Thomas More: saint or sinner?
History has left us two Thomas Mores – the flawless Catholic saint, and the cruel ogre, hellbent on burning Protestants. Both, however, are fallacies. So who is the real, flesh-and-blood More lurking behind the myth? Dr Joanne Paul investigates....
As the sun set over London on 30 April 1517, tensions in the city were ready to ignite. The sweating sickness had struck the city the year before, and it had been an especially harsh winter. Londoners vented their miseries against the city’s foreigners. Ambassadors fearfully reported that “there was a plot to cut to pieces all the strangers in London” on May Day 1517.
Rapidly losing their nerve, London’s officials called a meeting at the Guildhall that very evening. They needed someone with court connections to seek assistance from the Privy Council and the lord chancellor. They decided on a young lawyer and undersheriff of London named Thomas More.
But their efforts came too late. By 11pm violence was breaking out in the heart of the city. Shortly after, More intercepted a group of rioters in the foreign neighbourhood of St Martin’s Le Grand, just north of St Paul’s. Faced with a mass of torches and rage, he somehow managed to calm them.
The peace was only momentary. Within seconds, bricks and hot water were hurled down from the windows onto rioters. One of More’s companions shouted “Down with them!”, and the riot began again. It raged until the early hours of the morning, ending only when the nobles of the court arrived with more than 5,000 troops. Later, the Venetian ambassador noted that the quick response and lack of severe damage was due in large part to the fact that the lord chancellor had been “forewarned”. He doesn’t mention that it was by More.
- Read more | The Evil May Day Riots of 1517: what happened?
Though unfamiliar to us now, this is the image that William Shakespeare, writing several decades later, sought to immortalise in his play Sir Thomas More. Shakespeare gave More a poignant monologue, in which he implores the rioters to consider “the strangers’ case” and their own “mountainish inhumanity”. The play that Shakespeare co-wrote was shut down by 16th-century censors, who declared that to perform it was “at [the playwrights’] own perils”.
Today, More remains a controversial figure, and to write about him retains an edge of peril. Is he a saintly scholar, as presented by the historian RW Chambers and immortalised in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons? Or is he the stubborn zealot described by historians Richard Marius and GR Elton, and famously portrayed in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall? We are told we must pick a side.
Today, More remains a controversial figure, and to write about him retains an edge of peril
Who was Thomas More?
This division over More’s character has its own history. These two ‘Mores’ were the product of the divide between Protestants and Catholics, and emerged out of the decades that followed More’s death in 1535. As More’s extended family produced hagiographic biographies to convince the pope to make him a saint, Elizabethan chroniclers like Edward Hall and John Foxe painted More as a fool and fanatic. To borrow the words of 19th-century socialist Karl Kautsky: “To most of the biographies of More, a certain fragrance of incense clings.” It can be difficult to see through the fog.
More like this
In order to understand the real Thomas More, not as self-righteous villain nor as saintly hero but as flesh-and-blood individual, we have to find the Thomas More who walked the streets of London and called Cheapside home. We have to understand his cares and his concerns, which were intimately wrapped up with his sense of duty to his community. It is in Cheapside that we will find the man, as separated from the myth.
The life of Thomas More – from birth to execution
7 February 1478 | Thomas More is born in Cheapside to Agnes and John More and named after St Thomas Becket
1489–92 | More serves in the household of John Morton, the lord chancellor
1492–94 | After two years studying at Oxford, More returns to London to study the law
1510 | More sits as an MP and becomes undersheriff for London
1515–16 | While on a diplomatic mission for Henry VIII, More writes Utopia, which is published in Louvain in December 1516
1 May 1517 | As undersheriff, More is sent to attempt to calm the riots of Evil May Day 1517. He is largely unsuccessful
1518 | More becomes a king’s councillor, working closely with both Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII
1523 | More launches a vitriolic attack on Martin Luther on behalf of Henry VIII
1529 | More begins his written campaign against heretics, and replaces Cardinal Wolsey as lord chancellor
16 May 1532 | The day after the Submission of the Clergy to Henry VIII, More resigns the chancellorship
17 April 1534 | More is imprisoned in the Tower of London for refusing to take the Oath of Succession, acknowledging Henry VIII as head of the English church
6 July 1535 | More is executed for treason on Tower Hill
Thomas More's early life and rise to power
More was born on Milk Street, Cheapside on 7 February 1478. We can be fairly certain of this date, because his father recorded the birth on his copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. He was named after the 12th-century bishop Thomas Becket, who also happens to have been born just steps away from More’s home. It seems that from birth the young Thomas More was destined for great things.
Although Cheapside later gained a reputation for poverty, the name comes from the Old English ‘ceapan’ – to buy. This is why most streets in the area – including Milk Street – refer to the products that could be bought there. More didn’t grow up in lowly Putney, like his adversary Thomas Cromwell, but it was a far cry from the refined country upbringing that many have attributed to him. Although his father was a well-connected lawyer, More’s next-closest ancestors were genuinely a brewer, a baker and a candlestick maker.
More’s first brush with wealth and power came in 1489, when he joined the household of the lord chancellor, John Morton. Morton’s household was at Lambeth Palace, across the Thames from Westminster. At Lambeth, the young More would have overheard England’s leading nobles and politicians discuss the tumultuous state of the realm, only years after Henry VII had snatched it from Richard III.
Sponsored by Morton, More spent two years at Oxford, but returned to London without his degree in 1494 to study law. By 1501, having finished his studies, he was living in or near the Charterhouse, the home of Carthusian monks. Some have suggested that More was ‘testing’ himself for the religious life, and that his departure and marriage in 1505 is evidence that he was a “sex maniac”. However, he may simply have chosen to live nearby, taking advantage of the Charterhouse’s widely praised mass and library, while remaining close to the Inns of Court in Holborn and his family in Cheapside.
- 'Groom of the stool': who were the men who changed Henry VIII’s underpants?
More certainly wasn’t a recluse at this time, and he had begun building connections with one of the most powerful guilds in the city: the Mercers’ Company. By the 16th century, the guilds – and the Mercers in particular – controlled much of the trade and politics of London. In 1509, the Mercers made More a ‘freeman’ of the city, and he quickly began to acquire powerful positions, including justice of the peace for Middlesex, MP, and undersheriff of London. He also acquired from the Mercers a house in Bucklersbury, a five-minute walk from his father’s home in Milk Street and a stone’s throw from the Guildhouse, where city business took place.
In 1515, More was sent to Bruges and Antwerp by Henry VIII and some of London’s leading merchants, who knew how accomplished he was in the art of negotiating. By the time he returned, he was in the sights of powerful men like the lord chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, but refused to enter royal service. He did not, in his own words, want to “leave my present post in London, which I do prefer even to a higher one”. After periods in Lambeth Palace, Oxford, the Charterhouse, Inns of Court and even abroad, More’s home, it seemed, would remain in Cheapside.
But the violent riots on the so-called ‘Evil May Day’ of 1517 changed everything. Historians have overlooked the importance of this moment. More had committed his life to his community, only to see it turn against itself, divided from within. It took the power of the realm to bring order and a sense of unity once again.
By early 1518, More was in the king’s service. His sense of duty was redefined, and he now looked not to the city, but to the realm. Within a few years, he moved his entire family out of Cheapside, and to Chelsea, the fashionable village for members of the court, well outside of London proper.
Was Thomas More a zealot?
On 12 May 1521, almost exactly four years after the Evil May Day Riots, another scene of incendiary rage took place in Cheapside, but this time it was publicly sanctioned. Wolsey, under a golden cloth of state, “as if the pope in person had arrived”, presided over a ceremony at St Paul’s. As John Fisher, bishop of Rochester preached a sermon condemning Martin Luther as a heretic, Luther’s books were “burned in the church yard”. This was the first public book burning in England. But it would not be the last. Within days Wolsey was sending out orders to search homes for copies of Luther’s heretical texts.
It is unclear whether or not More was in attendance at the book burning; there is no mention of him in the records. Instead, he was probably with the king, who was ill with a fever. More was, by now, the Master of Requests, which meant that he was almost always at his side, managing the various entreaties put to the king. In particular, he was the voice of Wolsey to Henry, when the corpulent cardinal could not follow the energetic young king around the country. The letters exchanged show a close relationship between Wolsey and his ‘beadsman’, or petitioner, More, but there was also a growing relationship between More and the king. By 1521, not even the cardinal could send a letter to Henry without it going through More.
More has been branded a cruel zealot, but books and people were being burned before his rise to power. Twelve people died in the flames under Henry VII, and two more endured this grisly fate in Kent in 1511 for denying that the bread of the Eucharist was the body of Christ.
When More did enter the debate over Lutheranism, it was at the king’s request. In 1523, he wrote his Response to Luther, answering a scathing attack that the radical German theologian had launched on Henry VIII. Luther had called the king “strumpet-like”, “swine”, “lying buffoon” and, worst for Henry, “effeminate”, and wrote of him vomiting pus and excrement. More responded in kind, calling Luther a “mad friarlet and privy-minded rascal with his ragings and ravings, with his filth and dung, shitting and beshitted”. As Erasmus said, More could teach even Luther a thing or two about vehemence. Nevertheless, though More may have exceeded other polemical authors of the time in the level of his vitriol, it was in keeping with their tone – and he wouldn’t re-enter this dispute for another six years.
By the end of 1529, More had replaced the fallen Wolsey as lord chancellor and was thus responsible for the maintenance of religious uniformity in England. Two years later, on 20 November 1531, he found himself once again in Cheapside, at St Paul’s Cathedral, where Wolsey’s book burning had taken place a decade before. This time it was not books that were about to be put to the flame, but a person: Richard Bayfield, who would shortly become the first Protestant martyr burned in London.
For More and others of his time, heresy was akin to treason but far more dire, as it was treason against God as well as the king. More feared that such disorder – caused, in his view, by pride – would lead to anarchy, and he saw evidence of this in the nascent wars of religion on the continent. As he put it: “The Catholic church did never persecute heretics by any temporal pain or any secular power until the heretics began such violence themselves.” In other words, for More, the heretics started it.
His dedication to his community had been redefined once again, moving from the realm, to the whole of Christendom, which he saw as a single body of people, stretching across time and space. The heretics threatened to tear that community apart, which is what made their crime so much worse than treason.
We cannot know how much of a personal hand More took in the fight against heresy in England. He denied allegations that he tortured evangelicals in his own backyard, but did maintain that he had and would punish them, just as he would any thief or murderer who would be likely to cause more pain if he was allowed to go free.
In England and elsewhere this punishment had long been by fire, a position he supported whole-heartedly. Comparing heretics to branches cut off from the vine of Christ, More wrote that they would be “kept but for the fire first here and after in hell”, unless “they repent and call for grace, that may graft them into the stock again”. Following Bayfield’s execution, two more men would be burned as heretics in London under More’s chancellorship. Many more would follow his resignation as chancellor in May 1532.
He submitted that resignation in protest at the Submission of the Clergy (in which the Church of England had given up its power to formulate church laws without Henry’s assent) and the declaration of the king as head of his own Church in England.
It was a dangerous move. The ground had shifted beneath More, and the position he had once adopted to support the king, now became an attack on him. Defending Christendom was not the same thing as defending England. More prioritised the former. He was not oblivious to the perils involved. By 1534, he had already escaped the charge of treason once, if not twice. He would not escape it again.
Thomas More's execution
As 16th-century biographers tell it, More’s final arrest took place on the streets of Cheapside, like so many of the key events in his life. Following mass at St Paul’s, More would have followed the familiar route along Cheapside back to his old home in Bucklersbury. Heading north after exiting the cathedral, he would have turned right at St Martin’s Le Grand, where he had confronted the mob on Evil May Day. Shortly afterwards, he would have passed Milk Street on his left, where he was born and grew up. Bucklersbury was only a few streets down, where his adoptive daughter and her husband lived.
At some point during this short walk, More was stopped and handed a summons to appear before the Privy Council at Lambeth Palace. He never returned to Cheapside. Within a few days, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. He was executed on 6 July 1535 for refusing to acknowledge Henry VIII as head of his own church in England. He died attempting to defend his sense of community, which, for him, was threatened every bit as much by Henry as the heretics.
There is an old saying: “In order to truly know someone, you must walk a mile in their shoes.” For More, that mile is from a little side street in Cheapside to St Paul’s Cathedral and back again. By retracing these steps we come to know More neither as saint or villain, but flesh-and-blood individual, who was dedicated to his community, whether Cheapside, England or all of Christendom.
It can be tempting to take up positions like Shakespeare’s More, railing against the “mountainish inhumanity” of figures in the past. But this clouds our view of how someone like More was in fact attempting to defend his view of humanity, no matter how villainous we may think it now. As More himself wrote: “Let historians begin to show either prejudice or favouritism, and who will there be to lend any credence at all to histories?”
Dr Joanne Paul is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Sussex
Dr Joanne Paul is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Sussex and AHRC/BBC New Generation Thinker. Her research focuses on the history of the Renaissance and Early Modern Period.
Subscribe to BBC History Magazine and receive a signed copy of 2023 edition Windrush: 75 years of modern Britain by Mike Phillips and Trevor Philips
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99