English statesman, Sir Thomas More, later canonized as Saint Thomas More
(1935), was born the son of a lawyer who later became a judge. He was
educated at St. Anthony's School and was appointed a page in the home of
Archbishop (later Cardinal) Morton, who sent him to Canterbury Hall,
Oxford, in the early 1490s. At Oxford, More studied under Colet and
Linacre. More left Oxford without a degree to study at new Inn and
Lincoln's Inn in London. His lectures dealt not only with law but also
with St. Augustine's City of God. He spent three years as a
reader in Furnival's Inn and spent the next four years in the
Charterhouse in "devotion and prayer." He early composed
various English poems and Latin epigrams that were not printed for
several years. However, a Latin translation of four Greek dialogues of
Lucian appeared in 1506, and an English translation of the Latin life of
his model, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, in 1510.
Increasingly involved in public affairs, More became a
member of Parliament in 1504, beginning the career that led to the
well-known events of his chancellorship and his martyrdom.
Introduced to Henry VIII through Wolsey, More became
master of requests (1514), treasurer of the exchequer (1521), and
chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (1525). He was speaker of the House
of Commons, and was sent on missions to Francis I and Charles V. On the
fall of Wolsey in 1529, More, against his own strongest inclinations,
was appointed lord chancellor. In the discharge of his office he
displayed a primitive virtue and simplicity.
The one stain on his character as judge is the harshness
of his sentences for religious opinions. He sympathized with Colet and
Erasmus in their desire for a more rational theology and for radical
reform in the manners of the clergy, but like them also he had no desire
to break with the historic church. He witnessed with displeasure the
successive steps which led Henry to the final schism with Rome. In 1532
he resigned the chancellorship.
In 1534 Henry was declared head of the English Church
and More's refusal to recognize any other head of the church then the
pope led to his sentence for high treason after a harsh imprisonment in
the Tower for more than a year. Still refusing to recant his opinions,
More was beheaded on July 7, 1535.
More was twice married. His daughter Margaret, the wife
of his biographer William Roper (Life
of Sir Thomas More), was distinguished for her high character,
accomplishments, and pious devotion to her father. With his Utopia
(1516, English trans. 1556. A 1518
Latin text is available), More takes his place with the most eminent
humanists of the Renaissance.
What follows is a description of Thomas More rendered by
his close friend, Desiderius Erasmus in 1519.
You ask me to paint you a full-length portrait of More
as in a picture. Would that I could do it as perfectly as you eagerly
desire it. At least I will try to give a sketch of the man, as well as
from my long familiarity with him I have either observed or can now
recall. To begin, then, with what is least known to you, in stature he
is not tall, though not remarkably short. His limbs are formed with such
perfect symmetry as to leave nothing to be desired. His complexion is
white, his face fair rather than pale, and though by no means ruddy, a
faint flush of pink appears beneath the whiteness of his skin. His hair
is dark brown, or brownish black. The eyes are grayish The eyes are
grayish blue, with some spots, a kind which betokens singular talent,
and among the English is considered attractive, whereas Germans
generally prefer black. It is said that none are so free from vice.
His countenance is in harmony with his character, being always
expressive of an amiable joyousness, and even an incipient laughter,
and, to speak candidly, it is better framed for gladness than for
gravity and dignity, though without any approach to folly or buffoonery.
The right shoulder is a little higher than the left, especially when he
walks. This is not a defect of birth, but the result of habit, such as
we often contract. In the rest of his person there is nothing to offend.
His hands are the least refined part of his body.
He was from his boyhood always most careless about whatever concerned
his body. His youthful beauty may be guessed from what still remains,
though I knew him when be was not more than three-and-twenty. Even now
he is not much over forty. He has good health, though not robust; able
to endure all honourable toil, and subject to very few diseases. He
seems to promise a long life, as his father still survives in a
wonderfully green old age.
I never saw anyone so indifferent about food. Until he was a young man
he delighted in drinking water, but that was natural to him (id illi
patrium fuit). Yet not to seem singular or morose, he would hide
his temperance from his guests by drinking out of a pewter vessel beer
almost as light as water, or often pure water. It is the custom in
England to pledge each other in drinking wine. In doing so he will
merely touch it with his lips, not to seem to dislike it, or to fall in
with the custom. He likes to eat corned beef and coarse bread much
leavened, rather than what most people count delicacies. Otherwise he
has no aversion to what gives harmless pleasure to the body. He prefers
milk diet and fruits, and is especially fond of eggs.
His voice is neither loud nor very weak, but penetrating; not resounding
or soft, but that of a clear speaker. Though he delights in every kind
of music he has no vocal talents. He speaks with great clearness and
perfect articulation, without rapidity or hesitation. He likes a simple
dress, using neither silk nor purple nor gold chain, except when it may
not be omitted. It is wonderful how negligent he is as regards all the
ceremonious forms in which most men make politeness to consist. He does
not require them from others, nor is he anxious to use them himself, at
interviews or banquets, though he is not unacquainted with them when
necessary. But he thinks it unmanly to spend much time in such trifles.
Formerly he was most averse to the frequentation of the court, for he
has a great hatred of constraint (tyrannis) and loves equality.
Not without much trouble he was drawn into the court of Henry VIII.,
though nothing more gentle and modest than that prince can be desired.
By nature More is chary of his liberty and of ease, yet, though he
enjoys ease, no one is more alert or patient when duty requires it.
He seems born and framed for friendship, and is a most faithful and
enduring friend. He is easy of access to all; but if he chances to get
familiar with one whose vices admit no correction, he manages to loosen
and let go the intimacy rather than to break it off suddenly. When he
finds any sincere and according to his heart, he so delights in their
society and conversation as to place in it the principal charm of life.
He abhors games of tennis, dice, cards, and the like, by which most
gentlemen kill time. Though he is rather too negligent of his own
interests, no one is more diligent in those of his friends. In a word,
if you want a perfect model of friendship, you will find it in no one
better than in More. In society he is so polite, so sweet-mannered, that
no one is of so melancholy a disposition as not to be cheered by him,
and there is no misfortune that he does not alleviate. Since his boyhood
he has so delighted in merriment, that it seems to be part of his
nature; yet he does not carry it to buffoonery, nor did he ever like
biting pleasantries. When a youth he both wrote and acted some small
comedies. If a retort is made against himself, even without ground, he
likes it from the pleasure he finds in witty repartees. Hence he amused
himself with composing epigrams when a young man, and enjoyed Lucian
above all writers. Indeed, it was he who pushed me to write the
"Praise of Folly," that is to say, he made a camel frisk.
In human affairs there is nothing from which he does not extract
enjoyment, even from things that are most serious. If he converses with
the learned and judicious, he delights in their talent; if with the
ignorant and foolish, he enjoys their stupidity. He is not even offended
by professional jesters. With a wonderful dexterity he accommodates
himself to every disposition. As a rule, in talking with women, even
with his own wife, he is full of jokes and banter.
No one is less led by the opinions of the crowd, yet no one departs less
from common sense. One of his great delights is to consider the forms,
the habits, and the instincts of different kinds of animals. There is
hardly a species of bird that he does not keep in his house, and rare
animals such as monkeys, foxes, ferrets, weasels and the like. If he
meets with anything foreign, or in any way remarkable, he eagerly buys
it, so that his house is full of such things, and at every turn they
attract the eye of visitors, and his own pleasure is renewed whenever he
sees others pleased.
[Source: T. E. Bridgett, Life and Writings of Blessed
Thomas More (1913).]
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