History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

Thomas More's Utopia – what lessons did it have for Tudor England?

In 1516, Thomas More published Utopia, his book about an idealised island society. It’s one of the most influential of all works of political philosophy, and gave us the term ‘Utopian’. Joanne Paul considers how the book would have been viewed by More's contemporaries

Plan of the island of Utopia, from Thomas More's work of the same name depicting an ideal state
Published: January 12, 2022 at 7:05 am
Try 6 issues for only £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed
1

Private property is dangerous

The primary difference between Thomas More’s fictional island, Utopia, and Tudor England is that, while the latter was increasingly built on a foundation of individual property ownership, all property in Utopia was held in common.

Advertisement

Enclosure was a source of massive unrest in Henry VIII’s England. Most villages and parishes had a plot of common land, which could be shared among all. Increasingly, however, landowners were ‘enclosing’ bits of that common land for their own exclusive usage.

For More, enclosure was about more than just running out of common land – it was a metaphor for the ways in which individual interest was tearing apart the commonwealth. By making all of Utopia shared land, More mounted a critique both of the practice of enclosure and the greed that underpinned it.

Who was Thomas More?

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... | Read more
Holbein's portrait of Sir Thomas More.
2

Women should know their place

Utopia was egalitarian in many ways, but on the issue of gender there were few differences from More’s England. In both countries, women’s role was directly subordinate to men.

To More, women’s equality implied anarchy. Although there would not be major advances in equality between the sexes for centuries, Utopia sits on the precipice of changes that would see women’s choices and influence in early modern England grow. The Reformation expanded women’s role in religion and within the household, while the reigns of Mary I and Elizabeth I elevated women’s positions in the court and set a precedent for their involvement in politics.

The only major gender-equality innovation in Utopia is that both sexes are educated together and in the same way. This was part of More’s own vision for the education of his daughters, whose humanist schooling won them fame across Europe. The value in this, however, lay primarily in the cultivation of their womanly virtues, including obedience to their fathers and husbands.

3

Only animals wage war

The Utopians condemn war in the same terms as More’s humanist friends, as “fit only for beasts”.

For the humanists, people ought to be united by common bonds of humanity and Christianity, not torn apart by greed and self-interest, which they saw as the primary motivators for most European wars. As the Dutch humanist Erasmus wrote: “The god of nature, created the human animal not for war, but for love and friendship; not for mutual destruction, but for mutual service and safety…”

In Utopia, More criticises the war-mongering of kings such as Henry VIII, who was in the midst of a war with France. For More, monarchs’ self-interested, expansionist policies served to rip the commonwealth to shreds. As he wrote in a poem published alongside Utopia in 1518: “Among many kings there will be scarcely one, if there is really one, who is satisfied to have one kingdom.

And yet among many kings there will be scarcely one, if there is really one, who rules a single kingdom well.”

4

Don’t be a slave to trinkets

In order to ensure they share everything in common, Utopians devalue those things that others particularly covet, such as precious metals and gems. More writes that they do so by making their chamber pots (toilets) out of gold and silver, as well as using them for slaves’ chains and marking out criminals. Jewels are given to children to play with.

More intended this as a powerful lesson. People are enslaved by their golden chains, criminals are known for their love of jewellery, and there’s something childish about our obsession with gems.

This is a striking critique of the greed that More saw prevalent in the Tudor court. Henry VIII was especially known for his grand displays of wealth. In 1515, just months before More started writing Utopia, the Venetian ambassador wrote a letter describing the large gemstones the king wore – including a diamond the “size of the largest walnut I ever saw” – and his fingers, which were “one mass of jewelled rings”. In Utopia, the king would be considered a slave, criminal and fool for such a display, and More might well agree.

5

The people know best

More’s Utopia is a republic. Each city elects a ‘prince’ who rules alongside an elected council.

The cities elect three representatives to sit in a grand council or assembly, which governs the entire country. There is no hereditary monarch or concept of divine-right kingship.

This is very different from the political system in England, in which monarchs justified their claim to the throne through lines of inheritance and divine right. More, however, was not alone in considering the benefits of a republican system. Many humanists sought to finds ways of bolstering the power of other political institutions, such as representative councils and parliament.

More often writes of consent of the people “bestowing sovereignty” and that a king “ought to have command not one instant longer than his subjects wish”. For More, the rule of a king was legitimate, because the people had authorised its existence over a long period of time. But, importantly, political power ultimately resided with the people and their representative assembly. In a political environment such as England, it was a message that More could only communicate through the creation of his fantastic island: Utopia.

Dr Joanne Paul is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Sussex

Advertisement

This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine

Authors

Dr Joanne PaulHistorian and author

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.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Sponsored content