Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Question from Anonymous - Contemporary perception of Thomas More

I am a Sophmore in High School and I am doing a summer project about Sir. Thomas More. I was wondering how the Tudor society precieved More. From reading the book "The Daughter of Time" and "A Man for All Seasons", I think they liked More, but I am uncertain. Furthermore, if they did like More, why was he put to death?


Elizabeth M. said...

Thomas More, in a nutshell, did a lot of things to anger Henry VIII. He refused to sign a letter from nobles and some churchmen to the Pope requesting the Pope to rule in Henry's favor in his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. More was a strong believer in enforcing the laws against heresy, and several people were burned for heresy during his time as Chancellor. Henry VIII, while not a supporter of Luther, nevertheless came to agree with certain writings of authors, such as William Tynedale, an English reformer in exile in Europe, and was notably impressed with his work The Obedience of a Christian Man, which basically said rulers the supreme authority in their own kingdoms and not the Pope.
More snubbed Anne Boleyn's coronation, and a man of his profile doing such was widely noted. In 1534, the Act of Succession was passed, and subjects were required to sign it. More refused. While he accepted Anne Boleyn as queen, he again refused to acknowledge teh King as supreme head of the English church. he had refused to do so upon the submission of the clergy, when it was said that Henry would be Supreme Head of the Church "as far as the law of Christ allows." That was in 1531. Now in 1534, the Act of Succession had a clause which said Parliament would have the authority to legislate in matters of religion, not the Pope.
It was considered treason not to sign, and both More and Bishop John Fisher, who also refused to sign, were tried and sentenced to death. Fisher had been a particular thorn in Henry's side, as Fisher was a vehement supporter of Catherine and had been her chief counselor and acted in her defense at the legatine court. Fisher went to the scaffold on June 22, 1535 and More two weeks later, on July 6th.

PhD Historian said...

Something that may be important to your project, Anonymous, is the notion of "Tudor society's perception." How are you defining "society"? In reality, the majority of the general population would have known little or nothing about Thomas More. Recall that there was no mass media ... not even newspapers ... so the "average" Tudor subject would have had little way to learn much about him, beyond perhaps his name and position at court. The only "society" that would have known enough about More to form a perception of him would have been the "society" formed by the court and bureaucratic system, together with the small percentage of persons wealthy enough to be able to involve themselves in the central political process. In other words, I would guess that perhaps only 5% of the total population knew enough about More to form a rational opinion of him. And only a very small fraction of that 5% would have actually been acquainted with More.

Also, if the book Daughter of Time that you read is the same one written by Josephine Tey in 1951, I must caution you that it is a novel ... it is fiction. Likewise, Man for all Seasons was originally a fictional play based loosely on some historical facts. Neither work should be relied on as a source for facts about More. Instead, I recommend any of the factual biographies of Thomas More, especially Peter Ackroyd's The Life of Thomas More and Ricahrd Marius's Thomas More: A Biography.

Good luck with your project.

Gareth Russell said...

It is perhaps worth noting that even within the rarefied world of the upper-classes which, as Ph.D. historian points out, is the only one which would truly have known anything about More in any real sense, he did not enjoy quite the same 'famous' reputation as he did in subsequent generations. Reactions to the execution of Cardinal Fisher, who was beheaded in 1535 on the same charges as Thomas More, were far more vocal than reactions to More's own death. People were horrified that a cardinal had been publicly put to death, and I believe it is stated in the letters of the Venetian ambassador that even Queen Anne Boleyn attended a Requiem Mass for the repose of Cardinal Fisher's soul. Her reaction, and indeed the reaction of most of her contemporaries, to More's death is tellingly un-recorded. In essence, "A Man for All Seasons" did in the 20th century what William Roper's biography of Sir Thomas did at the end of the 16th - grossly inflated the importance of one politician amongst many.