Thomas More was born in London on February 7, 1478. His father, Sir John More, was a lawyer and judge who rose to prominence during the reign of Edward IV. His connections and wealth would help his son, Thomas, rise in station as a young man. Thomas More entered Oxford in 1492, where he would learn Latin, Greek and prepare for his future studies. In 1494, he left Oxford to become a lawyer and he trained in London until 1502 when he was finally approved to begin practice.
From 1517 on, Henry VIII took a liking to Thomas More, and gave him posts of ever increasing responsibility. In 1521, he was knighted and made Under-Treasurer of the Exchequer.
The King’s trust in More grew with time and More was soon made Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, which gave him authority over the northern portion of England on behalf of Henry.
More became Lord Chancellor in 1529.
During his tenure as Lord Chancellor, More prosecuted those accused of heresy and worked tirelessly to defend the Catholic faith in England. This was an arduous, but achievable task as long as he enjoyed Henry’s favor. However, in 1530, as Henry worked to obtain an annulment from his wife, Catherine, More refused to sign a letter to the Pope, requesting an annulment. This was More’s first time crossing Henry.
In 1532, More found himself unable to work for Henry VIII, whom he felt had lost his way as a Catholic. Faced with the prospect of being compelled to actively support Henry’s schism with the Church, More offered his resignation, citing failing health. Henry accepted it, although he was unhappy with what he viewed as flagging loyalty.
In 1533, More refused to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn, who was now the Queen of England. More instead wrote a letter of congratulations. The letter, as opposed to his direct presence offended Henry greatly. The king viewed More’s absence as an insult to his new queen and an undermining of his authority as head of the church and state.
On April 13, 1534, More was ordered to take an oath, acknowledging the legitimicies of Anne’s position as queen, of Henry’s self-granted annulment from Catherine, and the superior position of the King as head of the church. More accepted Henry’s marriage to Anne, but refused to acknowledge Henry as head of the church, or his annulment from Catherine. This led to his arrest and imprisonment. He was locked away in the Tower of London.
He faced trial on July 1 and was convicted by a court that included Anne Boleyn’s own father, brother and uncle, hardly an impartial jury. Despite a brilliant defense of himself and persuasive testimony, grounded in truth and fact, More was convicted in fifteen minutes. The court sentenced him to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, which was the traditional punishment for treason.
As a final act of mercy, Henry commuted More’s punishment to mere decapitation.
More ascended the scaffold on July 6, 1535, joking to his executioners to help him up the scaffold, but that he would see himself down. He then made a final statement, proclaiming that he was “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.“
Thomas More has been widely remembered as a man of tremendous integrity, and he has since been described as a martyr and canonized a saint.
Pope Leo XIII beatified More in 1886, and he was canonized by Pope Pius XI on May 19, 1935.