St. Thomas More (1478-1535) was a leading humanist, English statesman, and ended his earthly pilgrimage as a martyr. The son of a judge, More received an excellent classical education before becoming a lawyer. After a period of vocational discernment, he decided to remain a layman rather than become a Carthusian. He married twice and had four children with his first wife. Elected to Parliament in 1504, he rose through a series of public offices until succeeding Cardinal Wolsey as Lord Chancellor. He was esteemed by leading humanists of the age, such as Erasmus and Juan Luis Vives. He also engaged in theological debates with Martin Luther and took action to quell the nascent spread of Protestantism in England. However, he fell out of favour when he refused to recognise the validity of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and the king’s claim to be the head of the Church in England. Finally, after various attempts, a trial found him guilty of treason and he was executed, refusing up to the end to renounce his Catholic faith.
He was beatified in 1886 and canonised along with St. John Fisher in 1935. Thememorial of the two saints is celebrated on June 22. In 2000, St. John Paul II named Thomas More patron saint of statesmen and politicians.
In this interview, Frank Mitjans explains his pick of some of St. Thomas More’s writings and studies on him.
Frank Mitjans is a Spanish architect who has worked in London since 1976 and has long been interested in St. Thomas More. Since August 2002 he has given many presentations and talks on the topography of More’s London to groups of students and other interested people in Britain, Ireland, and Sweden. He has published various papers on St. Thomas More and more recently Thomas More’s Vocation (Catholic University of America Press).
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You have mentioned that a visit to an exhibition on Thomas More at the National Gallery started your interest in him. Why did it spark of your interest in him, and how did that interest develop? I was invited to attend that exhibition by an author who had written a biography of Thomas More in 1962. He was very keen on St. Thomas More and so he invited me to the exhibition, which I found very interesting.
That got you interested in researching on Saint Thomas More and writing on him? Up to a point. Much later, I met Gerard Wegemer of the University of Dallas. He is the one that encouraged my interest in St. Thomas More.
In parenthesis, you mentioned that Thomas More thought of becoming a Carthusian. We do not have any early record of someone saying that he was thinking of becoming a Carthusian. He lived near the London Charterhouse and participated in some of the practices of piety with the Carthusians there. Nonetheless, neither he, nor Erasmus, nor his son-in-law William Roper, nor any of his other biographers ever said that he thought of becoming a Carthusian. Somehow, a few modern authors draw that conclusion.
Are there any other aspects of his biography you would like to stress that have not been mentioned already? We know that Thomas More is a saint because the Church has canonised him and did so because he was obviously a martyr. However, he was not a saint because he was a martyr. Rather, he received the grace of martyrdom because, throughout his life, he tried to respond to God’s call. Therefore, in my book, Thomas More’s Vocation, I focus on his early writings and choices. When he was quite young, he was writing poetry and putting God first. There is an early poem, “The Pageant of Life”. It is in English, yet he writes the last stanza in Latin, where he states that the love of God is the greatest thing of all. We see how his interior life, his spiritual life, was there from the very beginning and in his upbringing. Moreover, he writes these early poems prior to living near the Charterhouse.
St. Thomas More is just one of the Church’s many saints. Why is he worth reading today? How is this sixteenth-century humanist and statesman relevant for us today? Of course, there are many saints, and we can learn from them all. However, as a statesman, he was in a prominent position. He was the Lord Chancellor. At the time, the Lord Chancellor was the king’s highest minister. Confronted with serving the king and keeping his own position, he decided to side with the demands of his conscience. The demands of his conscience were not simply whatever he thought, but his willingness to always do the will of God.
Henry VIII was very adamant that he wanted to divorce his wife. He sought an annulment. It was not granted. Throughout this process, Thomas More was very clear that the marriage between Henry and Catherine was valid, and that in no way could he agree with what Henry was trying to do. In upholding the validity of the marriage and the unity of the Catholic Church, he was giving not just his opinion but his life. When the Pope refused to declare the marriage null, the only way Henry could obtain the needful decree was to make himself the head of the Church. All the bishops in Parliament, except John Fisher, went along with that. John Fisher and Thomas More gave priority to being faithful to God instead.
On a less scholarly note, many know St. Thomas More from popular media. On the one hand, Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, adapted into an Oscar-winning film by Fred Zinnermann, presents More as a man of integrity and a martyr of conscience. On the other hand, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, later made into a TV series, presents him as a rigid authoritarian, hell-bent on torturing Protestants. Which of these two literary presentations is the more accurate? Well, Mantel won prizes for her fiction, and that is fine. She wrote well but she wrote “fiction”.
Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons is a play. Plays need to have a unity of time, place, and scene. So, nor is a playwright writing history.
So, there is the novel and the play. The play is the more accurate of the two. It gives an accurate characterization of Thomas More, even though many aspects of it are not historical.
The best way to form a view on Hilary Mantel is to go to the website of Prof. Richard Rex, a professor of Reformation history at Cambridge University. He emphasises that Hilary Mantel’s fiction is not at all accurate: she transfers the virtues and good humour of Thomas More to Thomas Cromwell, and Cromwell’s defects to More. She transfer’s the character of the one onto the other.
"More is a man of angel's wit and singular learning; I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes; and sometimes of as sad a gravity; a man for all seasons." Richard Wittington
But even though she writes fiction, should we let her off the hook so easily? She is writing historical fiction and trying to shape the public's perception of historical figures, perhaps not in the most honest of ways. It is legitimate to write historical novels. Robert Hugh Benson wrote historical novels. However, both historical novels and plays must convey the truth and portray the character of the person properly. This is not the case with Hilary Mantel. She denigrates Thomas More. She claims to have done a lot of research, but that does not mean that what she portrays is in any way accurate.
In the motu proprio in which he declared More patron of statesmen and politicians, St. John Paul II noted nonetheless that “in his actions against heretics, he reflected the limits of the culture of his time.” Did Thomas More adopt reprehensible means against early English Protestants? In 1401, Parliament passed a bill whereby heretics were to be stopped, judged, and punished. The bill established the burning of heretics. This punishment was not devised by Thomas More but by a 1401 bill of the English Parliament. That bill was aimed mainly against the Lollards. When taking any public office, civil servants had to agree to this bill of Parliament and to oppose the expansion of heretics. So did Thomas More, even before he became Lord Chancellor.
In January 1518, Lutheran books started to come into England. First, Erasmus wrote to Thomas More about these Lutheran books. Henry VIII took some interest. However, it was only with Luther’s On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, which is clearly subversive, that Henry considered that this would cause a rebellion against the civil authority and tried to stop the Lutheran influence in England. To that end, he appointed Thomas More as one of the persons charged with tackling this. At some stage, the Bishop of London asked Thomas More to write against the heretics. In 1529, he wrote A Dialogue Concerning Heresies. Once he became Lord Chancellor, under the terms of the 1401 bill of Parliament, he, as the civil authority, had to identify those who were somehow disrupting the peace of the country, and bring them to justice. The civil authority detained the heretics, handed them over to a court of the bishops, who had the authority to declare whether someone was a heretic or not. Those declared heretics were handed back to the civil power, which imposed the punishment decreed by the 1401 act of Parliament.
During More’s time as Lord Chancellor, six people were executed for heresy. In three of these cases, More was involved in seeking the witnesses and testimonies.
Nowadays, when we speak of humanism, we mean something different than the sixteenth-century humanists did. They were Christian humanists.
Your first recommended book is a short biography written by Reformation historian, Fr. James McConica. Why does it top your list? Often, biographies portray the vision of the author. It is highly difficult to render the reality of a person, but James McConica gives a very accurate view of Thomas More. It is a short book: sixty-four pages in all. It has an excellent understanding of how More was a good friend of his friends and a humanist with a clear idea of public service.
Nowadays, when we speak of humanism, we mean something different than the sixteenth-century humanists did. They were Christian humanists. They saw their study of Sacred Scripture in the original languages, the Church Fathers, and the works of classical Greek and Latin literature, as a way of contributing to the evangelization of society. They were aware that, at the time, there was a certain decadence in Christendom. To promote an improved understanding of Christianity, they went to the sources and fostered the study of the classics. That was stopped by the Protestant reformers. This is a great pity because the Christian humanists tried to reform the Church within the Church, whereas the Protestant reformers did not.
As McConica explains, Thomas More understood marriage as a vocation to holiness and his service to the king as a contribution to the common good. He saw, therefore, that he had to defend the validity of Henry and Catherine’s marriage.
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