Three years after resigning his position as Chancellor to King Henry VIII due to the growing conflict between the monarchy and the Pope, Sir Thomas More was executed for treason on July 6, 1535. The prolific philospher and devout Catholic had defied the irascible Henry in the quest to annul the royal marriage to Queen Catherine, siding with his beloved church. Standing on the gallows before meeting his end, More proclaimed himself “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”
Born into a successful London family, More showed tremendous promise from the start. Working as a page for the Archbishop of Canterbury at the age of 12, his sharp mind and thoughtful reasoning were recognized almost immediately – he would be nominated for admission into Oxford University in 1492, where he stayed for two years before heeding his father’s request to learn the trade of a practicing lawyer. Though he would ultimately enter Parliament representing Great Yarmouth in 1504, he is said to have seriously considered life as a monk while studying.
In just ten years, the young barrister would move up the ladder through a succession of government offices, earning the title of Master of Requests (the chief representative of Scotland) as part of his appointment to His Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council for King Henry VIII. The year 1521 would see More knighted for his service and counsel to the king, often acting as the link between Henry and Thomas Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor until More took over in 1529.
At the same time, More wrote volumes of philosophical treatises, religious essays and engaging letters displaying his humanistic philosophy. Diving into his perception of the spiritual side of faith, More wrote dozens of letters and attempted a History of King Richard III (inspiration for William Shakespeare’s work on the same subject), but his most famous work is Utopia. The story of a traveler comparing the exclusive nature of European society with a “no land” of equal education, communal property and religious tolerance, a grand piece of philosophy detailing his belief that political realities will often trump the human spirit’s drive toward perfect, fair government.
As he gained the position of Lord Chancellor, More had become more outspoken with respect to his Catholic beliefs. He openly challenged the criticisms Martin Luther leveled at the Church, further arguing his position against William Tyndale as the two answered each other’s publications with long-winded and personal responses. (More’s Confutation of Tyndale’s Answer is written as a point-by-point conversation between the two in which the former replies to every statement made by the latter.)
The debate would take an altogether different turn as King Henry VIII appealed to Pope Clement VII for an annulment of his marriage. Unsatisfied his wife Catherine had not produced a male heir, Henry sought to take Anne Boleyn as his bride. More flatly refused to attach his name to a letter sent by English clergy and nobility to Rome, arguing with the king about heresy in the process. Henry, bolstered by his belief the Pope had no real authority in England and the removal of bishops who disagreed with him, soon moved to make himself the Supreme Head of the English Church.
More quickly became unsettled. Allies in the court were disappearing quickly, which led him to attempt to resign in 1531. Denied at first, he told Henry of an illness causing chest pains the following year to have his request granted. When he didn’t attend the coronation of Queen Anne Boleyn in 1533, despite acknowledging her legitimacy and wishing her well via letter, More’s fate was sealed.
On trial for receiving bribes while in office, the case against More was quickly dismissed. The following year, he was brought in on charges of conspiracy against the king with Elizabeth Barton, who had spoken out against the annulment – a second trial without a conviction, this time due to a letter written by More instructing the nun to stay out of government affairs.
Finally, when presented the opportunity to take an oath swearing the Act of Succession gave the monarchy supremacy over the English church, More denied Henry’s annulment for the last time. Locked in the Tower of London, a series of visitors begged More to reconsider. Facing trial on July 1, 1535, More refused to answer questions related to Henry’s position as Supreme Head of the Church and was convicted of high treason by the jury after fifteen minutes of deliberation.
His bravery and resolve leading up to execution added to an already-sterling reputation. Four centuries later, Pope Pius XI canonized him a Saint of the Catholic Church, considering his death a martyrdom for the cause.