Thomas More was born on 7 February 1478. He was one of the great European scholars of his age, and he served Henry VIII both loyally and well. More was also the reluctant Chancellor of England until being relieved of the office on March 16, 1532 due to the fact that he could not swear in good conscience that he believed Henry VIII’s first marriage was invalid. This able academic would be beheaded by the king who once loved him as a mentor and friend not long after.
More was a polarising figure during his lifetime, and he has been as lauded and vilified as much after his execution as before it. Some want him to truly have been the Man For All Seasons, a saint in life as well as in death, a person as perfect as the Utopia he dreamed of. Others have taken a darker view of More, repelled by rigid theology and his eagerness to burn Protestants at the stake. In some cases, such as in Hilary Mantel’s excellently written historical fiction, More is presented as a near-incestuous and fatuous git … a worldview every bit as accurate as her depiction of Thomas Cromwell as a sweetie-pie whose only sin was being too devoted to those he loved.
In truth, or as much as we can understand from the historical record, More was a man of high ideals who often failed to live up to his own standards. (This kind of discrepancy is not exactly unheard of.) Thomas More was, in short, a human being. He was a great man and profoundly devout, but plagued by his own personal foibles. Moreover, like all of us, he was capable of committing evil acts which he sincerely believed to be good when he performed them. Humans are not good at recognising their own evils. We are hard-wired to justify our actions and to think of ourselves as better people than we really are.
Despite his efforts to serve his king, Thomas More was tragically and unfairly executed on 6 July 1535, in my opinion a victim of Henry VIII’s mental instability (either due to McLeod syndrome or chronic traumatic encephalopathy). As could have been expected there was widespread public condemnation of More’s death, both domestically and abroad. It was pointed out that the former chancellor had never given the king an excuse to kill him, since he had never openly rebelled against Henry’s commands. Therefore, More’s beheading served only to make Henry look like a degenerate fool. If nothing else, Henry had always been profoundly concerned with his reputation, careful to behave in a manner he felt was befitting for a great king.
This sudden disregard for public opinion seems to be as much of a radical departure from the King’s earlier behavior as the execution itself. Henry was fast gaining a reputation as a despot and murderer who killed anyone who disagreed with him, no matter if that person had been a confederate, or was a well-loved public figure, or was innocent of the charges brought against them. Caught up in Henry’s gory new policy of demanding blood and death, people rapidly forgot that the king had once been very different.
After his judicial murder, More became a figurehead for those who wanted England to remain a Catholic state. Even reformers were horrified by his unprovoked death, so there really wasn’t much of an opposing ‘team’ to claim he deserved his fate. Soon, miricles were being attributed to his divine intercession. More was eventually beatified by Pope Leo XIII on 29 December 1886, and was finally canonised by Pope Pius XI on 19 May 1935. However, there were those who pointed out (and still point out) that it wasn’t very Christian or saintly to have burned people to death, as More had done.
How do you see More? Rather more sinned against than sinning? Rather more sincere than a saint?