to the service of his country. Once in the King's service,
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More commanded Henry VIII's friendship and trust, serving primarily as his personal secretary, but with some administrative and diplomatic responsibilities. He rose steadily over the next ten years, finally becoming Chancellor in 1529, at the age of fifty- one. As Chancellor, More concentrated on two major tasks: (1) streamlining and improving the judicial system; (2) addressing and personally refuting errors which he considered seditious and destructive of both state and church. In fulfilling this latter task, he collected evidence which resulted in the execution of three persons. Although these executions have captured the imagination of many scholars today, More spent most of his working hours trying to fulfill his function as chief justice of the land. In the assessment of Tudor historian John Guy, More made substantial contributions in this area, reforming the legal system far more effectively than Cromwell would later, in his far reaching legislative reforms of the 1530s. More was Chancellor for only thirty-one months. He resigned on May 16, 1532, the day after Henry VIII and Cromwell manipulated the Parliament to take away the traditional freedom of the Church, a freedom that had been written into English law since the Magna Carta. At issue was the survival of the Church as well as the nature of law and the scope of the state's legitimate authority. Imprisoned in the Tower of London for fifteen months before his execution, More was heavily pressured by his family and friends to sign the oath accepting Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the Church in England. More steadfastly refused but never expressed animosity towards those who complied. During this time, he wrote a number of devotional and exegetical works, including A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, A Treatise on the Passion, and The Sadness of Christ. That More was God's servant first and foremost was readily seen in his life of prayer and penance. From the time he was a young man, More started each day with private prayer, spiritual reading, and Mass, regardless of his many duties. He lived demanding mortifications in his characteristically discreet and merry manner. He generously cared for the poor and needy, and involved his own children in this same work. He had special devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, to frequent meditation on the Passion, and to the rosary. More was executed on July 6, 1535, and canonized on May 19, 1935. He has become a symbol of professional integrity, famous for the balanced judgment, ever-present humor, and undaunted courage that led him to be known, even in his own lifetime, as the "man for all seasons.
The Trial of Sir Thomas More, 1535
The following, sadly, is a true story. It is the story of Sir Thomas More, beheaded in London in 1535.
Thomas More was born in London on February 7, 1478. He was educated at St. Anthony's School in London, then the best in the city. More managed to get a placement with the family of the Archbishop of Canterbury through his father's influence. Sir Thomas More, Senior, was a prominent local barrister. Thomas Junior went on to study at Oxford where he wanted to learn Greek. But Greek was frowned upon by the elite because it was thought that it would give young people access to "novel and dangerous ways of thinking." Couldn't have that. More's father removed him from Oxford and sent him to tutor in law. More soon became a lawyer (barrister) like his father but he did not lose
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