Thomas More

Thomas More

Thomas More, the son of a judge, was born in London, in 1478. He went to Oxford University and later completed his legal studies at New Inn and Lincoln's Inn. More taught law at Furnival's Inn and in 1504 became a member of the House of Commons.

More was also a writer and in 1516 wrote a very important novel called Utopia. The book tells of a seaman who has discovered an island called Utopia. The people on this island live in a completely different way from the people of Tudor England. In his book people elect their government annually by secret ballot; wear the same kind of clothes and only work for six hours a day. There is no money or private property on the island. Free education and health care is available for all. All goods are stored in large storehouses. People take what they want from the storehouses without payment. Both men and women can be priests. People are able to hold whatever religious beliefs they want.

Some people claimed that in Utopia More was describing his vision of what England should be like. Others claimed that More had written a book that was supposed to make people laugh.

More was introduced to Henry VIII by Thomas Wolsey. This led to a series of important posts such as Treasurer of the Exchequer (1521) and Chancellor of Lancaster (1525). He also served as Speaker of the House of Commons and sent on foreign missions to France.

In 1529 Henry VIII appointed Thomas More as his Lord Chancellor. After reading More's book people might have thought that he would be in favour of religious toleration. However, since More had written Utopia there had been a rapid growth in Protestantism. More was a strong supporter of the Catholic church and he was determined to destroy the Protestant movement in England.

As a writer, More was aware of the power of books to change people's opinions. He therefore drew up a list of Protestant books that were to be banned. This included the English translation of the Bible by William Tyndale. People caught owning Protestant books were sat facing back-to-front on a horse. Wearing placards explaining their crimes, these people were walked through the streets of London. More also organized public burnings of Protestant books.

People found guilty of writing and selling Protestant books were treated more harshly. Like those caught making Protestant sermons, they were sometimes burnt at the stake.

As a strong Catholic, More was opposed to the king's plans to divorce Catherine of Aragon. When Henry VIII disobeyed the Pope and decided to marry Anne Boleyn, More resigned from office.

In 1534 Henry VIII was declared head of the English Church. People had to swear an oath that in future they would obey Henry as head of the church. More refused and he was convicted of high treason. Still refusing to recant, he was executed at the Tower of London on 6 July 1535.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Thomas More, Utopia (1516)

A man and woman... who hope to live more quietly and merrily... can be divorced and married again to others.

(2) Thomas More, Utopia (1516)

No pleasure is forbidden that causes no harm.

(3) Thomas More, Utopia (1516)

It is lawful for every man to favour and follow what religion he wants. He can bring others to his opinion... so long as he does it peaceably, gently, quietly and soberly.

(4) Thomas More, Utopia (1516)

The only way to the wealth of the community, is equality of all things.