MORE, Thomas I (1477/78-1535), of London and Chelsea, Mdx.
Available from Boydell and Brewer
Family and Education
b. 6 or 7 Feb. 1477 or 78, 1st s. of Sir John More of London by 1st w. Agnes, da. of Thomas Graunger of London. educ. St. Anthony’s sch. London; household of Cardinal Morton; Oxf. c.1492; New Inn c.1494; L. Inn, adm. 12 Feb. 1496. m. (1) by Jan. 1505, Jane (d.1511), da. of John Colt of Netherhall, nr. Roydon, Essex, 1s. 3da.; (2) 1511, Alice, wid. of John Middleton of London. Kntd. by Nov. 1521; suc. fa. 1530.3
Auditor, L. Inn 1503, pens. 1507, butler 1507-8, marshal 1510-11, gov. 1511-12, 1514-15, Autumn reader 1511, Lent 1515.
Under sheriff, London Sept. 1510-23 July 1518; Councillor by Aug. 1517; j.p. Kent 1518, Mdx. 1522-32; jt. keeper, Exchange 1520; under treasurer, Exchequer 2 May 1521-5; commr. subsidy, Mdx. 1523, 1524; high steward, Oxf. univ. June 1524, Camb. 1525; steward, duchy of Lancaster, Herts. and Mdx. June 1525, chancellor 30 Sept. 1525-Oct. 1529; ld. chancellor 25 Oct. 1529-16 May 1532.4
Speaker of House of Commons 1523.
In the epitaph which he composed after resigning the chancellorship Thomas More described himself as ‘a Londoner born, of no noble family, but of an honest stock’. His grandfather was a baker and his father a lawyer who was able to place the young More in the household of Cardinal Morton, chancellor and archbishop of Canterbury. It may have been to prepare for the priesthood that Thomas More went to Oxford, where he is generally supposed to have attended Canterbury College but may also have been a member of St. Mary Hall, but after about two years there his father put him to the study of law. He remained uncertain of his vocation even after being called to the bar, and according to his son-in-law William Roper he spent four years at the London Charterhouse, living the life of a religious but without taking vows. Reader at Furnival’s Inn for three successive years, he also lectured on St. Augustine’s De Civitate Dei in the church of St. Lawrence Jewry where his friend William Grocyn was rector.5
More’s marriage to the eldest daughter of a well-connected Essex gentleman marked his final choice of a secular life. Although his own circle of friends was already large and his father had been made a serjeant in 1503, it may have been his wife’s family which procured his return to the Parliament of 1504; his constituency is not known but it could have been Gatton for which his father-in-law had sat in 1492. Roper, the sole authority for More’s Membership, recounts how he argued successfully against Henry VII’s demand for an aid on the marriage of his eldest daughter and how Sir William Tyler told the King that ‘a beardless boy had disappointed all his purpose’. The story is corroborated in general terms by the known reluctance of the Commons to grant the King’s request in its original form, but whether More was in danger after the episode, as Roper averred, is more doubtful, although it has been suggested that his visit to the universities of Paris and Louvain in 1508 may have been preparatory to a removal abroad, a step which became unnecessary with the death of Henry VII.6
While continuing his classical studies and making his reputation as a humanist, More supported his growing family by his legal practice. His father was retained as counsel by the city of London and in 1508 More himself was associated with one of the City’s under sheriffs, Richard Broke, as arbitrator in a dispute between two Londoners. In March 1509 he was admitted to the Mercers’ Company without charge and in the following September he conducted negotiations on its behalf with the pensionary of Antwerp. On 13 Dec. 1509 he was elected to the first Parliament of the new reign in place of James Yarford, a mercer chosen by the commonalty three weeks earlier who by becoming an alderman had upset the balance between aldermen and commoners in the City’s Membership. His description in the record of the election as ‘Thomas More, mercer’ has led some to suppose that it was a namesake who was elected, but the style was one to which More was entitled and he used it on at least one other occasion; a contemporary London chronicler also calls the Member ‘young More’, in the fashion in which he was distinguished from his father in the city journals.7
On 3 Sept. 1510 More replaced Broke as under sheriff: for eight years he served as judge in the sheriff’s court of the Compter in the Poultry and acted as one of the City’s legal counsel. He is not known to have sat in the Parliaments of 1512 and 1515 but he was presumably the ‘Master More, junior’ who on 2 Mar. 1512 presented objections to a private bill then before the Lords, and on the same day it may have been he rather than his father (‘prefatum Johannem More’) who brought a bill concerning juries in London into the Lords, by order of the chancellor. In the same month he was included for the first time in a deputation to the King’s Council and in November he and the common serjeant were appointed to speak for the wardens of the Companies when they appeared before the Lords to argue the case for the bill ‘that all crafts shall hereafter be under the rule of the mayor and aldermen’. On 7 Dec., as part of a sustained (but unsuccessful) attempt by the City to secure the passage of this hill, he was sent to lobby the bishop of Norwich. His admission as a member of Doctors’ Commons in December 1514 was presumably an honorary one. In March 1515 he was again mentioned in the Lords’ Journal in connexion with a bill on the export of wool, and in May, having been recommended to Wolsey by the London merchants and granted leave by the common council to perform his duties by deputy, he was sent on a commercial embassy to the Netherlands under the direction of the most intimate of his friends, Cuthbert Tunstall. It was on this mission that he began Utopia. On his return he was offered a pension by the King which, as he explained to Erasmus, he refused lest it should prejudice his independence as under sheriff or even compel him to give up an office ‘which I like better than many another office of higher rank’. By 26 Aug. 1517, however, when he was commissioned to negotiate with the French at Calais, he had become a member of the King’s Council. Erasmus seems not to have learned of this promotion for nearly a year and it has been suggested that in his correspondence More fell in with the great humanist’s known views by exaggerating his own reluctance to enter the King’s service. He remained ‘a special lover and friend’ of the City: his intercession with and for the May Day rioters of 1517 was long remembered and provided the opening scene (ascribed to Shakespeare) of the play Sir Thomas More. In 1524 he moved his family from Bucklersbury, in the City, to Chelsea.8
Although sent on further missions to the Netherlands in 1520 (when he also attended the Field of Cloth of Gold) and 1521, the year of his appointment as under treasurer of the Exchequer, More was chiefly employed from 1519 to late 1526 as ‘effectively a second or substitute secretary’, and in particular as the intermediary between the King and Wolsey: the Eltham Ordinances of January 1526 named him among the four Councillors of whom at least two were to be in constant attendance on the King. He was also in 1518 one of the Councillors appointed to hear poor men’s causes. He was thus a natural choice for the Speakership of the Parliament of 1523: his constituency is again unknown but he could well have been a knight of the shire for Middlesex, where he was shortly to take up residence and where he was named a subsidy commissioner in 1523 and 1524. His petition to the King that the Members should be granted liberty of speech represents a landmark in the history of the Commons’ privileges and perhaps harked back to his own experience in 1504. This Parliament was to be chiefly concerned with the financing of the war with France. Roper represents Wolsey as very angry with More for his failure to secure all that was asked, but More seems to have handled the Commons with considerable skill, eliciting its consent to a larger subsidy than any before granted, and after the dissolution the cardinal made a point of reminding the King of the customary gift to the Speaker of £100 over and above the usual fee of £100, which ‘no man could better deserve ... than he hath done’. Of the many portraits of More, a patron of Holbein, one of the opening of this Parliament shows him (from behind) as Speaker. In 1527, being then chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, he accompanied Wolsey to France to confirm the peace negotiated earlier in the year, and in 1529 he was present at the signing of the peace of Cambrai.9
On 17 Oct. 1529 Wolsey surrendered the great seal which was delivered to More eight days later; he took his oath as chancellor on 26 Oct. in Westminster Hall. He was not, as sometimes stated, the first layman to hold the office but he was the first man to serve as Speaker of the Commons in one Parliament and, as chancellor, of the Lords in another. The choice of a declared opponent of the King’s divorce to succeed Wolsey was a surprising one, but Henry VIII was doubtless confident that More would come round. The King’s promise to respect More’s conscience and ‘to accept his service otherwise’, in matters unconnected with the divorce, seems to have been made after More had accepted the chancellorship, but however More might wish to hold aloof from this issue his office inevitably involved him in it.10
The Parliament of 1529 met nine days after More had taken his oath of office. His only son was under age but all three of his sons-in-law, William Dauntesey, Giles Heron and William Roper, were elected to it, as were his brother-in-law John Rastell, his stepdaughter’s second husband Giles Alington, and probably Heron’s brother-in-law John Dynham: Edward Madison, a Member for Hull, married Roper’s sister in 1529. Of these, Dauntesey and Heron at least must have owed their return for the duchy of Lancaster borough of Thetford to More. He may also have had a hand in the choice as Speaker of Thomas Audley, for the last three years his subordinate in the duchy. Among other Members connected with More, Robert Fisher, Geoffrey Lee and Geoffrey Pole were all brothers of close friends of his, while Henry See, Roper’s friend and fellow-Member for Bramber, and John Latton, a kinsman of the Daunteseys, were named with Dauntesey and Roper as ‘of Chelsea’ in a list of 1533 thought to be of Members opposed on religious or economic grounds to the bill in restraint of appeals to Rome. Robert Fisher was on this list and so was Sir George Throckmorton, whose Catholic stand against the King’s policy had earlier been encouraged by More in a private interview. Most, if not all, of those who advised Throckmorton to the same effect were friends of More, but that the chancellor belonged to an organized opposition group, in or out of Parliament—as Cromwell was later to allege—is questionable.11
At the opening of the Parliament More declared the King’s desire for reform and, after comparing the King’s relationship to his people with that of a shepherd to his flock, he attacked Wolsey, ‘the great wether which is of late fallen’. His next recorded intervention in Parliament was on 30 Mar. 1531 when he declared before the Lords that the King was moved to seek a divorce only out of conscience and presented the opinions in its favour collected from various universities. The Lords attempted to debate these but when More was asked for his own opinion he refused to answer, saying that he had many times expressed his mind to the King. He then led a deputation to the Commons, where the university opinions were again delivered, and told the House:
Now you of this Commons House may report what you have seen and heard, and then all men shall openly perceive that the King hath not attempted this matter of will or pleasure, as some strangers report, but only for the discharge of his conscience and surety of the succession of his realm.
Parliament was prorogued the next day. The imperial ambassador and Roper agree that at this time More was ready to resign, but the breaking point did not come until after the next session. On 13 May 1532 the King was said to be very angry with More for his opposition to the attack on the Church; on the following day Parliament was prorogued, on 15 May the clergy made their formal submission to the King and on the next day More surrendered the great seal.12
More had never taken advantage of his opportunities to build up an estate—besides his property in Chelsea and his inheritance from his father he held only the manor of South in Kent and two Oxfordshire manors—and now that he was out of office his income was greatly reduced. He used his enforced leisure to continue the literary offensive against heresy he had begun years before with the King’s encouragement: he had also used his authority as chancellor against heretics, one of his (alleged) victims being John Petyt. It seemed that he would be left in peace but early in 1534 the bill for the attainder of Elizabeth Barton and others contained his name. He defended himself by letter to the King and Cromwell against any charge of having encouraged her to inveigh against the divorce; he demanded a hearing before the Lords but was instead questioned before Cromwell and other Councillors. His name was struck out of the bill but on 13 Apr. he was summoned to swear to the Act of Succession (25 Hen. VIII, c.22) which had received the royal assent six days before. He said that he ‘would not deny to swear to the succession’ but refused the oath proferred because of its denial of the papal supremacy. His refusal constituted misprision of treason and after being first committed to the custody of the abbot of Westminster he was removed to the Tower. In the autumn of 1534 the Acts of Supremacy and Treasons (26 Hen. VIII, cc.1, 13) gave statutory force to the King’s title of supreme head of the Church; ‘maliciously’ to deprive him of it was made high treason. This was the offence with which More was charged on 1 July 1535.13
The indictment recited the substance of the Acts and after listing the occasions on which More had offended, ranging from his silence before the Councillors on 7 May 1535 to his conversation with Sir Richard Rich in the Tower on 12 June, declared that he had ‘falsely, traitorously and maliciously’ denied the royal supremacy. All the overt acts alleged save the last were evidently rejected, but on Rich’s evidence, which (according to Roper) More vehemently denied, he was found guilty. He then entered a plea in abatement, aimed at the quashing of the indictment as based upon an Act ‘directly repugnant to the laws of God and his holy Church’ and contrary both to the laws of England exemplified in Magna Carta and to the King’s coronation oath. To Chancellor Audley’s reply that the ‘best learned’ of the realm had agreed to the Act, More cited the support of many, living and dead, who ‘thought in this case that way that I think now’, and concluded, ‘I am not bound to conform my conscience to the council of one realm against the general council of Christendom’. Audley appealed for advice to Chief Justice Fitzjames who ‘like a wise man’ (the phrase is Roper’s) replied, ‘My lords all, by St. Julian, I must needs confess that if the Act of Parliament be not unlawful, then is not the indictment in my conscience insufficient’. Judgment was accordingly given against More and he was returned to the Tower, where on 6 July word was brought him by Thomas Pope that he should die that morning. On the scaffold he declared that he died in and for the Catholic faith.14
At the beginning of the last session of the Parliament of 1529 an Act (27 Hen. VIII, c.58) was passed annulling a deed of 25 Mar. 1534 whereby More had conveyed his Chelsea property to ten feoffees, including his kinsmen John More and Richard Heywood and William Rastell. The Act, however, did not affect a second deed, dated two days later, whereby More had conveyed a substantial part of the property to his daughter Margaret and her husband William Roper. One of More’s sons-in-law Giles Heron was executed for treason in 1540 and the other two were in danger three years later when implicated in the prebendaries’ plot against Cranmer together with More’s son and John Heywood. In 1544 Heywood was indicted with Germain Gardiner and More’s former parish priest John Larke; Heywood was pardoned but Gardiner and Larke were executed, both acknowledging on the scaffold that they had been fortified by More’s example. Several of More’s family circle, including his grandson and namesake, sat in Marian Parliaments and its descendants were later to play an important role in recusant history. More was beatified in 1886 and canonized in 1935.15