Saint Thomas More
Thomas More was born on February 7, 1478 in London, England about the time that printed books were beginning to replace handwritten manuscripts.
He began school at age 7, receiving a classical education, studying Latin (the spoken and written language of the educated), music and public speaking with a little English and mathematics. (Studies began at 6:00 a.m.)
At age 12, instead of moving to Eton, a middle school, he became a page, such as we have in our House of Commons in Ottawa, serving the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England, learning the customs of the influential. ï¶ At age 14, the usual age, he entered Oxford University on scholarship.
At age 16, he began his seven-year study of law. As there were few books, students attended court each day and were required to remember the rulings of judges. Mock trials where students played assigned roles and re-tried the cases of the day occurred each afternoon.
Throughout his life, Thomas More attended Mass and prayed each day.
More married at age 26. He and his wife had four children, three daughters and a son. (His wife died in childbirth at age 22). Thomas was a major proponent of education for women; his eldest daughter, Margaret became one of the most learned women in England at this time.
He was a successful and well-respected lawyer representing many London merchants.
In 1509, at age 31, he became a member of Parliament for the section of London known as Westminster.
His work impressed the King who began to use More as a diplomat - to negotiate treaties with other nations, and asked him to serve as a judge to settle property disputes.
Thomas had a good sense of humour, was able to make witty replies, although his comments were often made in an apparently serious tone that made it difficult for some to tell “whether he spoke in earnest or in jest”.
More was also a scholar, an influential writer who had numerous articles and books published; his most famous book is Utopia, a book about “no-place”, a mythical island nation striving to create a virtuous society, an ideal republic. Why did Thomas More write Utopia? To incite discussion. To stimulate debate. What would a society truly based on Christian principles be like? How should a Christian government act? How Christ-like are our customs? Utopia is no longer on the “best seller” list, but the debate that Thomas More started is just as important today as it was five centuries ago. Twenty-first century media makes us increasingly aware of what is happening in the world, and in our own country. What should be happening? What should we be doing to make it happen? Perhaps we have a greater responsibility than most to be asking and answering the same questions that our patron saint, St. Thomas More raised those many years ago.
In 1517, at age 39, he became a royal counsellor to King Henry VIII, entering public service full-time, giving up the private practice of law. More was a major critic of Martin Luther and an opponent of the Protestant Reformation that Luther began; he helped Henry with his reply to Luther that earned for the King from the Pope the title “Defender of Faith”. More’s own publication, “Response to Luther” was read throughout Europe.
In 1523, at age 45, he was elected Speaker of the Parliament, and knighted for his service to the King.
More was a charitable man: feeding the poor, up to a hundred a day during one food shortage, refusing to layoff farm workers at his country house even when they were no longer required, establishing a home for the destitute.
In 1529, at age 51, he was chosen by the King to be Lord Chancellor, a position comparable to Prime Minister. He was regarded as “an upright and learned man”, ”the greatest administrator of his generation”. Despite his powerful position he was modest and unpretentious, with little regard for fashion.
While Protestant Reformers believed in prayer, personal interpretation of the Bible, and salvation through faith in God, Thomas More as a Catholic believed in good works, the teaching of the Church, and the sacraments. He believed strongly in the authority of the Pope, as did King Henry in his early years.
In 1532, at age 54, at the height of his power, More resigned as Lord Chancellor, on a matter of conscience, to be “in the service of God”.
The new Lord Chancellor got Parliament to pass King Henry’s Act of Succession. This legislation annulled the King’s marriage to his queen of eighteen years, Catherine of Aragon, established his new wife, Anne Boleyn, as Queen, established Anne’s children as royal heirs, and ended the authority of the Pope in England. Henry made himself Head of the Church in England because this made him more powerful than the Church itself and because the Pope had refused to grant his annulment.
Henry was not content just to pass this legislation; he required that each important person in the kingdom swear that he or she agreed with this.
In 1534, when Thomas More refused to swear that Henry was the true, Supreme Head of the Church in England, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. He entered via Traitor’s Gate. More spent more than a year in his cold, damp cell, attending Mass each day as he was allowed, praying that he would be courageous enough. He would not deny everything he believed. He would not agree that the sacraments, the teachings of the Church, the authority of the Pope should all be abandoned.
In 1535, at age 57, when he still refused the Oath of Succession, he was taken to Tower Hill and beheaded. Just before his death he stated that he was still “the King’s good servant, but God’s first”. He became the first English layman to be beatified as a martyr for the Faith.
In 1935, the Church made him a Saint.
St. Thomas More was chosen as the patron saint for our school community because he was a highly principled person in difficult times. He was not one to change what he believed because of pressure to do so. He was not concerned with popular opinion. His religious conviction, his willingness to do what was right in the face of his own death, should inspire us all to be Christ-like in our daily lives.