Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 10. Sir Thomas More

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

I. Englishmen and the Classical Renascence

§ 10. Sir Thomas More

Sir Thomas More, the associate with Fisher in his tragic death, the pupil of Linacre and Grocyn, the disciple of Colet and the beloved friend of Erasmus, was the one member of the band of English humanists who had a distinct gift of literary genius. The son of a well-known London lawyer, he was placed by his father in the household of archbishop Morton, who, recognising his precocious genius, sent him to Oxford. There he became a good Latinist and a fair scholar in Greek. His devotion to the study of law at Lincoln’s Inn did not quench his ardour for classical learning. After he was called to the bar he delivered lectures in the church of St. Lawrence, on St. Augustine’s De Civitate Dei, which were attended by “all the chief learned citizens of London,” dwelling on the philosophy and history rather than on the theology of the book. He became reader at Furnival’s Inn, was a member of parliament (1503–4) and there successfully withstood the exactions of the king. His subsequent withdrawal from public life, usually attributed to fear of the king, gave him opportunity to cultivate his acquaintance with Greek and Latin. Together with Lily, he translated epigrams from the Greek anthology into Latin elegiac verse, and, in company with Erasmus, he translated into Latin prose portions from Lucian. The former, largely added to, were published in Progymnasmatal and the latter, in 1506, under the title Luciani … compluria opuscula … ab Erasmo Roterodamo et Thoma Moro … traducta.

More had gradually built up for himself an extensive and lucrative private practice, when he was drawn into the king’s service. He was employed in the negotiation of a commercial treaty with the Netherlands and, from the year 1516, he took office at court. He was made a privy councillor and was knighted in 1521. He became Master of Requests, undertreasurer, chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster (1525) and finally, lord chancellor (25 October, 1529). He held the office for two years and a half. The last years of his life were full of tragical suffering. Convocation and parliament had pronounced the marriage of Henry VIII with Catharine of Aragon invalid. The first act of succession (25 Henry VIII, c. 22), passed in the spring of 1534, had settled the succession in the children of Anne Boleyn, and all Englishmen were required to swear to maintain the act. More declared repeatedly that he accepted the act, but the oath which was afterwards prescribed went beyond the contents of the act and required a declaration about papal authority within the realm. This, More steadfastly refused to make. He was confined in the Tower in circumstances of great hardship, and, in the end, was condemned to suffer death under act 26 Henry VIII, cc. 1 and 13. The barbarous punishment devised for traitors was commuted by the king to beheading. More suffered on 6 July, 1535. His execution, a judicial murder, and that of the bishop of Rochester, filled the world with horror. An interesting proof of the wide-spread character of this indignation has been furnished by the recently published (December, 1906) process against George Buchanan before the Lisbon inquistion. The humanist confessed to the inquisitors that he had written his celebrated tragedy, Baptistes—a work translated into English, French, Dutch and German—with his eye fixed on the tyranny of Henry displayed in the trial and execution of Thomas More.

More was a voluminous writer both in Latin and in English. His fame rests chiefly on his Latin epigrams and Utopia; but his other work requires to be mentioned.

His verses, English and Latin, are, for the most part, mediocre, but contain some pieces of great merit. They are interesting because they reveal the character of the man, at once grave and gay, equally inclined to worldly pleasure and ascetic austerity; and they are not free from that trait of whimsical pedantry which belonged to More all through his life, and which displayed itself when, being in love with the younger sister, he resolved to marry the elder because it was meet that she should be the first settled in life. He wrote of Venus and Cupid, of a soldier who wished to play the monk, of eternity, of fortune, its favours and its reverses, and a Rueful Lamentation on the death of Elizabeth, the queen of Henry VII. Many of his epigrams are full of sadness, of an uncertain fear of the future. They describe life as a path leading to death. They reveal a man who had seen and felt much suffering and who brooded over the uncertainties of life. They seem to anticipate the fate of one who fell almost at once from the throne of the lord chancellor into a cell in the Tower. His translation into English of the Life of John Picus, Erle of Myrandula, a greate Lorde of Italy, is an autobiography of ideals if not of facts. The young gifted Italian humanist, who was transformed by contact with Savonarola, with his refined culture, his longing for a monastic career, his deliberate choice of a lay life and his secret austerities, was repeated in his English admirer, who wore, almost continuously, a “sharp shirt of hair,” who watched and fasted often, who slept frequently, “either on the bare ground, or on some bench, or laid some log under his head.”

More’s other prose writings, with the exception of Utopia, are controversial and devotional. The controversial include, besides those in Latin, The Dialogue, The Supplication of Souls, A Confutation of Tindale’s Answer, A Letter against Frith, The Apology, The Debellacyon of Salem and Bizance and an Answer to the “Supper of the Lord.” They form about three-fourths of the whole and deserve more consideration than they usually receive. They are by no means free from the scurrility which was characteristic of that age of controversy. His opponents are “swine,” “hell-hounds that the devil hath in his kennel,” “apes that dance for the pleasure of Lucifer,” and so on. These writings are unusually prolix, but they show that the author was well read in theology and they manifest a great acquaintance with Scripture. More was no curialist or ultramontane, to use the modern word; but he was a man who felt the need of an external spiritual authority and clung to it. While Colet lived, he was More’s director; during occasional absences, Grocyn supplied his place; after Colet’s death, he felt increasingly the need for something external to rest on, and the thought of a historical church, which he defined to be “all Christian people,” was necessary to sustain his faith. The style in all these English writings, their carefully constructed balanced sentences with modulated cadences, exhibit the scholar and the imitator of the Latin classics.

Utopia, the one work by More which still lives in all the freshness of youth, was written in Latin. The author was diffident about it. He showed the manuscript to friends, especially to Erasmus, and they were enthusiastic. The great French humanist Budé wrote the preface; Erasmus and Peter Giles (Aegidius) superintended the printing; the book took the learned world of Europe by storm in somewhat the same way as did Moriae Encomium; and the author was at once hailed as a member of the wide republic of letters. It was translated into most European languages; new editions appear continually; and it has become one of the world’s classics. It may have been suggested by Plato’s Republic—the names it contains are Greek—but the books have little in common. It borrows something from Augustine’s De Civitate Dei, a favourite of the author. Yet the book is thoroughly original. The ground-plan had been suggested by the account of the voyages of Americo Vespucci; the sight of the wide, clean, well-paved streets of the towns in the Netherlands, refreshing after the crowded, narrow, filthy thoroughfares of London, the extent of garden ground within the walls of Bruges and Antwerp, suggested the “commodious and handsome” streets and the gardens “with all manner of fruit, herbs and flowers” of the city of Amaurote. The economic distress through which England was passing, the increase of sheep and the decay of agriculture, the destruction of farm steadings and of country towns, are all apparent in the book, and have produced many of its suggestions. The detestation of war shared by Colet, Erasmus and most of the humanists found utterance in the toleration of all religions and in conscription for agriculture but not for war. It is possible that Colet’s well-known opinions about priesthood appear in exaggerated form in Utopia. The book is full of allusions to the circumstances of the time during which the author lived; but critics are scarcely warranted in concluding, as many of them do, that they can find his practical remedies for the disorders of the age in the laws and usages of the imaginary state.

More lived long enough to see the maxims of Utopia applied in a way which must have horrified him, and which probably gave their sharp edge to his denunciations of the Peasants’ war. He did not dream that, ten years after the publication of the book, and ten years before his own death, his Utopia would furnish texts for excited agitators on village greens or in the public-houses of German towns. But so it was. The Moriae Encomium of Erasmus and More’s Utopia were made full use of in the future “tumult” which they both dreaded.

It is not easy to say what influence this group of English humanists had in making the study of classical learning take root in their native land. Fisher’s position as chancellor of the university secured the continuous study of Greek at Cambridge, and More is our authority for saying that its popularity there was so great that scholars who did not share the teaching were ready to contribute to the support of the teacher. At Oxford, the struggle, evidently, was harder. Greek was denounced by obscurantist churchmen, and it was Sir Thomas More’s task, while he was a power at court, to protect and encourage both lecturers and scholars. It may safely be said, however, that the example and writings of Erasmus were the most powerful stimulus to the desire to know something about, and to share in the revival of, classical learning.