Saint Thomas More: Secular Franciscan and Martyr

Saint Thomas More: Secular Franciscan and Martyr

On June 22, Catholics celebrate the memory of St. Thomas More (1478-1535), celebrated humanist, author, statesman, devoted father and husband, who died as a martyr on July 6, 1535. According to longstanding tradition, he was a Secular Franciscan.

Immersed in humanistic scholarship

Born in London in 1478, the son of the prosperous lawyer John More, Thomas received an excellent primary education, and at the age of 12 became a page to Archbishop Morton of Canterbury, the chancellor of England, who immersed him in humanistic scholarship.

St Thomas More Holbein

The celebrated portrait of Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger (1527), Frick Gallery, New York.

Study of law

In 1492 Thomas began studying at Oxford but he left to study law in London. By the late 1490s More, a young lecturer in law, had joined a circle of prominent humanist scholars: John Colet, Thomas Linacre, and Erasmus.

Deeply drawn to prayer and an ascetic life

More also was deeply drawn to prayer and an ascetic life. For two years he lived near the Carthusian monastery (Charterhouse), often taking part in the daily spiritual exercises of the monks and frequenting their library.

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Thomas More's personal crucifix.

Known for eloquence and integrity

Despite the attractions of the monastic life, More ultimately decided he could best serve God as a Christian layman. He entered Parliament in 1504 and soon became known for his eloquence and integrity.

Home became center of learning, hospitality, prayer

More married in 1505 and became a dedicated family man. Within six years the couple had four children. More gave his daughters the same humanist education as his son, and his home became a center of learning, hospitality, and prayer.

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Sketch of the More family, Hans Holbein (c. 1527).

Advancing in public service

Meanwhile, More's intelligence and work ethic paved the way for advancement in public service. He was named to the Privy Council in 1514 and gradually was given positions of ever-greater responsibility, in the process becoming a close friend and advisor of King Henry VIII.

His famous work “Utopia”

In the meantime, he continued to engage in humanistic scholarship. He wrote his famous "Utopia" in 1516. It was during these years that More most probably became a Secular Franciscan; the Observant friars had a house attached to the royal palace in Greenwich as chaplains, and More became acquainted with a number of them.

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From first edition of Utopia (1516).

Defender of Catholic doctrine of the sacraments

When the Reformation broke out, More was moved to support the Catholic faith. He assisted Henry VIII in writing a response defending the Catholic doctrine of the sacraments against Luther and later wrote his own "Dialogue concerning Heresies."

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Statue of Thomas More outside Chelsea Old Church, London. The family worshiped here regularly, and More built a chapel for his family's graves.

A rise in politics

More also was active in attempts to root out advancing Protestant ideas and publications. More continued his rise in politics. During these years, as legal counsel and judge, he had gained a reputation for great integrity and scrupulous fairness.

“The King’s good servant, but God’s first”

More was named Lord Chancellor in 1529, but as Henry VIII moved to separate the Church of England from union with the Pope, More's conscience compelled him to resign his position in 1532. He tried for some months to evade taking a position on the king's marriage to Anne Boleyn, but his prominence demanded he do so. He was arrested in 1534 for denying the royal supremacy and imprisoned in the Tower of London. He was beheaded on July 6, 1535, dying as “the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”

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Plaque in Westminster Hall, London, marking the trial of Thomas More.

Patron of public servants and politicians

More and his friend and fellow martyr, John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, were canonized in 1935. In 1980 the Anglican Church also recognized More and Fisher as martyrs of conscience. And in 2000 Pope St. John Paul II made Thomas More the patron of public servants and politicians because “he demonstrated in a singular way the value of a moral conscience. . .even if, in his actions against heretics, he reflected the limits of the culture of his time.”

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Location of the scaffold in Tower Square, London, where Thomas More was executed.

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Plaque in the Roper family vault, St. Dunstan's Church, Canterbury, where Thomas More's family interred his head.

Learn more about Saint Thomas More

For a more detailed presentation of More's life, see https://englishhistory.net/tudor/citizens/sir-thomas-more/