Thomas More and The English Reformation

medieval hisotry, renaissance history
Thomas More as Speaker of the House of Commons
More, Sir Thomas (1478–1535), English scholar and statesman; lord chancellor 1529–32; canonized as St. Thomas More. Leading humanist of the Renaissance. He was imprisoned in 1534 after opposing Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and was beheaded for opposing the Act of Supremacy.

Amidst the turmoil of the Protestant Reformation in early Renaissance England there existed many great men and woman of character and conscience. Among them we find a singular individual in the person of Thomas More. The Renaissance humanist of his time and major opponent of the Martin Luther, William Tyndale, and the Protestant Reformation. A man recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church and branded as a religious and masochistic fanatic by some modern Protestant historians.

Not much is known of More’s early childhood. He was born in London the son of a successful lawyer and was educated in the finest schools. He was a household page to John Morton who was known to be a staunch supporter of Renaissance thinking and an enemy to the Yorkist regime.

His later writings on Richard III lead one to believe that the murder of his nephews in the Tower of London, an allegation promoted strongly by Morton, may have affected him early on with a sense justice in the face of royal tyranny. Even as a very junior MP he saw his father jailed in reprisal for More’s arguing against a large subsidy to Henry VII. More must of had a first hand sense of what imperial tyranny wrought that brought to him his deep interest in law and justice.

Two years at Oxford saw him proficient in both Greek and Latin before beginning his legal training. More would say later of his Oxford years that he, “had no love or even thought of anything beyond my studies.” It was during this time that he befriended the great humanist, Erasmus.

“They wonder much to hear that gold, which in itself is so useless a thing, should be everywhere so much esteemed, that even men for whom it was made, and by whom it has its value, should yet be thought of less value than it is.”

– Sir Thomas More, Utopia

One can assume that More’s years between 1503 and 1504 where he lived near the Carthusian monastery had a deep effect on More’s spiritual beliefs. He was fascinated with the pious monks and many times participated in their spiritual activities.

While More ultimately decides to pursue a secular career as a barrister he never abandons certain Franciscan practices. Choosing to wear a hair shirt and engaging in flagellation.

One can also see the influence of Erasmus early in life who urges him to give up law altogether and give himself entirely to the humanities and “pure learning” in his continued devotion to literature, history, and philosophy.

In More’s early political career we see him as an undersheriff performing many legal functions as a deputy of the High Sheriff of London. He is said to be an honest an steadfast servant of the people.

More’s Rise to Political Office – King Henry VIII

henry viii, king of england, 1509-1547
Henry VIII (1491–1547), son of Henry VII; reigned 1509–47. Henry had six wives. His first divorce, from Catherine of Aragon, was opposed by the pope, leading to England’s break with the Roman Catholic Church.

More’s rise to power in office really begins with the death of Henry VII, with whom More was in disfavor, and with his relationship with the new Renaissance king, Henry VIII. Henry called for a new revival of the ancient classics and wanted to surround himself with new thinkers like More. In fact the king seems determined to make him part of his inner circle despite More’s resistance.

Nonetheless, More has a reputation as a diligent and efficient public servant, and at Cardinal Wolsey’s insistence he is persuaded to an appointment on the Privy Council.

It is in his capacity as adviser and secretary to the king that More is given highly influential government duties in diplomatic and bureaucratic spheres. Visiting Charles V (The Holy Roman Emperor), and traveling to Calais with then Lord Chancellor Thomas Wolsey position More in the center of political affairs.

Thomas Wolsey – France, Spain and the Pope

thomas wolsey, statesman, prelate, cardinal wolsey, lord chancellor
Wolsey, Thomas ( c. 1474–1530), English prelate and statesman; known as Cardinal Wolsey. He incurred royal displeasure through his failure to secure the papal dispensation necessary for Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. He was arrested on a charge of treason and died on his way to trial.

We see in Wolsey almost the antithesis of More in many ways. Where Wolsey seems politically ambitious and self-serving, More is unflappable, principled and humble. Where Wolsey makes enemies on his rise up the political ladder, More makes allies. Yet in the end both men met their ends as traitors under the King’s disfavor.

A major part of Wolsey’s political strategy during the time can be seen in his ambitious schemes dealing with Charles V of Spain and Francis I of France. When Emperor Maximillian died both these monarchs sought to be elected Holy Roman Emperor. Henry VIII was also a candidate, and having little chance of being elected, Wolsey could use Henry’s favoritism of one or the other to secure his own future as Pope. In fact, Charles V, who promised Wolsey he would make him Pope, was eventually elected. Francis I was furious of course and war between Spain and France raged.

Nonetheless, both France and Spain sought England’s help against each other. Wolsey saw an opportunity to play the balance of power in his favor. While England met France in negotiations amidst the incredible regal splendor of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, Wolsey kept his alliance with Charles and the Empire.

When Pope Leo X died, Wolsey must have assumed his ascendancy to the papacy was in the bag but it was not to be so. Charles V had became suspicious of Wolsey and instead ordered his ambassadors in Rome to press for Adrian, (Charles’ former tutor), in the Papal election. When Wolsey saw he had lost an ally in Spain he reversed his position and came to the side of France.

“A little wanton money, which burned out the bottom of his purse.” – Sir Thomas More, Works

The war, as well as the extravagances of the royal court, caused the need for Wolsey to raise incredible sums of money. Money he extracted through forced loans from both laity and clergy were making him extremely unpopular at home and by this time Spain had beaten France squarely on the continent. Wolsey needs more desperately than ever to aid France in order to take back his influence in Rome.

More as Speaker of the House

In 1523 Thomas More is elected as Speaker of the House of Commons, again on the recommendation of Wolsey. More would find himself at odds with Wolsey in parliament when he denies Wolsey a subsidy for the war with France stating that monies “could not be seized in anticipation of Parliament’s due debate and assent”.

In 1525 his administrative and judicial responsibilities over much of Northern England as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster placed much executive power in More’s hands.

The Annulment

In 1527 Henry VIII sought an annulment of his marriage to Catherine. Ostensibly this annulment was made on technicalities involved in the Henry’s marriage to Catherine, (who was his brother’s widow), but in reality Henry had no male heirs to throne, and sought to marry Anne Boleyn in as much to secure the Tudor dynasty as to satisfy his obsession with Anne.

This annulment would have to come from the church and Pope Clement VII and it was Wolsey’s job as papal legate to have the annulment granted. This presents a major problem for the Pope who wishes not to displease Henry or Charles V, (Catherine’s nephew), who effectively controls him.

It is in 1529 that things really start to go badly for Wolsey and from then afterwards for More as well. France had allied with Charles V and with this peace Wolsey had little hope of securing an annulment from the Pope.

anne boleyn, second wife of henry viii, mother of elizabeth i
Boleyn, Anne (1507–36), second wife of Henry VIII; mother of Elizabeth I. Henry divorced Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne in 1533, but she fell from favor when she failed to provide him with a male heir. She was eventually executed because of alleged infidelities.

Anne Boleyn, who one must assume now has great control over the mind of  the King, actually convinces Henry that Wolsey is dragging his feet, that his staunchest supporter and right hand man is actually a traitor who does not want the annulment granted. Nothing could be further from the truth but the King orders Wolseys arrest all the same.

In 1529 Wolsey was ordered to London but dies on route. “If I had served my God”, the Cardinal said remorsefully, “as diligently as I did my king, He would not have given me over in my grey hairs.” Had Wolsey known then the fate of his successor Thomas More he might not have bothered to have spoken so.

Thomas More was appointed Lord Chancellor in Wolsey’s place, a position More accepted on the grounds that he not be asked to deal with the annulment. In the brief time he served as chancellor he seemed at first fully devoted to Henry, supporting the king’s new policies and even giving his opinion that the Marriage to Catherine had been unlawful. Henry and Anne however were becoming most impatient with the annulment issue and when Henry began to deny the authority of the Pope More began to object.

The Act of Supremacy

More refused to even sign his name to a letter signed by many important clergy and aristocrats asking the Pope to annul the marriage between Catherine and Henry. The annulment is ultimately not granted and when Henry maneuvers a good friend of the Boleyn family, Father Thomas Cranmer, into the position of Archbishop of Canterbury, a choice whom Henry knows will grant the annulment,  the Pope excommunicates both Henry and Cranmer.

Finally, when the King, having obtained from Parliament the Act of Supremacy, would make himself head of the Church of England, More was determined to resign. The King reluctantly allowed this but there was still the matter of the oath of supremacy.

In truth, there had been much discontent with papal authority among the English. Many sought reforms and supported Henry VIII in his actions on the basis that a breakaway from the Roman Church would facilitate the closing of it’s many monasteries that were largely corrupt and very wealthy. Indeed, the clearest reason to believe that the breakaway from Rome had little to do with Henry’s private life was his support in Parliament to close the monasteries and redistribute the wealth.

Henry however remains a Catholic in his own sense. Apart from the break with Rome and the closing of the monasteries, he shows full support of  Catholic dogma affirming basic Catholic practices such as celibacy for the clergy, the Latin mass, and the act of confession. Parliament, now fully contented with the wealth they’ve gained from the closing of the monasteries will later grant Henry’s wish in 1539 by voting The Six Articles affirming these practices.

At  the time being however Henry VIII has at once created two forms of opposition to his Act of Supremacy. From Protestants who don’t think the king has gone far enough, to devout Catholics like More, who think he’s gone too far.

More refused the oath acknowledging the supremacy, although he did accept Parliament’s right to declare Anne Boleyn the legitimate Queen of England. More objected to the oath on the grounds that he felt it gave Parliament the right to legislate in matters of religion. Henry was thoroughly disgusted and had him locked in the Tower of London.

thomas more, tower of london

Trail and Execution

More was treated well in prison and received visits from his family and friends all urging him to simply take the oath. More flatly refused. More seems to have believed that he could not be convicted as long as he did not explicitly deny that the king was the head of the church. Technically this is true, however powers conspired to use the perjured testimony of one Richard Rich that More had spoken so, and he was convicted of high treason anyway.

More seems to us naive to believe that the law, when placed behind the powers of corrupt officials would protect him, but in doing so he demonstrates his firm conviction that no man should be above the law. When finally he spoke freely prior to the commuting of his sentence he said he believed that, “no temporal man may be the head of the spirituality.”

To understand this lawyer, social philosopher, author, statesman, and ultimately Lord Chancellor objectively we certainly need garner a sense of what the reformation meant to devout Catholics of the time and place it as a social backdrop to the stage of history.

“This hath not offended the king.”
– Sir Thomas More (1478 – 1535), (As he drew his beard aside upon placing his head on the block)

Despite his Catholic devotion More is certainly seen in his Humanist thinking to support reforms, but at the same time he would rather these reforms come from Rome itself, instead of from Protestants whom he considered to be radicals that were undermining the structure of his religion.  More would have seen the works of Martin Luther as an open war on the Catholic Church, and would have thought Luther’s ideas very dangerous to society and stability. Indeed, More acted against the Reformation where ever he could, assisting Wolsey in the banning and burning of books, and it seems to hold true that whenever books are burned, people often follow.

In all, six individuals were burnt at the stake during More’s Chancellorship. While the rumors that abounded of More’s torturing heretics are most surely false, (not unlike the some of rumors used to paint Richard III as an evil villain), it can be seen that More, like even the established moderates of his time, approved of burning people alive who were proven to be heretics. This is an idea that is abhorrent to us today and it makes it even harder to understand how a man can be set against the tyranny of the state and at the same time acquiesce to what is purely religious oppression from Rome. It boggles the mind.

More’s struggle against the Protestant Reformation is also seen in his resistance to what he must have known was the beginnings of the English Protestant Reformation. Even so, it is hard for us to see him as a hero, and easier to see him as a martyr whose refusing to take an oath to the king serves in no way to change the outcome of events.

What one certainly does admire about More, even beyond his humanist ideals of equality and justice, is his stubborn and very personal capacity to hold tight to what he believes in the face of tyrannical opposition, putting his principals out in front of worldly gains.

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