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Saint Thomas More

Saint Thomas More

Saint Thomas More – image in public domain

Saint Thomas More (1477-1535) was born in London. He was the sole surviving son of Sir John More, a barrister and later a judge, and his first wife, Agnes. While still a child, St Thomas was sent to St Anthony’s School in Threadneedle Street. The Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Morton, noticed his brilliant intellect and joyful nature. When Thomas was 13 years old, the Chancellor accepted him as a page into his household. Around 1492, he went to Oxford, where he studied French, history, and mathematics, and learned to play the flute and viol. There, he also mastered Greek and Latin. He was said to be able to express himself as fluently in Latin as in English. While he was at Oxford, his father purposefully sent him an allowance barely sufficient for his daily expenses so that he would have no opportunity to engage in harmful amusements in detriment of his study.

After two years, St Thomas returned to London to study law. During this period, he seriously considered entering the religious life. More went to live near the London Charterhouse and would often join the monks in their spiritual exercises. He spent much time in prayer and penance and started wearing a hair shirt under his clothes – a practice he never gave up. After much reflection, St Thomas opted for a life in the world. Erasmus, his lifelong friend, would later write: “He chose to be a chaste husband, rather than an impure priest”. This same friend described his physical appearance in correspondence with an acquaintance: “In stature, he is not tall, though not remarkably short. His hair is dark brown, and his eyes are greyish blue. His countenance is in harmony with his character, being always expressive of an amiable joyousness.”

In 1501, St Thomas was elected a member of the Parliament, and in 1502 was called to the bar. One of his first acts as a member of Parliament was to oppose unjust taxation by King Henry VII upon his subjects. Thanks to More’s protests, the Commons significantly reduced the proposed tax.

In 1505, he married Jane, the eldest daughter of a gentleman from Newhall, Essex. Even though St Thomas felt more attracted to the younger daughter, whom he thought prettier, he asked for the elder’s hand to keep her from the shame of being passed over in marriage. God blessed this union, and the two were very happy, having three daughters and a son. Unfortunately, tragedy struck in 1511 when Jane died at an early age. Thomas, afraid of his children being long without a mother, soon married again. This time to a widow seven years older than him.

St Thomas’ fame as a lawyer was now great, and, in 1510, he was made Under-Sheriff of London. In 1521 he was knighted and made sub-treasurer to the King. When Emperor Charles V visited London in the following year, St Thomas was chosen to give the Latin address of welcome. At this time, he purchased a piece of land in Chelsea, next to the Thames. Here he built a house where King Henry VIII would occasionally visit him. The King would come as an unbidden guest at dinner time or would walk in the garden with his arm round St Thomas’ neck enjoying his brilliant conversation. But the saint had no illusions about the royal favour he enjoyed. “If my head should win him a castle in France,” he said to Roper, his son-in-law, in 1525, “it should not fail to go”.

In 1529, St Thomas was made Chancellor of England, the first layman to hold the post. A few months later, King Henry VIII declared himself supreme head of the Church in England. St Thomas opposed this as well as the King’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. This stance caused him to lose favour with the King, prompting the Duke of Norfolk to warn him, indignatio principis mors est (the wrath of the high is death). To which the saint would answer, “Is that all, my Lord. Then, in good faith, between your grace and me is but this, that I shall die today, and you tomorrow.” In 1532, St Thomas resigned his post as Lord Chancellor.

For the next eighteen months, St Thomas lived in seclusion and dedicated himself to writing. Then, on April 14, 1534, St Thomas was summoned to take the oath of supremacy, that is, to swear allegiance to the King as supreme head of the Church in England. St Thomas refused and four days later was sent to the Tower of London. He was eventually judged, declared guilty of high treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. The King, however, commuted the sentence to beheading. Initially, St Thomas’ time at the Tower was spent in prayer, reading and writing. But when it was discovered that he was corresponding with St John Fisher, who had also refused to take the oath of supremacy and was likewise a prisoner, his books and writing material were taken away. During all these trials, St Thomas kept his peaceful demeanour and innocent mirth.

The execution took place on July 6, 1535, on Tower Hill. After climbing onto the scaffold, St Thomas declared that he died the King’s good servant and God’s first. He then recited the Miserere while kneeling, after which the executioner begged his pardon. The saint replied by standing up, kissing him and merrily giving him his forgiveness. It is said that while placing his head on the block, St Thomas carefully laid his beard out of the path of the axe and explained that it was innocent of any crime and did not deserve to be chopped. Thus died St Thomas More, a martyr for the faith.

His body was buried in the Church of St Peter. His head, after being exposed on London Bridge for a month, was obtained by Margaret Roper, his adoptive daughter. The final fate of this relic is somewhat uncertain, but in 1824, a leaden box was found in the Roper vault at St Dunstan’s, Canterbury, which was found to contain a head, presumed to be the saint’s head.

Saint Thomas More wrote extensively, and the famous book Utopia is among his works. He was canonised in 1935 by Pope Pius XI and is the patron saint of attorneys.


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