Good cosyn trust well in god, & he shall prouide you techers abrode convenient in euery tyme or els shall hym selfe sufficiently teche you within.
St. Thomas More, A Dialoge of Comfort Agaynst Trybulacion.
"I die the king's good servant, but God's first." With these words, attributed to him by witnesses at his martyrdom, St. Thomas More succinctly parsed the moral and jurisdictional conflict that ineluctably led him to imprisonment and a violent death. As "the king's good servant," he had furthered the agenda of Henry VIII of England for nearly twenty years in a number of positions— Speaker of the House of Commons, Master of the Court of Requests, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and finally and disastrously, Lord Chancellor of England, the loftiest civic office in the realm. As "God's [servant] first," he had tirelessly and with profound conviction pursued, refuted, and denounced the first generation of pro-Lutheran religious reformers in England, both through his official powers, and with the stinging poison of his by turns erudite and pugnacious pen.
These dual public allegiances to temporal and spiritual powers engendered no irresolvable conflict for More—indeed they complemented each other during his time in government and in their synergy served royal purposes quite handsomely—until the promulgation and enforcement of the Act of Succession of 1534. This legislation required English citizens to swear allegiance to Henry VIII as both sovereign of the realm and "Supreme Head of the Church in England," and to acquiesce to the king's divorce of Queen Catherine and remarriage to and coronation of Ann Boleyn, despite the refusal of Pope Clement VII to sanction the king's wishes.
The act's language regarding temporal sovereignty presented More with no difficulties, as he both said and wrote on a number of occasions during the last months of his life. To Henry's ecclesiastical and matrimonial pretensions, however, More, as a faithful Roman Catholic committed to the notion of a universal church under the stewardship of the pope as Vicar of Christ, could not in good conscience accede. For his insistence that he could not act or speak against his conscience without imperiling his immortal soul—an insistence echoed by his close friend St. John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester—he died stretched out on a scaffold, his self- described "short neck" on an executioner's block, on July 6, 1535 (Julian calendar), only days after Bishop Fisher underwent his own martyrdom.
The tension between what St. Augustine famously called the "City of Man" and the "City of God" had, however, long figured unmistakably in More's life, beginning with his service as a page to Cardinal John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England. The counterpoised attractions of the secular and the sacred framed nearly every major choice More made from the time he left university life at Oxford to the period of his incarceration in the Tower of London.
For four years as he read and began to practice law, he lived near London's Charterhouse, the monastery of the Carthusian Order, monks who followed the most rigorous of the contemplative rules. During this period More joined the monks in chanting the canonical hours and—what would become a lifelong habit of his—in fasting, abstinence, and mortification of the flesh. He had no apparent intention of taking vows, much as the severe cloistered life of the monks appealed to him. As would remain the case as often as not throughout his life, however, sacred scholarship occupied him almost more obviously than his legal studies and practice. In this period he embarked on a serious study of Greek, and gave a famous series of public lectures on St. Augustine's City of God at the invitation of one of his Greek teachers, the eminent scholar William Grocyn.
More preferred to live "as a chaste husband rather than a licentious priest," a gloss on two among the many competing drives More felt and manifested throughout his life. He had a reputation for incorruptible moral rectitude, borne out by a story his biographer and son-in-law William Roper relates of how More, in love with the second of three sisters, proposed marriage to the eldest girl because he considered it unfair that she should suffer the indignity of having a younger sister marry before her.
We owe to his friend Desiderius Erasmus a tale apparently based on More's first marriage, when his wife, Jane Colt More, had grown frustrated by his attempts to educate her and mold her into his ideal mate. More suggested they visit her parents, and while horseback riding with his father-in-law asked Colt if he would speak to his daughter on More's behalf. Colt wondered out loud why More didn't simply beat her into submission, later reminding his daughter that a husband could do with his wife as he pleased, and that she should thank God she had wed such a merciful man. According to Erasmus Jane threw herself at More's feet and never spoke another word of complaint, in recognition of the compassion that coexisted in More's character with rigorous discipline.
More's discipline applied to himself at least as much as to others. Throughout his adult life he wore an unusually rough hair shirt under his linen blouse, a fact he went to considerable lengths to keep secret from all but his eldest child and closest confidant Meg. After buying a property along the banks of the River Thames in Chelsea, then well outside the city limits of London, he spent every Friday and most feast days in the estate's "New Building" and its private chapel, flagellating and prostrating himself in abnegation of the flesh.
More extended an attitude of humility throughout his public persona, as well. Though by the standards of Tudor England More dressed appropriately for a man of his professional and courtly status, he avoided the degree of ostentation pursued and maintained by his peers. His friend Henry Guildford posed for his portrait by Hans Holbein in a suit of cloth-of-gold figured damask against a background of classicizing architecture. More, by contrast, appears in Holbein's portrait of him in a dark fur-lined robe, a doublet with scarlet velvet sleeves signifying his status as a courtier, and a chain with a pendant rose, probably his chain of office as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. The portrait conveys a melding of austere concentration, dedication to duty, and unpretentious (albeit prosperous) comfort.
Modern scholars often point to More as a leading figure in sixteenth-century humanism, the intellectual movement dedicated to the revival of Graeco-Roman letters and culture most famously epitomized by the career of More's friend Erasmus. As an ordained priest and professed Augustinian monk dispensed from living with his monastic community Erasmus, too, presents an at least mildly paradoxical case. In More the contradictions—more apparent than real—between Christian faith and classical allegiance stand out even more plainly, especially since that juxtaposition coexists with another—the overlapping planes of More's cosmopolitan interest in scholarship and the international scholarly community, and his obligations as the head of a large, prosperous and prominent household, in addition to those of a successful lawyer and trusted royal servant.
Richard Marius and, more authoritatively, Stephen Greenblatt have characterized More as a man keenly aware of the multiple roles he plays in life. For Greenblatt, More stands out as the archetype of Renaissance "self- fashioning." This phenomenon has its roots in the cultural complexities attendant like gossips at court on sixteenth-century men's (and women's) attempts to improvise identities for themselves in a world succumbing to an at best unsettling and at worst mortally dangerous chaos of competing interests—church and state, Catholics and reformers, humanists and conservative scholastics, and the like.
As inheres with any historical vantage, one can too easily grant a kind of seamless inevitability to the complexities of a character such as More's. We see the reach of his talents— lawyer, courtier, father, man of classical letters, contemplative, martyr—but need to remember that More defined and understood himself against a background of specific choices that both allied him with and distinguished him from others, and which to his contemporaries bespoke both his moral and intellectual compass. We also do well to bear in mind the apparent lightness of touch More possessed about his personality, manifest as much as anything in his famous sense of humor and garrulous companionability and good cheer.
More's contemporaries saw him without the patina of historical distance and minus the aura of canonization. More himself, for example, never seems quite to have shaken off a certain self-consciousness about the inelegance of his Latin prose, which attitude comes out in his repeated importuning of Erasmus to defend his writing publicly, a task Erasmus seems frequently somewhat ambivalent about undertaking. For all the authority of his office and the fame of his Utopia—perhaps the preeminent sixteenth- century example of the genre of fictionalized accounts of ideal states and societies to which More's book lends its title as descriptor—More responds with brittle intensity to criticism throughout his career. In fairness, though, he could unleash ringing defenses of his friends as readily as he sought to explain himself.
More's personal and mental world eludes neat categorization in part because his lifetime sits astride a crucial transition in both the history of England and that of Europe. As a child he lived through the final demise of the House of York and the imposition of the Tudor dynasty by Henry VII. England moved from government by princely factions to administration by professional bureaucracy, and from insular preoccupation to ambitious international, even cosmopolitan, engagement. From medieval backwater, the Tudor kingdom emerged as an imperial force with which the rest of emergent early modern absolutist Europe had to reckon.
More's position relative to this complex historical and geopolitical play does not reduce well to tidy encapsulation. For all his worldly success, every move he makes suggests the tug of hesitation, scruples, a man not so much, as contemporaries referred to him, "for all seasons," as continually of at least two minds, constantly challenged by and scrupulously faithful to his simultaneous embrace of disparate and often diametrically (and by the time of his resignation as Lord Chancellor in 1533, disastrously) opposed interests. The man who conceived the most elaborate literary portrait of an ideal secular state could never suffer the diminution of the powers of the Church of Rome. Like his friend Erasmus, but more single-mindedly and perhaps less naively, More fought to prevent the collapse of medieval ecclesiastical privileges at the hands of (in his view sorely misguided) followers of the learning he himself loved. A formidable patriarch, he nonetheless educated his daughters as well as he did his son, to the point that Erasmus publicly expressed apparently sincere admiration of the letters and Latin translation skills of Meg and her siblings.
More makes sense—to the extent we can make sense of him at all—only as a man of essentially late medieval temperament led toward an early modern center of gravity by his enthusiasm for the excitements of Christian humanist intellectual life. Scholars of More often puzzle over the putative contradiction between his humble demeanor and rigorous morality and ethics, on one hand, and his success in the rough-and-tumble worlds of first London city and then national and international politics, on the other. This puzzlement says perhaps as much about our cultural distance from the early sixteenth century as about anything intrinsic to More.
The common attitude on the part of More scholars of skeptical confusion, stemming from a perhaps too-ready dismissal of the integrity and power of More's moral world, sustains itself only through the undervaluation of a salient fact of his career. For a man trained in the ways of court life as a twelve year-old in Morton's retinue at Lambeth Palace, More waited a very long time by early modern standards before entering royal service at the age of thirty-nine or forty in 1517. As his biographers point out, he came to the attention of Lord Chancellor Cardinal Wolsey partly as the victorious counsel of a defendant in a case brought by the government—hardly the conventional way of ingratiating oneself with a lord chancellor and his king. From this perspective, Wolsey seems to have viewed him less as a natural political ally than as a gifted player of legal craft better to have on one's own side than that of an opponent.
More did not aspire to the office of Lord Chancellor. Whatever his reasons—King Henry's sacking of Cardinal Wolsey as Lord Chancellor for failing to gain a papal decree annulling the king's first marriage, his knowledge that he could not condone the king's efforts to divorce Queen Catherine and therefore could not sustain Henry's support for long, and would instead incur royal wrath on the central issue of Henry's reign—More resisted his appointment as Lord Chancellor until the King angrily insisted on his acquiescence.
More's lack of restraint and his obvious tenacity in both preparation and penning of his attacks on Protestant heretics, in fact, probably causes More's recent biographers more consternation than any of the other idiosyncrasies of his personality and character. James Monti has recently performed the incalculable service of making sense of More as a Catholic, and as a man primarily driven by his clear-minded but nonetheless strongly traditional late medieval faith. For More's friend Erasmus the twinned examples of classical antiquity and the early church suggested the desirability of trimming many if not most of the accretions of medieval religious thought and practice. More, though cognizant of the necessity of avoiding extremes of credulity and aware of the existence of fraud and corruption within the church, nevertheless defined the limits of undesirable practices with greater reserve than Erasmus and other reform-minded Christian humanists. This position, consistent throughout his life, leaves him paradoxically less critical, as a layman, of the church's clergy and hierarchy than his ordained Augustinian friend Erasmus.
The intensity of the dismantling of Tyndale, Luther, Bugenhagen and other reformers that More undertook in his apologetic writings thus issues not from an excess of lawyerly zeal, but from a deep conviction of the necessity to defend the faith without which his life lacked its sensible core. Few others have written with so much at stake in their words and arguments, and if More lost a sense of what others would consider due proportion in his polemical writings—creating works of withering density and detailed, point-by-point rebuttal and argument sustained at such pitch and length as to become by any ordinary standards all but unreadable to any not already possessed of More's all-consuming fear of the implications of Protestant reform—then perhaps one can explain More's persona in the anti-heretical writings as not so much a collision, but as the ultimate convergence of his private faith and his public profession as a preeminent lawyer and orator.
More's faith comes out most clearly, and most tellingly, in his non-polemical devotional writings, including the so-called Tower Works that he wrote in the last year of his life while imprisoned in the Tower of London. A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation probably stands for those culminating writings as well as any. Written under the constant surveillance of the king's political apparatus, More manages to create, through the familiar classical humanist device of the dialogue, a kind of moral and spiritual allegory of the comforts of faith in the midst of tribulation, a treatment so universal in its apparent scope and reach that the king's henchmen seem to have found nothing in it that they could construe as subversive of the royal interests. They allowed More continued use of his books and writing implements throughout the whole period of the dialogue's composition.
The most sensitive and perceptive of More's recent biographers and commentators see A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation as not only his greatest work in English—he wrote, after all, largely in Latin, as did his humanist colleagues—but probably the greatest expression of both his genius and his character. This minority opinion questions the received valuation of Utopia as his crowning literary achievement. The parallels to his friend Erasmus again assert themselves here, for we know the latter more for his Encomium Moriae (In Praise of Folly—and of More, via a Latinate pun on the Greek meaning of St. Thomas' surname) than for the work for which he most wanted remembrance, his re-translation of the Greek New Testament. Both wrote their best-known works as intellectual recreation; the works in which they most deeply believed concerned not so much the social structures and foibles of human society, as the necessity of our openness and attention to the workings of God and his Word in our lives now, and forevermore.
As a Roman Catholic community committed to preserving the legacy of St. Thomas More—his life, his death, his beliefs, his Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church—we do well to remember, not just the price he paid for his beliefs, but the power of his faith. He loved church, family, friends, the community of scholarly letters, with an intensity and brilliance unmatched in his age, and unsurpassed in any other. If this strikes some as a sign of a character riddled with contradictions, it can seem so only by ignoring the unifying dimension of the single greatest love of his life—his all- consuming and consummately self-defining love of God.
Peter Lynch, Ph.D.
Cornelius Augustijn, Erasmus: His Life, Works, and Influence, Toronto, 1991.
St. Augustine: The City of God: Books VIII- XVI, Gerard G. Walsh, S.J., and Mother Grace Monahan, O.S.U., trans., New York, 1952.
R. W. Chambers, Thomas More, reprint (1935), Ann Arbor, 1973.
Andre Chastel, The Sack of Rome, 1527, Princeton, 1983.
G. R. Elton, Policy and Police: The Enforcement of the Reformation in the Age of Thomas Cromwell, Cambridge, 1972.
John A. Guy, The Public Career of Sir Thomas More, New Haven, 1980.
Christopher Haigh, English Reformations: Religion, Politics and Society under the Tudors, Oxford, 1993.
Nicholas Harpsfield and William Roper, Lives of Saint Thomas More, E. E. Reynolds, ed., London, 1963.
Walter Hilton, The Scale of Perfection, John Clark and Rosemary Doward, trans., New York, 1991.
Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Harold Gardiner, S.J., ed., Garden City, NY, 1955.
Germain Marc'hadour, "Obedient unto Death: A Key to St. Thomas More," Spiritual Life, n.s., 7 (fall, 1961), 205-221.
Richard Marius, Thomas More: A Biography, New York, 1983.
James Monti, The King's Good Servant but God's First: The Life and Writings of Saint Thomas More, San Francisco, 1997.
St. Thomas More, The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, New Haven, 1963-1990 (?).
E. E. Reynolds, The Field Is Won: The Life and Death of St. Thomas More, Milwaukee, 1968.