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Fr McGovern


ST THOMAS MORE 1478-1535

by Thomas J. McGovern

St Thomas More is perhaps best remembered as the great English statesman, humanist and scholar who refused to submit to Henry VIII and, as a consequence, suffered death on the scaffold rather than compromise his belief in the spiritual supremacy of the Pope. It was a unique act of commitment to the Faith at a time when practically the entire English hierarchy, together with 'all the best learned men of the realm', succumbed almost without a whimper. The news of More's execution sent shock waves all across Europe. He was the most highly respected scholar-humanist of his day and a statesman of international repute. His death was an exceptionally barbarous act, an event which even the most prejudiced of historians have never been able adequately to explain away. The life and personality of More have always proved attractive even to the casual reader of history because of his talents, the values he stood for and the exceptional richness of his humanity. It is not surprising then, that in this, the five hundreth anniversary year of his birth, we should witness a multiplicity of publications, seminars and conferences in many different parts of the world about this saint who has been so aptly described as 'a man for all seasons'.

In a previous article [1] we considered More the statesman, the public figure 'the King's good servant' , and have seen how he fulfilled all these commitments with exceptional loyalty and competence. More saw no incompatibility between his service to Henry and his loyalty to the Church. Indeed for many years, while he exercised high offices of state, he stood out as the great defender of the Church against heresy. However, with the capitulation of the hierarchy in 1532, More realised that he could no longer continue as Lord Chancellor if he were to remain faithful to his conscience. He may have been Henry's 'good servant', but there was no doubt that when confronted with the great challenge of his life, his first loyalty was unswervingly to God. More's imprisonment, his subsequent trial and execution eloquent testimony to his love for the Church and loyalty to conscience are events which have never failed to inspire and to encourage a more generous commitment to the Faith.

Husband and Father

There is, however, another aspect of the life of St Thomas More which also needs to be considered if our appreciation of the man is to be a more complete one. It touches on the more intimate areas of his life and, at the same time, on those aspects of his character with which people can more readily identify. In an age when family and educational values are under aggressive attack, it is important that the story of More's life as husband and father, and as educator of his children, should be told, because it is instructive and reassuring to see how More lived his Christian vocation as a family man with such exquisite care and effectiveness, despite the exceptional demands made on his time by professional and state affairs. It will also be of interest to reflect on the Christian concept of education which underpinned More's approach to the formation of his family, and how he achieved a synthesis of virtue and learning in his children which was unheard of in his day.

In 1505, when More was twenty seven, he married Jane Colt, a young girl of seventeen, the daughter of a legal colleague. She gave birth to four children, three girls and a boy, in quick succession, but, tragically, for More, she died within six years of marriage just when she was developing into 'an ideal life companion'. He loved his wife dearly and had brought her to share in his literary and musical interests. More, however, was no romantic. He needed a mother for his four young children, and needed her quickly. Within a few months of the death of his first wife, he married Alice Middleton, a widow some years older than himself, strongwilled and somewhat stubborn of character whom More was wont affectionately to describe as 'nec bella nec puella', neither a pearl nor a girl. Yet she was an active and vigilant housewife and their life together was, as Erasmus tells us, 'as sweet and amicable as if she had all the charms of youth'. 'You will scarcely find a husband' he says, 'who, by authority or severity, has gained such ready compliance as More by playful flattery' [2]. She was a woman who excelled in good sense and experience rather than in learning. She ran the entire More household 'with wonderful tact, assigning to each a task, and requiring its performance, allowing no one to be idle or to be occupied in trifles'[3].

Shortly before his execution More composed a brief epitaph to be inscribed on the tomb which he had built at Chelsea for Dame Alice and himself. He had the remains of his first wife, Jane, transferred to this tomb and recorded his affection for both in the following words:

'One of these ladies, my wife in the days of my youth, has made me father of a son and three daughters; the other has been as devoted to her stepchildren (a rare attainment in a stepmother) as very few mothers are to their own children. The one lived out her life with me, and the other still lives with me on such terms that I cannot decide whether I did love the one or do love the other more. O, how happily we could have lived all three together if faith and morality permitted. Well, I pray that the grave, that heaven, will bring us together. Thus death will give what life could not'[4].

These were the two women with whom More shared his life, the two partners who helped make the family life of his home in Chelsea the great joy of his heart and the envy of his friends. His epitaph was a fitting tribute to both.


It must be remembered that More's household consisted not only of his own four children Margaret, Elizabeth, Cecily and John but, in addition, several other young people formed part of the family which was educated under his personal supervision. It is clear from his letters that the life of this household gave More his deepest pleasure. His sense of humour reduced everything to proper proportions and his son-in-law, William Roper, records that not once in the sixteen years he lived with him did he ever see More 'in a fume'. More's affectionate relationship with his family and his practical concern for their education can best be illustrated by extracts from some of the exquisite letters he wrote to his children while engaged on diplomatic missions or on royal service which took him away so often from his family. Even though he daily rubbed shoulders with the royalty and the intelligentsia of Europe, he always longed to be back home with his beloved children. If he could not be with them as often as he wished, he made up for it by writing to them whenever he could and encouraged them to write to him even daily.

'I cannot adequately express, my delightful daughters, how greatly pleased I am by your charming letters' he tells them. 'For believe me truly there is nothing which refreshes me so much in the midst of this bothersome business as reading what comes from you. And so I long with all my heart to hasten home'.[5]

On another occasion he writes to his children from court telling them how overjoyed he was to receive their letters. He encourages them to write to him almost every day, telling them that he will not accept any excuses, neither lack of time nor want of subject matter. 'How can you possibly lack something to say when I am glad to hear about your studies and your games'. He is even more pleased that, when there is nothing to write about, they would 'write just that at great length', which, he playfully remarks, should be no trouble to the girls who are so talkative by nature and constantly at it.[6] But on one thing More insisted: whether they were writing about serious matters or the merest nonsense, everything should be done diligently and thoughtfully. As he told his children, More was interested in every aspect of their lives, even the most banal. He established a deep friendship with each one of them, so it was natural that they confided everything to him. More used his brilliant gift for friendship in a special way with his children, as he realised that it was one of the most effective means available to him for their formation and education.

Margaret his Favourite

While More showed a fatherly affection for all his children, it is clear that Margaret, his eldest daughter, was his favourite. She had all her father's intellectual talents; she also had his charm. She understood his jests and his pieties. With her alone he shared his deeper concerns and preoccupations. More wrote many letters to Margaret and they give testimony to a mutual love and affection, and an intimacy of spirit, which must find few parallels in literature. The following extracts from his early letters to her speak for themselves. He reminds her how lenient a father he is:

'You know how often I have kissed, how rarely spanked you, and then only with a peacock's tail: even that I wielded gently, with hesitation, lest it should leave a sorry welt across your tender buttocks. The man who would not weep at the tears of his child is a brute unworthy to be called a father' [7].

On one occasion when she wrote to her father, obviously with some reluctance, asking for money she received the following indulgent reply:

'You are too bashful and timid in your request for money, since you are asking from a father who is eager to give, and since you have written to me a letter such that I would not only repay each line of it with a golden philippine (as Alexander did the verses of Choerilos), but, if my means were as great as my desire, I would reward each syllable with two ounces of gold. As it is, I send only what you have asked, but would have added more, except that as I am eager to give, so I like to be asked and coaxed by my daughter, especially by you, whom virtue and learning have made so dear to my heart. So the sooner you spend this money well, as you always do, and the sooner you ask for more, the more will you be sure of pleasing your father. Good-bye, my dearest child.'[8]

Margaret was about thirteen at the time.

We have already seen how More loved to receive frequent letters from his children when he was away from home. On one occasion when Margaret delayed writing to him because she felt the quality of her letter would be below that expected by her father, he replied:

'There was no reason, my darling daughter, why you should have put off writing me for a single day, because in your great self-distrust you feared that your letters would be such that I could not read them without distaste. Even had they not been perfect, yet the honour of your sex would have gained you pardon from anyone, while to a father even a blemish will seem beautiful in the face of a child'[9].

At sixteen she married William Roper, one of the young people who were educated in More's extended family. In a letter which More wrote to her sometime afterwards, he teases her about the child she is expecting with exquisite refinement and affection:

'In your letter you speak of your imminent confinement. We pray most earnestly that all may go happily and successfully with you. May God and our Blessed Lady grant you happily and safely to increase your family by a little one like to his mother in everything except sex. Yet let it by all means be a girl, if only she will make up for the inferiority of her sex by her zeal to imitate her mother's virtue and learning. Such a girl I would prefer to three boys'.[10]

Nicholas Harpsfield, who wrote the first complete biography of More, was a very close friend of Margaret's husband, William Roper. Consequently we can have good reason to rely on his account of Margaret. He tells us that she resembled her father not only in virtue and learning but in wit and humour as well.

'She was to her servants a gentle mistress, to her brother and sisters a most loving and amiable sister' and to her husband a 'debonair and gentle wife'[11]. She was a good mother to her children 'not content to bring them forth only into the world, but instructing them also herself in virtue and learning'.

When More was imprisoned and kept incomunicado, Margaret wrote him several letters. These letters were his greatest 'pleasure and comfort' during his fifteen months in the Tower [12]. More also wrote a number of letters to Margaret from prison. Many of these have survived and they give a wonderful insight into the state of his soul at the time of his execution and his affectionate relationship with his beloved Meg [13]. She did everything possible to try to be of service to her father in his time of trial and to relieve his distress. She schemed until she eventually got permission to visit him, and was happiest when she could share his company again. But it was not to be for long. Henry ruthlessly played out the charade of a trial and obtained the conviction on a charge of treason for which he had so perfidiously laboured. Margaret was waiting for her father at the Tower Wharf as he returned from Westminster Hall. Her reaction is best described in a contemporary account of More's execution:

'As they were bringing More back to the great Tower and before he entered it, one of his daughters, named Margaret, seized and overcome with great grief and sorrow for her father, forced her way right through the crowd, and without any respect for the people there or the public place she was in, rushed up to her father and threw her arms about his neck, holding him tightly in her embrace without being able to say a word. And then her father spoke to comfort her: "Margaret, have patience, do not torment yourself. It is the will of God. You have known the secret desire of my heart for a long time". Then she stepped back some ten or twelve feet, but again she came forward to take him in her arms, and he, without shedding tears and without any change in his face or voice, simply told her to pray to God for his soul' [14].

The last thing More wrote was, fittingly, a letter to Margaret on the eve of his execution. Apart from personal messages for all the members of his family, he has a special farewell for her.

'I never liked your manner toward me better than when you kissed me last, for I love when daughterly love and dear charity hath no leisure to look to worldly courtesy. Farewell my dear child and pray for me, and I shall for you and all your friends that we may merrily meet in heaven. I thank you for your great cost' [15].

After the execution she was responsible for rescuing her father's head from the spike on Tower Bridge where it had been impailed. She retained it as a pious relic during the rest of her life, and it was subsequently buried with her in the Roper vault in St Dunstan's in Canterbury.

Education of Children

Having followed through the history of that unique relationship between More and his eldest daughter, we return again to a consideration of another important aspect of More's family life his approach to the education of his children.

More educated his family with a personal and loving care but also through wisely chosen teachers and tutors. Margaret, Elizabeth, Cecily and John were taught Latin, Greek, Logic, Philosophy, Theology, Mathematics and Astronomy. This was a totally original approach to education as it was unheard of at that time that women should be given an education on a par with men. Margaret became a classical scholar in her own right, of sufficient standing to have a correction by her of a faulty Greek text of St Cyprian accepted by contemporary scholars. The fame of his learned daughters became European through the praises of Erasmus, and was so great in England that they were invited by the King to have a philosophical debate in his presence.

But the educational commitment of More was not simply his originality in developing the intellectual capacity of his daughters to the full. More's primary concern was to achieve a proper synthesis between learning and Christian virtue. In his work in the service of the king and in his dealings with the humanists of the day, More had frequently seen and experienced the stultifying effects of intellectual pride. How could he ensure that, in his efforts to give his children the best possible education, he would avoid infecting them with the slightest symptoms of vainglory?

More's answer was that learning for the proper intention turns our attention towards things spiritual, thus weaning us from dependence on public praise; true learning, he says, will make us humble if we are taught by wise teachers. He would have liked to devote himself fully to the education of his children, but affairs of state caused him to be away from home for long periods. The importance he gave to the education of his family can be gauged from a letter he wrote to Margaret when she was thirteen years old:

'I beg you, Margaret, tell me about the progress you are all making in your studies. For I assure you that, rather than allow my children to be idle and slothful, I would make a sacrifice of wealth, and bid adieu to other cares and business, to attend to my children and my family'. [16]

However, because of circumstances he had to rely heavily on tutors for the education of his children and these he chose carefully.

'No one is dearer to me by any title than each of you by that of scholar' he wrote to his children. 'Your zeal for knowledge binds me to you almost more closely than the ties of blood. If I did not love you so much I should be really envious of your happiness in having so many and such excellent tutors'. [17]

He has entrusted his children to these good teachers but his expectations are very clear. In a famous letter to William Gunnell, one of the tutors, he confides in him his concern about not allowing 'the pest of pride' to grow in the minds of his children. The more he sees of it, the more he sees the need of setting to work on it from childhood.

'That this plague of vainglory may be banished far from my children, I desire that you, my dear Gunnell, and their mother and all my freinds, would sing this song to them, and repeat it, and beat it into their heads, that vainglory is a thing despicable and to be spit upon; and that there is nothing more sublime than that humble modesty so often praised by Christ; and this your prudent charity will so enforce as to teach virtue rather than reprove vice, and make them love good advice instead of hating it... And thus you will bring about that my children, who are dear to me by nature, and still more dear by learning and virtue, will become more dear by that advance in knowledge and good conduct' [18].

The letter urges the need to

'warn my children to avoid the precipices of pride and haughtiness, and to walk in the pleasant meadows of modesty; not to be dazzled by the sight of gold; not to lament that they do not possess what they erroneously admire in others; not to think more of themselves for gaudy trappings, nor less for the want of them; neither to deform the beauty that nature has given them by neglect, nor to try to heighten it by artifice; to put virtue in the first place, learning in the second; and in their studies to esteem most whatever may teach them piety towards God, charity to all, and Christian humility in themselves'.

'By such means', continues More, 'they will receive from God the reward of an innocent life, and in the assured expectation of it will view death without dread, and meanwhile possessing solid joy will neither be puffed up by the empty praise of men, nor dejected by evil tongues'. 'These', he says, 'I consider the real and genuine fruits of learning, and I would maintain that those who give themselves to study with such intent will easily attain their end and become perfect'.

This is a rather long quote but I think it is justified in that it gives us a very eloquent statement of a Christian philosophy of education, one which right with profit be studied by twentieth century educationalists.

Education of Women

More's education of his daughters was exceptional at the time and he was not unaware of the innovation it implied.

'Since education in women is a new thing', he wrote to Gunnell, 'and a reproach to the slothfulness of men, many will gladly assail it. If a woman (and this I desire and hope with you as their teacher for all my daughters) to eminent virtue of mind should add an outwork of even moderate skill in literature, I think she will have more real profit than if she had obtained the riches of Croesus and the beauty of Helen'.

More is aware that Margaret has an intellectual capacity higher than the other chldren, and he encourages her to continue her studies, even after her marriage,

'in medical science and sacred literature so that you may be well furnished for the whole scope of human life which is to have a healthy soul in a healthy body'. [19]

She has already laid the foundations for these higher studies, but her father is still of the opinion that she could 'with great advantage give some years of [her] yet flourishing youth to humane letters and liberal studies'. His friends are amazed when he shows them the letters he receives from Margaret. They cannot conceive that a woman could write so well, and assume that it must have been done with the help of somebody else. More is saddened by this male prejudice against the intellectual capacity of women, and particularly because it concerned his own beloved Meg.

'Of all writers', he tells her, 'you least deserve to be thus suspected. Even when a tiny child you could never endure to be decked out in another's finery. But, my sweetest Margaret, you are all the more deserving of praise on that account'.[20]

More will always stand out in the ranks of the defenders of feminine culture. He had made a significant contribution to an authentic 'liberation' of women centuries before the term became a universal slogan.

God-Centred Education

Despite this emphasis on learning and culture, More saw to it that it was God who was at the centre of his children's lives, and not just an ideal of human perfection. Erasmus tells us that More had been careful 'to have all his children, from their earliest years, thoroughly imbued with chaste and holy morals' [21] . It was his custom to gather his household together at bedtime for night prayers. They would recite some of the psalms, the Hail Holy Queen and, finally, the De Profundis for the dead. Sundays and feastdays were celebrated with special piety. Erasmus described More's household as a type of Christian Plato's academy. `Dice, cards and flirtation were forbidden; gardening, study, music and matrimony were encouraged'.[22] Yet More did not try to isolate his family in any way from the harsh realities of the world around them. The poor came and would often eat at More's table in Chelsea. To look after the aged and infirm in the neighbourhood, More set up a special house in Chelsea and put Margaret in charge of it.

We know from Erasmus that because of his sense of humour and gentleness of character there were never any bitter scenes or arguments in the More household.

'He soothes impending crises or acts decisively to nip them in the bud, and in separating anyone from his household, he has never acted in an angry or vindictive manner'.[23]

The laughter and tranquillity of the More household was shattered temporarily by an event which brought home to More, in a very intimate way, the dangerous effects of the Lutheran heresy. His son-in-law, William Roper, became infected with the newly circulating religious ideas from the continent. More was infinitely patient and tried to reason with his son-in-law but to no avail.

'I have borne a long time with your husband', he said to Margaret; 'I have reasoned and argued with him on these points of religion and given to him my poor fatherly counsel but I perceive none of all this able to call him home; and, therefore, Meg, I will no longer dispute with him but will clean give him over and get me to God and pray for him.'[24]

More's prayers were effective, as soon afterwards Roper returned to the fullness of the Faith, which he adhered to loyally for the rest of his life and at considerable personal cost.

This incident reflects the extraordinary tolerance and patience of More in a situation which, because of his vigilant care for the doctrinal formation of his family, must have caused him a great deal of pain.

Roper was in fact More's first biographer and it is not surprising that he should remember his father-in-law with loyalty and affection. Loyalty was one of the virtues which was most highly appreciated by More. We know from Erasmus that he was the most loyal of friends himself. It was a virtue which he inculcated in his family and, in the subsequent history of the More household, there is nothing more impressive than the loyalty to his memory of all the young people who had been brought up under his personal care at Chelsea. Many of his household had to flee the country as a consequence of religious persecution, taking refuge in the Low Countries. It is a tribute to the memory of More that, in spite of the considerable risks involved, his nephew, William Rastell, spent many years collecting and editing all the English writings of his uncle, which were published in the Louvain edition of his English Works in 1557.[25]


While More saw his family commitments as his first duty, he had all those qualitites of personality which immediately attracted the friendship and companionship of others. It is not surprising that his home at Chelsea was very much an open house, with the coming and going of visitors an everyday occurrence. The author of A Man for All Seasons has a very eloquent description of this aspect of More's character:

'Another thing that attracted me to this amazing man was his splendid social adjustment. So far from being one of society's sore teeth, he was, like the hero of Camus' La Chute, almost indecently successful. He was respectably not nobly born, in the merchant class, the progressive class of the epoch, distinguished himself first as a scholar, then as a lawyer, made an Ambassador, finally Lord Chancellor. A visitors' book at his house in Chelsea would have looked like a sixteenth century Who's Who: Holbein, Erasmus, Colet, everybody. He corresponded with the greatest minds in Europe as the representative and acknowledged champion of the New Learning in England. He was a friend of the King, who would send for More when his social appetites took a turn in that direction... He adored and was adored by his own large family. He parted with more than most men when he parted with this life, for he accepted and enjoyed his social context'. [26]

He fulfilled all his social obligations and, even if at times he was put off by the hypocrisy he experienced around him, he never allowed this to dull the warmth of his response to others. His good humour and cheerfulness enabled him to overcome the asperities of life, and always inclined him to search for a positive interpretation of events and circumstances. As he wrote to Margaret:

'Nothing can come but what God wills. And I am very sure that whatsoever that may be, however bad it may appear, it shall indeed be the best'. [27]

More's legendary sense of humour was one of his greatest social assets. He brought a lively spirit to every company and the richness of his conversation inevitably made him the centre of things. Although More exercised the utmost refinement in his dealings with others, there was a consistency about his attitudes and behaviour which was never in any way influenced by human respect. He spoke directly and sincerely and expected the same response himself. 'Just as I am not unwilling to admonish those I love, if it is of any importance to them, so too' he asserted, 'I am certainly very happy to be admonished by my friends'. [28]

He has, however, much more severe words for the hypocritical attitudes of those who prefer to hear palliatives rather than the truth about themselves:

'People who gaze admiringly at us and applaud everything we do and tell us we are wonderful and holy in other words, people who delude us and convert our stupidity into insanity such people, of course, are honest and friendly; and, in turn, we tell them they are good and pious. However, the people who do us a much more worth-while service, those who tell us just exactly what we really are, they are dogs growling, gnawing, vicious, green-eyed dogs'. [29]

He works on the principle that 'loyal and affectionate advice, even if imprudent' always deserves praise and thanks. For More there is an essential connection between the practice of the virtue of loyalty and the exercise of fraternal correction.


There is another characteristic of More which is again simply a reflection of that completeness of mind which was uniquely his. That was his love for freedom combined with respect for authority. Freedom for More had nothing to do with the vacuous slogans of the present day. It was something which was anchored in his awareness of his dignity as a human being in the light of Christian revelation, and nourished by his reading of classical literature. While still in his early twenties he spoke out courageously, during the parliament of the autocratic Henry VII, against an unjust tax levy, and did so with such eloquence that the king raged that a mere 'beardless boy' had thwarted his purpose. Later when he was Speaker in the House of Commons, during the reign of Henry VIII, his plea for freedom of speech is regarded as one of the first assertions of this political right on record. Finally, his death was in a sense his greatest assertion of that most basic of freedoms: 'the right of a free man not to be compelled to say that which he does not believe'. [30]

Yet freedom for More was not something absolute. His legal background made him very much aware of the fact that authority and discipline were necessary correlatives of freedom, if society, both in the larger context of the state and in the more intimate domain of the family, was to have that essential stability conducive to attaining the common good.

Classics and Theology

More was very much attracted by the study of the classics when he was a student at Oxford. In later years he had good reason to write a spirited defence of the values of the 'New Learning' against those who did not appreciate its significance, and who had in fact rejected it as irrelevant to the study of theology. More was quite convinced that a man did not need Latin or Greek, or for that matter any education, in order to be saved. He makes the point, however, that there are some who by a knowledge of

'rational things construct a ladder by which to rise to the contemplation of things supernatural; they build a path to theology through philosophy and the liberal arts; they adorn the queen of heaven with the spoils of the Egyptians'. [31]

'To whom is it not obvious' he asks in a letter to the University of Oxford, 'that to the Greeks we owe all our precision in the liberal arts generally and in theology particularly; for the Greeks either made the great discoveries themselves or passed them on as part of their heritage'. [32]

He did not see how a man could acquire a competent training in theology without some knowledge of languages whether Hebrew, Greek or Latin. What More is really concerned about is the very narrow scope of theological studies in the universities at the time, deriving from a debased scholasticism which had lost confidence in the synthesis of reason and faith. The great thirteenth century thomistic synthesis of aristotelian metaphysics and the magisterial theology of the early Church Fathers had been lost sight of and theology and now been reduced to 'a confused labyrinth of petty problems'. [33] Theology in the early sixteenth century had, by and large, become a game of disputatious semantics with the consequent disregard for an authentic study of Scripture and the writings of the Fathers.

More will not admit that the study of theology, 'that august queen of heaven', can be confined within the narrow limits of these 'meretricious questions'. He had, through constant reading and study, acquired a profound knowledge of Sacred Scripture, and at twenty three was already a sufficiently acknowledged authority on the Fathers of the Church to be asked to give a series of public lectures to the intelligentsia of London on St Augustine's City of God. Thus when he speaks about the study of theology he is doing so with the positive concern of someone who can speak with authority.

Oxford, as we have said, had given More an avid taste for the literature of the Greeks and the Latins, and an appreciation of the importance of liberal studies which he so effectively passed on to his own family. He would, to say the least, have been very disappointed with the present day flight away from the study of the classics. More had a wider vision than the other humanists for whom the Renaissance learning resulted, in many cases, merely in a new exaltation of man. He saw too clearly the folly of any aspirations for human excellence which did not lead man to his Creator. And if he recommended the study of Greek because of its literature and philosophy, he said that it should be cherished by Christians because through it came almost the entire New Testament and the writings of a large section of the ancient Christian writers. [34]


In considering these aspects of the life of Thomas More we can never forget that he was a married man with a wife and family whom he loved dearly. In addition to the large household which he had to attend to, there was a regular flow of visitors to Chelsea who also made demands on his time. Apart from all this, he was a man with time-consuming professional commitments in the business of law or in the service of the King. There are thus basic elements in More's life which can be identified with the common denominator in the life of any married person. Consequently when we reflect on the fact that More is a canonised saint of the Church, and one of the very few laymen or parents who have been so recognised, it is natural that his spiritual life should be of particular interest today since it was the twentieth century, with the recent Vatican Council II, which made the breakthrough in recognising the fulness of the Christian vocation of the laity.[35]

We have seen that More was in many ways ahead of his time. Now by a consideration of his spirituality, I think we will see that we have much to learn from him in this respect also. More the lawyer, statesman and family man cannot be divorced from More the Christian and the saint.

In writing anything about More's interior life we should be guided by his own sober attitude to hagiographers.

'They have', he says, 'scarcely left a life of a martyr or virgin without foisting into it something untrue piously no doubt! for of course there was a danger lest truth, left to itself, should not be able to stand upright; so that it was necessary to prop it up with lies!' [36]

He has left so much of his inner self in his writings, and the historical material about him is so voluminous, that there is no need to prop up anything in the life of Thomas More. The difficulty is rather one of judicious selection from a wealth of material to ensure that the richness of his interior life is not diminished in any way.

Spiritual Guidance

More was a man who had the wisdom and the prudence to realise that, if he was to make any real progress in his interior life he should not rely solely on his own lights. He laments the absence of Colet, his spiritual director, from London.

'What can be more distressing to me than to be deprived of your wise counsels? With these helps I felt myself strengthened, but without them I seem to languish. When one wishes to live well, by a thousand devices and seductions the life of a city drags one down'.[37]

He is reluctant to entrust the guidance of his soul just to any priest, and assures Colet that 'if the physician in whom the patient has perfect confidence is the one most likely to cure', there is no man better fit than Colet to have the care of his soul. More saw the need to have regular spiritual guidance with a priest in whom he could have full confidence, a guide to whom he could totally open his soul. This, together with regular confession, was a practice which he was to retain to the end of his life.


More's asceticism was something essentially attractive. It had the qualities of gaiety, naturalness and spontaneity which gave him an exceptional maturity of personality. He was totally at home in the world; he loved all the human realities which constituted the incredibly rich texture of his life; yet to this was coupled an exquisite detachment and a love for the Cross which was the primary source of his spiritual strength.

From the many references made by More to the Passion of Christ it is probably fair to say that this was the devotion closest to his heart. He invariably uses the word 'bitter' to preface his references to the Passion. In More's mouth the word has a particular poignancy, reflective of his own spiritual insights derived from frequent meditation on the Passion, and from his willing identification with the Cross, particularly during the period of his imprisonment, trial and execution. When he was summoned before the Council to answer questions framed to trap him into making a treasonable statement about the oath of Supremacy, More replied that he was determined

'to meddle no more with any matter of this world, but that my whole study should be upon the Passion of Christ and mine own passage out of this world'.[38]

When, shortly before his trial, he was deprived of the comfort of his books, and his writing materials were taken away from him, it is perhaps significant that he was in the process of writing a commentary on the Passion of Christ. This is a volume [39] which gives us a deeper insight into More's love for the Cross, in a trial which had its own parallels with that of his Master.

It was his custom, Roper tells us, to devote a special period of time every Friday to the contemplation of the Passion. He used to gently chide his wife and children, whenever they had disappointments or difficulties, that they could not expect 'to go to heaven in featherbeds', reminding them of the sufferings of Christ before his Ascension and the fact that the servant cannot look for different treatment than the Master. In addition to the unexpected and unforeseen opportunities to live this identification with the Cross, More, motivated by a generous spirit of reparation, used to practise other expressions of penance. On certain days he used to wear a rough hair shirt next to his skin, a practice he continued in the Tower right up to the end. To his beloved Margaret he entrusted the secret work of washing this hair shirt, and she alone knew that he used to punish his body with a whip of knotted cords.[40]

'More went beyond the temperance of the philosophers in the treatment of the body. He practised austerities and mortifications to which no man would ask his body to submit, unless he understood the open secrets which a Christian understands, unless he looked forward to heaven and feared hell, and saw the Crucifix as the centre of the world and of history'.[41]


'The things, good Lord, that I pray for, give me thy grace to labour for' - this was how More described his attitude to prayer. He did not expect God to do for him what, with a little effort, he could do for himself. He worked hard all his life, yet his competence and his success did not diminish his awareness of the need for prayer if his life as a Christian was to be effective. He said his morning and evening prayers. At night he also had the practice of saying the seven penitential psalms and the litany of the saints. More also recommended the practice of meditation, of mental prayer. Erasmus tell us that 'at definite hours he addressed his prayers to God, not in set phrases, but in words that came straight from the heart'[42].

In the Dialogue of Comfort he suggests how we might pray. After making an act of presence of God, a person should open his heart in acts of contrition for his personal sins, and acts of thanksgiving for favours received both for himself and for others. This familiar conversation with God should also include talking to him about our difficulties and temptations, and about our weakness, negligence and laziness in resisting and withstanding temptation. We have, however, to pray with full confidence that God hears us and will gladly grant our requests.[43]

It was not that he found prayer easy. It is encouraging to hear More say

'take from me, good Lord, this lukewarm fashion of meditation, and this dulness in praying unto Thee. And give me the grace to long for thy holy sacraments and especially to rejoice in the presence of thy Blessed Body sweet Saviour Christ, in the holy sacrament of the Altar'.[44]

It is clear that he had his arid moments too when perhaps the whole idea of prayer seemed pointless to him. Yet he persevered, encouraged particularly by his anticipation of the strength and support which he would derive from the reception of the Blessed Eucharist.

Eucharistic Devotion

More's devotion to the Eucharist was a central theme of his interior life. It was based on a profound doctrinal appreciation of the mystery of the Real Presence. An adequate preparation for reception of the Eucharist, he claimed, should first of all confirm that we have a proper faith, i.e.

'that we verily believe that it is, under the form and likeness of bread, the very body, flesh and blood of our holy Saviour, Christ himself. We must, I say, see that we firmly believe that this blessed sacrament is not a bare sign, or a figure, or a token of that holy body of Christ but that it is the selfsame precious blood of Christ'.[45]

These words are part of a beautiful prayer composed by More, while he was imprisoned in the Tower, to prepare for Holy Communion. They reflect his concern for the current heretical notions about the Eucharist, which parallel, in a striking way, the doctrinal aberrations condemned four centuries later by Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Mysterium Fidei (3 September 1965).

He, who in fulfilling his duties of state had so many dealings with kings and princes, and who often entertained Henry in his own house in Chelsea, asks us to consider that if we would make so much preparation for the visit of an earthly prince to our house, how much more prepared should we not be for a visit from the king of kings. Because he recognises that his faith falls far short of what it should be, he recommends to us the prayer of the father of the blind boy in the gospel 'I believe Lord, but help my unbelief (Mark 9,23)'. Yet at the same time he asks us not to forget the inestimable humility and goodness of a God who, for all our unworthiness, does not disdain to come to us and be received by us.

More's prayer of thanksgiving after Communion, composed under the same circumstances, is another spiritual gem. He encourages us to use this time after Communion well and not allow ourselves be distracted by other cares or worries.

'Let us not lose this special time of prayer for we can little tell whether we shall ever get it again. Let us endeavour to keep him still, and let us say with his two disciples on the road to Emmaus "Tarry with us, good Lord", and then we shall be sure that he shall not go from us'.[46]

That More could write with such feeling about the Eucharist is another reflection of his deep devotion to the sacred humanity of Christ. 'Lord', he wrote in prison in his last work before death, 'how hard a matter it is to love and not to disclose it'. The several volumes he wrote by way of spiritual commentary in defence of the Church was More's way of 'disclosing' that love, and they underline, in a very tangible way, the essentially apostolic dynamic of his life.

Communion of Saints

Erasmus wrote of More that 'when he talks with his friends about the world to come, you can see that he is speaking in all sincerity and with good hope'.[47] The Communion of Saints is a reality which is everpresent in More's thinking about the Church. He is acutely conscious that the fight is for souls. He believed firmly in the intervention of angels in our lives, and was equally convinced of the existence of the devil and his involvement in human affairs.

There was one other significant element in More's perspective on the Communion of Saints. When Simon Fish, one of the new breed of heretics, attacked the clergy of England in his tract, A Supplication of Beggars, More defends them against Fish's charges of avarice in his essay A Supplication of Souls! In particular he defends their suffrages in favour of the souls in Purgatory. He believed in the power of their intercession. He has his Utopians trusting in their communion with their dead friends 'though to the dull and feeble eyesight of mortal men they be invisible'. Twenty years later, contemporary accounts of his death indicate that, right up to the time of his execution, he was occupied with the thought of continued intercession on behalf of the friends he was leaving behind.

In his epitaph he begs his readers to pray for him now, and also when he is dead, so that he may overcome his fear at the thought of approaching death and go to meet it gladly, with a longing for Christ, finding in death the gateway to a happier life.[48] For More, being 'merry in heaven' with his friends was the essence of all genuine and lasting joy.

Perhaps the last words of the Supplication of Souls are the most poignant expression of More's devotion to the Holy Souls. Unable to help themselves, they are begging our prayers and suffrages:

'If any piece of your old love, any kindness of kindred, any favour of old friendship, any spark of charity, any respect of Christendom be left in your hearts, let never the malice of a few fond fellows, a few pestilent persons, borne towards priesthood, religion, and your Christian faith, rase out of your hearts the care of your kindred, all force of old friends, and all remembrance of Christian souls. Remember our thirst while ye sit and drink; our restless watch while ye be sleeping; our sore and grevious pain while ye be playing; so might God make your offspring after remember you; so God keep you hence, or not here, but bring you shortly to that bliss, to which for our Lord's love, help you to bring us, and we shall set hand to help you thither to us'.[49]

Detachment, Poverty

By any comparison More was a wealthy man. Yet if he was, it was not by design. In one of his better moments Cardinal Wolsey wrote to the King asking for a remuneration for Thomas More 'because he is not the most ready to speak and solicit his own case'.[50] The material wealth he had, he was detached from and knew how to use generously. How More lived this detachment can be seen in a letter he wrote to his wife when, owing to the carelessness of a neighbour, his barns were burnt down.

'It is a great pity' he wrote, 'so much good corn is lost, yet since it pleased God to send us this setback, we are bound not only to be content, but also to be glad of his visitation. He sent us all that we lost; and since he has by such a setback taken it away again, his pleasure be fulfilled. Let us never begrudge it, but take it in good part, and heartily thank him as well for adversity as for prosperity'.

He goes on to give specific instructions about making up for losses his neighbours may have suffered, and for looking after any of the farmhands who might become redundant as a consequence of the fire. [51]

Yet More always had a sense of occasion. He knew how to celebrate, even in prison. We know from a contemporary biographer that, while in the Tower, he used to dress more elegantly, as far as his slender wardrobe would allow, when the big feast days of the Church came around.

Soon after More resigned the Chancellorship he gathered his family together to talk to them about the future and how they would manage financially.The event, as recounted by Roper, illustrates the cheerfulness and the sense of humour with which More accepted his reduced circumstances.

'I have been brought up' he says, summarising his whole career, 'at Oxford, at the Inn of Chancery, at Lincoln's Inn, and also in the King's Court... from the lowest to the highest. Yet I have now little above £100 a year left to me. If we are to continue together, all must become contributories; but by my counsel it shall not be best for us to fall to the lowest fare first'.

More then suggests a gradual descent, first to Lincoln's Inn fare, then to New Inn fare, and so forth, remarking as he goes how one can be content at each level. Finally if even Oxford fare fails, 'then may we yet, with bags and wallets, go a begging together, and hoping that for pity some good folk will give us their charity, at every man's door to sing Salve Regina, and so still keep company and be merry together'.[52]

More's exposition of the situation is full of his wry humour, yet it does not hide the fact that material prosperity is a very relative consideration for him. He will enjoy it if he has it, but the lack of it will never interfere with the spirit of family unity and cheerfulness which were of paramount importance in his life.

Divine Filiation

During his fifteen months imprisonment in the Tower, he had prepared himself in prayer and fasting for death. He had, as we know from his own testimony, many a night of agony when he thought, not so much of his own end, as of the distress and material ruin which his refusal to take the oath would inevitably bring on his wife and family. Yet during all this period More never lost his sense of humour. It comes across particularly in the Dialogue of Comfort in which he discusses rather serious matters such as preparation for martyrdom, whether the head of state can dictate the religious beliefs of his subjects, etc, questions all very relevant to his own situation. Because he had to be careful to write nothing which would incriminate himself in any way, The Dialogue is given a fictional context with the sub-title 'Written by a Hungarian in Latin, and translated out of Latin into French, and out of French into English'. Even in the discussion of such serious questions his humour falls lightly from his pen, as in the following sample:

'St John the Baptist was in prison, while Herod.and Herodias sat full merry at the feast, and the daughter of Herodias delighted them with her dancing, till with her dancing she danced off St John's head. And now sits he with great feast in heaven, while Herod and Herodias full heavily sit in hell, and to make them sport withal, the Devil with the damsel dances in the fire afore them'. [53]

Again, when informed that the King had commuted his sentence from one of being hanged, drawn and quartered to one of mere beheading, he is said to have replied 'God forbid that the King should use any more such mercy to any of my friends'. He went towards the scaffold with a light heart. The ladder was unsteady and he was weak from his long sickness and imprisonment. Turning to the lieutenant of the Tower who accompanied him, he said, 'I pray you see me safe up, and for my coming down let me shift for myself'.

This lighthearted humour of More is not a disconnected part of his character. It is linked to the very core of his soul and has its roots in his sense of filial trust and confidence in God. More never saw himself marked out for the role of martyr. As he told Cromwell

'I have not been a man of such holy living that I might be bold to offer myself to death, lest God for my presumption might suffer me to fall, and therefore I put not myself forward but draw back. Howbeit if God draw me to it himself, then I trust in his great mercy that he will not fail to give me grace and strength'. [54]

He wrote to Margaret he would be 'well content to go if God should call me hence tomorrow'. Through her he strengthens his whole household.


Apart from the brutal pressure of Cromwell and the Council to get More to change his mind about taking the oath, there was temptation from another unexpected source. It was all the more painful because it came from those who were dearest to him. More's wife spoke her usual excellent household sense why could he not do what all the bishops and the best learned of the realm had done? He respected his wife's good intentions, but she did not have the intelligence nor the education to appreciate the full implications of the oath. With his daughter Margaret it was different. Because they were such kindred spirits he had shared with her all his concerns and preoccupations. Unable to bear the separation from her father, she wrote begging him to change his mind. More replied saying that her letter had caused him more pain than anything else which had happened to him, because to her he had explained his motives many times before. Margaret replied with a letter passionately protesting her love for her father.

At her next visit she again tried to persuade her father to change his mind.

'I know my own frailty full well' he told her 'and the natural faintness of my own heart, yet if I had not trusted that God should give me strength to endure all things than to offend him by swearing against my own conscience, you may be sure that I would not have come here'.[55]

Margaret still persisted and suggested that he follow the wise counsel of many other men.

'Truly daughter' he replied, 'I never intend to pin my soul to another man's back, not even the best man that I know this day living, for I know not whether he may happen to carry it'.[56]

We see here More's profound trust in God and his extraordinary fortitude of mind and soul. In the end he found himself totally on his own; he had, as Belloc points out, no support from without.[57] It was no time 'to pin his soul to another man's back'. For the future he could only depend on his own conscience and the support of God's grace.

Margaret saw there was no point in pressing him any further. More went on to speak of his trust in God. 'Mistrust him, Meg, will I not though I feel me faint'. And even if, like St Peter walking on the water, his faith were to fail him at the last minute, he would

'call upon Christ and pray to him for help. And then I trust he shall set his holy hand upon me and in the stormy seas hold me up from drowning. And finally, Margaret, this I know very well, that without my fault he will not let me be lost. I shall therefore with good hope commit myself wholly to him. And therefore, mine own good daughter, never trouble your mind for anything that shall ever happen to me in this world. Nothing can come but that which God wills. And I feel very sure that whatsoever that may be, however bad it may appear, it shall indeed be the best'.[58]

His loyalty to conscience stood firm despite the temptation from his beloved Meg. Close as he was to her, his trust in God had a deeper anchor point in his soul. It was this which gave him the strength and the courage to face up to any eventuality.

The Council put further pressure on More to take the oath.

'I am the King's faithful servant' he replied to Cromwell, 'and pray for his highness and all the realm. I do nobody harm, I say no harm, I think no harm, but wish everybody good. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith I long not to live'.[59]

It was not that More was courting death, as he had already made clear. His statement to Cromwell was a simple assertion of the fact that he would prefer the freedom death brought with it to the tyranny implicit in Henry's new legislation. In his last letter to Margaret, written on the eve of his execution, while his concern for his family is there right to the end, he has now set his mind definitively on that final encounter. 'Tomorrow long I to go to God', he says, 'it were a day very meet and convenient for me' .[60] Like St Paul, he had finished the race and persevered to the end. Now he would look forward to the prize that awaited him. In his meditation on the Agony in the Garden, he had paused to consider the example of Christ who, after lying prostrate at the thought of death, 'suddenly rises like a giant and rushes towards it filled with elation and exulting joy'.[61] And so with More himself.


More was a humble man in the sense that he knew his own strengths and weaknesses, and what it was that God expected of him. He never considered that he was doing anything beyond the call of duty.

'Not until you look upon yourself as an unprofitable servant' he commented, 'will God look upon you as a faithful one. This we can certainly do with all justice even when we do everything of which we are capable; and I pray to God that we may do just that and not only that, but a good deal more; and if we succeed in accomplishing much, that we may still look upon ourselves as having done absolutely nothing. This is the path that leads, above all others, to the goal where the virtue of others will never cause us anguish and where the love that others receive will never draw a tear from eyes inflamed with envy'.[62]

There is a naturalness and a balance about his behaviour under the most diverse circumstances, all of it seasoned with his perennial good humour. There is nothing of the extraordinary in More's sanctity. As one commentator has put it:

'It is precisely the simplicity of More's soul that is extraordinary. The supernatural did not have to force its way into the thick of human reasons. It emerged gradually and developed without any discontinuity from starting points commonly taken for granted. And yet, at the top of its spiritual ascent, More's soul shows an inner balance of such nobility that the mere interplay of human reasons cannot possibly account for such sublimity. His serenity, his self control in the face of contradictions, his bliss in the midst of pain illumine his last works, and make the reader feel in communion with the mystery of the world above'.[63]

As we conclude, it is tempting to ask what would More's attitude have been to some of the moral issues of our day. His attitude on divorce was quite clear. As he said at his trial, it was not so much for his refusal to take the oath of Supremacy that he was condemned to death, as for the reason that he would not agree to Henry's divorce from Catherine. For More this was a perfectly valid marriage and no power on earth could dispense Henry from it. Again, how would he have responded to the arguments which have lead to the widespread legalisation of contraception and abortion during the past 25 years? More was a lawyer of international repute and the most respected legal brain in the England of his day. His jurisprudence however, was not based on the pragmatism and positivism which dominates so much of legal thinking today and with such disastrous consequences in the area of public morality. [64] More's legal principles were anchored in natural law, metaphysics and the moral principles of Christian revelation. These are the principles he defended courageously during his own lifetime and are, no doubt, what he would articulate today as being the only valid legal principles by which men should guide their moral behaviour if they are to remain true to their Christian faith.

Rev Thomas McGovern is a priest of the Opus Dei Prelature working in Dublin.


1. The King's Good Servant, but God's first in Position Paper no. 52, (April 1978).

2. The Essential Thomas More: edited by Greene and Dolan (New York 1967), p. 290.

3. T.E. Bridgett, Life and Writings of Sir Thomas More (London 1891) p. 115.

4. St. Thomas More: Selected Letters, edited by Elizabeth F. Rogers (London 1967), p. 182.

5. Idem, p. 92.

6. Idem, p. 150

7. Rudolf B. Gottfried, 'A Conscience Undeflowered' in Essential Articles for the study of Thomas More, (Connecticut 1977), p.522.

8. Selected Letters, p. 109; E.E. Reynolds, St Thomas More (London 1953), p. 194.

9. Selected Letters, p. 148.

10. Idem, p. 155.

11. Nicholas Harpsfield, Sir Thomas More (London 1963), p. 97.

12. Selected letters, p. 234.

13. Idem, passim; Dame Bede Foord (ed.), Conscience Decides: Sir Thomas More's Letters and Prayers from Prison (London 1971).

14. The Essential Thomas More, p. 297.

15. Selected Letters, p. 257.

16. Idem, p. 109.

17. Idem, p. 146.

18. Idem, p. 103; Daniel Sargent, Thomas More (London 1938), p. 79.

19. Selected Letters, p. 149.

20. Idem, p. 154.

21. Bridgett, Life, p. 114.

22. R.W. Chambers, Thomas More (London 1935), p. 178.

23. The Essential Thomas More, p. 291.

24. Harpsfield, op. cit., p. 102.

25. A.W. Reed, 'William Rastell and More's English Works' in Essential Articles, p. 436.

26. Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons (London 1961), p. xiv.

27. Conscience Decides, p. 61.

28. Selected Letters, p. 63.

29. Idem, p. 135.

30. Chambers, op. cit., p. 366.

31. Selected Letters, p. 99.

32. Idem, p. 100.

33. Idem, p. 14.

34. Idem, p. 51.

35. Conversations with Mgr Escrivá de Balaguer (Shannon 1972), p. 65; Vatican Council II Documents (Dublin 1975), Dogmatic Constitution on Church, Ch 4, p. 388.

36. Bridgett, op. cit., Preface.

37. Idem, p. 46.

38. Selected Letters, p. 247.

39. De Tristitia Christi, Vol 14 of Yale Edition of Complete Works of St Thomas More (New Haven 1976).

40. William Roper, Life of Sir Thomas More, (London 1906), p. 34.

41. Sargent, op. cit., p. 75.

42. Reynolds, op. cit., p. 190.

43. St Thomas More, Dialogue of Comfort, (London 1951), p. 134.

44. Conscience Decides, p. 118.

45. Idem, p. 100.

46. Idem, p. 106.

47. Reynolds, op. cit., p. 190.

48. Selected Letters, p. 182.

49. Reynolds, op. cit., p. 224.

50. Conscience Decides, p. 96.

51. Sargent, op. cit., p. 89; Selected Letters, p. 170.

52. R.S. Sylvester, 'Roper's Life of More', in Essential Articles, p. 194.

53. Dialogue of Comfort, p. 229.

54. Conscience Decides, p. 89.

55. Idem, p. 45.

56. Idem, p. 48.

57. Hilaire Belloc, 'The Witness to Abstract Truth' in The Fame of Blessed Thomas More (London 1929), p. 57.

58. Conscience Decides, p. 61

59. Idem, p. 80.

60. Selected Letters, p. 257.

61. Andre Prevost, 'Conscience the Ultimate Court of Appeal' in Essential Articles, p. 564.

62. Selected Letters, p. 141.

63. Prevost, op. cit., p. 565.

64. K.D. Whitehead, 'Consequences of the Contraceptive Mentality' in L'Osservatore Romano, 22 June 1978 (English edition).

The above essay first appeared in Position Paper, 62, February 1979.

This version: 12th February 2003

Copyright ©; Fr Thomas McGovern 1979, 2003.

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